Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
Intermittently, I want to use this column to provide a “critic spotlight,” with the hope of leading readers to the film critics who have helped shape me as a moviegoer. For nearly fifteen years, Jeffrey Overstreet has been a film reviewer and columnist. He’s written for Christianity Today’s movie website, Seattle Pacific University’s Response Magazine, and Paste. More recently, his critical work can be found regularly on Image’s “Good Letters Blog,” and on Filmwell—a film blog (or is it?) that he helped start. Lastly, nearly all of his film reviews have been helpfully archived on his website, Looking Closer.
And if I were to sum up what Overstreet has helped cultivate (and affirm) in my moviegoing, I would point to this clarion call to “look closer.” But what about our focus needs sharpened? Well, when it comes to Christians and film—or, the arts in general—quite a lot. Recently, a couple of cultural commentators—notably Andy Crouch, author of Culture Making—have lamented the false dichotomy that evangelicals have created between the “secular” and the “sacred” when it comes to culture making. The title of Jeffrey’s excellent moviegoing memoir is indicative of a Christian approach to film that exposes this mythical dichotomy: Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth, and Evil in the Movies.
For Overstreet, part of “looking closer” means cultivating a more deeply rooted Christian sensibility about the related matters of culture, the arts, Incarnation, and Creation. That is, inspired by the likes of C.S. Lewis and Flannery O’Connor, Overstreet beckons Christians to understand the incarnational purposes of artistic creation. Rather than tell or preach a propositional message, the artist shows us things—he or she participates “in the work of incarnation, making something manifest that is open to our own interpretation.” Great art—great films—embody beauty, truth, and goodness/evil with an honest eye and a creative craftsmanship. All of God’s Creation—all that is good, beautiful, and true—is from God, and, therefore, is not “secular.” The best artists—many unknowingly—touch upon this reality.
Yet, this does not mean there are not boundaries. Many films are not good for the soul, but discerning which are and which aren’t requires that kind of closer look we call “discernment.” Overstreet describes this discernment as the desire “to embrace the best and reject the worst.” This type of discernment seems to have a double-edged implication about it. First, some artists handle content in a contextual manner that is purposefully manipulative toward evil ends. But, secondly, some viewers have not yet reached the maturity whereby they can view every truthful depiction of evil. Rather than seeing the attendant consequences associated with this truthful depiction of evil, some viewers are instead themselves tempted by its sight. So discernment involves both looking closer at the contextual handling of content, and a wise perspective of what one is able to handle rightly.
Finally, I’m thankful for Overstreet because his call to “look closer” reminds me of two of my favorite contemporary artists: Marilynne Robinson and Terrence Malick. In his emphasis on cultivating a kind of focused seeing, Overstreet—an artist in his own right—brings an artistry to film criticism and enjoyment. Inspired by John Calvin, Marilynne Robinson says “perception” is at the heart of both theology and her novelistic artistry. Seeing the grandeur of God in all of Creation is essential for her, and participating in this sacramental reality is part of what it means to give glory to God—or, to live graciously. At the heart of our fallenness, then, is our spiritual myopia. And, in this way, I can’t help but also think of Malick, whose films—in both form and content—inspire us to “notice the glory,” and the potential consequences when we fail to.
Like Robinson and Malick, Overstreet has taught me to sharpen my optical lenses by the light of God’s Trinitarian revelation of Himself, and to look closer at those works of art which capture glimpses of God’s inestimably generative and mysterious Creation—and the human capacity to either participate and play or to claim personal dominion and spoil.