The Power of Film and a Storytelling God

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Has Hollywood Become Our National Conscience? Read other perspectives here.

In his book Reel Spirituality, professor Robert K. Johnston tells the true story of a young Swiss named Christoph. Christoph, deeply moved after seeing Steven Spielberg's 1993 epic Schindler's List, wants to act on the sense of justice and empathy that Spielberg's film has stirred. Some time after seeing the movie, Christoph discovers a long-forgotten ledger at the bank where he works, a ledger detailing property that had been stolen from Jews and given to Germans.

Despite threats from his employer and friends (he eventually has to flee Switzerland for the United States), Christoph shares his findings. Years later, Swiss banks would reach a settlement with the Jewish population totaling over $1 billion. "Could Steven Spielberg have dreamed of a better response to his film story?" Johnston concludes. "Here is the power of film."

It's true that most films, even the very best, don't precipitate a chain of events that result in international reparations. But in a deeper sense this story isn't as exceptional as it sounds; it's simply another example of the power of cinema to move the soul and inspire the will. Movies shape and form our consciences, not because that's what Hollywood studios or cultural elites want, but because film itself is a liturgical experience. A movie is, to cite professor James K.A. Smith, a "pedagogy of desire," a vehicle not just of entertainment but of emotional, moral, and spiritual formation.

Evangelicals have often missed this. The tendency for evangelical cultural critics has been to either completely ignore Hollywood films (the fundamentalist approach) or to treat them as theological ciphers that reveal an artist's "worldview" (worldview is often reduced to meaning just the aggregate sum of elements that appear sympathetic to Christian ethics versus those that aren't). These two approaches describe probably 75 percent of American evangelical film criticism.

But both of these approaches misunderstand what is actually happening to a viewer during a film. Movies engage audiences at multiple levels, utilizing dialogue, music, visual cues, and symbols to inspire first and foremost an emotional response, not an intellectual one. This is why moviegoers did not dismiss Star Wars as ridiculous when lasers caused sound in outer space (a scientific impossibility). Instead, theaters in 1977 were filled with viewers completely awestruck by the computer-generated space battle they were watching. The power of movies to dazzle and delight, above and beyond the parameters of rational response, is the most important way that films shape our moral imaginations.

This means that movies not only can be instruments of personal and social transformation, but that they simply are, even if the transformation does not seem politically significant. The question then is not, "Should filmmakers try to influence culture?" but, "What should filmmakers influence culture for, and how should they do it?" Our answers to these questions will depend, of course, largely on our presuppositions about the holy, the good, the just, and the beautiful. Interestingly, this presents Christians with a unique advantage in talking about art, since believers have more than a moral code — we have a metanarrative of history from which our cultural tales (what J.R.R. Tolkien called our "true myths") derive their meaning.

Rather than seek to make "social justice movies," filmmakers can engage audience's spiritual and emotional levels with messages of justice through compelling and humane storytelling. Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is not a documentary or a "message film," but a harshly realistic and hopeful drama that highlights exactly what the American forfeiture of justice through slavery really cost. Christian audiences can tend to shy away from rough, violent films like 12 Years a Slave, but in that kind of avoidance ethic there is a tragic irony, for the Christian gospel is precisely what enables us to interpret injustice correctly. The world is ultimately, finally, just, and the unfolding of the gospel is what enlivens our moral imagination to tell the truth about justice.

Sometimes the way a film shapes our conscience is not as obvious. Cast Away, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Tom Hanks, may at surface look like a standard adventure/survival drama. But in reality it is a deeply hopeful, redemptive story about the value of life apart from everything we think we need. Having watched and analyzed the movie dozens of times, I can say with honesty that it is one of the most blatantly pro-life Hollywood pictures ever produced. There's not one line directed to the abortion lobby or one reference to Scripture. There doesn't have to be. That's the nature of storytelling.