For almost 20 years of my teaching vocation I have taught high school students. My classes were called Christian World and Life Studies (CLAWS) to indicate a Mosaic-Pauline-Schaefferian view that everything is open to Christian study under the Lordship of Jesus. When I arrived at the doctrine of sin in the curriculum I had written, I would begin in the book of Jeremiah, reading chapter 2:23-25:
The stain of your guilt is still before me . . . How can you say, ‘I am not defiled; I have not run after the Baals’? See how you behaved in the valley; consider what you have done. You are a swift she-camel running here and there, A wild donkey accustomed to the desert, sniffing the wind in her craving—In her heat who can restrain her? Any males that pursue her need not tire themselves; at mating time they will find her. Do not run until your feet are bare and your throat is dry. But you said, ‘It’s not use! I love foreign gods, and I must go after them.’
Prior to class I had asked a student who had grown up on a farm if he or she would explain “heat” to my suburban or city students. Upon request, the farmer would explain with great relish and vivid detail what it meant for an animal to be “in heat.” The reaction was always the same. Students, more acquainted with concrete than manure, would stare with wide-eyed, open-mouthed amazement at the description of “heat.” After a very satisfied rural pupil would complete their explanation, I would ask students, “Why did I read Scripture and then have someone describe this physical event?” At some point, one student would inevitably say, “You wanted us to see the word “sin.”
When a First Testament listener heard Jeremiah’s preaching, there was no need to explain something they saw repeatedly. In an agricultural-horticultural world certain phenomena were normal. However, when my students studied hamartiology, the study of sin, I wanted them to have a sense of the physical detail resident within God’s meaning. Jeremiah packages other truths about sin in a similar appealing paper of language:
- 3:1 God calls His nation a prostitute with many lovers
- 3:9 Israel committed adultery with stone and wood
- 5:1 Streets are empty of truth-tellers
- 6:7 Jerusalem is a well pouring out her wickedness
- 6:15 Unashamed, God’s people are unable to blush
- 13:23 Unable to do good, Judah is an Ethiopian unable to change his skin, a leopard
- unable to change his spots.
I believe a word paints a thousand pictures. Whether the word is “sin” or “salvation,” God’s writers created pictures in one’s mind with their words. Saying explains seeing. Word trumps image. Verbal excels visual. “And God said” made “and there was.” The Word will always interpret our visual world. Scripture should always interpret cinema.
But reading Bruce Waltke’s An Old Testament Theology recently I was reminded of our current situation: “We no longer live in a word-based society. Only a few generations ago, the celebrities of our culture were writers and poets, but ours is an image-based society.” So before I begin a Christian review of film I want to suggest two means of visual imagery painted by words: literary forms and narrative story lines. When God communicates to humans, He uses language we can understand. The Word gives word-based frameworks whereby Christians can interpret movies in an image-based culture.
For over 20 years, while teaching the book of Genesis from high school through master’s level students, I have used a “compare and contrast” approach to learning. Just before going off to college, for instance, seniors were asked to find similarities and differences between pagan mythologies of the Babylonian Enuma Elish (an ancient, mythical creation story) and North American Raven versus the Genesis record. I still have their brilliant summaries in my files. In an honest comparison, high school seniors discovered this truth: distinction is more important that similarity. God begins His Book making the cultural comparison between space-time historical events over against bizarre mythological tales of fickle gods expressing the superiority of His revelational Truth.
And embedded within God’s Word to the Hebrews are literary forms used to communicate Truth. If Deuteronomy is the focus of study, one must understand the form of ancient near eastern suzerain-vassal treaties. Hebrew Psalms will necessitate the understanding of literary forms of lament, praise, or confession. If one studies First Testament poetry there is a need to understand the form of literary parallelism, where the writing rhymes not in word but in thought. If one studies Luke’s writings (his gospel and Acts) a form of historiography will be found that mirrors Greco-Roman histories of the day. Jesus, the Master Teacher, spoke to an audience whose daily lives consisted of plows, seeds, soil, cloaks, dusty roads, unclean vessels, house foundations built on rock, In short, Jesus spoke in word pictures. The zenith, the pinnacle of The Almighty’s communication came about as divinity took human form—the incarnation of our Lord Jesus. The Word of God interpreted what was seen in culture.
Biblical scholars estimate that narrative comprises fully 40% of Scripture. Storytelling is God’s means of communication. The book outlining God’s creational, covenantal intension—Genesis—is almost entirely story. When Moses wanted fathers to pass along Yahweh’s accomplishments, it is not with a sermon but a line reminiscent of how children’s books begin: “once upon a time.” “When your son asks, “Why there is a pile of rocks down by the river?” tell him once upon a time this event happened.” Perhaps the most important event of Israel’s history—Exodus—is told in a story that neither Cecil B. Demille nor George Lucas could ever recreate in its intensity. Israel’s full history—Genesis through Kings—is told in story fashion, then used by all the other prophets of the First Testament to drive home ethical injunctions. Stories (1) help people remember, (2) identify belief, (3) connect with others of like mind. The Story of Scripture will interpret the stories of our times.
Visual imagery, through literary forms and narrative story lines, drive God’s Word. God communicated in the forms of human communication present within the culture of the day. Pictures depend on words. If we want to communicate as Jeremiah we must interact with film under the submission of The Word. In apologetics we must learn communication. In communication we must learn apologetics. In missions we must learn contextualization. In General Studies we must learn the coherence of supernatural with natural worlds. In Educational Ministries we must practice faith-learning integration. In Bible-Theology we must practice application of true Truth to life. In short, we must teach how The Word interprets the world.
The Word of God can interpret and speak into the visual craving that leaves the 21st century viewer both breathless and empty. Of late I have been drawn back to the fourth chapter of Deuteronomy whose timeless exhortations brand my thinking with the mark of God’s Word. We are reminded constantly of speaking, declaration, statutes, laws, rules, and words. And then there is this admonition in verses 15-19:
Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the star, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve the, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.
While I thoroughly believe that The Word interprets image through literary genres and narrative story lines, I also believe, as Deuteronomy 4 teaches, that we are prone to worship the pictures. I would encourage us all to ask ourselves this question: “Is our distinctiveness as Christians clearly evidenced in our understanding of cinema or are we susceptible and have we succumbed to the pagan images of our culture?” Either we interpret the image with The Word or we simply end up worshipping the image.
Hollywood Video near my home had been my apologetic-evangelistic headquarters for the past three years. Relationships developed there turned into friendships which turned into opportunities for The Gospel. Because of our common interest, my thoughts were always wrapped around and through film. One manager had been “taught something about the rapture” when he was a kid and asked my point of view on the horror genre which made him uneasy about his future. We talked for half an hour. He listened attentively to my interconnection between Revelation and Hollywood. I stood outside the store one afternoon as another manager smoked her lunch asking me questions about my beliefs. You see, these and other connections via Hollywood Video came about because the management asked me to write reviews of films I watched. In fact, for some time, they kept a folder on the counter labeled “Dr. Eckel’s Reviews” for people who had questions about various films. None of my reviews contained John 3:16 but every one of my reviews motioned for people to look up. If you read my reviews on line, you will see a strategic apologetic sense to most of them.
I’ll never forget one particular day. I entered the store with one-page review in hand, asking the new worker behind the counter for the manager. “She’s out. Can I give her a message?” Afraid that the piece of paper would be misplaced by someone I didn’t know, I offered that I would wait and look through the new releases. As I turned to go she asked with great hesitation, “Is that one of your reviews?” I didn’t know her but she knew me. “I sure would like to read it. I promise to place it in the folder when I’m finished.” She handled the review as if she had just received The Holy Grail. I never ran into the young woman again, but every time I think of that event I pray for her.
I would like to spend the rest of my time today biblically evaluating those forms and stories which overwhelm our culture through movies. Let me explain the process. Taking some of the cultural forms of film and their narrative story lines, I want to give a sense of how to interpret the visual image with the verbal word. [What scholars call “the hermeneutics of film” would take too long to discuss overall, but that is what I’m after.] It is not possible to give full coverage to any particular film. That is why I’m inviting those who can come to Mahseh Center this weekend an opportunity to watch, interpret, and discuss full length movies. And remembering my Moody Bible Institute audience, just because I mention a film does not mean everyone here should consume it; nor does it mean I necessarily condone everything in it. So to begin: a Christian interpretation of film forms and their narrative story lines.
Celtic Christianity teaches that there are “thin places”—locations where supernatural-natural worlds almost intersect spatially. This is not unlike the historical event where Elisha asks Yahweh to open his servant’s eyes to see the angelic army surrounding the physical Syrian army in 2 Kings 6. We find any number of movies that reflect this point of view. In the Electric Mist (starring Tommy Lee Jones) where the main character continues to meet a Civil War Confederate General who teaches him life-lessons; First Snow (starring Guy Pearce) where a normal, everyday event transforms a character’s life because of a prophetic utterance given by a sideshow card-reader; Seraphim Falls (starring Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan) where the awful consequences of the Civil War so haunt two characters that their lives become interpretations of desert prophets. These and other films like them, suggest to the thoughtful Christian that our views of the supernatural battle in which we find ourselves in this world is sometimes better appreciated and understood by pagan people whose films pick up pieces of true Truth from God’s world. We would be remiss if we did not take time to interpret their cinema with Scripture.
The Christian message screams the existence of a supernatural world. There is no better place to examine this point than the horror genre of film. [Now I must say at this point I cannot watch supernatural horror films—The Exorcist or The Exorcism of Emily Rose—because of the impact they leave on my mind. But I maintain that the horror genre (form) of film comes closest to the Christian worldview. To acknowledge another world is to acknowledge ONE who has made and controls that world.]
But I can watch and do enjoy various movies that some might identify as “science fiction.” There are certain unbelievers whom I describe as circling The Truth and every once in a while pointing at it. Stephen King is one of those. Books turned to movies such as Needful Things, The Mist, The Green Mile acknowledge that there is another world outside of our own, to which we ought to give thought. I should mention that one of the greatest movies ever produced a film Christians should carefully consider—The Shawshank Redemption—was originally a Stephen King novella. Movies like Gattaca whose point asks “Can we create perfect humans through genetic engineering?” are important markers for Christians who want to examine cinema through Scripture.
The duplicity of the human will, the ambiguity of drama that best mirrors the dignity and depravity of our human nature, is film noir. This phrase means “dark film” and was given to American movies from the French. Beginning with The Maltese Falcon (1941) to A Touch of Evil (1957) film noir movies suggest that “the good guys are always so good and the bad guys aren’t always so bad.” Film noir offers that our world does not always work the way we think it should. When I explain the sovereignty of God to students I tell them that God’s sovereignty is much easier to teach than it is to live. Film noir captures the tension we humans feel not fully understanding God’s ways: Joseph’s words come immediately to mind “you meant it to me for bad but God meant it to me for good.” Today I would suggest films by my favorite screenwriter of all time David Mamet of whom we’ll speak more tomorrow. But over the last few years I have reveled in the “Jesse Stone” series (starring Tom Selleck). Robert B. Parker on whose books the movies are based has his PhD in American literature, capturing the subtleties of film noir from the 1940’s for today’s audience. Interpreting film noir should be especially important for Christians considering our commitment to what Scripture teaches about humans: we are both dignified and depraved, our natures are twisted apart from the saving grace of our Lord Jesus.
There are any number of movies that reflect how difficult life is to live simply because of our depravity. Snow Angels is a very difficult film for anyone to watch who has dealt with divorce either as a child or an adult. The tragic end—even more tragic, the depiction of one who calls themselves a Christian—is hard to take. Gone, Baby, Gone is a powerful portrayal of a circumstance which leaves the viewer asking the question “What would I have done?” I showed this to a group of master’s level students this past year whose general response was “Why did you make us think this hard?” And then there is Frozen River. In my review of this film I tell folks that everyone should watch this movie. Melissa Leo received an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of a poor, single-mother trying to raise her children. Given an opportunity to break the law to provide for her kids makes everyone wonder “Would I have done the same?” Christians, more than others, should be able to provide insights driven by Heaven’s view that can help people interpret the image with The Word.
But there is dramatic hope within unfair circumstances which comes through clearly both in film. I would want to show The Shawshank Redemption [I will say nothing more here except that this film should be seen]. Henry Poole is Here is a must see for all Christians who believe that hope arises from despair. Tsotsi is a South African film which portrays the ugliness of a man transformed by redemption. And About Schmidt provides promise to anyone who has wondered if his life counts for something. While my daughter Chelsea was attending Loyola University of Chicago she would tell me over and over, “Dad, people I meet have nothing to look forward to. I want to be an apologist of hope.” Paul’s words ring true, “Looking for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Christians must intersect their hope-filled vision of life with a world which sees glimpses of true Truth in film.
The reasons for choices people make may bring difficulty or hope. An important movie such as 13 Conversations About One Thing, for instance, addresses 13 lives looking for happiness and their attendant results. I have been taken by The Devil Wears Prada (starring Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, and Emily Blunt). It is a well-written, well-directed morality tale asking questions such as “What is most important in life?” “How do we make choices for importance in the face of what culture declares is most important?” “Does current belief in fashion (or belief in anything) overwhelm our senses, creating a culture of fear (e.g. losing our job)?” “Are we controlled the appetites of envy or jealousy?” How much better can Christians bring to bear The Light of Scripture to the darkness of a culture which struggles to answer these questions! To watch movies such as these with unbelievers would go a long way toward evangelistic apologetics in the 21st century.
Romantic comedies are another form that Christians should examine. [It is unfortunate that certain film forms are given simplistic labels like “chick flicks” when indeed they get after what Christians call “The Great Romance.” Yahweh, the great Lover of us humans, has made us with a “hole in our soul” that can only be filled by Himself. Both women and men want to be loved. Romantic comedies address that very interest.] Sweet, honest, hopeful films like Last Holiday (with LL Cool J and Queen Latifa) or still in recent release New In Town (starring Renee Zellwiger and Harry Connick Jr.) even portray believers whose lives are given to love that comes outside of them and beside themselves. Love is unconditional, covenantal, faithful commitment to another. Who better than Christians to properly interpret this form of film from a Scriptural point of view?!
Morality plays such as Changing Lanes or A Simple Plan create a context within which to examine how we live and the consequences of our decisions. This form of film and story line shows up constantly in movies. Judd Apatow films, themselves full of profanity and sex, are, as Apatow himself has said, “the most socially conservative films made in Hollywood today.” The dangers of conformity in Mean Girls, personal responsibility in The Barbershop, or getting justice by giving of ourselves in Gran Torino are all narratives with which Christians can shed light from God’s Book.
One other form of film narrative is the historical genre. I remember being curled up in my movie seat balling my eyes out like a little boy watching Saving Private Ryan. Films such as these are important for what I call “a commitment to the American story.” [On this point I would strongly add I wish Hollywood would commit itself just as much to showing the greatness of our nation as the same joy they seem to take in tearing it down.]
The difficult issue concerning historical recreations, persons, and events: we live too close to our own time to have an adequate distance for evaluation. Fifty years from now we will have the benefit of distance without the pathos of the time. Stephen Spielberg’s Munich is the perfect equalizer of perspectives. What is the consequence of armed response? Are we willing to live with overwhelming force to meet tyranny? Do we believe that we keep the peace by preparing for the next war?
[Do be wary of films that reinvent history. I think here of The Motorcycle Diaries or Steven Soderbergh’s film Che which whitewashes the sadistic revolutionary of Fidel Castro’s Cuba Che Gueverra. It makes me sad when I see college students wearing t-shirts with Gueverra’s portrait on the front. It is obvious that they are oblivious to real history and the real person.] Historical films give us a visual sense of the past that should not be forgotten. Films like Amistad should connect to our collective consciences over the awfulness of slavery and those who stood against it. Counterfeiters won an Academy Award for its portrayal of a true story of Jewish men in Nazi concentration camps who used their skills to both save themselves and hoodwink their captors. Joyeux Noel is based on true events from WWI where soldiers from all countries climbed out of their trenches on Christmas to recapture their humanity for one day before returning to the killing fields the next day. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas shows the power of right over wrong by children during the awfulness of WWII. And The Lives of Others should be seen by all who understand the awfulness of dictatorial, totalitarian Communist rule for seventy years in Eastern Europe and those who overcame it by music and poetry. Scripture is God’s Book based on history. Who better than Christians to be concerned with the proper retelling of story lines that mirror biblical truths, reinforcing the belief that history is not simply someone’s perception of the past but honest investigation of space-time events. Surely Luke’s historical commitment to Jesus and The Church through Luke and Acts come to mind here.
At this point, let me address a broader question, “How do we view film? How do we use film?” I am just as upset by pastors who use film clips showing, for instance, a scene of personal sacrifice then saying, “Just as we have seen in this movie clip, so Jesus offered Himself for us.” You and your professors would rightly rage against just such a hermeneutical rape of a text of Scripture, ripping it out of its context. A film should be treated in the same way as we treat Scripture or books in general: as honest statements of belief by their creators. [It is also important to say there is no need to have film clips in every sermon. While we must learn how to communicate to an image audience we must not bow to the idol of the image. While there is nothing wrong with using film clips in a message, they are not necessary for a message based on The Word from people who are trained to communicate well.]
I believe films should be watched with care. We should take time to consider the message of any artistic creation. When I was teaching the course I created for the Ed Min department Faith and Learning one assignment was the exegetical analysis of paintings from the Chicago Museum of Art. Another assignment was the viewing of a full length feature at my home in Wheaton where small groups of students would watch a movie in community, using the Christian mindset taught in class through which to examine and interpret.
We must asks ourselves “why do I want to see a movie?” Escapism is key…some commentators over the last six months have made references to the recession as a reason why people go to movies—to hide. Christians should have a thoughtful approach, interpreting the visual with the verbal. Why we see a film should be based on how we view our culture through the lens of Scripture.
If we do nothing more than “rate” films or “tell people what we thought” we differ not at all from our pagan brethren. The Washington Post runs a weekly update for parents concerned about what their children watch. We need to develop a specific tenor in our responses to those who wish to ask our opinion on films. We toggle back and forth, flipping switches, pushing buttons in our minds that move us to the next task. I suspect many of you could probably text on your cells without looking. I would suggest that your well equipped thumbs could stand as the metaphor for our Christian thinking in film; without thinking we should be able to hit all the right keys in our communication of Christian truth.
How will we be different reviewers and watchers of film? Will we focus on what I call “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalyse”—nudity, sex, profanity, and violence—or will we honestly consider the directors point of view, suggesting a Christian vision of how we encounter celluloid? Will we allow our Christian culture or our American culture to control our thinking? Or will we commit to a decidedly biblical focus?
I think we should honestly acknowledge our humanness and appreciate image of God movies such as Sunshine Cleaning, to know that despair shifting to hope comes from unintended sources as in Harry Poole is Here. To create a home, a sense of place, we must attend to the restlessness seen through the couple in Away We Go (starring John Krasinski, main character of The Office). Focus on independent, niche, cult-classic, or “art house films” which are often more sensitive to people.
Understand what early Christians characterized as acedia perhaps best captured by the words ennui, restlessness, stagnation, apathy, an inability to get out of one’s own way. In this way there are times when you will have to be careful when you see a film. For instance, some films like Michael Moore’s docu-drams or anti-war films (darlings of a politically liberal establishment in Hollywood) make me angry. So there are times I put off watching a film until I am in a proper state of mind. [I will deal more with the practical implications of personal convictions and point of view this evening.]
Understand that everyone has an agenda, a point of view, and sometimes simply produces propaganda. But rejoice wherever you find truth.
Higher education should provide tools for you to live properly before God and man in this world. Learning the tools of film viewing is one of those.
Community—watch together, not alone. Watch for enjoyment, learning, appreciation of another’s art.
We must learn that to be tolerant does not mean tepid. Our discussions about all of life and specifically film should incorporate the twin commands: 2 Timothy 1:14 “guard the good deposit given to you with the help of The Holy Spirit” and Colossians 4:5, 6 “let your conversation be full of grace, seasoned with salt.”
Our responsibility is to look for, as Walker Percy called them, “signposts in a strange land.” We need to understand a thoroughly biblical anthropology is committed to both dignity and depravity. We need to hold the tension between William Golding’s The Lord of The Flies and Slumdog Millionaire. Left to ourselves we will always degenerate, Golding claimed immediately after WWII. But sometimes the good that people do gives us happy endings, and Oscars, as in the case of Vikas Swarup’s bestseller made into a movie. We must reclaim the mantle of humanness from the humanists. We must live what we say we believe about the incomprehensibility of God, fleshed out in our day-to-day abutment with mystery. We must live our belief in transcendence by acknowledging that God’s working in this world may not take the forms to which we are used to. If we believe that God made and owns His world, we shouldn’t be surprised when He “shows up” in a message on the big screen.
When I was a high school teacher I would take my notebook to the theatre taking notes with a pen which “lit up” so I could see as I wrote. Inevitably there would be students coming to the same movie. Several times I can remember loud, excited, whispered voices coming from behind me: “Look! He’s taking out the notebook!” To this day, when former students from high school text, email, call, stop-by, or connect on Facebook they will reminisce about what they learned in my classes. To a person, they will say with a wry smile, “You ruined watching movies for me forever.” My hope in all my teaching is that we properly interpret Scripture so that we can properly interpret our world because The Word must interpret the image.
BENEDICTION: Into the darkness of the movie theatre breaks in The Light of Life. He answers the questions left lingering in the minds of those left to wonder, so they are not left to wander.
This address was presented to Moody Bible Institute Chapel, 23 September, 2009. Dr. Mark Eckel is Professor of Old Testament at Crossroads Bible College.