Conversing With Cinema

A few months ago, we featured an article covering some of the basic convictions that guide our work here at Reel Spirituality. The article, “Conviction and Witness,” outlined an ideal – that we might encounter God at the movies. In accordance with the way Reel Spirituality founder and co-director Dr. Rob Johnston outlines how Christians might engage with cinema in his book Reel Spirituality and in Fuller’s Theology and Film classes, this refers to the “divine encounter.”

Divine encounter is relatively rare. For some of our contributors and constituents that happens sometimes, or it has happened once, but it does not happen often. For most of the people in our ever expanding community, “meeting God at the megaplex” wouldn’t describe their experience ever. So, how then are we to approach movies most of the time?

While the transformative, transcendent movie-going experience may be rare, there are other experiences that are far more common and still in accord with those two key convictions, and especially the second one. A posture of hospitality better situates us to be impacted positively by the cinema we encounter. Hospitality toward cinema means simply making room for the movie in our lives, listening/seeing as it speaks/moves, and responding genuinely.

According to Dr. Johnston’s categories of cultural engagement, that method is known as Dialog. Dialog simply means conversing with the movie about the things the movie wants to talk about.

Movies are about things, and primarily they are about questions. Granted, near the end of a movie a statement might be made about the world, people, God, etc, but the lion’s share of the movie will be focused on the questions, and even any conclusions reached will be reached with trepidation.

Even relatively “light” cinematic fare is composed of questions. This past weekend, I (Elijah Davidson) re-watched Pacific Rim which is about as light and fun a movie as you’re likely to see (and there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s a topic for a different time). Light as it is, even amidst all the really cool giant robots, fantastic monsters, and broadly painted characters, the movie is definitely concerned with people of different cultures coming together. The process isn’t always peaceful, but it is necessary if humanity is going to survive. The complications, and they are myriad, provide the bulk of the complications in the plot. The monsters vs. robots battles only exasperate the cross-cultural contests. Pacific Rim asks lots of questions about the things that divide us and how we might learn to come together. (Hopefully, it won’t take an alien invasion to make that happen.)

For another example, consider Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s latest film which we reviewed last week and which will be discussed on the Reel Spirituality Podcast later this week. The movie’s story concerns an elderly man who wants to go to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim a marketing gimmick million dollar prize. His son agrees to drive him, and along the way they end up in the old man’s home town. A journey through the man’s past makes up most of the movie.

Nebraska is “about” lots of things including aging, reconciliation, legacy, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, communal memory and myth, monetary and relational debts, loss, communication and the lack thereof, family dynamics, and regrets. Nebraska explores the intricacies of all those themes and more, and as you watch it, you may connect especially to any of them or, like the man sitting next to me in the theater, none of them at all.

I didn’t “meet God” when I watched Pacific Rim or Nebraska, but because I went into the theater open to whatever those movies might want to discuss, I left with lots to think about. I was moved by those movies. This is an experience most of us can have when we watch a movie if we are sensitive and willing to engage with the questions the movie is asking.

This kind of engagement is what we most often try to model on our website and at our periodic screenings. We are trying to take the questions as they come to us in the movies and respond humbly and honestly to them out of what we have learned via our faith experience, our faith tradition, and the scriptures.

We hope you will do the same. We hope you will have a conversation with each other about the questions raised by the movies you see. Few of us watch movies alone. There’s almost always someone else to talk to about the movie once it ends. Pursue that conversation. Let the movie lead you into deeper thinking about the world, humanity, God, etc, and let that thinking lead you out of the theater into the world among the humanity God loves.