What was the first movie that captured your heart?

For me, it’s the original Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope. The droids, the aliens, the Millennium Falcon, the light sabers…Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Darth Vader…these were my childhood heroes and villains, blurrily projected into my living room via VHS tapes. I don’t recall my age when I first saw the film, but I do remember asking a babysitter to bring and watch Star Wars with me anytime my parents went off on some errand. When R2D2 and C-3PO wander the desert of Tattooine; when Han shoots Greedo in Mos Eisley (and he shot first!); when Obi-Wan confronts Vader and sacrifices himself for Luke to escape; when Luke, guided by the Force, flies his X-Wing through the grey mountainous landscape of the imposing Death Star and lands a lethal blow with a timely shot of proton torpedoes…these are scenes etched into my memory, moments as significant from my childhood as when I learned how to ride a bike or tie my shoes.

Star Wars launched me into a lifelong love for the medium of film and its unique power to captivate our minds and hearts. Its narrative illustrates the power of movies to…well…move us. Even more than other forms of media, the presence of film as entertainment and art form has become a cultural normative. We live in a movie world. From YouTube and Netflix, Blu-ray and the box office, filmmakers are the theologians and bards of this generation. Billions of dollars are spent on filmmaking and movie-watching each year. In 2013, the top 10 grossing movies worldwide earned $8.7 billion.1 Keep in mind that’s only 10 movies for one year. In difficult economic times, this is a lucrative business that appears to be here to stay.

Movies are the only universally shared passion in Western culture, especially with young people. Fifty years ago, everyone listened to the same few radio stations or watched the same TV channels. Large-scale events affected everyone, young and old, regardless of demographic or location. There was a sense of a common experience; we all watched The Beatles perform on the “Ed Sullivan Show”; we all saw the Neil Armstrong moon landing; we all were enraptured by the world of Star Wars. In an Internet-driven culture where interests and factions are more nuanced and splintered than any previous generation, this universally shared experience has been lost in our culture. Everyone isn’t watching the same news channel or TV shows. Everyone isn’t listening to the same music or reading the same books. Still, though they haven’t seen the film, everyone is familiar with filmic characters and stories. Make a reference to a recent sports game, musical performance or TV special to a young person, and there’s a strong chance he or she won’t be familiar with your experience. Make a reference to an upcoming movie, and it’s very likely the same person have knowledge of its details, if not an excitement for its release.

Because movies are so powerful and ubiquitous, how can we develop and guide young people into wise and discerning movie-viewers, an audience who looks at movies through a Jesus-colored lens? What is the theological foundation for how we approach movies? What can Scripture teach us about our mindset and practices regarding art and entertainment? Let me suggest three basic principles for framing this Jesus-colored theological lens:

1. God created culture and invites us to create culture.
From the opening words of the Bible, God is an artist. He is Creator, the God who makes beautiful and good things from nothing. Through the imago dei instilled in humanity and the first command to multiply, subdue and have dominion over creation, God set the foundation for human development and flourishing. He set people in a good garden, then invited them to expand upon His creation. We are “culture makers,” as Andy Crouch puts it.2 In Richard Mouw’s exploration of the heavenly realm in When the Kings Come Marching In, he notes that our destiny is an earthly, a heavenly cultural center redeemed from brokenness and filled with the beauty of God’s presence and goodness. This vision of a heavenly city is the end of God’s plan for redeeming creation: “God intended from the beginning that human beings would ‘fill the earth’ with the processes, patterns and products of cultural formation.”3 As films are a form of art and an artifact of culture, the pursuit of filmmaking cannot be deemed as inherently wrong or distorted. Of course, many Christians adopt a posture of dubious condemnation regarding the world due to passages of Scripture such as 1 John 2:15: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.” Yet God is not done with this world; His redemptive plan through Christ includes the cosmos, creation and culture. Thus, we cannot abandon cultural artifacts such as film to avoidance; we must view them through a lens of redemption.

2. All truth is God’s truth. All grace is God’s grace.
If God is the Divine Artist and all of creation finds its origins in Him, it stands to reason that anything really real or truly true comes from Him. Scripture affirms this and adds a particular detail—all truth is found in the Person of Jesus, full of grace and truth (John 1:14; cf. John 14:6). Regarding grace, we affirm that every good and perfect gift comes from the Father above (James 1:17) and that God’s gracious Presence is abundant and lavish in our world. Abraham Kuyper’s famous quote is worth repeating here: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

Why does grace and truth matter to film-watching? Instead of only Christians having a hold on all truth, we expand our horizons to realize that any truth we encounter in the world comes from God. If something is true, real and honest, it ultimately finds its roots and origins in the source of truth, Jesus. If something is beautiful, creative and affecting, it ultimately finds its roots and origins in the source of all good things, the Father. Beautiful cinematography, a swell in one’s heart at a wonderful scene, the cathartic response we feel at climatic moments in a character’s story arc—these are moments of grace and truth that stem from the good Creator. When we see grace and truth evident in a film—and we can only accurately identify these as such through a robust knowledge of Christ and God’s Word—we affirm them and humbly claim them in the name of Jesus. So when a student sees a secular film affirming marital fidelity, the dangers of materialism, the downward spiral of violence and greed, or the beauty of sacrificial love, we can affirm those things. Yet we often can miss God’s grace and truth through our fallen understanding.

3. Spiritual wisdom is greater than worldly wisdom.
First Thessalonians 5 invites us to “test everything; hold onto the good, avoid every kind of evil.” Testing everything doesn’t mean trying everything, but means to use our critical thinking skills and godly wisdom to sift between what is beneficial and detrimental. Paul and James in the New Testament point us to wisdom that comes from the Holy Spirit, who gives us guidance and counsel as we navigate our world. There is an unhealthy and worldly wisdom present in culture—particularly in movies—and the Spirit calls us to use discernment and wisdom to be renewed in our minds and hearts. When engaging with films, we need to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves, using our transformed minds to understand the will of the Lord and have good critical thinking skills based on God’s wisdom and knowledge and not just our own opinions or impulses. This means that films with lower MPAA ratings aren’t inherently better or safer than R-rated films. It means discerning viewers can affirm truth and reject falsehood for all films, including Christian films with an overt faith-based message.

With these principles in mind, how can we nurture good film-watching taste in young people? Let me offer a few practical suggestions and ideas:

Receiving over Using:
In his wise little book on literary criticism An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis offers insight on engaging literary and cinematic art:

We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)4

Lewis did not say we must blindly and passively receive all films or all messages a film offers. Rather, he encourages using our imaginations and critical thinking skills to read a piece of art, to see it for what it is instead of passively allowing it to soak into our souls or mindlessly disengage from it due to apathy or skepticism. A posture of receiving means having open eyes, open hands, open minds and open hearts. Using a film is merely seeing it for mindless entertainment or just because it’s cool (or the opposite—avoiding a film because it’s judge  to be boring or dumb and then dismissing a potential masterpiece.)

Ask the right questions. Many of the conversations I have with students about movies begin with a similar pattern:
• “Did you see __________(recent movie)?”
• “Yeah, I did.”
• “What did you think?”

Even if I haven’t seen the film, they’re typically curious if I would or what I think about it. This is the part of the conversation where I could give my (expert) opinion, telling them exactly why this movie was great or terrible or why they should/shouldn’t see it. Yet this doesn’t foster dialogue; it is simply me downloading my opinion upon them. Instead, I’ve learned to ask questions about their opinions of the film, particularly the what and why questions about the film itself: What was your favorite scene? Favorite character? Why did you like or dislike that scene/character/moment/music/joke/dialogue, etc? What were the primary emotions you experienced while watching the film? What thoughts or memories did the film trigger for you? These sorts of questions move beyond the rote and shallow opinion sharing that comes from, “Did you like the movie?”

I’ve also found that many students (and adults) have strong emotions and opinions about films, as well as an ontological connection. If I hate their new favorite movie and critically tear it apart, they’ll often feel as if I dislike them, not just the film. Similarly, if I love and affirm a movie they love, they feel genuine care and empathy. In my experience, this identity connection with movie opinions goes far deeper than personal sentiments about music, books or other media—students feel respected and honored when I choose to respect and honor the films they love. Similarly, when I share my personal affection for Star Wars or other favorite films, students begin to see and understand more than just my opinions about movies. They are invited to see a bit of my heart. Ultimately, if I can ask questions that bridge into themes of identity and creativity, it’s far better than simply sharing my personal opinions on a film.

Know the boundary for you and your students. One of the most difficult questions I’ve ever been asked by a student is theological and personal: “Why did you watch __________(movie with explicit language, violence or sexual content)?” How would you answer this question? Simply saying, “I’m an adult, so I can handle it,” isn’t a satisfying response. Perhaps worse is the command, “Just never watch those kinds of movies.” How do we know where the line is and whether we’ve crossed it? In Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty, author Brett McCracken offers five questions regarding the line in movie-watching5:
1. What is your weakness? Where might this film cause me personally to be tempted or stumble into sin? How might watching this questionable film affect me personally?
2. What are the weaknesses in your community? Even if I can handle the content of this particular film, could my students? Their parents? Others in my church community? My spouse? My children? I ask myself, “Am I willing to have an hour-long conversation with someone defending the merits of this particular film?” If not, perhaps I shouldn’t watch it.

3. Is it beneficial? In 1 Corinthians 6:12, Paul wrote, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial.” We have freedom and grace in Christ, but will the artistic and spiritual benefits outweigh the questionable content? What do I (or others) gain from watching this?

4. Has the filmmaker earned the right? Has the filmmaker created a quality film of beauty, craftsmanship and artistic merit worthy of one’s time, energy and thoughts? Or is this a film meant to exploit, entertain and earn dollars from bored viewers needing a filmic stimulant? Does this film’s violence, language or sex serve a necessary and authentic purpose for the story?

5. Have you prayed about it? Do you enter movies with a prayerful attitude? What might the Spirit be leading you to do in regard to this movie? Are you listening to His voice as you enter the cinema or browse through Netflix?

Through asking tough questions of ourselves and being honest about our willingness to choose whether to see a film, we begin to transcend the unhealthy legalism of avoiding all questionable content or the unhealthy liberality of watching whatever we want.

When we engage with the powerful medium of film with thoughtfulness, humility and a posture of receiving, we can begin to model to students not only a theological understanding of film, but also a healthy posture for our relationship with the Divine Artist. We look for the grace and truth of Christ in all corners of culture, asking deeper questions, being honest about our own boundaries and brokenness. In the darkness of the cinema and the brilliance of the silver screen, His presence is there. We only need to engage with Him mindfully and invite Him to speak as we go with Him to the movies.

1 http://www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/chart/?view2=worldwideyr=2013
2 Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2008)
3 Richard Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B Eerdmans, 2002)
4 C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge University Press, UK, 1967), 19
5 Brett McCracken, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2013)

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About The Author

Joel Mayward is a pastor, writer, youth worker, and aspiring film critic. The author of three books, he has written for numerous ministry publications, including Leadership Journal, YouthWorker Journal, The Youth Cartel, Immerse Journal, and LeaderTreks. Joel has been serving in youth ministry since 2003 and lives with his wife and three children in the beautiful green-and-grey of the Pacific Northwest. You can read his musings on film, theology, culture, and leadership at his blog, www.joelmayward.com. Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelmayward.

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