Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Jesus Goes to the Movies - "Christian" Doesn't Equal Good

My upcoming book, Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide, releases on August 11. You can purchase it through Amazon or The Youth Cartel. I'll be posting excerpts in the days leading up to the book. Be sure to buy your copy today!

Just Because It’s “Christian” Doesn’t Mean It’s Good

You might be thinking, Are there any good movies that have a Christian worldview? Let’s stop there for a second. When we frame the question this way, we may equate “Christian worldview” with “good movie.” If this is true, then the negative must be true too: Any “other” worldview equals “bad movie.” When we watch a movie with overtly Christian morals, values, and understanding of reality, then we’re watching something “good.” If the movie doesn’t line up with our Christian worldview, then it must be mistaken (at best) and deceitful (at worst), which makes it a “bad” movie, right?

I can understand and appreciate this reasoning, especially when it comes to our young people. Why would we want to consume or promote anything other than a Christian worldview? Yet I would challenge this particular approach to movies—and to all culture—as lacking receptivity to the truth and beauty sometimes hidden in movies. Just because a movie’s story is told from the perspective of a Christian worldview doesn’t mean it’s a well-crafted, interesting, or thoughtful movie. Similarly, just because a film or filmmaker doesn’t wholly embody a Christian worldview doesn’t mean we can’t find truth and meaning within its imagery and narrative. Movies like Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Matrix, The Truman Show, The Dark Knight, and Inception are all examples of great movies that have immense value for the discerning Christian viewer, yet don’t fully embrace a Christian worldview. Some of these very movies are in the spiritual discussion guide included in Part Two of this book. We simply need to have a clear lens and a healthy discernment filter in order to sift and grasp hold of the truth these films have to offer, even when their overarching worldviews don’t align with the worldview presented in Bible.

If a movie’s worldview doesn’t align with your own, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie or the worldview is inherently wrong. You might be wrong! Instead of judging films based only on their worldview, we need to have the willingness to openly receive the film and its worldview before us, just as we would receive the person who carries that worldview. It’s a posture of openness, a willingness to be vulnerable and listen to the person’s beliefs and stories, even if you ultimately disagree. There may be danger in completely ignoring or rejecting films that don’t align with our worldview, just as there is danger in blindly accepting all movies and worldviews without critical thought or discernment.

Let me give you an example by comparing two films with strikingly different approaches to a similar plot: God’s Not Dead (2014, Harold Cronk) versus The Sunset Limited (2011, Tommy Lee Jones). Both films center on conversations between two men. One is an atheist professor with a bitter disposition who dismisses religion and spirituality. The other is an uneducated Christian who does his best to convince the professor of his spiritual need and worth before God. The filmmakers’ approach in God’s Not Dead is heavy-handed and makes their agenda very clear: The atheist worldview is wrong, while the Christian worldview is right. Yet it does so through the humiliation of the professor, who ultimately dies having been trumped by his own student. The Christians win, right? This is the approach of judging a film—and a person—based entirely on their perceived worldview, an approach that typically results in shallow thinking and broken relationship. The Christians proved their argument right, which justifies the filmmakers’ decision to kill off the atheist.

In contrast, The Sunset Limited offers a much deeper intellectual argument between the two men. The atheist attempts to commit suicide on a train platform, and the Christian man saves him, taking him home and trying to convince him to continue living. Both the atheist and Christian are challenged and forced to wrestle with their convictions, but ultimately part ways with a mutual respect, and with both men still alive. We are unsure of the destiny of both men, but both men (and the audience) have certainly been transformed by the encounter. The Christian doesn’t “win” the argument, but neither does the atheist leave without having heard the good news of who God is. Rather than creating an unnecessary “us vs. them” mentality, The Sunset Limited chooses to emphasize each man’s connection with the other, a sense that we are in this crisis together.

When it comes to understanding, evaluating, and appreciating the worldviews of both films and people, I would encourage you to take the approach of The Sunset Limited over God’s Not Dead. It’s a posture of openness, humility, and dialogue rather than a combative stance, which only leads to destruction and dogmatism.

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