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Reading Film

Updated: Aug 6, 2022

This spring, we are holding a series of film discussions in co-operation with Cliff Foreman of Covenant College, Tennessee, USA. The purpose of the film series is to “read” the media of cinema in terms of both its art and in what it might say in dialogue with the Christian worldview. The series started off with four movies in a weekend festival, March 14-16th, titled “Show Me a Story”. Other films will be shown over five Monday evenings through to the end of April.

The following excerpts are from a field study being written on film and discernment.

No other aspect of popular culture is as popular as cinema and film. Perhaps surprisingly, this is equally true for Christians as we go to the movies just about as much as everyone else.

Nor is any form of popular culture as contentious. The Christian community is divided over whether faithful believers have any business participating in the popular arts at all, let alone whether Christians should attend movies—let alone (yet again) whether to attend movies laden with “adult” content: vulgar language, sexuality, drug use, violence, nudity and the like. We find Christians adopting extreme positions: in the first instance they both attend the same movies with the same frequency as their secular neighbours and they view those films with the same unfiltered and indiscriminate ambivalence. Or they call a plague on the house of cinema as the product of a diseased and dying society, protesting particular films they find the most repulsive and boycotting all popular films regardless.

This underlines a basic dilemma—we are created beings created in the image of a creative God, we are struck to the soul with a thirst to call upon our own creative energies. On the other hand, it is no surprise in that a fallen world there is a festering abundance of creative expression that neither glorifies God nor nourishes Christian growth. Indeed, there is much that has launched an all out, purposeful assault against the things of God. We are right to be aware of this and need to take necessary precautions.

But both extremes have central flaws that compromise Biblical truth; threatening both our personal journey toward holiness and our public witness for Christ. The cultivation of a healthy spiritual life growing in strength and maturity requires many of the same principles behind cultivating a healthy body able to weather illness and injury while growing in fitness and capacity.

Sobriety here is critical: film’s influence on the minds of young people is as absolute as it is staggering. It is estimated by one Christian research centre that the by the time the average American is 18 years old he will have spent 12,000 hours watching film and television. Even if the average Central European doesn’t watch this much, one thing is certain—they watch a lot. And what they watch influences them. We have to face these facts with a life-or-death seriousness. One secular researcher phrased it this way, “if the media are such a major element in children’s lives, it seems self-evident that they must exert a powerful influence on their ways of thinking about the world—and, as such, teachers simply cannot afford to ignore them.”[i]

This is the point precisely. Popular films pose very real dangers. They are not the cataclysmic dangers of a military campaign but they do—in a very literal sense—provoke us to war. It is a cultural war. And it is a cultural war that Christians are engaged in whether or not we accept this and actually fight. The culture all around is going to see movies with no discrimination, no discernment and no guide whatsoever. Generations of young people are having their worldviews formed and strengthened in such a way that the gap between the reality of Christ and the way they experience everyday life is yawning wider and wider. Christians must find ways to bridge this gap by adding a clear and penetrating voice to the cacophony of noise around us. Ours is a fight with equal though opposite dangers: it is just as dangerous for our society for Christians to not go into the movie house as it for Christians themselves to go in with their brains turned off. I’m torn here, in one sense all the military jargon doesn’t apply, for this is an altogether different sort of war; it not against flesh and blood but against the ideas of the age. And it is a stranger war yet–-fought not so much for the sake of victory, but for the sake of love.

We have only so many options: We can resent the task before us and dig in our heels against it—either watching what we want how we want or withdrawing from our culture’s artistic expressions in fear and scorn—or we can rise to the occasion, buy our tickets and, encouraged by popcorn, our friends and our faith, we can step into the darkened room as participants, fellow-sojourners, thinkers and guides. To this I say, “Down in front! It’s about to begin.”

Bridging the gap: Acts 17:16-34

During a CityGate “Gospel in Society” conference in Slovakia, Covenant Theological Seminary professor Jerram Barrs lead a discussion on connecting with the culture around us in real, sincere and relevant ways. Using the story of Paul’s address to the Areopagus, Barrs identified three important bridges that the apostle built to span the gap between his own worldview and that of the Greek thinkers to whom he spoke. These bridges are applicable in every aspect of evangelism in which we engage. They include the need to find common ground, the need to respect people as people and the need to work hard to really understand those we are trying to reach. However, having constructed bridges to span the chasm, Paul is not now going to fall into the error of pretending the chasm isn’t there. He is careful to neither ignore nor commend the significant differences that do exist and he takes the opportunity afforded him of—compassionately—offering correction and truth. Using film as a way to connect with young people and engage with them in honest discussions of their worldview and deeply held beliefs can provide a significant opportunity to respectfully commend the truth of the universe and to help young people fill the God shaped gap in their soul.

Talking about bridges

Bridges are for more than merely transport and many of the characteristics of a bridge are so obvious that we might overlook them as we construct and utilize our own.

· A bridge is not an elevator: Part of successfully using an elevator is getting the timing right. I think of one particular elevator in Budapest that doesn’t actually stop as it sweeps past your floor. Taking the leap at the right moment is a fearful, critical thing. Bridges are open and static. They don’t typically close up on you or (a drawbridge aside) crush you if you don’t enter it at just the right moment.

· A bridge is for two-way traffic: At an apologetics conference in Budapest, Dr. Elaine Stokey pointed out that bridges aren’t just “so Christians can go over into foreign territory and tell people to repent.” If we open up access to their lives, we must also open access to our own. We must be willing to learn from them with as much eagerness as we show in wanting to teach them.

· There is no minimum speed: While it would be chaotic on a highway, our bridge is for pedestrian traffic; they can go as slowly as they need. We must not be adamant about people keeping pace with us. Like any pedestrian lane, it is the swift that must yield in deference to the slow. No one shall be left behind and no one shall be crushed in the bustle.

· It’s for endless usage: Stokey says, “Bridges give regular access to what lies beyond rather than offering people a one-way, non-returnable ticket. Many…may need to cross any bridge many times before they decide to take up residence on the other side.” There is no commitment necessary to journey over the bridge, “Some people will journey with us and enrich us greatly on the way, but not come to our destination. We pray for them, bless them, and leave them with God. Others may refuse to journey with us, but we can see that they are quietly following behind.”

Some bridges become obsolete over time and need to be put aside until later or torn down altogether. Others will be constructed in their place. Art has always provided significant opportunity for bridge building. Today, perhaps the most dominant art form with which to connect to young people is film. Regardless, Stokey points out that all times, the one durable and greatest bridge to the Gospel is “the longing of the human heart. Wherever there is yearning for hope, peace, meaning, fulfilment and love, the Holy Spirit can erect through us a bridge which takes people into the depths and compassion of God”

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