Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Spotlight: a theological film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 90 plus films later, here is the review for February 2016.

A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

“Spotlight” is sobering, yet compulsory viewing. It is the story of Pullitzer Prize winning reporters from the Boston Globe, who broke the story of Boston’s systematic coverup of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The statistics are heart-rending, with 240 Priests implicated and over 10,000 victims.

Take a moment to consider those numbers before you read on.

Lest Touchstone readers point the finger and say “Only in America,” we have in Australia the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. At the half way stage, the Royal Commission had received 13,256 allegations, half of which relate to faith based-institutions, some of which involve priests who served in New Zealand. Research indicates that levels of pedophilia are the same in the Catholic church as in the general population. What “Spotlights” uncovers is the ability of institutions to play “here – surely – no evil, so speak no evil.”

The script is superb. To ensure factual accurancy the original reporters were interviewed. The unfolding narrative, while viewed through the reporters lens, allows us to meet victims, abusing priests, and clever lawyers. The result is an understated movie, in which illumination comes through fact, rather than emotion. This is reinforced by the actors. Stars, including Mark Ruffalo (as reporter Mike Rezendes), Micheal Keaton (as reporter Walter Robinson) and Rachel McAdams (as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer) act in ways that preserve the spotlight for the victims, rather than the red carpet.

“Spotlight” illuminates dark places in both church and city. It is the church that in the movie is shown to have paid victims to keep silence, while quietly shuffling priests into other positions. It is the city, including press, PR and lawyers, that let the perceived “no evil” of the church outweigh the pain of each child. As lawyer for the victims, Mitchell Garabedian, notes, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them.”

The movie raises significant questions for faith. How to trust ourselves to be the church, if the church does this? One place to turn is the work of theologian and ethicist Richard Burridge. In Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics, Burridge asks how we can trust the Bible, given it was used to legitimate apartheid. Burridge notes four common approaches to reading the Bible. These include proof texting to provide rules, applying principles to life, finding examples to follow and following an overarching, singular viewpoint. Each of these approaches was evident in South Africa, both to legitimate and to protest apartheid.

Instead of giving up on the Bible, Burridge encourages a community-based approach, which insists that Bible reading occur in communities that are open, diverse and inclusive. This requires disarming the power of the pulpit and cultivating the “ordinary reader” through contextual Bible study. For Burridge, it was a lack of openness that lead the Dutch Reformed Church to justify apartheid Scripturally. For “Spotlight,” it was the lack of openness in Boston that allowed the child abuse to remain hidden. This becomes our challenge, to raise our children in villages that are open, rather than closed.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for change (Mediacom: forthcoming) and The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan: 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at

Posted by steve at 03:43 PM

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