Over the course of the years, I’ve taught countless seminars on “How to Watch a Movie.” This installment of the series will address several of the questions and issues that often arise in those seminars, before concluding with a brief challenge.
What are some alternative Christian approaches to movie-viewing?
In Reel Spirituality: Theology & Film in Dialogue, Robert Johnson outlines five basic approaches to Christian film criticism:
- Avoidance. Some Christians view Hollywood as so corrupt that Americans shouldn’t support it by watching movies at all.
- Caution. Others urge caution rather than avoidance, encouraging Christians to make sure their spiritual and theological defenses are up when determining whether or not and how to watch a movie.
- Dialogue. Still others urge Christians to embark upon a journey of Christian dialogue with Hollywood movies, engaging the movie on its own terms before “conversing” with it.
- Appropriation. Some Christians emphasize the opportunity to glean theological wisdom and insight from the films they watch.
- Divine Encounter. Finally, some Christians view movies with the expectation that they might have a divine encounter.
Johnston’s timeline is helpful for surveying various views of the relationship between Christianity and modern cinema. However, the view promoted in this blog series does fit easily in any of Johnson’s categories because it affirms and combines aspects of Johnston’s middle three categories.
How do I determine whether I should watch a particular movie?
Many Christians are (rightly) concerned about whether or not to watch a particular movie. Some Christians wish to avoid many or most movies because those movies glorify sin or convey unchristian messages. Obviously, since I just finished writing a series on watching movies, I do not think that it is wrong per se to watch movies with which we disagree. But there is some merit to the objection raised above.
The merit of this objection is that there are indeed some movies we should avoid for the sake of holiness. The first and most obvious principle is that a Christian who wants to honor Christ and his gospel will not view films that are pornographic. Further, there are times that a Christian will choose not to view a movie for other reasons, such as pervasive foul language or sickening and desensitizing violence. I have not gone into detail on this question because the purpose of this series has not been to give guidelines for what to watch or not to watch, but rather to give guidelines for how to watch movies when we choose to do so.
The negative aspect of the objection presented above is its cultural separatism. One who refrains from watching all movies that would have any element with which one disagrees must also refrain from many other things, such as reading most books, magazines, and newspapers and watching advertisements, ESPN commentary, and listening to Christian radio. But I think we lose more by cutting off all contact with the surrounding society and culture than by wise and discerning engagement with it.
What role does a movie’s production play in shaping its message?
In Reviewing the Movies: A Christian Response to Contemporary Film, Peter Fraser and Vernon Edwin Neal urge Christians to “learn the language” of cinema by taking notice of the following component parts of a film:
- Shot Composition and Photography. A film is a series of still images flashing before our eyes quickly enough that it seems to be one continuous image. The excellence of those individual images affects the quality of the film. The viewer should ask, “How well do the spliced images blend into the overall sequence? Do they form a beautifully coherent whole
- Motion. A good producer is able to sweep the viewer into the motion of the movie’s narrative action, causing the viewer to feel like she is a part of the action.
- Editing. Because a film is a series of still images, the viewer should count the cuts and notice the constructed visual transitions between the still images.
- Sound. The viewer should not underestimate the extent to which a film’s music affects the viewer’s perception of the movie’s other sounds and visual images. For example, producers and directors choose ominous music to communicate that you should dislike a person, idea, or event. Similarly, they adjust the timbre of an actor’s voice to make them seem more innocent or wicked or alluring.
- Acting. The viewer should pay attention to a film’s actors—their lines, movements, demeanor, and so forth.
- Story. As this blog series has emphasized, a filmgoer should pay close attention to a movie’s storyline.
What are some additional resources to inform my movie viewing?
Here are a few books that have informed me on how to watch films with Christian eyes:
- Brian Godawa, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment.
- Giannetti and Eyman, Flashback: A Brief Film History (6th ed.)
- Fraser and Neal, Reviewing the Movies: A Christian Response to Contemporary Film.
- Thomas Hibbs, Shows about Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture.
- Grant Horner, Meaning at the Movies: Becoming a Discerning Viewer.
- Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue.
- Robert K. Johnston, Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline.
- Catherine Barsotti, God in the Movies: A Guide for Exploring Four Decades of Film.
- Craig Detweiler, Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century.
- Margaret R. Miles, Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies.
Taking God to the Movies
The point of this series is that, because a movie’s storyline conveys a message, Christians should learn how to interpret and evaluate the movie’s message. Hollywood movies reflect the social and cultural context within which we live and minister. But they also shape society and culture by conveying messages about God, man, salvation, morality, and many other significant topics.
In light of Hollywood’s significance, those of us who are Christians should determine to watch movies with “Christian eyes,” being aware of the messages and moods conveyed by a film, and recognize that movies often provide an opportunity for us to discuss with others the hope that is within us.