Going to the cinema and watching films is one of the nation's favourite leisure activities. How can Christians use film for spiritual growth and outreach? Should they engage with films that have strong language, violence and sex?
In less than 150 years the film industry has been birthed, grown exponentially and spread across the globe, generating billions of dollars.
Christians have had a varied relationship with the industry. Take for example James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar. Today it remains the highest grossing film of all time, having taken $2.7 billion at the box office. Millions across the world, Christian or otherwise, loved it.
But commenting on what he believed to be New Age themes, famous American mega church pastor Mark Driscoll described it as “the most satanic, demonic film I’ve ever seen”.
Tony Watkins, author of Focus, the Art and Soul of Cinema says films have been met with “suspicion” from Christians in the past.
“There was a very significant book in 1948 called Christ and Culture by Richard Niebuhr where he outlined five different positions that Christians have toward culture.”
“The first he highlighted was ‘Christ against culture’ and the feeling that the church and the world are in absolute opposition to each other. That has dominated the evangelical world for quite a long time so there has been huge suspicion to culture generally.”
“At the other end of his spectrum is Christ transforming culture which is where many people in the evangelical world would feel much more comfortable now. We have to be in all aspects of society and working to redeem it.”
It’s this new attitude toward culture that forms the basis of CultureWatch – an website Tony founded as part of the Damaris Trust 12 years ago.
“John Stott’s idea of double listening, listening to the word and to the world has rightly caught people’s imaginations over the last 20 years. People have said ‘we need to not be cut off from the world, we’re in the world and we need to be working to transform it.’”
Tony’s strategy for engaging with film is to analyse it by looking at the aesthetics, emotions, ethics and worldviews promoted as well as any spiritual messages that may be be conveyed.
“Os Guiness says ‘to be fully intellectual is to think worldviewishly’. If we want to be able to make sense of the world and all the ideas and competing value systems we have to think about worldviews.
“What are people saying about what’s real and what’s not real? How do we know stuff? What is true? Is there even such a thing as truth? What is it that human beings need more than anything else? These are fundamentally worldview questions.”
‘Every film is a sermon’
Steve Vaughan from Mosaic Church in Leeds leads a mid-week group that watches films and analyses them on a worldview level.
Steve believes the process of analyzing a film can be useful for both Christians and non Christians.
“Roughly three times a month we will watch a film together and at the end there will be half an hour to an hour’s discussion regarding the themes of the film and how those themes either contrast or fit in the biblical worldview and how they apply to our own lives.”
“Depending on how many Christians or non Christians there are we will either keep those questions quite broad and non threatening or if it’s just a Christian context it will be more discipleship focused rather than evangelism focused.”
Steve believes Christians should be aware that “every film is a sermon”.
“Every film is trying to sell you something and get you to desire something. Most films will tell you in order to be fulfilled you need to be in a sexually fulfilled relationship. Most people don’t stop and think, ‘is that true?’”
Steve says there tends to be positive and negative messages in all films. He sees his ministry as both encouraging Christians to think critically about messages the culture portrays, and helping non Christians understand the gospel through the medium of film.
“Someone once said: 'Every great story in our world contains the gospel story.'”
“You will find themes of love, justice, truth, reconciliation and forgiveness and determination, weakness and vunerability even in the cheesy tacky films, there are amazing themes to pull out.”
The Question of Content
One of the most controversial aspects of Christians engaging with film are questions of suitability. Should Christians watch 18 rated films?
“We have our checklist, sex violence, strong language and occult stuff. If those things are there we give the film a black mark and it’s a bad film for many Christians," Tony says.
“But I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that," he continues. "Because all sin is sin and we can be very quick to spot those things and be very blind to the rampant materialism that we see in film after film because we’re infected by that material."
“A film can have some quite strong content but be so profoundly truthful about the state the world is in and the brokenness of life. It can be a uncomfortable watch but it can be profoundly true.”
Tony cites last year’s Tyrannosaurus, an award winning British film given an 18 certificate as an example of “really violent…grim, gritty” film.
“It’s an extraordinary story with this hint of redemption. It captures the brokenness of the world and has this glimmer of hope and redemption, it’s a very truthful film.”
“When Paul gives us that list in Philippians 4 about things that are excellent, true and lovely…Paul is not giving us a list of criteria that something must fulfill all of these before we can read it because there are parts of the Bible – like the last few chapters of Judges – which are not lovely, but they are true" So these are the kinds of things to think about but at different times it will be different things. Tyrannosaur is strong on truth and very low on loveliness.”
Steve takes a different view and says his group wouldn’t watch anything with “extreme violence”.
“We would want to avoid anything that’s going to lead us away from God in any way.”
Over to you...
Both Tony and Steve have discovered the usefulness of engaging with film. Those looking for resources to help engage with film in the five ways Tony suggests can go to the CultureWatch website.
As for setting up your own group, Steve says “do it!”.
“It’s very easy and it’s very fun. Even when you’re tired, you still want to watch films. That’s the genius of it. What you do to relax is watch films and so it’s so easy on a Wednesday night to invite people quite easily.”
“All you need to do is learn how to ask good questions of the film. It’s a brilliant way of engaging with culture and as a preacher I have dozens of sermon illustrations come from it too.”
June 19th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Sam Hailes