Monday, January 31, 2011

5 Christian Approaches to Film

The American church has a myriad of responses in their approach to viewing and evaluating films. As my film reviews find a wider audience, I'm sometimes disheartened to see Christian responses to film that feel...well...shallow. Instead of discerning theological and redemptive truths, they either a) make a list of all the "bad," like R-ratings or number of cuss words, or b) thoughtlessly praise a popular film without discerning the underlying unChristian messages it may send.

I'm finding that many responses are parallels of H. Richard Niebuhr's five types in his seminal book Christ and Culture. Niebuhr reveals five ways Christianity and culture tend to relate, ranging from antagonism to syncretism. The types have some similarities to my sponge/funnel/sieve analogy used in media discernment.

The Puritan (Christ against culture): "The movie has a cuss word, premarital sex, excessive violence, or a gay character. Clearly it is wrong and whoever likes it might not even be saved. We should only watch good, clean, family films like Fireproof, Facing the Giants, and The Passion of the Christ. If a film is non-Christian enough, perhaps a boycott is necessary."

The Indulger (Christ of culture): "Everyone else is watching this film, so I will watch it too. Excessive violence and nudity and cussing don't really bother me any more; I've seen enough of it. Besides, I'm being relevant to culture, and God's grace covers any mistakes I could make."

The Synthesist (Christ above culture): "Jesus is Lord of my life, and Lord of the culture around me--including this movie--so while there are elements I don't agree with, I'm going to watch it. I won't allow this film to have authority over me, but I will engage with it as I strive to follow Christ."

The Tortured Conscience (Christ and culture in paradox): "I love this movie...but it has some sinful elements..but I also love Jesus...but this movie is truly great...but it might promote temptation...but it's so creative and well-crafted...but I'm called to be holy...but there are tons of redemptive elements...but I could lead fellow believers into sin...but I have freedom in Christ...but...."

The Discerner (Christ transforming culture): "I will hold onto the beautiful and the true, because they reflect the Creator, and I will point out and disregard the sinful or useless elements in the film. I discern which films to watch beforehand, going into each film with a discerning mind and a guarded heart. In every film experience I anticipate the possibility of a divine encounter that will transform both me and the film itself."

Which of these types is closest to your own approach to films? Your students? Your church?


  1. Very well observed... though a synthesist is likely to also be a discerner, no?

  2. Derek, there's definite overlaps in the latter three types. The first two are the extremes of the spectrum; the other three fall in the middle somewhere.

  3. Joel, I'm really taken aback by some of the comments on your review for The Social Network. How some people can turn down a great opportunity to discuss important topics that affect our youth on a daily, nay, hourly, NAY, minutely basis these days is stunning. I can only pray that God opens the minds of these leaders and lead the youth to know Him better through culture and pop culture.

    Out of your examples, I find myself to be most like The Discerner. I do look up movies before I see them to check on their content. For example, despite being praised by nearly every critic, I'll probably never see Enter the Void. It's unfortunate as I've read that it is quite the visual experience, but it's not worth the content, in my opinion. Have you looked it up? Would you watch that film? It's on Netflix Instant, but I have no problem turning away from it. Perhaps another film will come along that will take technical elements of this movie and make them even better.

    I also find that the more and more I reflect on a good film, the more I see God's carvings in it. As you pointed out in your review for The King's Speech, I love the underlying message about being called to help people find their voice. It's taught me that just going to church and having a quick chat with people is not enough. It's about becoming friends and even family. It's about opening yourself up and not letting things that you have done or that has happened to you in the past hold you down. The messages and morals are endless and that's one of the reasons why I love the movie so much.

  4. Cam, thank you for your well-written and thoughtful comment, it's encouraging to have a friend who also loves film. :)

    Regarding "Enter the Void," I hadn't heard much about it before reading your comment, so I did some research. It sounds absolutely dreadful, and nearly void--pun intended--of any redemptive factors. Maybe the visuals are impressive, but the content and story are simply atrocious, nulling any aesthetic beauty the film may contain.

  5. We, as Christ-followers, have much to answer for regarding our culture. Have you read Scott Nehring's book, "You Are What You See: Watching Movies Through a Christian Lens"? He's got some great observations and suggestions on Scriptural ways to approach film.