To Go or Not to Go (to the movies) — David Calhoun
When it comes to Hollywood movies that falter on biblical themes, is that really the question?
With the recent box office openings of Noah, God’s Not Dead, and The Son of God, Christians should feel gratified. Right? But a quick check of the social media chatter shows the movies have generated some angst among the faithful.
What should Christians do if a movie claiming to be true to the biblical message falls short or disappoints? Stay home and fume? Or, is there a better approach?
David H. Calhoun, associate professor of philosophy, Gonzaga University, said at the 2014 Defend the Faith that it’s time to rethink how Christians view movies.
Calhoun said Paul’s example at Mars Hill in Acts 17 can be our guide. Just as the rampant idolatry in Athens informed Paul’s approach at Mars Hill, movies tell us what today’s culture thinks and believes.
More poignantly, the film industry may provide “a point of contact for apologetics and evangelism,” Calhoun said.
Films gross annually upwards of 34.7 billion dollars in box office ticket admission sales alone, Calhoun said. That number translates to 4.3 billion moviegoers—or roughly half of the world’s population.
“Movies are the currency of the culture to communicate ideas,” Calhoun said.
Darrell L. Bock, Executive Director of Cultural Engagement and senior research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, blogged recently on the evangelical website The Gospel Coalition that when Christians respond in frustration to movies that disappoint an important link to the gospel may be overlooked. [http://thegospelcoalition.org/mobile/article/tgc/hollywood-movies-and-the-bible-should-we-rewind-on-how-we-view ]
“Are we missing a wonderful opportunity to have a meaningful conversation about biblical topics with folks who might otherwise not want to talk about God or the Bible?” Bock wrote.
Bock used the movie Noah as an example.
“The movie could not have been clearer about the sinfulness and fallen condition of humanity, a theme I have seen some Christian movies fudge on,” Bock blogged. “I can imagine a fruitful conversation with my unbelieving or skeptical neighbor about these ideas and themes.”
So, “What does Hollywood have to do with Jerusalem?” Calhoun asked the Defend the Faith audience. Are there signs of grace in the movies that Christians can use for God’s kingdom?
What Movies Tell Us
Movies often broach subjects that can be used to build a bridge to spiritual matters, Calhoun said. Here are some examples Calhoun pointed to.
In the movie Hereafter, a character who had a Near Death Experience discusses the question of life beyond the grave with an atheist friend. The atheist’s response leaves her dissatisfied and she feels there must be “something more.”
In Hereafter, “We are, at least, being exposed to the possibility of spiritual realities that go beyond the present,” Calhoun said.
Films often discuss meaning and value, as in the science fiction drama Contact, Calhoun said. While the movie’s defense of belief may be insufficient, Calhoun said it “articulates the limits of what we would call a scientistic outlook that claims that science answers all our questions about meaning and value.”
Calhoun pointed to these examples of movies that touch on important themes or call into question popular belief:
- Appearance and reality – Matrix
- Self-deception – Shutter Island
- Loss, sin, guilt and ultimately redemption – the Batman trilogy: Bruce Wayne (Batman) has a lack of clarity as to who he is because of the loss of his parents.
- Choice and Action/Principles and Ethics – Run Lola Run
- Relationships and whether sacrifice is demanded – Les Miserables; Gran Torino
Emotion is often presented as the only basis for relationship, as in popular romance movies, Calhoun said. But in the TV series Breaking Bad, the audience is made to sympathize with and “like” the main character at the beginning. Viewers then face an agonizing conflict as the main character “breaks bad.” The series calls into question the emotive basis for relationship, Calhoun said.
Calhoun said the weak points of naturalism and materialism are also being probed in the wide array of TV and film productions that have supernatural themes.
“So, sometimes we not only see cultural ideas and assumptions reflected in film, we often see them interrogated or questioned in ways that provide a real pathway for conversation,” Calhoun said.
Doing Film Apologetics
As Paul used the altar to the unknown God and Stoic poetry to reach the Athenian philosophers, film can be used by apologists to build a bridge to the Gospel.
“Film represents a way of living,” Calhoun said. “In Christian apologetics, we would say they capture and represent worldviews.”
Calhoun said reconsidering film for apologetic value may include looking at movies from this perspective:
- Are there elements in the film with which we (you) can identify?
- Are there elements that point in the direction of a Christian worldview?
- Does it present a clear contrast to the Christian worldview and can that be a point for discussion?
Emotions, rather than argument, often drive people away from the Christian faith, Calhoun reminded the audience.
Calhoun said film gives concrete points of reference for apologetics and gave these examples of questions that believers may use in conversations about movies:
- Is something like this happening in your life?
- Is this a character with whom you identify?
- Did the characters’ choices seem reasonable? Just? Fair? Right?
Even today’s popular Zombie genre may be exploring the brokenness of Western culture and “metaphorically capturing that the things we count on and trust can’t be trusted,” Calhoun said.
Just as C. S. Lewis understood that narrative and story have tremendous power to communicate truth, a believer can utilize the stories communicated in film to challenge and call into question the assumptions of a secular, naturalistic worldview, Calhoun said. The stories that touch on biblical themes can be used to build a bridge to the God who loves and offers who grace and forgiveness to all.