Maybe more than any other people group, Christians believe that stories shape people, making us suspicious about the pernicious influence of non-Christian stories and eager to use our own stories for evangelism and discipleship. This posture towards stories is understandable. Our Savior was the Word. Our Holy Scriptures are one great narrative comprised of a myriad of smaller ones. Christ used stories extensively in His teaching.
In earlier centuries, Christians worried about the harmful effects of reading novels, time wasted in fictional worlds, depictions of evil, and the way novels encouraged empathy with morally degenerate characters. In the twentieth century, these worries have shifted to film and television.
While it’s wildly unpopular to look for subversive messages and ideas in film–it strikes our modern sensibilities as too similar to McCarthyism–and while we may be tempted to dismiss such efforts as puritanical (in the bad sense) or fundamentalist (in the normal sense), this impulse is a wise one, because films really do influence our understanding of the world and life. The way a film treats marriage, vocation, beauty, sin, nature, colors, existential validation, all of it makes claims upon the world and invites viewers to consider or adopt those perspectives. To not thoughtfully engage with stories is to invite stories to manipulate us without restraint or consent.
The Christian practice of narrative interpretation which interrogates and evaluates the deep ideas of stories has spawned a number of creative and discernment industries. Christian film critics and cultural analysts review films and identify their “messages” and morals in ways that secular critics are much less concerned with. Pastors perform film analyses in their sermons. Entire publications are created to identify these messages and promote Christian ones. Christian film companies create movies which very intentionally promote Christian values and messages. There’s a similar concern for deep, ideological interpretation among secular groups as well, but the difference is that for Christians, this is much more of the normal, popular-level approach to interpreting stories, where as for other groups such analysis is more often restricted to intellectuals.
Unfortunately, a lot of our cultural criticism and creations are reductive and superficial, so much so that we often do more harm than good. At Christ and Pop Culture we’ve identified many examples of these failed and harmful Christian films or film criticisms. Take MOVIEGUIDE and their goal to create a Christian film hegemony, or take the Christian films, Sunday School Musical and God’s Not Dead, both of which we have critiqued in the past as examples of this phenomenon.
In light of all this, here is one of the major challenges for Christian participation in culture: how do we carry out this kind of careful, discerning interpretation and creation at a popular level without sacrificing nuance and truth, and thus do more harm than good?
One answer is that we should conceive of films and other stories as fragmented, contingent, and allusive interpretations of existence, rather than categorizing them simply into predetermined “worldviews” or philosophies. Stories are always told by people, people who may or may not have an articulate “worldview” and who certainly cannot present that worldview perfectly. A good director will do the best he or she can to convey an interpretation or vision of existence, but it will always be irreducible to our neat categories.
Doing this, of course, is hard work. It’s much easier to approach a film with a predetermined categories and force it into one of them. What’s hard and time consuming is treating each work as its own statement about being-in-the-world.
I like to think that at CaPC you’ll find this kind of cultural criticism modeled. For example, in our most recent issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine there are several articles and features which attempt to approach film in this way. And there are a number of Christian publications that are doing cultural criticism well. Probably the most notable of these is Christianity Today’s Movie section, edited by Alissa Wilkinson, which consistently produces thoughtful, truthful, and approachable reviews, but Think Christian and Mockingbird also come to mind. With the lowered cost of cameras and editing equipment, more Christians have had the opportunity to do develop their skills at cinematography. One example of someone approaching film to capture the richness of a God created world is my friend Stephen Henderson, who has a deep passion for storytelling on display at his site, The Habit of Seeing.
Let me recommend supporting these publications. One result of this approach to Christian cultural criticism is that it is less attractive to readers and it costs more to produce. It is much easier to employ the standard evangelical language and categories and evaluate and create films that give evangelical readers and viewers exactly what they want to hear; it’s hard to give them what you think they need. In other words, these kinds of outlets deserve and require our active support.
In any case, let’s work as Christians to appreciate our tradition of deep interpretations of culture, and commit to do it well.
This article was adapted and expanded from the editor’s letter in the most recent issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine, Moving Images.
Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.