Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Finding Faith in the Secular

Actor George Clooney playing a rather
 confused Roman Centurion in Hail Caesar!
The writer of Ecclesiastes observed, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” (12:12, NIV) I will not attempt to comment on the second half of this statement, but the first part is certainly true.  We live in a time when the production of all types of media grows exponentially—books, journals, films, plays, blogs, and many things unimagined in the day of the Hebrew writer.

How are we to deal with all this information?  I find myself becoming more dependent on referrals from friends and reviews by people I trust.  Some of these writers come from a faith perspective and others do not.

As I read the work of reviewers who are Christ followers, two perspectives usually emerge.  On one hand, there is the writer who hungrily seeks to find a word of witness in a film, a TV show, or a book.  On the other hand, there are those writers who dig deeper to mine theological truth that might not be evident on the surface.

These perspectives can be applied to visual art, literature, music, plays or films.  For this posting, let’s think specifically about film.  Conscientious reviewers who view movies with the eyes of faith tend to fall into the two categories I identified above.  There are reviewers who look for overt or extrinsic messages of faith. For example, in the film Rogue One, the reviewer may see the faith of the blind monk Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) in the Force and extrapolate this as an expression of the importance of faith in one’s life.  Another reviewer might focus instead on the themes of unbridled power (expressed by the builders of the Death Star) or sacrifice (exemplified by the Rogue One crew) and unpack their deeper theological meaning. 

To complicate things, motion picture producers realize that faith sells tickets, so they often pitch movies to Christian leaders in hopes of expanding their audiences.  “It’s about religion and is based loosely on the Bible, so church people ought to like it.”  This is different from the clear use of film for evangelistic outreach, an approach pioneered by Billy Graham through his World Wide Pictures launched in 1950’s.  These films were openly evangelistic and not subtle about their purpose.

In recent years, producers of mass appeal films such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ; Timur Bekmanbetov’s Ben Hur remake; or Ridley Scott’s Exodus:  Gods and Kings court ministers and religious leaders to help with promotion of these films and grow the bottom line.  Whether these films are faithful to the source material is not important, but getting seats filled is the priority.  These are business rather than artistic decisions.

The Coen brothers’ 2016 Hail, Caesar! parodies this approach with their film within a film entitled “A Tale of the Christ” (the Ben Hur tagline).  The message is clear: “Religion sells.”

When it comes to Christian film reviewers, I seek out those who go below the superficial level.  These writers understand that all meaningful human concerns are basically theological.  For example, the classic film Babette’s Feast is not just about a pietistic sect in a small Danish community; rather it is about how beauty and hospitality enrich one’s life.  These are theological issues.  For another, the recent film Arrival is not just about aliens but about acceptance, communication, and sacrifice.

Most creative works—ancient, classical, or contemporary—express someone’s attempt to deal with issues of meaning and existence.  We, as Christians, are invested in this enterprise.  If we are to engage our culture, we must learn to exegete its artifacts on a deeper level and enter into dialogue with both the creators and consumers of art in all its forms.

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