Taking God to the Movies (6): Two Questions & A Conclusion

Taking God to the Movies (6): Two Questions & A Conclusion

Bruce Riley Ashford

Before concluding this series, I want to address a few of the questions and issues that often arise in a discussion of cinema and worldview.

To Love or to Hate?

In Hollywood Worldviews, Brian Godawa makes the point that we tend to “love” or “hate” a movie with such ferocity that we are unwilling to give it an honest critique, and likely to discourage others from sharing their thoughts about the movie. A person might “love” a movie because they “love” the actor or actress involved, because they feel deeply about some of the experiences portrayed in the movie, because they like a particular genre, or because they are fascinated by the special effects But in fact, most movies are a mixture of good and bad elements, and would not require a comprehensive endorsement or rejection. When viewing and analyzing movies we should endeavor to step back from the movie and give it an honest appraisal.

To Watch or Not to Watch?

This brings us to a second question: to watch or not to watch? Brian Godawa writes, “Rare is the film that can be fully embraced in all it communicates. Some people believe that since movies are such a mixture of truth and error in their worldviews and values, Christians should avoid watching them for the sake of holy living.” Obviously, since I just finished writing a series on watching movies, I do not think that it is wrong per se to watch movies with which we disagree. But there is some merit to the objection raised above. I will begin by stating its merits, and end by stating its drawback.

The merit of this objection is that there are indeed some movies we should avoid for the sake of holiness. The first and most obvious principle is that a Christian who wants to honor Christ and his gospel will not view films that are pornographic. Further, there are times that a Christian will choose not to view a movie for other reasons, such as pervasive foul language, sickening or desensitizing violence, or any other number of reasons. I have not gone into detail on this question because the purpose of this series has not been to give guidelines for what to watch or not to watch, but rather to give guidelines for how to watch movies when we choose to do so.

The negative aspect of the objection presented above is its cultural separatism. One who refrains from watching all movies that would have any element with which one disagrees must also refrain from many other things, such as reading most books, magazines, and newspapers and watching advertisements, ESPN commentary, and listening to the radio. But I think we lose more by cutting off all contact with the surrounding society and culture than by wise and discerning engagement with it.

Concluding Thoughts:

The point of this series has been to demonstrate that Hollywood screenwriters have worldviews, compose their films from within those worldviews, and convey messages through those same films. These films both reflect and shape the socio-cultural context within which we live and minister, conveying messages about God, man, salvation, morality, and many other significant topics. Together with popular music and television the movies form an arena of discourse in our communities.

In light of this, those of us who are Christians (1) are obliged to watch movies with wisdom and discernment, being aware of the messages and moods conveyed on film; (2) recognize the power of movies as both reflections and shapers of our socio-cultural context; and (3) recognize that movies often provide an opportunity for us to discuss with others the hope that is within us.

Taking God to the Movies (5): What Ocean’s 11, The Incredibles, The Notebook, Cast Away, Hannibal, The Gladiator, The Green Mile, and Other Movies Have to Say about God, the Gospel, & Life

Taking God to the Movies (5): What Ocean’s 11, The Incredibles, The Notebook, Cast Away, Hannibal, The Gladiator, The Green Mile, and Other Movies Have to Say about God, the Gospel, & Life

Bruce Riley Ashford

In the last two installments of “Taking God to the Movies,” we covered the nine elements of (nearly) every movie and then applied those nine elements to two particular movies, Braveheart and Tommy Boy. In this post, I will choose six “themes” that are prevalent in Hollywood and list a movie or two that I think express each theme. Several of the themes are ones with which I agree, and several of the themes are ones with which I disagree. I will provide a very brief response to each movie.

1. Rules are Bad:

This category is a sort of catch-all for those movies that have themes such as “moral rules are enslaving,” “Judeo-Christian morality is bad,” and “crime is cool.”

The Ocean’s Trilogy: Three of the most worthless movies in the history of American cinema are Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13. Ironically, they are also three of the most popular. One of the themes of these movies is that when cool people commit crimes, crime is cool. The viewer finds himself pulling for the heroes (Brad Pitt, George Clooney, etc.) because they have great clothes, hair, makeup, and one-liners, even though the heroes are serial felons. Film critic Brian Godawa puts it well, “I normally try to say what I like about a film, even if I don’t agree with it, but this one is so morally bankrupt, the immorality overshadows the good. It would be like trying to say what is good about a porn film. There is a point at which the bad overcomes the good and devalues anything that might have been good.” A brief response: Brad Pitt may be cool, but felony robbery is not.

Pleasantville: This film is an onslaught against Judeo-Christian morality, and accomplished its purpose by arguing that people really “come alive” when they make choices against societal norms such as marriage. At the beginning, the film is set in black and white, but at the moment that the actress decides to commit adultery (by picking an apple off the tree), the screen turns to color. The implication is that traditional moral norms are oppressive. A brief response: God’s moral law is given to set us free, not to enslave us.

2. Family is Good:

The Incredibles: One of the best films in recent memory. Its incredible J. At the beginning of this animated children’s film, the family of five superheroes is weakened by internal irritations and arguments. But by the end of the movie, the family has realized that its real enemies are external. Their deep bond is revealed as each person uses his or her unique power (which reflects their individual personality traits) to strengthen the family. Along the way, The Incredibles criticizes the culture of entitlement, lawsuits, and blameshifting that has grown in the United States. A brief response: I agree with the several intertwined themes.

Other flicks with pro-family elements are Family Man, The Patriot, and The Gladiator.

3. Love is a serious commitment:

The Notebook: OK, I know I’m going to take a beating from the male species for this one. I’m going to say that one of the best Hollywood movies of the past several decades is The Notebook. It is one of the few movies that presents a realistic and robust view of love and marriage. It refuses to paint a simplistic or superficial picture of love and marriage. The movie begins with a scene in which an old man reads a love story every day to an elderly woman (Allie). The viewer soon finds out that the elderly woman, Allie, has dementia and cannot remember her past. The old man, Noah, is her husband, who comes to her room daily to read her their loves story until, at the end of the story each day, she realizes that the story is about her love story, and the man reading the story is her husband. The rest of the movie tells the tale of how they came to love one another and marry. The Notebook’s view of love is realistic and robust. It portrays marriage as difficult but worthwhile and that it is forever, and not just for a season. A brief response: The movies is very strongly pro-marriage and pro-family, but does not make clear that human love is not ultimate.

4. God does not exist:

Cast Away: This movie turns Robinson Crusoe on its head. The lead character, played by Tom Hanks, is alone on an island, but unlike Robinson Crusoe the point of the story is that we are alone in the universe. There is no God. Hanks buries the deceased pilot, and after the funeral says, simply, “so that’s it,” implying that there is no after life. Hanks relives the evolutionary stages of mankind by finding shelter, building fire, etc., implying that there is no Creator. There is one spiritual symbol in the movie, a volleyball which Hanks names “Wilson,” but Wilson is a human construction who serves merely as an emotional crutch, implying that there is no God other than human projections. A brief response: The message of Cast Away is antithetical to the gospel.

Other movies promoting a naturalist view of the universe include Bicentennial Man, The Hannibal trilogy, and perhaps Forrest Gump.

5. The Christian gospel is false and harmful:

The Da Vinci Code: Tom Hanks has chosen to star in quite a few films that are blatantly antithetical to the gospel, and this is yet another. In the movie, Langdon (Hanks) asserts that wherever the one true God has been preached, there has been killing in his name. The implication is the monotheism is a murderous worldview. The author, Dan Brown, pens this book as a piece of fiction, but also claims that it is based on facts. This is his way of saying anything negative he wants to about Christianity, implying that those things are true, and when the smart viewer realizes his assertions are not based on historical fact, he throws up his hands and claims, “But its just a work of fiction.” A brief response: A hypocritical and deceptive move.

Hannibal: This decadent and desensitizing movie tells the fictive history of Hannibal the Cannibal (Anthony Hopkins). As Brian Godawa points out, this movie is an intentional mockery of the Christian gospel. The hero of the movie is an agent of darkness and death (Hannibal the Cannibal) instead of Light and Life (Christ). The man who betrays Hannibal in the movie (Pazzi, a police officer) does so for $3 million, which is a play off of Judas’ pieces of silver. Pazzi is killed, like Judas Iscariot, by being hung upside down and his guts spilling to the ground. Hannibal, like Jesus, has a last supper, but Hannibal’s supper is one in which he kills and eats another man’s body. Unlike Jesus, who offered his own body that others might live, Hannibal sacrifices others so that he may devour them. The movie ends with an ascension with Hannibal seated in a jet as it ascends into the sky. Throughout the movie, the writer and director portray Hannibal as a likeable and winsome hero. He is smart, funny, cultured and likeable. A brief response: The theme of this movie is despicable.

6. The Christian gospel is true and good:

There are more than a few movies that, in one way or another, are positive toward the gospel. Les Miserables is the story of a convicted prisoner whose life is transformed by the grace and mercy shown him by another man. The theme of grace and mercy runs throughout the story, making this a fine movie. The Green Mile is the story of a wrongly accused minority, John Coffey, who is able to heal infirmities by touch, by taking the disease into himself, suffering pain because of the disease, and later releasing the disease. In the end, not only does Coffee die in the place of the real killer, but the screenwriter informs us that the electric chair was never used again. This story intentionally parallels the gospel, as Jesus was a wrongly accused minority who heals us by taking our sin on his shoulders, dying in our place, and in dying defeating death. Braveheart is a movie in which the hero’s death became the loss that won Scotland’s freedom, just as Jesus’ death is the loss that wins our freedom.

A brief response: These movies parallel the gospel in significant ways, but of course the movies themselves are not the gospel.

Taking God to the Movies (4): Deep Thoughts by Braveheart & Tommy Boy

Taking God to the Movies (4): Deep Thoughts By Braveheart & Tommy Boy

Bruce Riley Ashford

Now that we have taken a look at the nine elements in (nearly) every movie, let’s try our hand at picking out those nine elements in a couple of popular movies. I’ve selected Braveheart and Tommy Boy, because in my experience teaching seminars on cinema, those are two movies that nearly everybody has seen, and because they are two very different movies. While many of us expect movies like Braveheart to have a serious theme, perhaps we do not expect movies like Tommy Boy to convey any sort of message or philosophy of life. But we would wrong to think that even goofball comedies have no message. All movies are conveying messages! For those of you who have seen these two movies, hopefully it will be a helpful example of how to pick out the nine elements. Because of time and space limitations, I have not answered each of the questions, for each of the nine elements. I have settled for a very brief analysis of each film.

In Braveheart, the hero is William Wallace and his goal is to liberate Scotland. His adversary is England in general and Longshanks in particular. Wallace’s character flaw is perhaps more difficult to discern than the other eight elements, but my best shot is that his flaw was in being gullible when he wrongly trusted the noble Robert de Bruce. The apparent defeat occurred during the Battle of Falkirk, when the nobles did not ride in to help Wallace and his army. The final confrontation occurred when Wallace was tortured on the rack. His self-revelation was that his death was for a worthy cause, and the resolution is that Scotland was indeed liberated. The theme is something like, “Sometimes victory and liberation come only through great sacrifice.” Screenwriter Randall Wallace said that the story was a reflection of the gospel. And to an extent, it is.

A critique of this movie would include the following recognitions: (1) the basic storyline does follow the storyline of the gospel, and can open up a conversation with others that easily leads to the gospel; (2) the hero, William Wallace, is a good hero who is nonetheless flawed as is every fallen human. He is a good example in some respects, such as his courage and sacrificial dedication to a good cause, and yet is a bad example in other respects; and (3) the movie is rated “R” for brutal medieval warfare, and for that reason would not make for good younger viewers. I have been told that the cinema edition of Braveheart also has a brief sex scene.

In Tommy Boy, Tommy Boy Callahan is the hero and his goal is to rescue his father’s auto parts business. His adversaries are Dan Ackroyd (Zalinski’s auto parts), Bo Derek (step-mom), and Rob Lowe (his step-mom’s “son”). On the one hand, the viewer immediately likes the hero Tommy Boy because he is genuinely friendly, funny, and possesses character flaws that are endearing. He is a goofy, irresponsible college grad who has no tact or business sense about him whatsoever. On the other hand, the viewer has many clues that he is not supposed to like the adversaries. Rob Lowe is introduced clothed in black, wearing a foreboding expression on his face, throwing his trash into an occupied baby carriage. (A not-so-subtle hint that the viewer should be suspicious of Lowe. One should not expect such subtlety and nuance in movies that star Chris Farley.)

Tommy Boy experiences an apparent defeat when the adversaries sabotage the computers at the Callahan business, so that Callahan’s products are shipped to the wrong cities. The final confrontation occurs when Tommy Boy walks into Callahan board meeting with road flares strapped to his gargantuan torso, and delivers a speech to the board and the media. Tommy Boy’s self-revelation is that he can still “be himself” and rescue the Callahan business, as long as he corrects some of his character flaws. In the movie’s resolution, the Callahan business succeeds. The theme of the movie, I think, is that one can be an ordinary person and succeed even in the face of great difficulty and evil, if one believes in oneself and corrects some character flaws.

A critique of this movie would acknowledge that (1) the hero of the movie is a good-hearted and loving fellow who rightly corrects some of his character flaws and proves that the good guys can win without becoming bad guys; the basic message of the movie is fairly good; and (2) there are nonetheless some elements of the movie that are undesirable.