The Christian and the Cinema
Only one thing can temper a heated argument in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959). It happens toward the middle of the film. The protagonist’s family halt their shouting and, at the suggestion of the mother, go to the movies. One minute later in movie time, they emerge from the cinema hand-in-hand, all smiles—their argument a thing of the past. Like many of his French contemporaries did, Truffaut briefly shows us what the cinema means to him.
The Power of Film
Movies have such an extraordinary power over us. What is it about a film—a series of images projected onto an otherwise blank screen—that causes us to laugh, cry, squirm, jump, gasp, or sigh? What makes this phenomenon even stranger is that film is, basically, a form of technology. It is photography, sound recording, lighting, computer effects all wound together and blasted out of a projector, and to us it looks and feels like life itself. This 100-year-old medium is a testament to man’s soul: We are not merely material, evolved for survival. If we were, would we take technology and turn it into soul-affirming art? In What We See in Films, critic and professor Leo Braudy confirms:
The greatness of film is its offer of a potential to achieve creative power and expression within a situation that is commercial, collective, and technological—the forces that otherwise define our anonymity and frustration… [Film is] “spiritual technology.”
Only the Biblical worldview explains why we create “spiritual technology.” Human beings, though fallen from the glory of God, are nevertheless capable of beauty because they still bear the image of God. This tension between fallenness and beauty expresses itself in all cultural production. How else can we get something so beautifully horrid as Robert DeNiro’s tragic hero in Raging Bull (1980) pumping himself up before a boxing match? DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta jumps and glides through the air in slow motion, orchestral music gorgeously draping the moment—then, the scene cuts and we see him pummeling his opponent mercilessly. What other art can present such a visceral portrayal of this, man’s basic struggle between his original purpose and present reality?
A Biblical View of Film
If this art form is so powerful, it cannot be ignored. Christians ought to be critical thinkers about film. Yet, while we cannot be cloistered off to popular culture—of which film holds a significant portion of real estate—we cannot mindlessly engage too much, only to be sucked into fantasy worlds which, as a product of fallen man, dangerously sneak their own worldview into our minds. If the Word of God is alive and active (Hebrews 4:12), we should probe every part of our lives with it—especially what we think is “just entertainment.”
The middle-ground between apathy and obsession is discernment, which ought to be our aim. We ought to care about film, but we ought to care more about honoring God. We can be entertained by a movie, but we ought to be able to return to reality as the Bible, not a director, affirms it. Watching movies with a Scripture-saturated mind ought to be enjoyable and edifying.
Two primary things ought to concern Christians who want to think critically about movies: worldview and humanity. Essentially, a Christian should care about how a film sees the world and the people in it.
Why is “What’s your favorite movie?” one of the hardest questions we can be asked? Movies are all enjoyable (even the bad ones, to some extent), and it’s hard to pick a favorite. Film is so easy to enjoy—movies dance on the screen without any of our effort. Watching a movie is easy, and it involves almost all our senses. The act of watching a movie gratifies sensory experience with minimal effort. There is nothing like it. It’s almost too good to be true.
Film is beautiful and dangerous. It is philosophy with a sugarcoat. Not many young people eagerly discuss Heidegger’s existentialism with friends, but Groundhog Day promises a lived-out and equally existential discussion. Monistic philosophy may be completely out of our grasp, but The Matrix (1999) is wild entertainment with a side of Eastern epistemology. Movies, either subtly or overtly, philosophize so well that they eventually indoctrinate.
Every movie has a worldview, just like every human being. Even films that are genre-bending, obscure arthouse experiments—and their opposite, mindless “bro comedies”—have a worldview, a way of looking at the world. And since film is so easy to experience, we viewers are easily pulled into its vision of reality, body and soul. Dr. Grant Horner confirms in Meaning at the Movies:
When the work is polished, the screen is king, and it creates a world that seems as real—or realer—than the real world… How many young men have not formed their views on masculinity primarily due to action movies?
A Christian committed to the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture should immediately stop at the potential of something besides the Bible indoctrinating them. God commands us to submit every thought to the Lordship of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). This Lordship reigns over our entertainment choices and our free time; it is not meant to restrict us, but to free us from error and into the correct way of seeing reality.
This does not mean Christians cannot enjoy film or get “lost” in a good movie. Quite the opposite, Christians should enjoy movies more than anyone else because our enjoyment has a foundation and an end—the knowledge of God. Every artist reflects God’s beautiful image in complex and stimulating ways. Art without this basis, without God, always leads to despair. How can you not watch the work of a masterful director, actor, or writer and think this person was a product of chance? The Bible affirms what we all know about ourselves and each other—we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14).
But Christians should also be the best at critiquing movies (and enjoying a movie actually plays a crucial role in critique). Only a Biblical worldview gives viewers sufficient confidence to probe a film. After affirming the beauty of the art and the talent of its maker, we are free to dissect and disagree with how reality is presented. This doesn’t spoil the fun or ruin the “fantasy” of film viewing, it actually allows us to fully engage with fantasy and finally take it seriously by recognizing the consequences of worldview. Nothing is ever “pure fantasy.” We ought to remember that fantasy, to really be fantasy, must be grounded in a clear sense of the reality it’s altering.
One more thing this does not mean is that Christians should use movies as “tracts.” We should not seek to show people how, for example, Star Wars is actually about Christ. No, Star Wars is not about Christ. It is about the fictional “Jedi” and “The Force” and an “Empire.” It is not meant to be a Christian movie. Christians should not try to adapt a movie’s plot for the Bible. Doing this will grossly distort the Biblical message, and the film’s message too. Rather, we should see a movie for what it is, enjoy it, and proceed to discern it, its truth and its error, with a Scripture-saturated mind. May we be able to show the world that the Bible is not a dead book, nor a simplistic one, but rather a complex, living, and active text of ultimate import.
Humanity is at the center of any worldview. Any way of seeing the world must include a way of seeing human beings. Where do we come from? What are we like? What do we aspire to be? If any worldview presumes to be holistic truth, it must include accurate responses to such questions.
Every movie takes a stab at these questions, tries to explain who we are. The persistent popularity of film is evidence that the medium portrays humans pretty accurately, or at least interestingly. Charlie Chaplin famously declared that film was just a passing fad, never to usurp the stage as the supreme art. He was clearly mistaken. Film lives on because it quite possibly is the best portrayal of humanity we have ever developed. Horner affirms, “God made us in his image; we make movies in ours.”
Again, if this is true about movies, Christians should not dismiss them. Believers, wanting to think about the worldview a movie is presenting, must first determine how a film renders human beings. We can ask, “What, according to this film, is the source of human dignity?” “What makes a human human according to this movie?” Realize that movies can get a lot of these questions right—confirming what the Bible has already said. Above any other art form, film has the ability to depict life-like people, flaws and all in visible ways.
Arguably the defining characteristic of film, then, is empathy. The best movies invite us to feel with and for characters as if they were real people. We discover a lot about ourselves when we think which characters we relate to the most. The arts are championed in our world precisely because everyone knows we could all use a little more empathy. While art is not to be used as a Gospel tract, Christians can use it as an exercise in empathy. Before dissecting a film’s worldview—just like before we “give an answer for the hope that is in us” (1 Peter 3:15)—we must accept the invitation to feel. Believers in Christ have even more reason to empathize with characters on and off the screen. We know their dignity comes not from the camera pointed at them but from the God who made them.
Finally, the most fun part about watching movies is being immersed in situations many of us will never encounter. They make us think “what would I have done in that situation?” Just like that question may reveal a lot about our personality, the bulk of a movie’s worldview comes from how its characters respond to the plot. Some movies are dark and hopeless, others are frothy and simplistic. Christians shouldn’t affirm one single style of filmmaking, but we should be able to inspect how a film’s style interprets humans and their problems, remembering that the Bible is all about this too. For Christians, thinking about human struggles in movies reminds us that the Word of God has already answered every question art can pose (Acts 17:27,28).
A Word on the Director(s)
François Truffaut was a leading figure of the French New Wave, a powerful artistic movement that peaked in the 1960s. Films like The 400 Blows were largely a product of the theories of French film critics who championed directors as the sole authors of films (auteurs). The movies these critics championed, and subsequently made themselves, are singular expressions from the mind of a single creator. Their ideas are why, even today, a director usually gets all the praise (or critique) for his/her film. The “auteur theory” is really just an easier way to critique a film—making movies, however, is always collaborative.
In her article, “The Christian and Contemporary Art,” my fellow writer Emily Zell wrote:
We are called to remember that every artist is a created creator. We can thoughtfully enter into discussions of their creations and show how they point to their Creator. Proclaim the gaping God-shaped hole that is made so evident in these works of art and use it to point others to the Fulfiller of all.
Ultimately, what ought to concern every consumer of art is not only what is on the canvas, stage, or screen, but also who put it there. All art is expression by a “created creator.” All of it expresses the longing for something beyond our current existence. As Emily said, we ought to discuss how every work of art points to God—not because it may be “Christian” art, but simply because it is art.
Filmmakers (the director, writer, editor, etc), then, are not there just to be praised or derided; they are there to express, and we are here to attend to what they have to say. We respect the artist by actively engaging with the work. We ought to acknowledge the talent, creativity, and effort put into making a movie. But, it would be unloving—indeed, a waste of time—to not point to the ultimate foundation for art, beauty, and knowledge.
Christian, watch movies. You are free to enjoy and discern film—not because it is just entertainment, but because, like a shadow, it makes obvious the presence of the sun.