Just Like the Movies
Redeeming the World Through Film
By Jenny Redfern
Monday, July 19, 2010
Matt Dye stands at the podium in front of the large room filled with students. His time to speak is wrapping up, and he’s ready to share with them the message he’d rehearsed a thousand times.
“In the end, he gave his life so that everyone else might live. It was his blood that saved the world,” he concludes.
Matt takes his seat, letting the Gateway class at John Brown University draw their own connections between Will Smith’s role as Robert Neville in “I Am Legend” (2007) and Jesus Christ’s resurrection.
He had imagined his assignment to analyze a secular movie through a Christian worldview and prepare a presentation would be a difficult task, but the deeper he looked into the movie the more revelations he found.
“I Am Legend” isn’t the only modern movie portraying these Christian truths. The Gateway class, Through a Glass Darkly: Seeing the World through Film, teaches Matt and his classmates the unique power of movies. Its goal is to introduce students to the importance of integrating faith and learning through the use of secular film.
Rod Reed, JBU chaplain and the Gateway professor, recognizes that too often Christians forget to carry their faith into the more secular areas of their life.
“Watching movies is one of the most common things we do where we leave faith at the door,” Reed said. Therefore, his class takes an in-depth look at the relationship between faith and film.
Robert Johnston describes this relationship in his book “Reel Spirituality.”
“Though most of us watch movies and are affected by them, we seldom try to understand what we have seen, let alone relate it to our wider religious beliefs and practices,” he said.
The class challenges the students and all believers with this question: How should Christians approach movies in regard to their faith?
Film & Faith Go Way Back
Reed stands confidently in front of his class of 30 freshmen. Behind him a PowerPoint outlining the class objectives states that the discussion today will focus on the history of faith and film.
Reed tells the students he was raised in a family that took a condemning stance towards movies. As a child, his parents had strict guidelines concerning films, and he was only allowed to watch ones that were produced by Billy Graham or that were explicitly Christian.
It wasn’t until age 17 that Reed was allowed to see a truly secular film. He convinced his father, who was a pastor, that “Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) was okay to see because it presented Biblical themes. Reed’s father consented but only because Reed promised to sit down with him afterward to discuss what he had seen.
Reed’s family is one of many that see movies as a worldly entertainment to be avoided. It is a view that has evolved since film’s early years.
In the beginning, the cinema and the church worked well together. Many early movies had religious themes and were filmed versions of the Passion play. Some were even made by evangelists.
Herbert Booth, son of the Salvation Army founders William and Catherine Booth, used slides and film to interest people into attending Sunday night prayer meetings. He produced a multimedia show titled “Soldiers of the Cross” (1900), which combined short films, slides, hymns, sermons and prayers. Some scenes included Acts’ depiction of Stephen being stoned to death, Christ’s death on the cross and martyrs during the time of Roman persecution. Both the secular and religious press gave the show impressive reviews.
During these early years, churches were often used as movie theaters. Many movies were made reverently portraying religious life. Churches and Christians embraced movies, not only for their content, but because they provided effective competition for other less “holy” forms of amusement.
After World War I, the film industry’s relationship with mainstream culture began to grow. The business discarded the morals of the church for the success gangsters, monsters, intrigue and romance could bring.
The violence and sex depicted in these movies soon bore controversy between the church and cinema. The church took a defensive posture, encouraging members to boycott certain movies. The Catholic Church created the Legion of Decency, which rated movies with an “A” for approved or a “C” for condemned.
Technology advancements brought a new set of challenges to the church. The creation of television, VHS, the movie-rental system, DVDs and the Internet changed the landscape for the motion picture industry, making movies available to watch at almost any time and any place.
While the movie culture has grown more prevalent, church attendance has fallen. A Gallup Poll in 2004 showed about 31 percent of Americans said they attend worship services each week, but actual attendance numbers at about 18 percent. One pastor observed that churches are losing people “to the weekend.”
In midst of this change, the church has found ways to compromise with the movie industry. Some show video clips each week during their worship services. Some small groups have used film to start conversation on important faith topics. And some seminaries and Christian colleges have added theology of film to their curriculums.
Reed’s class is one of many examples.
Gateway classes at JBU are doorways for freshmen and transfer students to enter the environment of Christian scholarship. Gateway professors choose the topic that their class is centered around. Topics range from social justice to Celtic Christianity to bioengineering.
Reed chose movies as the topic of his class for several reasons. The most obvious is that he enjoys watching movies. He said this love probably resulted from being forbidden to watch them as a child.
The biggest reason, though, is that everyone watches movies. Students in Reed’s class admitted they watched up to two or three movies a week, amounting to over 100 movies a year.
In 2003, Americans watched an average of 38 movies. Fifty-seven percent had seen “Finding Nemo” (2003)! Statistics show that of all adults, 95 percent watched at least one movie that year but that only 47 percent had read one book.
And that was eight years ago. Sales have grown exponentially since then, marking America as a movie-watching culture.
Secondly, Reed recognizes movies as the primary story-telling medium in our society. And stories are a powerful form of communication.
“Stories communicate truth at a different level than facts,” Reed said.
The concept of story telling is exemplified through Christ’s use of parables. Jesus could have simply told his followers to love the sick, poor and helpless even when it was inconvenient. However, the message is received differently when told through the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The Art of Movie Watching
Reed instructs his students to line up against the far wall. Sometimes the class needs a visual representation of the assigned reading.
This week, Johnston’s book Reel Spirituality discusses the different ways people approach movies. Johnston creates a scale to show the relationship between various approaches. Reed has his class form this scale.
“Those of you who take a cautious posture toward movies stand more to the right and those who take an appropriation posture stand more to the left,” Reed tells the class.
The group of thirty forms a tight pack in the middle of the wall. Few dare to venture out too far to the left or right.
Rachel Brown does stand to the far right, recognizing herself as a cautious viewer.
Johnston described the cautious movie watcher as someone who is more concerned with a movie’s message than its quality. This viewer holds his values at the forefront of his mind and determines how each movie stacks up to them.
More specifically, this viewer checks out movie reviews on sites like Crosswalk.com before making a movie selection. If the movie contradicts his set of morals, then he won’t watch it. A firm believer in “garbage in, garbage out,” the cautious viewer exposes himself to movies that will supplement his faith.
“I really try to censor my movie watching,” Brown said. “Even when I watch a DVD, I will skip over sexual scenes. I want to watch a movie and not have to close my eyes every five minutes.”
On the other side of the wall, Alex Dello Iacono represents the appropriation posture.
Johnston said this viewer is more concerned with the movie’s aesthetic quality than how ethical of a message the movie presents. This movie-watcher is more interested in what the movie has to say. He takes the message at face value then compares his set of morals to it.
This movie-watcher wants to know what the movie can do for him. Movie watching is almost the equivalent of a spiritual act. Like a church service, the viewer takes in the movie’s message and searches for ways to apply it to his life. The plot, aesthetics and acting all play a vital role in providing this message. If they aren’t of quality, the appropriating viewer may be disappointed when the credits roll.
Dello Iacono uses his new favorite television show, Dexter, as an example of his posture. The show is a series full of murder, swearing, sexual promiscuity and betrayal.
“Since my ethical convictions deem these things wrong, I would not watch this show if I used the corresponding end of the spectrum,” Dello Iacono said. “However, watching film with an open mind, God has given me many fantastic epiphanies about myself as well as my worldviews.”
Dello Iacono said the show portrays a phenomenal metaphor for the true human condition as well as Christian hypocrisy. Though people appear to be good on the outside, everyone hides some form of evil on the inside.
Karissa Riffel finds herself in the center of the pack. She and the others embody the dialogue posture.
Johnston advocates this posture in the reading. This viewer is equally interested in the ethical and aesthetic nature of the movie. Neither the movie’s message nor the viewer’s beliefs take a prominent place in the movie-watching experience.
This movie-watcher is interested in what the movie has to say for itself but doesn’t put his faith in the backseat. He lets the movie’s message and his values have conversation. He listens to everything the movie has to say, but takes away only what he feels is important.
Riffel said she has viewed movies from both sides of the spectrum, but she most often falls in this category.
“I like to discuss movies and their themes,” Riffel said. “I am careful with films that might go against my Christian values, but I look for theological themes in movies that are not primarily religious as well.”
Viewers may find that they take different postures for different movies, but often they have a tendency for a certain approach. Reed encourages his class to take a more open response to movies that may not correspond with their faith in an obvious way. Attempting dialogue with movies may provide a whole new aspect to their relationship with God.
The Redeeming Factor
The Gateway class meets together for a movie-watching night after class hours. The movie of choice is “Life is Beautiful” (1997), a film that ironically pairs drama and comedy in a story of the Holocaust.
The students both laugh and cry as they watch Guido Oreface win over his wife, start a family and then fight to protect them when the Nazis steal them away from their home. In the end, Guido sacrifices his life to save his son and find his wife.
Afterward, the class discusses how the movie displays the three major themes of Christian worldview: creation, fall and redemption.
The students had a difficult time identifying the creation aspect. Many stated the love between Guido, his wife and his son was the most prominent act of creation. God created people for relationships and the level of devotion shared between them exemplified God’s love for his children.
The appearance of the fall was more obvious for the class. They recognized how the fall snaked its way through even the most minor scenes of the movie.
In one scene, an Aryan teacher tells the group she is horrified at a math problem her students were required to do. She explains the word problem, which involves the government killing a certain percentage of mentally handicapped, disabled and Jewish citizens. In the end, the teacher says she can’t believe her students are required to complete the problem because of its difficulty, not its content.
The class enjoyed discussing the movie’s aspects of redemption. They recognized Guido as the Christ-figure in the movie. Guido loved his son so much that he would do anything to preserve his innocence and his life. At the end of the movie, as Guido walks to his death, he still thinks of his son’s protection first.
Daniel Melby now thinks of “Life as Beautiful” as one of his favorite movies.
“[It was] one of those few instances where a friend and I have watched a movie that ignites a conversation about God, who He is and what He does,” Melby said. “Was God unjust to allow these catastrophic events to happen?”
A New Outlook
The class has caused many students to see movies in a new light. They have found movies are more than just entertainment. They have the power to change.
For Andrew McIntyre, the movie “Braveheart” (1995) exemplifies this concept. What he calls “the classic man movie” tells the story of William Wallace, a Scottish rebel who leads his people in an uprising against the English king. When he was younger, Wallace lost many friends and family to the fight for Scotland’s freedom. Now, Wallace is determined to free Scotland once and for all.
McIntyre said the movie deals strongly with the idea of devoting your life to something that is bigger than yourself.
“It inspires people to lead a life of purpose, and to serve others not for personal gain, but because it is the right thing to do,” he said. “It is worth sacrificing yourself for a truly righteous cause.”
Likewise, sophomore Sam Young felt the life-changing effects of “Chariots of Fire” (1981). The movie portrays the story of Eric Liddell, a Christian deeply committed to missions in China but who is also a world-class sprinter. Conflicted between these two passions, his family puts pressure on him to quit running and become a full-time missionary.
But Liddell responds, “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
For Young, this quote put everything involving competition and athletics into perspective.
“Nothing else matters but to glorify God by what He’s given us,” Young said.
With finals approaching and the course quickly coming to an end, Reed hopes the class has changed his students’ perspectives on movies.
“I want them to be able to watch movies with an openness to let God speak to them in ways they don’t expect,” he said. “Not necessarily with a deep analytical-ness but with an openness of heart and mind.”