Christian Moviegoings: Why Watch?

“In the long run,” Flannery O’Connor observed, “a people is known, not by its statements or its statistics, but by the stories it tells.” Movies have become, to a very large degree, the stories of our culture. They form a large portion of America’s shared consciousness.

“What’s your favorite movie?”
“Why?”
“Have you seen . . .?”
“Hey, remember that scene in . . .?”

These are points of connection, places where a dialogue can begin with someone that you may have very little else in common with.

Romans 12:2 commands that we “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” To a lot of people, a Christian who appreciates (or sometimes simply goes to see) a movie with “inappropriate” content or a “secular” worldview has conformed. However, I would suggest that conformity lies not in seeing what the world sees (for there is little that can ultimately be done to prevent that), but in seeing as the world sees.

When we hear this verse, we often ignore those three simple words: “that by testing.” “Testing” in this case means “to examine, prove, scrutinise; to recognise as genuine after examination, to approve, deem worthy.” It is difficult to test, or scrutinise, or examine without first experiencing. We have a tendency to skip directly to the “discernment” phase of things without first bothering with examination.

Consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:13-15: “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.”

Salt adds flavor to a bland or tasteless dish. Light illuminates darkness. But for either salt or light to have any real worth, there must be something to add flavor to; something to illuminate. I would submit that refusing to engage one’s culture on the level at which it operates is the equivalent of lighting a lamp and putting it under a basket or allowing salt to lose its taste. We have the means to shed the light of Christ on the things of man, and refusing to use those means for the simple reason that man is apt to be evil and worldly is foolish.

All too often we dismiss the value of understanding the cultures that we are (or should be) reaching out to, especially those in our own country. Cultural barriers are more recognizable when we are in a foreign country. One must learn a whole new language complete with different idioms, history, and customs in order to even communicate. But why would anyone suppose that those principles don’t apply just as much when reaching across worldviews as when reaching across the world itself?

Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic southern writer and one of the most important literary voices of the mid-twentieth century, had a great deal of value to say about Christians and art. I have taken the liberty of modifying excerpts from a few of her extremely perceptive essays to encompass film along with literature and to discuss film critics specifically in addition to writers generally. I am borrowing her sentiments, articulated far better than I could communicate them, as my own expression of belief and purpose in approaching film from a foundation of faith in Christ:

If we intend to encourage [Christian artists], we must convince those coming along that the Church does not restrict their freedom to be artists but insures it […], and to convince them of this requires, perhaps more than anything else, a body of [Christian] readers [and moviegoers] who are equipped to recognize something in literature [and film] besides passages that they consider obscene. It is […] more than usual to find the attitude among [Christians] that since we possess the Truth in the Church, we can use this Truth directly as an instrument of judgment on any discipline at any time without regard for the nature of that discipline itself. Christians are constantly being offended and scandalized by novels [and movies] that they don’t have the fundamental equipment to [experience] in the first place, and often these are works that are permeated with a Christian spirit.

We enjoy indulging ourselves in the logic that kills, in making categories smaller and smaller, in prescribing subjects and proscribing attitudes. The [Christian film critic] is forced to follow the spirit into strange places and to recognize it in many forms not totally congenial to him. His interests and sympathies may very well go, as I find my own do, directly to those aspects of [modern culture] where the religious feeling is more intense and where its outward forms are farthest from the [Christian] and most revealing of a need that only the Church can fill. The [Christian film critic] will see many distorted images of Christ, but he will certainly feel that a distorted image of Christ is better than no image at all. When there is a tendency to compartmentalize the spiritual and make it resident in a certain type of life only, the sense of the supernatural is apt gradually to be lost.

Why watch? Because movies can open doors, build bridges, establish connections, lay lines of communication, and enrich the spirits of any who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

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