31 March 2014

On Movies, Faith and What's Worth Watching

Movies and people of faith are all the rage right now, what with "Son of God," "God's Not Dead" and "Noah" being in theaters now and "Exodus" on its way later this year.  Given that a few weeks ago we took our girls to see a movie and spent what I used to spend for a decent pair of shoes, it's worth taking a moment to think about where to spend your hard-earned entertainment dollars.  Maybe you were wondering how the average ELCA pastor thinks about such things.  If so, keep reading!

First, "God's Not Dead."  My colleague Clint Schnekloth wrote a great post about this movie.  Here's what he had to say about this type of art in particular:
The community that produced this movie perceives any questioning of their faith not as honest questioning, but as attack. Their response is a crusade: A counter-attack under the guise of authentic conversation. It's a rhetorically powerful strategy lacking in critical self-awareness.
A Christian like myself struggles with this approach, on any number of levels. Christianity is still in a position of power and dominance in our culture. It is not the weak and suffering minority. Any majority culture that can convince itself it is actually the oppressed minority is, in some ways, quite dangerous. Fear combined with power is potentially explosive. (Emphasis mine)
To that I would add it is also emotionally manipulative and intellectually dishonest.  We've seen this sort of thing before, often in the sort of emails that got forwarded all over the internet in the days before social media.  The one I remember most easily was the young student in the philosophy class who had to drop a piece of chalk and pray God would keep it from shattering on the floor.  Here's the thing:  I took philosophy courses and religious history courses in college.  I worked in campus ministry.  I know students who took courses from professors who were outspoken in their atheism.  But to my knowledge, not one of them ever put a student on the spot for his or her beliefs.  It's academic abuse of the worst sort, and it's poor methods as well.  So structuring an entire movie around this sort of false pretense turns me off from the get-go.  The atheists I know aren't consumed with proving God is dead.  Why would they be?  They believe God never existed in the first place!  Exceptions like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins aside, most faith-based antagonizing comes from within the church itself:  witness the sad spectacle of what happened to World Vision last week.  The church's greatest 'enemy' isn't some nefarious cabal of atheist intellectuals.  Our enemy is OUR sin, OUR brokenness, OUR inability to follow Jesus and love as he loved us.  If we could love like Jesus loved, we could even disagree with respect and integrity.  The world presented in "God's Not Dead" is a fantasy, and I'm sorry, but I don't watch fantasy movies that don't have orcs, dragons, hobbits or elves.

Next, "Son of God."  Brought to you by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, the husband and wife team that produced "The Bible" last year, this film uses footage from that miniseries with additional footage to create a biopic of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.  I'm riding the fence on this one.  On the one hand, I enjoyed some aspects of "The Bible" when it aired last year.  On the other hand, Bible-based biopics always put the watcher in the unenviable position of critiquing the telling of a story that defines much of one's life.  You can imagine the conversation with Downey & Burnett:  "Pastor, we worked really hard to make this movie about Jesus:  why won't you help us advertise for it?  Don't you love Jesus?"  Yes, I do love Jesus - I'm just not convinced the portrayal you've put together is one in which I recognize my Savior.  I could be wrong about this.  I'll most likely check it out at some point, either in the theater or on video.  But I'm not holding my breath or thinking it's going to be the best movie I've ever seen.  

Finally, "Noah."  Beloved and I went on Saturday afternoon.  Here's why:  Russell Crowe, Darren Aronofsky, Emma Watson, Jennifer Connelly, Sir Anthony Hopkins and a host of folks who have a track record of making great movies.  And here was my brief Twitter review:  

I'll stand by this take.  It's a good movie, period.  There are some very creative interpretations of the Biblical tale, and some things with which I outright disagreed (I won't cover them here for fear of SPOILERS).  If you need any movie about the Bible to be 100% committed to complete "historical" accuracy, this is not the movie for you.  If you thought "The Last Temptation of Christ" was an interesting foray into the world of "what if," you might enjoy this film.  Russell Crowe is outstanding.  Emma Watson might be even better.  The special effects are incredible.  But what got me the most was the sheer emotion of the thing.  I do cry at movies, but this one brought me to tears at least two or three times.  

Some folks have balked at the more inventive parts of what Aronofsky is doing in this movie.  In the crowds in which I run, most of us believe that Genesis 1-11 is mythical more than factual, so any complaints about "historical" accuracy don't really belong.  (For more on myth, check out my friends David and Brian in their recent "Church of the Geek" podcast.)  That doesn't mean we don't believe there's truth in Genesis 1-11; truth and fact are two very different things.  And Aronofsky has a lot of truth working in his movie; so much that it's a bit heavy-handed.  But it's incredibly well done and thought-provoking for people across the faith spectrum, much more so than either "Son of God" or "God's Not Dead" try to be.  

What's worth watching?  Well, that's your decision.  But a colleague recently asked for some good recommendations for "Christian" fiction and I found I couldn't give any.  I can give all sorts of fiction recommendations, some of which has overtly religious themes and provokes all sorts of ponderings on life and faith.  But putting that moniker "Christian" tells me from the start that there's an agenda driving the art; the story is not being told for its own sake.  You can do that with the gospels, with Paul's letters, with scripture because that isn't art, it's religion, and there's a difference.  But I hesitate to go to movies like "God's Not Dead" because religion, at least the Christian one I espouse, is meant to be found in the church pew, with real people in real life, not on the silver screen with a soundtrack, makeup and good lighting.  In that sense, "Noah" is a terrible "religious" movie even while it's by far the best art of the three here.  And I go to the movies for good art.  Make of that what you will.  


  1. We do a movie night at our parish once a month. Movies have included the Toy Story Trilogy; Monsters, Inc.; Cast Away; Oh Brother, Where Art Thou; The Matrix; Crimson Tide; Unforgiven; and many, many more. I alternate between more adult-type movies and family-friendly movies.

    By avoiding "explicitly Christian" movies I can do (at least) two things: 1) I can ask the question, "What aspects of God did you see in the movie?"; and 2) I can make the assumption that my parishioners are smart enough to see God in unexpected places without having to explicitly show them. We've had some really good post-movie discussions.

    1. Agreed. The same goes for fiction. Make it good. If overt religious stuff is essential, put it in there. But don't hide your agenda behind bad storytelling - you're not fooling anyone. Thanks for reading!