The Mystery Discerning Business, Part 1

Dialoging with film
How do we dialogue with film from a theological perspective? In this and my next two columns, I want to explore that question. Within American evangelicalism two general approaches have usually been taken, and I want to propose a third. As my dialogue partners, let me use Os Guinness, Bob Briner, Bill Romanowski, and Richard Mouw. Each has provided for the Christian community excellent books on our engagement with culture as Christians. We can learn from them. They are important colleagues when it comes to theology and the arts.

Traditionally, many Christians have argued that when dialoguing with a movie, we should start with our theology and use faith to judge the film’s meaning.  After all, Christian theology has the truth. We simply need to ask as theologians how does this outside material – a film’s informing vision – match up to the God we know and to what he has revealed we should do. That is, we come to a work of art presuppositionfully, and we use what we already know to judge what we experience in art.

Christianity against: Strategies of conservative Christians
Rich Mouw, in his book He Shines in All that’s Fair believes that such a position often sees Christians as a “remnant,” a small group of believers in a world basically hostile to the Gospel. Christians are therefore those who must separate themselves from the dominate patterns of our culture as we stand for the truth over against all that is false.

Such Christians are also usually pessimistic in their assessment of culture’s possibilities, believing this world will not get significantly better until the eschaton.  Here are many of our Christian brothers and sisters in the Pentecostal, holiness, pietistic, and Baptist traditions.

As this group of Christians view movies, they usually take one of three strategies, all of which effectively cut themselves off from the possibility of hearing God speak authentically within culture, from the possibility of experiencing any new truth, beauty, or goodness that the Holy Spirit might be providing not only through creation but through the creativity of those who bear God’s image.

Toward this end, (1) some simply boycott film. Surely this is a valid last resort (e.g., with pornography), but it has often also been abused by the church. Book burning has never proven a very effective strategy. Moreover, in a media culture, boycott often creates publicity and helps gather a crowd, just the opposite result Christians intend by their actions. The boycotts of Dogma, The Passion of the Christ, Life is Beautiful, and The Last Temptation of Christ all proved counter-productive.

(2) A second strategy used by some of our culturally conservative Christian friends has historic roots in the church going back to Origen and later even Calvin himself. We are told that we can plunder the golden calves of our film culture (Exodus 3:19-22; 12:33-36), extracting what we know to have value and rejecting the rest.

In his book Dining With the Devil, Os Guinness writes, “By all means plunder freely of the treasures of modernity, but in God’s name make sure that what comes out of the fire, which will test our life’s endeavors, is gold fit for the temple of God and not a late-twentieth [early 21st ] century image of the golden calf.”

Guinness writes that we should “keep in mind Peter Berger’s contemporary warning that they who sup with the devil of modernity had better have long spoons. By all means dine freely at the table of modernity,” says Guinness, “but in God’s name keep your spoons long.” (p. 90)

From my perspective, such a “plundering” mindset has two problems, one artistic and the other theological. Theologically, God didn’t keep his “spoon” long! The incarnation is the antithesis of Guinness’ advice. Because of his close proximity with those of questionable morals and reputation, Jesus was mistaken for a winebibber and glutton. He even found faith in a prostitute’s chaste love; he did not keep her at arm’s length.

It is not long spoons that we need, but sensitivity to the voice of the Spirit of God who is heard in and through his creation and creatures. All we need is eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to love.

Artistically, “plundering” also seems a deficient strategy for it usually reduces art to illustration. It assumes we as Christian critics have a superior position of judgment. In the process, it cuts off the chance for new insight, for a new glimpse of truth, beauty, or goodness. 

At best plundering reduces art to a reinforcement of what the Christian already knows – like the line drawing illustrations in a children’s book that reproduce but do not extend what is already written on the page in words. (One might helpfully contrast such reproductions with the pregnant drawings by Leonard Baskin that accompany The Iliad or The Odyssey. These drawings can stand alone in their power and meaning, even as they find further depth in their dialogue with the text.)

“Boycott”…”plunder”… “convert.”  Here is a third strategy that some culturally conservative Christians have adopted vis-à-vis film. Perhaps the most influential, recent example of this strategy has been Bob Briner’s influential book Roaring Lambs. The book has been very helpful in encouraging many Christians to take jobs in popular culture.

Briner calls for individual Christians to enter culture as informed citizens and to articulately advocate for a Christian point of view. We are to be “salt” he says. “Being salt does not always mean we ‘evangelize,’ but by replacing evil with good, we enhance the climate for evangelism.” (p.43)

Briner goes on to say that we must reclaim culture, not in a triumphalistic sense but out of the strong Christian conviction that here is where Christians belong. He sees our churches as growing, our colleges bulging, our magazines and book companies thriving, and our media companies bringing teaching and music into homes. “In short, our subculture is healthy. It doesn’t need more attention. It’s the world that needs help.” (p. 32)

Most of us realize that Briner was overly optimistic when he wrote this. The sad fact is that today, the church needs help too. Many of us are dying on the vine. We need a fresh wind of the Spirit. Many, like Garrison Keeler, say that they are more apt today to encounter God’s Spirit in a movie than through a sermon. When was the last time a sermon made you cry (not because of its sentimentality, but because it ushered you into God’s presence)? I trust that the answer is “recently,” but I fear that for many it is not.

The conservative strategies of boycott, plunder, and conversion are well intentioned and useful in certain circumstances. But today they seem largely ineffective and at their worse manipulative. Too often they are reductive both of theology and of film. Increasingly this is being recognized by other evangelicals. It is thus to other strategies that we will turn in part two of this article.