Conviction and Witness

Two primary convictions drive our work here at Reel Spirituality:

1) We (you included) might potentially encounter God at the movies.
2) An hospitable attitude toward movies better prepares us for those encounters.

These two convictions are expressed in our work in various ways.

First, we have found that encountering God most often happens in the muddled interplay of the movie itself, Christian scripture and tradition, and our own personal and communal histories.

So, we attend to the language of cinema – editing, cinematography, score, acting, etc. – as the means by which the movie tells its story and asks its questions about life. However, we do not over-attend to those formal elements. They are a movie’s means, not its end. Eloquent films are generally better at achieving their ends, so we are more likely to appreciate them, but we won’t disregard a movie because it lacks cinematic eloquence. We also study the history of cinema, because cinematic history is partly a record of the development of cinema’s language, and we want to be better speakers.

We also believe in theological education. Reel Spirituality is, after all, an initiative of an academic center at a seminary. As we learn more about the Bible, about the history of the Church, and about the world in which we live, we are more adept at integrating these things into our lives and into our movie-watching.

Finally, we recognize that none of us go to the movies as blank slates. The events of our lives, as individuals and as communities, have made us who we are. Life has prompted us to ask certain questions and give certain answers. Movies are emotional machines meant to evoke emotional responses from their audiences. How we respond depends in part on what we’ve been through, so we try to be aware of ourselves as we watch. Furthermore, we believe that God is active in our lives and in our communities now, so being mindful of what we’re going through makes us more sensitive to what God might be saying to us through the movie.

Those two convictions are also expressed by our decision to favor embrace over antagonism in our interactions with movies. Put bluntly, you will never see a wholly negative review on Reel Spirituality (at least not unless we change our approach). When our reviews do feature negative criticism, it will be, hopefully, overwhelmed by praise. In the past, we have failed at this favoring of embrace. We aim to do better.

In fact, I (Elijah Davidson) am hesitant to call what we feature “criticism” at all. Film criticism is a well-established, worthwhile, productive enterprise, and negative criticism is a necessary and laudable part of that enterprise. The best critics campaign for what’s good, and that often means humbly noting what’s not good. A good film critic’s goal is to advance cinema, to encourage society toward better filmmaking by pointing out and interpreting both fine and unfortunate films.

Our goal with this website is to encourage better film-watching, and not just any kind of film-watching, but film-watching that hopes to encounter God. And that encounter happens in the relationship between the movie, the Christian tradition, and our lives. And sometimes the movie that impacts a person or a community is a “poorly made” movie. Who are we to say what God might use, movie or otherwise?

Furthermore, there is a history of antagonism between Christians and movies. There have always been Christian proponents of cinema, but there have also always been detractors, and the detractors have often been louder. As with other art forms, the goals of movie makers and Christians have often been at odds, and this has worked to create general animosity between the two overlapping groups. Besides encouraging better film-watching, our other goal is to encourage reconciliation between the Christians who are suspicious of filmmakers and vice versa.

We try to always remember that behind every movie are hundreds of people. Some of them have very personal reasons for making the movies they make. Others are glad for another job so they can feed their families. if we write or say overly negative things about a movie, we’re writing or saying overly negative things about their work, about the questions they’re asking about the world, and about the way they are providing for their families. If we don’t like a movie, we choose to be silent about it rather than disrespect the women and men who made it.

For instance, this past weekend, I (Elijah Davidson) saw a movie that endorses a vision of humanity I find reprehensible, a humanity that is voyeristic and violent. The movie featured a story where virility is proven and justified by violence. Rather than lambast that film, I would like to point you to Peter Weir’s 1985 film Witness. It is available to stream digitally on Netflix Instant, Amazon Prime, Hitblix, Redbox Instant, and Epix. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. If you have, this is a great time to revisit it.

LIke this other film, Witness is about a man in a strange environment being hunted, and also like the other film, Witness is concerned with the place of violence in the formation of masculine identity and in working justice. Both films feature similar amounts of violence, nudity, and profanity.

However, in Witness, profanity denotes nothing but duress. Nudity in Witness begins as a moment of voyeurism, but then the gazed-upon party turns the invasion of privacy into an invitation to intimacy. She (the gazed-upon) does this, because she has come to know him (the voyeur) as something other than a destroyer. She has learned that he is, at heart, a builder, one who contributes to her community and could, if he wants, find a home there.

Finally, conversations about violence dominate Witness both in the dialog and in the action of the story. Witness shows violence to be ineffective at best and detrimental at worst. I won’t spoil how in case you haven’t seen it, but Witness situates mature masculinity in nonviolence and in integrating into a community of similarly nonviolent persons. Only communal nonviolence is ultimately successful in the film.

Witness isn’t perfect. The film misses an opportunity in the very end to reinforce its values in a striking way. The film is beholden to film history, and particularly Westerns, which dictate what the hero has to do in the end, albeit regrettably. As a whole though, Witness presents a compelling, holistic, Biblically resonant vision of both humanity and masculinity. I am encouraged by Witness to root myself deeper into my community and to support my community’s efforts for peaceful action in the world. I am encouraged to consider the ways I am prone to respond violently to difficult situations though that violence is most often enacted with my words instead of with my fists.

Witness is the kind of movie Reel Spirituality is excited to feature. It provides the kind of cinematic experience and the kind of film interaction for which we are eager. We thank you for visiting our site. We hope you are bolstered in your faith by what you read, hear, and watch both here and elsewhere. We are grateful for the opportunity to become better film-watchers with you.