By. Adam Parker
Our God is a storytelling God. Much of the Bible is narrative, and a lot of that narrative is something that would give our children nightmares. I was 18 years old when I first read the story of the Levite’s concubine from Judges 19. I was disturbed and disgusted by this story when I first heard it, and to this day, I cannot not tell the story to someone without feeling a bit creepy.
Stories like this demonstrate for us, not only that God tells us stories, but that when God tells stories, they are often difficult or unpleasant stories (dirt and all). Sometimes he tells stories of heroes like Samson, who singlehandedly slaughtered entire armies (while at the same time being unable to keep his libido in check). And sometimes he tells us tales of epic escape – like when he saved his children from Egypt. Jesus often told stories as well – though interestingly enough, he did this because he didn’t want everyone to understand what He was saying. This isn’t to say that the Bible is only narrative; we all know that’s not the case, but it is inescapable that God has had a lot of stories to tell (albeit true stories). Now, the modern Narrative theology movement and Emergent movement thrive on ambiguity, subjectivity, and absence of resolution in storytelling, but God does not do this. There is always a telos – a purpose – when God tells stories to His people. In fact, what the Emergents seem to have missed about the thrill of storytelling is that when God tells stories, He explains why He has told the story or done His mighty act, and He explains what the story means, its significance. He provides closure, and brings the story to an end. God interprets the story for us, so we are not left to ourselves to do so.
So when human beings exercise their desire to tell stories, this is a part of God-given creative desires; it is in our nature to tell stories, and it is in our nature to enjoy such stories. Jesus envisioned his own audiences as active participants who were seeking and searching for meaning in what he was saying. In contrast to this storytelling methodology, the majority of today’s movie-going public are passive viewers; in other words, they accept what they see, usually without much reservation or thought.
As Christians, we have a worldview, and that worldview is at the forefront of everything we encounter in life. It influences our conversations with both believers and unbelievers alike; it colors our interpretation of world events; and – because of the wide-reaching influence of our worldview – it influences how we understand and interpret the movies we watch (both those which reflect the Christian worldview as well as those which do not). To read a book or listen to a speech is not necessarily to agree with the views being espoused, and likewise, Christians should watch movies with discerning eyes and ears.
In Saint Paul’s day, the knowledge-hungry Greeks would often gather at Mars Hill, exchanging ideas and throwing out their worldview for whoever would listen with any degree of interest. In all honesty, the Multiplex serves almost the same function for the modern society at large. Where else can we see Christianity (The Passion of the Christ), Atheism (Contact), Buddhism (Seven Years in Tibet), Nietzschean Existentialism (The Matrix), common materialism (The Fast and the Furious), and hedonism (Pleasantville) presented all in one place for the approval or disapproval of the public? Instead of truth being the deciding factor of which idea prevails, of course, the dominant issue has become entertainment value. Some films do well if they are obvious and preachy in their message (Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ being the obvious example), but those types of films are the exception; what most people want is mindless entertainment with as many explosions, kisses, and jokes as possible. In other words, if the Multiplex is Mars Hill, then the empty Sophists are winning.
There could be any number of reasons for this, but the most obvious reason is that people go to movies so they can escape from everyday life and rest from the heaviness of their lives. Nobody wants to have to work when they go to a movie, but that is exactly what a God-glorifying worldview requires of someone when they go to the movies. Christians are not prohibited from enjoying entertainment, but they must be aware of where their entertainment is coming from and what message it is sending to them and their families. Unfortunately most are poorly equipped for this task.
One good example of this is the 1999 movie Pleasantville, starring Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon. The entire film is a black and white movie until the inhabitants of the town begin to experience emotions and do things which were previously forbidden. In the film, whenever someone has a sexual experience or unwelcome emotional response to things, they go from monochrome to Technicolor in their appearance. The film does a stunning job of making the old-fashioned, conservative way of living seem to be unpleasant and stodgy, while the risky, youthful, progressive sexuality of the world outside of Pleasantville is depicted as something to be desired.
I know many Christians who saw Pleasantville and detected no such message in the film; as far as they could tell, it was just a movie about people growing up and learning how to enjoy all that life has to offer. This is the profound difference between the critical, mature Christian approach to movie watching and movie watching in general, and it suggests that many Christians are not ready to carefully watch movies.
Another movie which conveys an un-Christian worldview may be surprising to some, because so many evangelicals seemed to latch onto it at the time it was released, but The Matrix trilogy was a picture perfect example of Nietzsche’s physically deterministic universe. It was masked in religious imagery and terminology from various sources (Buddhist, Christian, Gnostic, Jewish, etc.) because, according to the Wachowskis, they wanted the films to speak the language of the masses while conveying a full-blown Nietzschean worldview, complete with Neo as representative of Nietzsche’s “superman.”
To see the mechanistic determinism of The Matrix, you need not look very far at all. Consider the Merovingian’s words to Neo: “Choice is an illusion, created between those with power, and those without.” In the third Matrix film, the Merovingian says, “Have I told you before there is no escaping the nature of the universe? It is that nature that has again brought you to me. When some see ‘coincidence’, I see ‘consequence’. When others see ‘chance’, I see ‘cost’.” Or Morpheus’ words at the nightclub in the second Matrix film: “What happened, happened and could not have happened any other way.” For the Wachowskis, it is not God who is sovereign over the universe: the universe simply exists, and operates according to a series of set laws. Much like the proverbial dominoes tumbling over, preceding events will always and certainly determine later events.
The biggest problem facing the Christian church is not that these types of films are made; after all, anyone who experiences secular society is going to be surrounded by contrary worldviews all day long. The problem is that not all Christians use their minds to the glory of God, and thus give in to un-Christian ways of thinking, bit by bit. If Christians are to make any difference, they are best advised not to join its mindless ranks. This doesn’t mean abandoning the world for solitude, but it does mean observing it critically so we can wisely invest our time and attention in the right areas.
In addition to cultural damage to Christian society, the un-thinking cinema-going Christian also has another danger to contend with: the risk of falling short of the glory of God. Over twenty years ago, John Piper wrote a short essay entitled How To Drink Orange Juice To The Glory of God. Though it is undesirable to simply cut and paste “watch movies” in place of “drink orange juice,” Piper does make one valuable observation for the question before us today: how can Christians glorify God when they watch movies? His observation is a reflection on the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:31 which reads, “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Piper observes,
“It is sin to eat or drink or do anything NOT for the glory of God. In other words, sin is not just a list of harmful things (killing, stealing, etc.). Sin is leaving God out of account in the ordinary affairs of your life. Sin is anything you do that you don’t do for the glory of God.
“But what do unbelievers do for the glory of God? Nothing. Therefore everything they do is sinful. That is what I mean by saying that, apart from saving grace, all we do is morally ruined.” So again, it is important to emphasize that it is not only dangerous for Christianity as a movement that Christians do not know how to think like Christians when they go to the movies, but it is personally damaging because to watch a movie with no regard for God, quite simply put, is sinful. There are spiritual risks involved in movie-going. There are cultural effects involved in watching them without discernment. So how are Christians to think when they watch movies? I have a few basic starting points:
First of all, Christians are to remember that God is involved in every affair of life. When they watch a movie and think they are seeing something un-theological, it is important to recall that everything always has something to do with God, even if it does not reflect an accurate understanding of Him.
One example of putting this into action is my favorite film: a World War II film directed by Terrence Malick entitled The Thin Red Line. I appreciate the film because it carries throughout a very weighty understanding of human mortality and the frailty of life. Almost every time I watch the movie, I reflect on God, His grandeur, and the miniscule power I actually have over my own existence. Many of the characters reminisce, through voice-over, about metaphysics and ultimate questions as the action takes place. At one point, Private Witt says to himself, “One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain. That death’s got the final word, it’s laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird, feels the glory, feels something smiling through it.” At another point, the soldiers storm a Japanese camp and begin killing their enemies. Instead of explosions or gunshots, we hear music and Private Witt considering the origin of evil:
“This great evil. Where does it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doin’ this? Who’s killin’ us? Robbing us of life and light. Mockin’ us with the sight of what we might’ve known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?”
Witt is asking questions which assume a pantheistic view of the universe. He assumes that if the world is evil, it must have an evil source as well. His foundational assumptions are mistaken, but that is part of the beauty of movies: we meet people who don’t think like orthodox Christians, and in the process learn more about the world around us. We learn that perhaps we need to learn how to respond to pantheism, because it is apparently out there.
The Thin Red Line does not reflect what I would call a Christian worldview, but some of its characters seem to be asking a lot of questions; questions I, as a Christian have answers to. This again brings us back to the fact that everything has to do with God. If He is, indeed, the center of the universe, then we cannot help but see everything around us in reference to Him.
Second, let me suggest that Christians should avoid movies which will promote sin in their lives. What I really have in mind is films with sexual themes which can stir up the heart to pursue after things which God has forbidden. Movies are entertainment, first and foremost, and so it’s important that we prioritize. The entertainment offered by a film should never outweigh its cost to our souls.
Third, Christians should watch films attentively for themes of fall and redemption. Consider the fall and redemption of Darth Vader in the Star Wars series; we witness Anakin’s fall in Episodes II & III as he becomes Vader, and witness his redemption in Episode VI when he kills Emperor Palpatine to save his son’s life. Or consider the Joaquin Phoenix film We Own The Night, where Phoenix’s character turns from his life of drugs and crime to instead become an officer of the law. Some characters, such as Gollum from Lord of the Rings, never do find redemption, but instead serve as apt illustrations of how powerful the lure of evil can be, ultimately resulting in one’s own destruction.
In this world, we cannot escape from sin; it resides in our own hearts and in the hearts of everyone around us, and so until we are living in our glorified heavenly state, we will continue to battle it in our own hearts and in the world around us. The answer to how to live in culture is not to run from it, but to understand how to interpret it when we encounter it. We must not simply stop at observation, however; we must always be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within, and doing the observing can make the preparing a lot more feasible.
The church in Corinth was surrounded by hedonism and evil; Paul could have told the Corinthians to simply pack up and start their own city in the desert away from all the temples and prostitutes and idolatry, but he didn’t. Instead, he assumed they would stay in their world. Paul’s advice was not to flee from the world, but rather to respond rightly when evil presented itself. We should do no less.
Adam Parker currently resides in McPherson, KS with his Wife, Arryn, and his daughter, Genesis. He has a B.A. in Philosophy from Grand Canyon University and is a regular contributor to Bring The Books.