(This was my manuscript for the first of a series of lessons I did called God and Film at Rose City Church. It serves my introductory lesson to the topic, and over the next several weeks we watched a few films and discussed them. I will be releasing the three manuscripts specifically for each movie on here as well, but my approach applies to all of my “God and Film” posts.)
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Kevin Nye. I’m a third year MDiv student at Fuller Theological Seminary. My emphasis is in “the Church in Contemporary Culture”, and I have taken now six classes related to theology and pop culture, four of which interacted directly with film. (In case you’re looking for ‘qualifications’, but since you’re already here, I doubt you are.)
To me, the topic of theology and film is interesting, and not just because I love theology and film separately, though I do. For me, theology and film is about a much bigger question: how does God interact with the world? I want to convince you, before we watch these movies, that our theological tradition leaves room for God to be at work in even the least religious, silliest, most escapist of films, and that entering into that work provides a new way for us to engage the world.
I want to briefly turn to scripture to point out some places in which we see God acting outside of the traditional faith community, and what that looks like. Part of the story we hear every Christmas is these Magi, who saw a star in the sky and recognized that it was something strange, and decided to follow it. They followed it, and it led them to the Christ-child. Something we may miss as we hear this every year is that, in this story, God is working outside of the faith tradition to draw people to Christ. These Magi were not Jewish, but likely practiced cultic religion based on nature – the stars, as it were. And yet God acted in a way that they were able to recognize; they caught a glimpse of something that they didn’t quite know what to do with, and it let them on a journey; a journey where they met with Jewish leaders who listened to what they experienced, and took it to their scriptures, and pointed them toward the Christ-child. There are all kinds of stories like this in Scripture; God uses donkeys, enemy-nations, bushes, prophets. What else could God use?
Now that we’ve talked about how God interacts with the world, I want to ask another question: how does film interact with the world? In 1942, after the classic Disney movie Bambi was released, deer hunting saw an astronomical, unprecedented drop. Whether we want to admit it or not, movies profoundly affect us as a society. And how much more now than in 1942? Two years ago, “The Avengers” made 1.5 billion worldwide. 1.5 BILLION. WORLDWIDE. The film experience has expanded from being an American culture-maker to a global one.
With all this in mind, if God works outside of the faith tradition to draw people in, and film reaches and affects people by the millions, why would God not be at work in film?
If we believe this is true, and God is active in the films we watch, how could we then approach a film, or what we can call our “film culture”?
I think the story of the Magi might serve as an archetype. If we replace the star with a particular film that strikes a chord with a person, we can see how this might play out. A person watches a movie and has an experience; they see something they believe is true about life or about the world; something profound. Whether on purpose or not, this sets them on a journey. Maybe a small one, maybe a big one. Along this journey, one in which we believe God is active, perhaps they will come across a person of faith and enter into a dialogue. In the story of the Magi, the Jewish leaders were receptive to the idea. They didn’t say, “Oh, you mystics saw a star? That has nothing to do with our God or our religion.” They engaged it, and together, the non-religious sign and the faith tradition pointed them to a revelation of Christ.
Are we so open? I think we ought to be.
As Christians, I believe we ought to engage films with God in mind. And I think we ought to engage all kinds of films, whether they are Christian films, anti-religious films, rated R films… It’s easy for us to distinguish between what is holy and what is profane, but throughout scripture God confounds humanity with the way Father, Son and Spirit engage the profane, enter into darkness and reveal light. Our belief in the incarnation is about God entering into the profane, taking on humanity, in a lowly stable to an unwed mother, and breaking down the walls between the sacred and the secular. If we try to do theology in an ivory tower, I fear we are not truly doing Christian theology, since the Christ we glorify is the Christ who came down from his ivory tower to save us among our messy realities.
I have selected for these God Talks films that I believe reveal something about God or about humanity that is profound, or help illustrate some harder truths about how God meets us in our contemporary culture. Some of it will be challenging, some of it will be profane, and some of it will be rated R. But it doesn’t take many glances at the Old Testament to see that God is in the midst of rated R content. I suspect many Bible stories, if committed to film, would garner an R rating, if not NC-17. I will of course warn you not to bring children, or to avoid films if you think they are not appropriate for you. But I will also encourage you to engage critically but openly with films you might normally avoid. One of the upcoming films, Gran Torino, is an example of a film that is rated R, contains racial slurs and gang violence, and yet is ultimately a story about redemption, reconciliation, and freedom. The movie uses language, violence and racism, but it certainly does not certainly them.
As we watch these films, I encourage you to seek God. It is easier with some movies than others. Not every film talks about religion, and not every film has a “Christ-figure” to point out. But movies, at least good movies, tend to make claims and play out scenarios about humanity, about purpose, about reality. And these, because we believe in a God made flesh, are theological issues.
In Matthew 16, Jesus challenges the Pharisees. They ask Jesus for a sign from heaven, and he tells them that they are unable to interpret the signs of the times. I believe this challenge is for us today. As we look for ways for the Church to engage culture, we may be in danger of missing the signs of the times by not looking for God in new places. We serve a big, active God.
May we turn our attention to the ways God might be at work right under our noses, and see if things we thought were innocent, escapist, unclean, or trivial may be pointing us, and our world, to Christ.