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Finding Meaning At The Movies

If I had to describe the relationship between the Christian church and the movie industry in one sentence, I would use the title of the 1978 country music hit by Loretta Lynn: We’ve come a long way baby! Those who grew up in the evangelical church context of my parents generation (pre-1960) not only didn’t smoke or chew or go with girls who do, they didn’t go to movies (or, I suppose, go with girls and boys who do!). To do so would be to support “Hollywood”--America’s Babylon, the symbol of worldliness and all that is anti-Christian. As my mom once related to me, one of the most horrifying thoughts for her generation of Christians was to imagine the Lord returning and finding you sitting in a movie theater watching a film. It just wasn’t worth the risk of getting left behind!

Fast-forward to my generation and that of my children: Christians who have come of age after 1980. Our relationship to the film industry would appear to be almost completely opposite. At some point in the last 40 years or so, the tide turned from movies being a taboo in the Christian community to movies being a given, and often preferred form of entertainment. The point of this article is not to give a detailed analysis of why this shift occurred. However, one thing we can observe is that the sheer weight of American culture’s love affair with the movies has affected the church’s attitude about film and “Hollywood”. This impact has been so deep that many Christians choose the film industry as a viable vocation, and we have seen the rise of several Christian film companies that produce films for a broad (i.e. not just Christian) audience (e.g. Facing the Giants, Bella, etc.).

The importance of film in our culture has magnified as the number of films released each year has doubled since 1960 (roughly, an average of 4 new movies every week). Add to that the exponential growth of the number of films available to us on DVD or through services like Netflix. If you wanted to, you could literally watch any film that was ever made this weekend, either by actually going to a movie theater, popping a disc into your home theater system, or downloading it digitally on your tablet while you eat breakfast and check the scores on ESPN.

Given the reality that film has become the single largest “cultural expression” in our world and that nearly everyone in our culture (including most Christians) watch dozens of films each year, understanding the art of film from a biblical perspective is crucial to our mission as Jesus’ disciples to be in the world for the sake of the world while not becoming “of” the world. Grant Horner, author of Meaning at the Movies: Becoming a Discerning Viewer, puts it this way:

...why should Christians study film?

Simply put, film is the ultimate form of cultural expression in the modern world. Film is where culture is at. Film is the most powerful image of itself that humanity has ever produced. No one would deny that books, art, music, politics, social consciousness, and so forth are significant, but film is the one “cultural location” where all of these other categories may meet and have a discussion. In film, all the varied and disparate elements of the human experience come together and talk with each other (p. 26).

Toward that end, Jim Gordon and I will be teaching a Sunday morning class for adults and high school students, largely based on Horner’s book. Finding Meaning at the Movies will be the third and final topic in the Christ in Our Changing Culture series. Some of the questions we plan to address in this class are: Why should Christians study this topic? What do movies say about humanity? What are the underlying worldviews in any given film (a.k.a. how to interrogate a movie)? What is the role of discernment? How can thoughtful movie watching help us engage our culture for the sake of the gospel?

I invite you to join Jim at 9:00 a.m. the next five Sundays or myself at 10:45 a.m. as we explore the important topic of how we as followers of Jesus Christ should relate to the medium of film in our culture.

Until then, in the words of the late Pulitzer Prize-Winning Film Critic, Roger Ebert,

I’ll see you at the movies!

Pastor Dave DeHaan