God in the Movies (Robert Johnston & Catherine Barsotti) -- A Review

GOD IN THE MOVIES: AGuide for Exploring Four Decades of Film. Edited by Catherine M. Barsotti and Robert K. Johnston. Foreword by Ralph Winter. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2017. Xxxiii + 264 pages.

                As a preacher, I have been known to refer to a movie or two to illustrate a point. Because I am a fan of both the Star Wars films and all forms of Star Trek—yes, even the first Star Trek movie has its redeeming qualities—I have been known to make special use of imagery from these films and the Star Trek TV series. I know that I am not alone in turning to film and TV for inspiration. While my church isn’t so equipped, I know that many preachers even feature clips in their sermons. So, for now I will remain old school and will make do using my own descriptions, even though I have been known to get things wrong (such mistakes are often pointed out to me afterwards by my son who spent a year in film school). Why do we do this? Because film and TV are now prime carriers of culture.

                While most Christians, from conservative to liberal watch movies and TV, there was a time when at least some Christians viewed movie watching as a deadly sin. In fact, in a former pastorate, one of my more conservative members criticized me for my frequent references to films. She thought it detracted from my ability to share godly things. And nothing was more problematic than Harry Potter (books and movies).  So, with few exceptions movie watching is no longer considered a deadly sin, and film has become a fruitful field for theological reflection.

My alma mater, Fuller Theological Seminary, has taken this reality seriously in recent years and has established the Reel Spirituality Institute, which is part of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts. Participants in this institute have recognized the need for offering guidance in choosing films to see, and interpreting them theologically. This recognition led two Fuller faculty, a husband/wife team, Robert K. Johnston and Catherine M. Barsotti, to put together a team of interpreters/writers to create a guidebook that would help clergy and congregations engage in fruitful conversation with film from the perspective of faith. This team of interpreters includes theologians and film makers, most of whom have had some connection with Fuller.  

The editors take note of the resistance some in the church have shown the arts. For some, this resistance stems from the anti-culture views of some in the church, but it has also come from quarters of the church that prize reason over imagination, proposition over narrative. That Fuller and other theological seminaries now give attention to aesthetics and the arts in their curriculum, is a good sign that things are changing. Besides, the very fact that people seem to watch a lot of movies, suggests that they can prove influential and impactful. While there are a variety of ways of engaging film, the editors have chosen to approach the conversation from an "interactional" perspective. That is, "movies, as a major source of cultural insight, when combined with the personal experiences a view brings to the screening, invite a theological exchange with Scripture, the insights of the Christian community, and ultimately with the Spirit of God" (p. xxiii). 

The team selected forty films that appeared between 1980 and 2014. Ten films have been chosen to represent each decade. Not every film is explicitly religious or family friendly, but each is understood to offer fruitful dialogue between film and faith. I should note that several the films here are R-rated, which even a decade or so back would not be considered appropriate. I can remember being cautioned against referring to R-rated films in sermons, because you wouldn’t want to give the impression you had seen ungodly movies (even though I had gone to see R-rated movies back during my more conservative days).  The approach taken here is not to seek "protection from its cultural and personal impact," thus, the "interactional model we have adopted opts to instead receive a movie's story on its own terms before engaging the movie theologically. It recognizes that we must first listen and look before we speak, if our response to a movie is to have integrity." (p. xxiii). 

The book is intended by the editors to be a resource for preachers and for study groups. Although it can be used by individuals to reflect on films theologically, but that's not the primary purpose. So, with group discussion in mind, the editors provide ten guidelines for leading a discussion group. They also include an appendix that lists movies by biblical text and another that lists them by theological topic. These two appendices should prove helpful to preachers!

As noted earlier, the team chose forty films, ten from each decade beginning in 1980. Barry Taylor, who serves as artist-in-residence at Fuller writes brief (2 pages) introductions to each decade, so as to orient the reader/user to the context from which the films emerged. Therefore, he speaks of the 1980s as a decade of change, rather than as the decade of greed and consumerism (a tag he gives to the 1990s).  

Each of the ten films within a section receives a description and theological reflection, followed by a set of scripture texts that the writer believes will set up well with the film, followed by a set of discussion questions and clip conversations. They provide a timestamp range for each clip, so that one can know where the conversation takes place within the film. There usually is a list of additional resources, and sometimes bonus material. The later often consists of background information that will help facilitate a fruitful conversation.

While I didn't read all the chapters, I did focus on the ones that described films I have seen. I discovered that as the decades progressed, my film watching seems to have decreased. So, I can say that I’ve seen seven of the ten films chosen for the 1980s. Some of these films are among my favorites. They include Chariots of Fire, which my wife and I saw on our first solo date. Then there is Field of Dreams, which has long been one of my favorites, perhaps because I find myself tearing up when Ray plays catch with his estranged father. Many of us sons who have experienced estrangement from our fathers, will understand how poignant this scene is. As time went on, I have seen fewer of the listed films. I've seen four of the films from the 90s, three from the 00s (two of which are animated movies), and three from the 10s.

Since part of the reason for the guide is to help Christians discover theologically rich films, I suppose I have some catching up to do. As the editors note, they themselves had films they would have like to have seen included that didn’t make the cut, so I suppose I’m in good company when I say that I have a few movies I wish were included. Since, as I noted earlier, I’m a fan of Star Wars and Star Trek, I could only wish that one of the Star Wars films made it? (Perhaps it is unfortunate that New Hope appeared in 1977).  What about Star Trek: Wrath of Khan. Surely the death and resurrection of Spock has theological implications. Alas, they failed to make the cut, leaving me to my own devices.

I appreciate this effort and the effort of others through the years who have attempted to help us engage our culture with appreciation and thoughtfulness. Being able to engage film theologically is, in my mind, especially important, since film like novels remind us of how important narrative is to the biblical story and to the Christian life. If we look at everything through propositional eyes, we will miss the point of much of the biblical story, including the Gospels. Perhaps, engaging with film can help us break out of such bad habits. We just need some guidance, and such is the case here. 


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