By Steve Page & Julie Golding Page
AS THE FILM credits rolled and the house lights came on, there was a buzz in the cinema. Was the hero lost forever, or had he finally achieved his heart’s desire and returned home from exile? What had just happened? We had just watched the final scene of Inception, this summer’s mind-bending sci-fi blockbuster, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page. The film delves into the nature of reality and dreaming – and whether we can know the difference in our experience of life – by having the characters quite literally get inside each other’s minds. When the curtain fell at the end of the film, the audience could not resist chatting animatedly about what it all meant. Everyone had an opinion. What was producer and writer Christopher Nolan trying to say with this film?
As we talked with movie-going friends, we observed the same enthusiasm. People were keen to analyze this film and talk about their definition of the nature of reality. The film opened up all sorts of fundamental questions about life, as well as an eagerness to share thoughts about them. It was also interesting to note that each person’s conclusion about the ending – whether DiCaprio had returned home or become lost in the recesses of his own mind – tended to say as much about that particular individual’s own view of life as anything else. People were unwittingly reading their own deepest optimism or pessimism about life itself into the film’s ending, and they were eager for their views to be heard.
This experience of watching and talking about Inception demonstrates the cultural power that movies have in the 21st century. Film is the lingua franca of our global society, with the same relatively small number of blockbuster movies being shown in Toronto, Tokyo and Timbuktu. Television enjoys the same wide distribution but not the same penetration per show, since we live in a 500-channel universe. Film, however, truly does reach the masses, whether on 24-screen cinemas in international urban centres, or in our small town in northern Saskatchewan, where one second-run film is shown, two nights each week. Film has become the shared culture of the world.
Christians have long had strong reactions to film as a powerful cultural artefact and tool, ranging from outright rejection to mindless ingestion. We would like to suggest the Apostle Paul’s approach toward Athenian culture as a basis for our own cultural engagement with film. In Acts 17, Paul visits pagan, 1st-century Athens. As he strolls through their city, he notes their architecture, particularly their religious fervour in building temples to various gods. He is also well educated in their literature, and he has taken time to understand how the Athenians think. As a result, he is able to identify connection points between the Good News of God’s love and the existing Athenian culture. He gives a stirring evangelistic speech, spelling out for the Athenians how their own culture actually anticipates a relationship with God, through the thoughts of their poets and their building of a temple to an unknown God. Paul not only examines and evaluates the Athenian culture, through its literature and architecture, but he also sensitively and clearly points out linkages with God’s love and desire for these people to know him.
Engagement with film is one way contemporary Christians can follow in Paul’s footsteps. To do so is not to accept the greater culture wholesale, nor to reject it wholesale, nor even to try to change it wholesale. Instead, we suggest a different approach: first, looking at film as a cultural artefact and evaluating it for points of connection and disconnection with the Gospel; second, engaging it with others (whether Christian or not), so that we communicate God’s love and hope in non-threatening ways that people will understand and welcome; and third, remembering always that God has been and will continue to be there in the culture and in the people with whom we engage, working in the most surprising places to transform his good yet tarnished creation.
Film is a particularly powerful medium for examining and engaging culture, as it is multi-faceted. The combination of story, music, speech, action and body language communicates a lived-out view of who God is, who people are, and what is the nature of creation itself. Films can also be re-viewed easily, so that we can dig into them as deeply as we like. This digging, however, needs to be disciplined, so that we do not simply read our own views into the films that we watch, as many audience members did after watching Inception. Instead, we need to view films with respect, essentially exegeting them, or reading the meaning out of them, as much as we can, by trying to understand what the writers, producers, directors and actors intended to communicate. This approach is along the lines of Andy Crouch’s idea of approaching culture as cultivators: “people who tend and nourish what is best in human culture, who do the hard and painstaking work to preserve the best of what people before us have done” (Culture Making, IVP Books, 2008). This approach takes careful work, but like that of a gardener, it is joyful and interesting work that produces results.
We have found that an intentional film group, rather than ad-hoc discussions of films, works best for this approach. Over the past dozen years, we have led film groups in different settings across Canada: an evangelistic program in a congregational church, an ecumenical home group, and a Christian education group in a mainline congregation. Whatever type of group you choose to lead, it is essential to decide your purpose. Is it to educate a group of Christians in how to evaluate and find Gospel connections in a film? Or to engage film and share the Christian faith with a more mixed group of Christians and seekers? The purpose will determine fundamental decisions such as what sorts of films are chosen (are R-rated films OK?), where the group will be comfortable meeting (in a home or at a church?), and how the group will be promoted (by invitation only or through a church program?).
Whatever the purpose and surrounding decisions, a film and faith group will do best if the leaders take the time to prepare well. That means watching the film in advance, probably twice – once to fall under the film’s spell and take in the wonder of the story, and another time to take in the overarching themes and deeper meanings in the film, and to find the points of connection with the biblical story.
Asking some basic questions can help us come to terms with the themes and assumptions of the film (see sidebar). What is the film saying or assuming about what it means to be human? About the creation? About the relative importance of relationships? About justice? About God, faith, and transcendence? Is there a clear sense of right and wrong, and if so, how does it compare to that of our society or our own morality? What do the characters need to be rescued from, and who is able to bring about their salvation?
Once the discussion leader has a sense of where the points of connection and disconnection with Christian theology lie, a helpful next step is to construct a list (possibly a handout) of questions to use on film discussion night. We create a three-step structure in organizing our questions, asking:
“Do you see what I see?” We review the main characters by name and description, and the arc of the plot and its twists, to make sure that everyone understood the film.
“What do you make of it?” Next, we ask questions that address basic developments of both characters and plot, along with their connections to Christian views of God, people and the world. This is a chance to engage the deeper questions and debates about both any issues the film raises explicitly, and any assumptions or implicit understandings. Watching the animated film Up (2009, Pixar Studios) opens discussions about friendship and the joys, pains and challenges of a life-long marriage commitment, while Clash of the Titans (2010, starring Sam Worthington), loosely based on the Greek myth of Perseus, raises questions about the nature, motives and trustworthiness of gods and the human-divine relationship.
“What do we do about it?” Now we can move the cultural experience beyond entertainment and intellectual analysis by asking questions that take the connections made between the film and Christian views of God and the world and make them personal. If a film like Invictus (2009, directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon) focuses on forgiveness and reconciliation, whom in our life do we need to forgive and be reconciled with?
We also find it helpful to construct a list of relevant Scripture passages which can be used to spur on the discussion. What does the Bible have to say about the issues and topics raised by the film? Are there similarities or allusions, such as the scene in Spiderman (2002, starring Toby Maguire and Willem Dafoe) in which the villain tempts the hero, with its strong Biblical echoes of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness recorded in Matthew and Luke?
When the credits roll and the house lights come up, they mark the end of the film, but only the beginning of our opportunity to engage with the film and the larger culture in which we are immersed, and to share our joys, passions and faith in a non-threatening way with our friends.
Sidebar: Questions to bring to a film
Is there any sense of the supernatural or of transcendence in this film? Or are humans “it”?
Describe the film’s idea of God. Is God personal or impersonal? Positive or negative?
Is this meant to be the Christian God? If not, who is it?
Is Jesus involved? The Holy Spirit? If so, what are they like?
What does it mean to be human in this film?
How do people relate to each other? What are the most important relationships? What does it say about family? Friends? Romantic interests?
Does the film portray life as having meaning? If so, what is it?
Are humans portrayed as basically good, basically bad, or somewhere in the middle?
Does the film show people to have a basic dignity?
How are humans related to God or something beyond?
Are any characters in the film portrayed as Christians?
If so, what are they like, and are they shown in a positive or negative light?
Is there a difference in how the film portrays paid Christian workers and other Christians?
Does a church ever appear in the film? If so, what does it represent?
Rescue & Help
Do the characters in the film need to be saved from anything? For anything? If so, what?
If they need saving, are they saved by the end?
Who saves them? A God figure? Chance? Other people? Do they save themselves?
Does the world in general need saving in the film? If so, from and for what?
Right & Wrong
Is there a sense of right & wrong in the film?
If so, how does the movie define right and wrong?
Is this different, according to different characters?
What are the effects, if any, in the film of doing wrong?
The World We Know
Where does the film say the world came from? God? An impersonal force? Arbitrary chance?
How are animals, plants and non-living parts of the world treated in the film? Are they possessions? Tools for human use? Valued in their own right?
Is the physical world portrayed as good, bad, or indifferent?
Does the world have a purpose in the film, or is it all a matter of chance?
The World Beyond
Does the film say that life itself is heading for a destination, or is it all about the journey?
How does the film portray death? Is it good, bad or indifferent? A victory or a defeat? Does it have meaning?
Is there a sense that there is any life beyond this one? If so, what is it like?
Does the film suggest the possibility of resurrection? If so, is it positive or negative?
Do the characters have hope? If so, in what or whom?
The Rev. Steve Page & the Rev. Julie Golding Page live in Toronto. Julie is associate pastor at the Church of the Resurrection, Toronto.