Do movies matter? Yes. They form us in many ways…
Who are the most influential and popular thinkers, philosophers, and theologians today? Who is teaching the most people? John Piper? William Lane Craig? N. T. Wright? Francis Chan? The local pastor? Nope.
“The most influential theologians in the United States of America are screenwriters, producers, lyricists, and musicians. These Hollywood theologians’ convey their messages through movies, televisions shows, and popular music.” America’s “philosophers” and “theologians” are people like Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, Kanye, and Dwayne Johnson.
America’s religious “texts” are movies like The Fate of the Furious, Wonder Woman, and Beauty and the Beast. Truly, “Film is an important cultural realm where philosophies of life are tested, behavior rehearsed, values questioned, injustice exposed, fears confronted, history reexamined and possible futures imagined.”
Movies and movie stars move us. They don’t so much tell us what to treasure, they show us. Movies and television interpret reality for us and act as a type of cultural glue. Movies at times reach to our depths and play on our heartstrings.
Without even realizing it, many people allow movies, music, and television to have a formative role in shaping their worldviews. These media have the power to convey messages, make impressions, and rouse emotions unlike most anything else. They create a narrative world in which the viewer or listener perceives life from the narrator’s point of view. Embedded in that narrative world are memorable scenes, one-liners, and lyrics that give “snapshot” or “sound-byte” summaries of the narrator’s worldview.
Culture both shapes what movies (and shows) are made and is shaped by what is made. Most people, however, are unaware of how they and culture are being shaped by film.
Movies make us. For example, “cowboy movies reassured Americans about the value of the pioneer spirit, self-reliance and the conquest of nature.” Many of you reading this right now are wearing blue jeans in part because of the influence of James Dean in Rebel without a Cause. Or think of the many ways you have been taught history through film. After Saving Private Ryan came out “the Los Angeles Times ran an article describing how some younger people were saying that they understood for the first time something of the sacrifices that were made” during WWII. Movies write (and sometimes rewrite) history and ideas onto our conscience and not just with words, but with images, explosions, and whatever other magic the producers can conjure up.
So, “Movies cannot be dismissed as simply entertainment and diversion, though they are also that. Rather, movies are life stories that both interpret us and are being interpreted by us. The power of film can change lives and communicate truth; it can reveal and redeem.” Movies impact us, and our culture, in ways that we are not aware of. TV can be a teleological teacher.
James K. A. Smith points out that the cinema “is formative in a liturgical sense: here we have moving icons dancing across the screen, bathed in the affect of a calculated sound track, staging a story with implicit visions of the good life that, over time and because of their covert nature, seep into our imagination and shape not only how we see the would but also how we relate to it, how we orient ourselves within it, and what we ultimately are working toward.” Smith goes on, “Over time, the theater is a kind of classroom; it constitutes a pedagogy of desire… Movies don’t just ‘have’ worldviews; rather, film is more like a liturgy. So it’s not just a matter of being critical viewers who are looking for the message in the film; it’s a matter of being awakened to their liturgical, formative nature.”
Liturgy (worship) shapes us. That is, all liturgy, good or bad, Christian or other, intentional or unintentional. And it has been said that “unless there is within us that which is above us, we shall soon yield to that that which is around us.” St. Gregory said something similar, “If you do not delight in higher things, you most certainly will delight in lower things.” Thus we must focus on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (see Phil. 4:8). We should be aware of how movies can shape us.
All this being the case, that does not mean that we should dash our TVs on the rocks and refuse to go to the theaters. Rather, we should seek to consider our consumption with biblical wisdom. People have different perspectives on engagement with film but we all must consider where we should land on the spectrum.
Movies I would argue are not all bad. In fact, it seems, movies, like parables, can even help viewers to see life more clearly. But this is not true of all movies. We must be discerning viewers. And not just of the rating and the content of the movie but also (perhaps mainly) of the worldview of the movie. What does the movie put forward as the “good life,” the answer to our problems, or the solutions to our problems?
We must not only look at what films are rated but also inspect the forming affect that the film is likely to have on us.
As stories, movies invite reflection on their formal characteristics—their plot, characterization, atmosphere, and point of view. As visual and aural stories, movies also express meaning and focus our attention through music and image. At one level, a movie story is to be experienced, not analyzed. But by reflecting critically on where and how the power and meaning of a given story is centered, the viewer can often see how best to enter into dialogue with it.
Estimates vary, but I have read that approximately seventy-five percent of Scripture is narrative. And the Bible is actually one big story. So, it is no surprise that we like stories, movies, and TV shows. However, many stories put forward counter Edens. Many stories would have us shaped into the image of Satan instead of reshaped into the image of God through Jesus Christ.
So, we must be aware of what we watch, not merely the rating, the cursing, sex, and gore but also the world-and-life-view that is being communicated—and more than likely exalted. We must also consider that different films are more likely or less likely to have a shaping influence on us, and this will be different from person to person (see below). We all have different personalities and different besetting sins (that’s partly why we should be slow to judge what others watch).
The above example is just an example. Although it is not precise and may vary from person to person it does show that different movies impact us differently, and it is not based upon the whether the movie is “R” or “PG-13.”
Movies can move us. Movies can make us and shake us awake to untold realities. Movies can be a gift that teach us and lead us to experience profound things. However, movies can also shape us to the wrong end. Movies can hold up false promises as our only chance for peace and joy. So, let’s not be naive. Let’s evaluate and interact with movies with biblical wisdom.
When evaluating movies I have found these questions from John Frame very helpful:
- Who wrote the film? Who produced it? Who directed it? Do we know through the writings and previous work of these people anything about their philosophy of life?
- Is it well-made, aesthetically? Is the production and acting of high quality? These factors may have little to do with the “message.” But they do tend to determine the extent of the film’s cultural impact.
- Is it honest, true to its own position? This is another mark of “quality.”
- What kind of film is it? Fantasy? Biography? Realistic drama? Comedy? Obviously, each film must be judged according to its purpose and genre.
- What is the world view of the film? Is it theistic or atheistic? Christian or non-Christian? If non-Christian, is its main thrust relativistic or dogmatic? How does it employ the theme of “equality?” Is there any role for providence, for God? Is the film pessimistic or optimistic? Does the action move in deterministic fashion, or is there a significant role for human choice?
- What is the plot? What problems do the characters face? Can these problems be correlated in some way with the Fall of mankind in Adam? Does the film in effect deny the Fall, or does it affirm it in some way?
- Are the problems soluble? If so, how? What methods are available to the characters so that they can find the answers they need?
- What is the moral stance of the film? Is the film relativistic, dogmatic, or both in some combination? What are its attitudes toward sex, family, human life, property, truth, heart-attitudes? What is the source of moral norms, if any? Does justice prevail?
- In comedy, what is it that is funny? What are the typical incongruities? Who is the butt of the jokes? (Christians? traditional values? the wicked? the righteous? God? Satan?) Is it bitter or gentle? Does it rely on caricatures? If so, of whom?
- Are there allusions to historical events, literary works, other films, famous people, Scripture, etc. that would give us some idea where the filmmakers are coming from? We should remember, of course, that allusions may be negative, positive, ironic, or merely decorative. A biblical allusion does not necessarily indicate acceptance of biblical values.
- What are the chief images of the film? Is there anything interesting about the lighting, the camera angles, the sound, the timing which would reinforce a particular theme? Are there significant symbols?
- Are there any explicit religious themes? Christ-figures? Does the film express significant attitudes toward Christ, the clergy, or the church? Does it distort Christianity or present it at its worst? Or does it present it with some insight and/or sympathy? What about Satan, the demons, the occult? Does the film recognize their activity in some way? Is the devil taken seriously? If so, how is he dealt with?
 http://betweenthetimes.com/index.php/tag/john-frame/. Likewise, Steven Turner has said, “Storytelling has replaced philosophy, theology and science as our main source of information about life’s meaning” (Steve Turner, Popcultured: Thinking Christianly About Style, Media and Entertainment (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2013), 61).
 This is because “Liturgies—whether ‘sacred’ or ‘secular’—shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love” (Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 25).
 Movies are hugely influential. For example, “viewers in the United States watched on average thirty-eight movies in 2003 (57 percent of all Americans watched Finding Nemo; 45 percent saw Pirates of the Caribbean” (Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue, Kindle Locations 328-329).
 Turner, Popcultured, 61.
 Johnston, Reel Spirituality, Kindle Locations 347-349.
 “For movies help us to ‘see.’ They focus life for the viewer, giving us a richer variety of experience than would otherwise be possible. Carl Sandburg, the poet laureate, once commented, I meet people occasionally who think motion pictures, the product Hollywood makes, is merely entertainment, has nothing to do with education. That’s one of the darndest fool fallacies that is current. . . . Anything that brings you to tears by way of drama does something to the deepest roots of our personality. All movies, good or bad, are educational and Hollywood is the foremost educational institution on earth. What, Hollywood more important than Harvard? The answer is not as clean as Harvard, but nevertheless farther reaching” (Johnston, Reel Spirituality, KL 368-374).
 Turner, Popcultured, 70-71.
 Johnston, Reel Spirituality, KL 498-499.
 Ibid., 529-531.
 James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 110.
 Ibid., 110.
 “Moral decay doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is supported by the idolatry of the society at any given time, and expressive of its worship, even if such be completely unarticulated” (Noel Doe, Created for Worship, 236).
 Christian worship: it’s Theology and practice, 81.
 Cf. Payne, The Healing Presence, 140.
 Johnston, Reel Spirituality, 5573-5577.
 See Mike Cosper, The Stories We Tell.
About Paul O'BrienI am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 10 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)
I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 10 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)