While some movies are clearly meant to be nothing more than escapist entertainment enjoyed with a big bucket of popcorn, there’s an ever-increasing number of films that have far more substantial (and spiritually charged) take-away value.
A quick glance through the Gospels reveals that Jesus was a pretty big fan of a good story. While He could’ve easily resorted to blasé, timid preaching to get the message across (He’s the Son of God, after all. Who was going to argue with His methods?), He instinctively resonated with the idea behind that popular Mary Poppins ditty long before it made its way to the big screen: “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
Simply put, Jesus understood the power of narrative and effectively used it to connect with the masses. And He even did so without a team of special effects experts—imagine that!
Technologically speaking, much has changed since the days Jesus walked the earth in those well-worn sandals, but stories are still a tried-and-true, attention-grabbing device for communicating timeless messages of truth, beauty, love, and redemption.
In our ADD society, a few bells and whistles along with the story definitely help considerably, hence the mammoth success of recent superhero flicks like 2008’s The Dark Knight and Iron Man. But even with all the pomp and circumstance that a multi-million dollar budget can buy, the absence of a compelling story line wouldn’t have warranted so much repeat business.
“Most people went to The Dark Knight to see a big-budget action movie. Instead, they got a Shakespearean tragedy,” says Ryan Smith, cofounder of Seabourne Pictures. “It had so much to say about human nature—far more than in most movies.”
Truth be told, people are looking for a human connection in the movies they watch, and according to recent Barna Group research, nearly one-third of adults contend that “movies have had a substantial impact on the development of their personal morals, values and religious beliefs.”
Raising the Bar
A statistic like that can be sobering for many believers who don’t necessarily appreciate the approach that Hollywood has taken in helping to shape mankind’s worldview. But for Smith, it’s provided an exciting challenge for him to help raise the bar as a Christian in the filmmaking business.
“We’re [at Seabourne Pictures] not very happy with the direction Christian filmmaking has taken in the last few years. Christian films are generally poorly made and have a terrible habit of spoon-feeding their message to the audience,” Smith says. “When Jesus told stories, the truth was artfully buried in the narrative, and this is true of all great Christian artists throughout history. We want to encourage people to engage in art that requires more of a participation from its audience.
“There’s a passage in Exodus that talks about Bezalel, who was appointed to create the artistic designs for the tabernacle. It says that God filled him with ability, intelligence, knowledge, and craftsmanship. So there we have the four prerequisites for good art,” Smith shares. “When critiquing a film, we should be asking ourselves, ‘Does the filmmaker exhibit ability, intelligence, knowledge and craftsmanship?’ I hope our films qualify.”
Where Faith and Film Collide
What’s often considered “good art” doesn’t always espouse the values that Christians hold most dear, which inevitably begs the question, should those movies be avoided?
In his book, Into the Dark, Craig Detweiler discusses 45 recent films that he believes have a strong theological message. Utilizing Internet Movie Database, the go-to resource for millions of movie viewers around the world, Detweiler investigated the flicks that are considered some of the top picks of the 21st century.
“I thought, ‘What does the next generation think are the most important movies?’ Then I went from there—I watched each movie and said, ‘What’s this movie about? What does it say?’” Detweiler says. “There were a lot of themes of darkness in many of the films. In There Will Be Blood, The Departed, and 2008’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, No Country for Old Men, they deal with the human condition and all its brokenness. With Memento, I was surprised to find the theme of deceiving ourselves. We have an endless capacity to make ourselves feel like we’re doing the right thing even when we might be a murderer. I looked at that as an example of original sin.”
But given the R-rated level of violence and coarse language in many of the aforementioned movies, what would Detweiler say to Christians who may overlook these positive themes because of the unsavory elements? “I think they’re missing the point of the film. Maybe they’re missing the whole Bible,” he says. “The Bible is a book about sinners in need of redemption. It’s about a society that doesn’t work, the things we do to each other, and our need for restoration and hope.”
For Crosswalk.com film critic Christian Hanmaker, he found redemption in an unconventional place in 1999’s Magnolia. “The movie is a tapestry of deeply wounded characters, many of whom find a form of peace, and some of whom receive a form of justice by the end of the film,” Hanmaker says. “The film’s milieu is specifically spiritual, although the director has said he didn’t intend to make a spiritual film. If you can handle the rough language and mature themes—and I’m not saying every Christian can or should be able to handle these elements—the cumulative impact of the film is astonishing.”
Books on Film
It’s no surprise that the collision between faith and film is a popular topic in our entertainment-driven culture. Here are a few books worth checking out to continue the conversation:
This small group study, from Serendipity by Lifeway, looks at how four different films tell the epic story of betrayal and redemption, and how those stories mirror the story of Scripture. Movies include The Legend of Bagger Vance, Signs, Gladiator, and The Last of the Mohicans.
Another small group Bible study resource from Serendipity, this book studies the theme of redemption in The Count of Monte Cristo, Secondhand Lions, An Unfinished Life, and Seabiscuit.
From The Lord of the Rings trilogy to Crash, Craig Detweiler examines the “theology of everyday life” present in 45 of this century’s most popular films.
Everyone loves a good story, and movies seem to be the best place for one. Ken Gire writes that movies are our culture’s parables, and we need to train ourselves to see the spiritual in the stories movies are telling.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Collegiate magazine.