Wednesday, August 24, 2005

contemporary Christian approaches to film

I am being interviewed by a University student about Christians and film. They have read my blog stuff around film and spirituality, (including this paper on how churches use film) and have just fired me another round of questions. It’s been a fun exercise.

Question: Churches and Christians engaging with movies is a way of engaging with contemporary culture. Is the underlining thought behind this: film is a reflector of culture?

Steve’s response: Yes that is certainly one dimension. Film is involved in a “dance” with the public. Before a film is released, Hollywood test-drive movies before an audience and then seek feedback. So there is a sense in which film reads culture and culture reads film. So looking at film is a useful window into cultural worldviews.

But I think there is a second reason. Christians are not the only people asking questions about meaning and life. So for me, looking at film becomes an act in humility, a wanting to listen for insight. I went to watch The Island a few weeks ago. At one level that is an action film. At another it is asking deeper questions, about the ethics of cloning, about whether being human also includes memories. So as a Christian going that movie helps me think about what it means to be made in the image of God.

Question: On your blog dated Feb 24, 2005, it says to research your course that 50 yrs ago Christians were not allowed to see movies or have them taught at theological colleges. I would like to elaborate on this a little: What was your source, who were the Christians, where did they live, and finally what does this say about the Christian community at the time? Now to the new movie criticism: Why is it here (I think this is answered above)? When did it arrive? What is its future?

Steve’s response: I think that comment is not original to me, but is made by Robert Johnstone, in Reel Spirituality. A 1965 book title proclaimed, I Lost It At the Movies. Movies were an evil, the last temptation of Christians. This was quite a widespread Christian response. It shows a Christian community that had a more fortress-like approach to faith, that were reacting to a Sunday night competitor. It also shows a immature, unformed approach to movie watching.

Question: And the change?

Steve’s response: Well in the last 5-10 years there have been quite a number of books by Christian authors exploring the positive influence of film. They are urging a more mature engagement with plot and narrative. They are recognising that Christianity is not only about morals, but also affects the ethics of being human. They are adopting a more mature approach to the Bible also, realising that the Bible has some quite R-rated scenes (David and Bathsheba is one such example). So the issue is not R-rating, but how is the material being handled.

Question: Do only Christians attend your Gospel and film class and who are they generally: younger people, European, Maori etc, people interested in movies perse and not spirituality perse?

Steve’s response: Generally Christians yes, but that is because I teach in a largely Christian environment. The Theology and Religious Studies Department at the University of Otago run a Spirituality and Film course and that attracts a wide range of people. The relationship between Christians and film is made more complex because we are within a Western culture and that culture has been hugely influenced by a Christian meta-narrative. I set my class a debate question; Is Lord of the Rings a Christian film? Back and forth they go; Tolkien was a Christian. But he did said he didn’t write a Christian book. Yet he is influenced by so many Christian ideas such as good and evil. But he also includes Nordic influences. But the film director was Peter Jackson and he wasn’t a Christian. But in a postmodern world, reader-response theory reigns. So the viewer can find Christian themes. Heaps of fun and it illustrates nicely the complexity of the issues.

Question: Do the general movie going public demand these perspectives? If not, how would you go about getting their attention if this is the intention? In any case, are people on the whole interested in spiritual perspectives on movies?

Steve’s response: Their is a danger that Christians “colonise” film. Christians got very excited about The Matrix. But equally so do Buddhists. I don’t think it’s fair to the art form if Christians claim a film as Christian.

I am personally comfortable to say; hey following Jesus is a decision, it is a bit like taking the red pill or the blue pill in the Matrix. I am comfortable to say, hey, lets talk about what it does mean to be human after The Island, and I think the Bible does say that all humans should be treated with dignity, whether they are cloned or not. And I do think that we need to honour memory and tradition more within human people and cultures.

Above all I want to get people talking. Most churches are blank, white walls, while our movies are sophisticated visual storytellers. Christians need to be watching movies and talking about movies so we are mature in our engagement. We’re not reduced to moral pronouncements. We’re pointing out that You’ve got Mail was disappointing because it never engaged with the issue of a capitalist society in which a large bookshop can make redundant a small bookshop. We’re saying, hey, in Whale Rider, what does it mean to re-weave the ropes to our history and tradition without excluding minority voices.

Posted by steve at 09:12 PM

1 Comment

  1. Intriguing to read this some 8 years later and as I start prepping for Bible and culture course at Flinders University summer intensive,


    Comment by steve — November 30, 2013 @ 9:44 am

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