Update 11th October, 2022: Dillon Vibbart has created a video version of this essay, available on YouTube.
Why would Christians watch movies at all? They are full of violence and bad language and plenty of other things we try to avoid. They are made by people who have completely different world views than our own, and disagree with most of the beliefs we hold most dear. Why would we fill our heads with all this simply for the sake of entertainment?
If you’re not someone who calls themselves a Christian, perhaps this question is exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from those that do. Christians have a (not entirely undeserved) reputation for being kill-joys. After all, watching a movie doesn’t hurt anyone and if someone happens to enjoy going to the cinema with a few friends, why should anyone judge them? Why ask such a question at all? Why not just let people be?
There are certainly Christians who treat movies (and other cultural products like music and visual arts) with extreme suspicion; and not without reason. There are a lot of movies that Christians should probably avoid. However, the fact that movies are filled with sinful people doing sinful things is not a good reason to dismiss all movies entirely. The bible is also full of sinful people doing sinful things, yet we still consider it the word of God. If we wanted to avoid witnessing sin we would need to go around with our eyes shut and ears plugged (even then, I don’t think we’d be entirely safe). At the same time, movies are not the bible—they do not generally promote Christian values or ethics, and they are certainly not written to edify Christians. So mindlessly absorbing whatever we see on a screen in front of us is not a ‘safe’ option. So then, why and how should Christians watch movies?
I would argue that there are two reasons for Christians to watch movies:
- Movies are rich cultural texts that we should be humble enough to learn from; and
- When watched intentionally, watching movies can become worship.
Movies as cultural texts
Examining any story tells you something about the person who wrote it, and movies are arguably storytelling at its most sophisticated. In any story, there is always some sort of conflict that drives it along and makes it worth reading (or watching). What this conflict is, and how the protagonists deal with it, will usually illustrate values the author assumes we will share. For example, a story about a hero rescuing a damsel in distress from certain doom assumes that doom and distress are both bad things, and that damsels are worth the effort of rescuing. Making the effort of examining these assumed values tells us not only about the movie-makers, but also about the people who pay to watch movies.
It would be a good thing if more people examined the underlying assumptions behind the stories we consume, but it gains more urgency when we understand that movies do not just assume, they influence. A well-crafted story can cause us to identify with the protagonist, to begin to feel what they experience as the story unfolds and to value what they value as the central crisis of the story threatens something the protagonist holds dear. If left unexamined, these values stick and become part of our world view. A good story makes emotional arguments that stay with us more forcefully than logical reasoning because we subconsciously put ourselves in the story. The the things we experience though the story are now part of our history—part of who we are.
This is not to say (necessarily) that movies are propaganda, but rather that they are not ‘safe’ for anyone to consume without reflection, Christian or not. If stories are not safe, then some might think it best to avoid all fiction entirely, but that would not solve the problem. Human beings can’t help but tell stories, and even ‘true’ stories of biographies and news reports are told by people with their own world views, agendas and biases. No form of communication is ‘safe.’ Even the bible can, and has been, twisted and misinterpreted.1
The way forward is not to avoid stories entirely, but to watch critically, humbly and with love. Watching critically, examining assumptions and values, keeps us from subconsciously absorbing whatever the story presents to us. But if this were our only posture towards stories, we would quickly become critics in the worst sense of the word—proud, cranky cynics with nothing positive to contribute, just a list of errors and points of disagreement. The alternative is to watch humbly, being ready to examine ourselves and see if there is some way in which the story might be pointing out something we need to learn. Sometimes a challenging or even just a silly story can point out a blind spot in our behaviour or attitudes. We should not be so arrogant as to think we can learn nothing from fellow sinners, nor think that our God cannot speak to us through a Hollywood movie maker if he so chooses. As Calvin writes:
Whenever, therefore, we meet with [non-Christian] writers, let us learn from that light of truth which is admirably displayed in their works, that the human mind, fallen as it is, and corrupted from its integrity, is yet invested and adorned by God with excellent talents. If we believe that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we shall neither reject or despise the truth itself, wherever it appear, unless we wish to insult the Spirit of God; for the gifts of the Spirit cannot be undervalued without offering contempt and reproach to the Spirit himself. Now, shall we deny the light of truth to the ancient lawyers who have delivered such just principles of civil order and probity? Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in the exquisite contemplation and in their scientific description of nature? Shall we say that those who by the art of logic have taught us to speak in a manner consistent with reason, were destitute of understanding themselves? Shall we accuse those of insanity, who by the study of medicine have been exercising their industry for our advantage? And what shall we say of the mathematics? Shall we esteem them the delirious ravings of madmen? On the contrary, … we shall admire them because … they are truly excellent.2
Even if there is no lesson to be learned personally from watching a movie, we can still watch with love. By this I don’t mean love for the movie, but for our ‘neighbours’ in the sense Jesus used the word. If we are Christians, we believe that we have the gospel—the good news. To put it another way, we have the best story to tell that the world has ever heard, and a duty to tell it to others. Now, when we watch a movie, we are sharing an experience with anyone else in the world who saw the same film. And regardless of whether or not others have seen that particular film, most contemporary movies are picking up on themes and values that resonate with our society in general. If we understand this, it gives us an opportunity to tell our gospel story in ways that make sense to the people we are trying to reach. Movies give us an opportunity to become better story tellers by giving us tools to explain the great story more clearly.
The apostle Paul did something similar when he visited the city of Athens.3 Paul’s soul was troubled while he stayed in the city ‘because he saw that the city was full of idols.’ After some discussion with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, he was invited to speak at the Areopagus, where he speaks to them about the shrine he saw ‘to an unknown god’ and quotes Greek poetry, all in aid of explaining the good news about Jesus more clearly. He uses their language (literally) and refers to their own culture to make his message plain. In other words, out of love for the Athenians, Paul makes the effort to understand their culture and their arts so that he might speak his message in a way that will make sense to his listeners.
Watching movies in this way can be hard work. Thinking seriously about assumptions, values and world views requires effort. And it takes even more effort to think through how themes and imagery from a particular movie might be useful in explaining our message more clearly. All this might seem to be draining the simple pleasure out of just enjoying a good film. This brings me to the next reason for Christians to watch movies: Movie watching as worship.
Movie watching as worship
As mentioned previously, we Christians believe that in the bible we have the greatest story to tell that there ever was. But for whatever reason, we seem to have done a poor job of communicating this, even amongst ourselves. As Tim Keller puts it:
“… we usually read the Bible as a series of disconnected stories, each with a “moral” for how we should live our lives. It is not. Rather, it comprises a single story, telling us how the human race got into its present condition, and how God through Jesus Christ has come and will come to put things right.”4
We believe that the bible is more than just a story. Firstly, we believe it is a true story, not a work of fiction from someone’s imagination. Secondly, we believe this story is the Story—the grand, sweeping, majestic story that answers the most important questions about life, the universe and everything (with answers a lot more satisfying than “42”). As Brian Rosner put it: “The human heart seeks transcendence, is impressed by antiquity, searches for wisdom, yearns for justice, needs hope, loves beauty, senses its own darkness, is appalled by evil, repulsed by death and aches for the reassurance of a satisfying story to make sense of our existence.”5 In the bible, we believe we have a satisfying, true story that makes sense of our existence.
If this is true, if there really is a metanarrative that makes sense of our existence, then we should not be surprised to find echoes of it scattered through almost every story we encounter. After all, what could resonate more with the human heart than the one great story behind all stories? And we know that the best stories are the ones that resonate most with our hearts.
But what has all this to do with worship? John Piper writes in his excellent book, Think:
[T]he main reason God has given us minds is that we might seek out and find all the reasons that exist for treasuring him in all things and above all things. He created the world so that through it and above it we might treasure him. The more we see of his surpassing greatness and knowledge and wisdom and power and justice and wrath and mercy and patience and goodness and grace and love, the more we will treasure him. And the more we treasure him, the more he is consciously and joyfully glorified.6
Though Piper does not label it so, I would argue that this makes for a decent working definition of worship—treasuring God so that he is consciously and joyfully glorified. When I look through a story to the greater story it echoes, see more of God’s surpassing greatness, and treasure him more because of it, then my watching (or reading) becomes worship. Through the story, both my mind and my heart become engaged in seeing more of God’s “greatness and knowledge and wisdom and power and justice and wrath and mercy and patience and goodness and grace and love.”
To give an example, I experienced this personally while watching the third Lord of the Rings movie, The Return of the King. I had read the books in my youth, but on the screen I saw vividly displayed a story about a land that was suffering because the rightful king was not on the throne, and how the rightful king went through the world of the dead, came out again and won a great victory to save his people. And when I watched the coronation scene, the movie drew me in and I felt the joy of the characters at seeing the rightful king take his place. And I thought to myself, how much more joy will we feel when we finally see our true king on His throne?
Perhaps you might think this a cheat, since Tolkein was a Christian (or at least had a Christian-like world view) and wrote his story from a Christian point-of-view. But we see more echoes of the great story in other places. Take, for example, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland from 2010. In this story, the people of “Underland” are enslaved to a tyrannical ruler, waiting for a champion from another world who will fight an impossibly mighty foe on their behalf and set them free. In the first half of the story, the Underland characters are eagerly anticipating the arrival of the promised Alice. Is she the chosen one? Will she be the one who will slay the Jabberwocky? In the end, Alice does defeat the Jabberwocky, and the Red Queen’s power is broken—her servants no longer follow her commands. In this story, Alice points us to Jesus, the greater champion who fought death itself on our behalf and set us free from slavery to sin.
Now, what I see in Alice in Wonderland may be somewhat different from what the movie makers intended to portray, but that is beside the point. As James Harleman writes:
The fruit for reader or viewer is […] subjective; one can watch The Exorcist and develop an unhealthy fascination for the occult; another watches and receives the film as a cautionary tale of our vulnerability to the demonic, drawing closer to the God they trust. One can watch Equilibrium and simply indulge in the kung fu gun carnage, or Christian Bale’s perfect abs, while another sees the amazing transformation of the character and an intriguing parallel with the conversion of the Apostle Paul. One can even watch Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and see Ricky Bobby’s tragically funny attempts to earn love, instead of running his race because he is loved.7
If I do see echoes of the gospel in a movie, it does not really matter whether or not the movie-makers intended them to be there; I can be encouraged and moved towards worship regardless.
Dealing with some difficulties
Watching movies in this way takes some effort—it means that we have to engage our minds and think carefully about what we’re watching—and this might seem like a lot of work. After all, many people just want to switch off, relax and enjoy a good film. Is there something wrong with that?
Leaving aside the issue of mindlessly absorbing whatever the story-maker serves up, I would argue that not watching to worship is a missed opportunity. The aim of watching this way is to find more joy, not less. It should not be a chore to be ticked off so we can feel less guilty about doing the thing we really wanted to do. If it is, we’ve missed the point. This is an opportunity to turn a fleeting moment of entertainment into a transcendent glimpse of eternity—a way to put our hearts and minds to the use for which they were originally created.
When a story grabs our hearts, and we follow that thread to Jesus, the result should not be less enjoyment, but more—deeper and more satisfying joy. And when our hearts are most fully engaged, we begin to feel what C. S. Lewis described as the “desire for a far-off country”:
In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. […] [But] the books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past–are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.8
Lewis goes on to argue that this desire points to heaven, to being with Christ, to the hope that one day we shall get in. It is this sweet longing that we are seeking to awaken when we watch movies in this way.
Of course, this can all be done be done very badly. We’ve all met (or heard about) silly Christians who see satanic conspiracy in the stars of the European Union flag, or boycott the brand Billabong for fear that the third syllable might promote drug use.9 There are always going to be people who will make spurious connections and concoct wild theories about movies and their underlying messages. I am not suggesting we follow them down that path.
The aim is not to try and make every single part of every single story have some parallel in the gospel, nor is it to uncover demonic influences in every scene. The aim is to note the similarities where they exist, and to examine the contrasts too. For example, in the Lord of the Rings, Aragorn certainly shares some characteristics with Jesus—the rightful king, wandering through his land unbeknownst to his rightful subjects. Yet Aragorn is not Jesus, and not everything he does in the Lord of the Rings has a parallel in the gospel. Though Aragorn passes through the Haunted Mountain, he does not die to save his people; though Aragorn is portrayed as a majestic king, his reign is not eternal; and though Aragorn fights valiantly against the evil horde, it is not he who ultimately destroys the ring. These many differences do not mean that the other similarities do not exist. Rather, they show us all the more clearly how much greater the real Jesus is than the fictional Aragorn. The point of finding Jesus in the story is not to stretch the story to match the gospel, but to find similarities where we may and let the differences instruct us as well.
For someone who is not a Christian (and is miraculously still reading), this may all seem like wish fulfilment and self-delusion—our superstitious minds want to find some reassurance that we’re not really alone in the universe, so we hunt for signs and portents. Or worse still, we simply want to indulge our desire to be entertained and try to spiritualise movies so we don’t feel guilty. If Jesus is not really God and did not rise from the dead, then this suspicion would be warranted. But on the other hand, if God really did have a plan to save the world since eternity past by becoming a human being and dying on a cross, how could such a momentous event not echo through time in both directions? Would we not expect to see faint ripples of that story in myths and legends, past and present? But seeing Jesus in movies does not prove his deity, it is simply consistent with the claim that he is the God who entered history. The historical evidence for that claim is another matter that others have addressed much better than I could here.10 We do need to take the charge of rationalising seriously however. None of this should be an excuse to watch whatever we like. “Not everything is helpful.”11 Some things are just plain wrong and need to be avoided. We need to watch ourselves, lest we be tempted: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.”3 ‘Watching movies to worship’ is no excuse for sinful stupidity.
In a similar vein, watching movies is no replacement for what older Christians called ‘spiritual disciplines’—prayer, reading the bible, meeting with other Christians, and so on. While movies may point us to the great Story, the bible is where we read it in vivid detail; while movies may offer us reflected glimpses of Jesus, in the bible is where we find him described most fully. Further, he invites (even commands) us to talk to him, to pray, and get to know him personally. And realistically, how will we recognise echoes of the Story unless we already know it intimately?
While I personally might enjoy finding Jesus in stories, I recognise that this is not necessarily for everyone. Some people enjoy thinking about stories, watching movies and discussing them with others, and some people do not—and that’s OK. The bible tells us to delight in Jesus and make him our treasure, but gives us a great deal of freedom in how we do that. Our differences are what allow us to see different aspects of God’s glory and this is a good thing, as C. S. Lewis writes:
In [drawing out different aspects of each others' personalities], Friendship exhibits a glorious ‘nearness by resemblance’ to Heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each has of God. For every soul, seeing him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying ‘Holy, holy, holy’ to one another (Isaiah 6:3).12
If we see him in our own way, and communicate that unique vision to others, then we all benefit and God is glorified all the more. This is not a requirement for Christians who watch movies, but a freedom.
Finally, as mentioned above, the aim of all this is not to place a burden on Christians or to make movie watching seem like a chore. We have an opportunity to take a fleeting enjoyment and transform it into something more meaningful—to be encouraged; to see Jesus more clearly; to enjoy Him. Why would we keep eating toast when a fine banquet is spread before us? Perhaps we will not catch a glimpse of the far-off country with every movie we watch, but surely watching in anticipation of it will increase our chances of doing so. If watching movies intentionally helps us to see more of the surpassing greatness and knowledge and wisdom and power and justice and wrath and mercy and patience and goodness and grace and love of Jesus, let’s do so with enthusiasm.
- Reconnaissance and Evangelism - James Harleman
- Christ and Culture - John Woodhouse
- Christianity and Culture - James Harleman
- Reading Cultural Texts - Mike Gunn
See, for example, Luke 4:1–13. ↩︎
The full story is told in Acts 17:16–34. ↩︎
Brian Rosner, Reason has its place, but the human heart yearns for awe, The Australian, 13 September 2012, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/opinion/reason-has-its-place-but-the-human-heart-yearns-for-awe/story-e6frgd0x-1226472936686.
Full article available from the Centre for Public Christianity: http://publicchristianity.org/library/reason-has-its-place-but-the-human-heart-yearns-for-awe. ↩︎
James Harleman, Cutting to the Core: Finding the Metanarrative, 29 April 2008, http://echohub.com/posts/video/cutting-to-the-core-finding-the-metanarrative/ ↩︎
Both of those are real examples, by the way. ↩︎
If you are interested in that sort of thing, there are any number of resources available. Some that I can recommend include The Reason for God by Tim Keller, Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, or The Christ Files by John Dickson. ↩︎
1 Corinthians 12:16 ↩︎
C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, Harper Collins 1998, pp. 58–59. ↩︎