Nature and culture both abhor a vacuum.
The Village M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 film asks the question, “Can we escape the world by creating a world of our own?” We enter The Village to find ourselves watching what seems to be some early American settlement. We are drawn to the gentle ambiance of an idyllic country setting. We are introduced to a community whose life seems simple. We then confront a foreboding. A group of adults, horrified in multiple ways by earthly experience, have established this outpost, a terrestrial utopia. The question that haunts us all is the point of The Village, “If I retreat away from the world, who in the world will help when I need to return?”
We may want to retreat from the world but none of us can leave it. In one way or another our world impacts how we think, how we live. Every prophet, every apostle gives biblical warning: we are all susceptible to the world’s thinking. But what is “worldly thinking”? Scripture teaches “worldliness” is unthinkingly adopting the perspectives, ethics, or attitudes of cultural systems without bringing them under the judgment of God’s Word.[i] Preparation for battle with views antithetic to God’s Word should be expected since the Christian life is “warfare” against an enemy.[ii] Preparation to think Christianly in life includes training to know whether to enter or avoid the movie theatre.
Training includes knowing the cultural systems. The suffix “ism” on a word indicates cultural belief; a systemic, systematic view of life. “Individualism,” for instance, cries “Me! Me!” focusing full attention on self. Relativism (“Let me!”), hedonism (“Please me!”), and materialism (“Give me!”) also exemplify perennial cultural attitudes.[iii] Movies can embody those viewpoints. Individualism is nowhere better portrayed in films such as About a Boy or Into the Wild. Hedonism’s focus on pleasure is fully portrayed in all its debauchery in Hangover or American Pie. [iv] The impossibility of utopia is explored in The Beach. Materialism is skewered in Wall Street. Relativism is defended in The Invention of Lying. Naturalism, the world is all that we have, is trumpeted in The Day After Tomorrow. Aware of different views helps the Christian to properly view true Truth from cultural error.
“Culture” (L. colere) comes from a word which means a field or garden needing cultivation from a farmer (L. colonus) on an estate (L. colonia) in a colony creating a culture or civilization which gives honor or veneration to its beliefs or institutions (L. cultus) creating a way of life. Every individual and institution has a point of view. Questions can help the individual movie viewer to be well armed, thoughtfully engaging cultural institutions.
- What cultural perspectives, ethics, or attitudes motivate the story or characters?
- Why does the story maintain these cultural perspectives or ethics?
- How can Christians think counter-culturally confronted by these beliefs?
- Can we adopt the movies’ beliefs? Why or why not?
- Have we been shaped by the cultural attitudes in the film? How do we respond?
- How could God’s Word judge the cultural perspectives seen on the screen?
- How do we avoid becoming a recluse who refuses and recuses himself from involvement on the earth God gave and the culture in which we were placed for this time and space?
Take, for example, three beliefs impacted by culture: success, power, and compassion. Is success material and external or is it immaterial and internal?[v] A movie that might suggest success is not always what we see is The Family Man, starring Nicholas Cage and Tia Leoni. Given a glimpse of how his life might have been different, a rich, powerful man must decide if he should give up fame and fortune for the love of family and friends. Is power usurping control or is it use of authority for others’ good? A movie which questions the domination of others is Sweet Smell of Success, starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. A tabloid journalist commandeers celebrities’ lives by what he writes about them in his paper. One man finally stands up to the tyranny for the sake of those he loves. Is compassion meeting the needs of people or working with people who have needs? A movie whose storyline incorporates a young man into a loving family is The Blind Side, starring Sandra Bullock. Compassion can change one life, and by it, the lives of many others not by meeting needs but by meeting people.
The Treasure of Sierra Madre should warn us all to avoid adopting cultural attitudes. “I know what gold can do to men’s souls” points to our penchant for greed. The movie warns us about our character, the internal barometer which regulates our choice of good or evil. Humphrey Bogart plays Fred C. Dobbs whose avarice creates his malevolent meltdown. One famous line suggests a warning about our character, adopting ethics which will tear lives and dreams in two.
“Conscience. What a thing! If you believe you got a conscience, it’ll pester you to death. But if you don’t believe you got one, what could it do to ya?”
We watch the answer to Dobbs’ question in a movie which makes us think, careful not to adopt the attitudes of our culture. “Can we escape culture by making a world of our own?” Shyamalan’s question in The Village is answered every time we watch a movie. We cannot escape the world because the “world” is us.
Mark believes that everyone has a point of view and our POV comes through in everything we do. Dr. Mark Eckel has been teaching teenagers how to establish their own convictions since the 1980’s. Now adults are learning the same in his courses and writings for Capital Seminary & Graduate School.
[i] “World” in Greek can mean a human society, corrupted by sin, identified by the systems, principles, or beliefs which are anti-God [John 12:31; 15:19; 16:33; 17:14; 1 Cor 2:12; 3:19; 11:32; Eph 2:2; 6:12; Col 1:13-14; 2:20; James 1:27; 4:4; 1 John 2:15-17; 3:1, 13; 5:4-5, 19.]
[ii] Ephesians 6; 2 Corinthians 11.
[iii] By “perennial” I mean these ideas are ubiquitous, seminal, universal. The ideas are not limited to our time but are identical throughout all time.
[iv] Movies such as these I have not personally seen and base my comments on reviews of others.
[v] For a full explanation of the concept see http://warpandwoof.org/rewards/