I’m embarking on an interesting adventure this fall, one of my choosing (to borrow some terms and phrases from Wayne Speigle’s sermon this past week). See, I love movies. I like to watch the characters unfold, the plot thicken, and all those little surprises and such that come up. But I’ve also recently learned to love to hear the messages that movies try to tell us. The filmmakers (directors, producers, screenwriters, actors, etc) are telling us a story in a rather fascinating medium that allows elves to live on screen, dragons to fly, robots to laugh, and monsters (both “real” and figurative) to be overcome. Through that story, they are trying to convey ideas, theories, and worldviews in a hope that we will understand them and where they are coming from. Some filmmakers even do so to try and “convert” us (watch “Gorillas in the Mist” sometime…). So, this fall, I’ll be leading a Sunday School hour discussion time on film, the stories they tell, the messages they speak, and our responses to them. I’m looking forward to this adventure. (Shameless plug: If you’re going to be in the Bally/Boyertown area anytime during the months of September through November, come on by Bally Mennonite Church at 10:45 AM and join us!).
One criticism that I’m bound to get on this (and I’ve heard some of this already from a few places) is “Why are we talking about watching some of these movies from Hollywood? Why not show and talk about Christian movies?” This bothers me somewhat (lots of things bother me, as many of you already know). I recently read a blog article from someone else (I can’t remember where and if you’re reading this and you’re the culprit, please speak up) about the “ghettoizing” of Christianity. Music is performed and Christians historically have done one of two things. Either we have denounced it as “from the devil” and called for boycotts and other protest means (and this is not relegated only to “Rock ‘n’ Roll”… read up on Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach sometime) or we’ve “redeemed” it and made our own music and made it “OK” to listen to. Books are written and the same things are said and done. Poems are made. TV programs are made. And now, suddenly, we want to do the same with movies. I read on a ChristianityTodayMovies website article that there is some sort of movement in Texas where they are going to make their own “Christian” Hollywood and put out “good” movies.
Yeah, you know, that’s a good idea. But there’s something that has happened in all the other ventures. The medium chosen as the target of vilification and subsequent redemption, upon getting “cleaned up”, ends up getting stale. Christian books become platforms for authors to preach and pontificate on particular platforms and ideas. Christian poetry stops speaking from the depths of the heart and becomes only about the goodness, light, and happiness. Christian music has become the ground for all worship songs and the “meat” of the music, crying out from the heart of hearts, is lost in the flood of choruses.
Stop a second. Before y’all start saying “What’s wrong with that?” I’ll answer… nothing. There’s nothing wrong with writing books to get a point across, using poetry to praise and express our “good feelings” and using music to worship and praise the wonders of our Lord. What’s wrong is when we that becomes the ONLY thing those art-forms are good for. What about the cries for mercy? What about the wails of despair? What about the lamentations? What about the examination of those dark corners of our hearts, exposing them to the light? What about digging into those tough issues and problems for which there is no easy 4 line chorus to express the answer for? What about real life situations that are NOT resolved in 30-60 minutes with plenty of breaks for advertisements? When we remove those things from our art, it stops being art reflecting life and starts becoming a stale expression. Read Psalm 22 as a prime example of a “Christian” poem that is not afraid to ask those hard questions. Keep in mind that this was most likely the Psalm that Christ quoted from the cross.
Especially in a world and society where people in the culture are seeking answers to those rough questions (“Why did my 6-month old daughter have to die in that car crash?” “Why are my parents getting a divorce?” “Why does everyone seem to hate me?” “Why is there so much war, death, and disease in the world?” “Why do bad things happen to good people?”), we cannot go blindly through and saying “Don’t worry, be happy”. Real life is a lot harder than that. Yes, we are SUPPOSED to “Don’t Worry, be JOYFUL” (Philippians 4) but living a joy-filled life is a lot different than the modern world view of happiness.
For music, this is why I like bands like Newsboys, Third Day, and Casting Crowns because they are not afraid to ask some of those rough questions and examine life from the darkness. Steve Taylor, when he was still putting out music, did a lot of this (Look up the song “Harder to Believe than Not to”) and Jars of Clay with their recent song “Oh My God” expresses that lament of the state of the world. This trend in Christian music is encouraging and I’m glad to see bands like Switchfoot take their music out of the realm of “All is well” into the world of “The fight is long”.
So, back to movies…There are a lot of films out there that have some amazing Christian themes in them, made by amazing Christian men and women. There are plenty of films made by people who are NOT quite so holy in their views. This does not make them any less relevant or worthwhile viewing. A good example that comes to mind is the third film in the Spider Man series. I won’t give away much (as I plan on using this film for my class) but I’m pretty sure that Spider Man does not come in as the best “Christian” film of all times but if you want a film that exposes the damages of revenge and hatred and the redeeming grace that comes from forgiveness, please watch this film. While the filmmakers that put Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” on the big screen had some intention to show what humanity can do to overcome evil, Tolkien’s original intent of showing the invisible hand of providence comes out over those 12 hours of cinematic glory. Jim Carrey comments on the “trapped” feeling of living in this world through “The Truman Show”. “The Mission” exposes what happens when the church champions political agenda. “Blade Runner” comments on what it means to truly be a human. “Signs” also shows that plan of the invisible planner. “The Matrix” expresses the human desire for some sort of savior. “Terminator” and “I, Robot” try to give a warning about the dangers of letting technology make our decisions for us. Even thriller movies like “The Sixth Sense” show us the meaning of love that goes beyond life. I can go on and on. In fact, someone else has already. Take a look, sometime, at LookingCloser.org to see what Jeffrey Overstreet has discovered in years of film review.
We do need to be discerning in what we watch. “‘Everything is permissible’ but not everything is beneficial” to quote the Apostle Paul. And, for that matter, we have to understand that there are “stronger” and “weaker” brothers and sisters. For one person, they may not be affected by certain kinds of images. For another, they may be a source of intense temptation and fallen-ness. A person who struggles with lust and impure thoughts about the opposite (or same) sex is not someone who should watch a movie filled with many images and themes of that nature. A person who struggles with the temptation to act out violently should not fill their mind constantly with the same (this is a conviction that recently has come to me). Can we avoid these images totally? Probably not. After all, all one has to do is turn on the news for images of violence. Drive past some areas of any big city and the images of scantily clad men and women jump out all over the place. The real world is full of this stuff so to assume that we can isolate ourselves totally is just wishful thinking.
Which brings me to the title of this post. We, as Christians, are called to be in the world, but not of it. The way I read that is that we are called to live here as Christ calls us to live. Our lives are to be characterized by the character of Christ in all that we do. This includes our reactions and responses to the world around us in all its filth, depravity, darkness, hatred, and apathy. We need to instead of walling ourselves away from the darkness of the world and trying to convince blind people to come into a light that they cannot see, we need to go out into the world, taking the light of our lives into that darkness and opening the eyes of the blind people to see the truth. Instead of taking Christianity out of Hollywood into some artificial “Christian” movie industry, let the Christian artists work within the industry that is already there, taking the light where it is needed most, into those dark corners of our culture. Christian musicians are already trying to undo the damage the church did to the Rock ‘n’ Roll industry in the 50’s (how can a Christian artist feel like they can call themselves Christian when they play music that the church has called “of the devil”?). Potentially the church can do the same thing to the movie industry. And who says they haven’t already? How many Christian actors, producers, directors, etc, are out there that cannot call themselves such for fear of being railed against by the church?
So, to borrow from Jeff Overstreet’s book title, I will look “Through a Screen Darkly” at the world around me. As the images flicker across the screen, I hope to catch a glimpse of the world around me and, at times, even a look into the darkness in my own soul. I hope to engage those stories in a conversation about the truth about life and love. The conversations I have with those “authors” of the movies I hope will help me understand better the world in which I live so that I can go into that world and bring that light into the darkness. And I know that the darkness will not overcome it.