In her forties, my mother went back to school to be re-certified in early childhood education. Her first interview after graduation was at a private Christian school. To the surprise of my conservative Christian mother, the principal’s first question was “Do you dance, wear makeup, or go to movies?” She admitted that she didn’t dance or wear makeup, other than very neutral lipstick. But, the die was cast, it seems, when she confessed that she went to movies like “Mary Poppins” and had just taken me to see “The Sound of Music.” To the surprise of none, she didn’t get the job.
Back in the 1960’s, many fundamentalist Christians believed going to movies was akin to premarital sex, drinking, divorce and dancing, tools of the devil to deter us from God’s paths of righteousness. Watching the wrong kind of movie might lead to petting on Lovers’ Lane or a case of reefer madness. Oh, what a slippery slope it was!
Today, a lively Christian movie industry has emerged. Millions of dollars have been made by the “Left Behind” and “God is Not Dead” series, and other films geared to promote Christian exceptionalism. Most of these films, along with popular Christian fiction, are mediocre at best. The strawmen and antagonists are too predictable – the atheistic philosophy professor, the agnostic psychologist, Satan in the science lab, the liberal pastor – and the “red meat” to bolster believers’ sense of being special in God’s eyes is no more convincing to the spiritual pilgrim than the bloviations of Mr. Trump and his supporters on issues of Russia, honesty, or compassion. In pandering to an in-group, they deny the experiences and insights of outsiders, whose lives might be more akin to those whom Jesus most lovingly addressed in his ministry.
Josh Larson’s “Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings,” reflects on God’s presence, and the spiritual value, of films that might be described as secular, ambiguous, and agnostic, in other words, films that address the human condition in all its tragic beauty and messy sublimity. Such “secular” films may be more faithful to the Christian witness than the good guy-bad guy polarization in Christian films. Yes, film, to quote Reinhold Neibuhr, needs at times to comfort the agitated. We all need a happy ending, a Hallmark kiss, a victory for the good guys, and frankly I struggle with the moral ambiguity of the recent superhero movies. I want my superheroes to know right from wrong, pursue the truth, be compassionate, and with the 50’s Superman, seek truth, justice, and the American way. That’s probably why I like Gal Gadot’s “Wonder Woman.” She is deeply feeling, finite, and compassionate. I like my superheroes – and my presidents – to be good, dignified, mature adults, immune to petty egotism and ranting tweets.
Yet, truth can be found anywhere, whether in fiction, medical labs, interstellar telescopes, or fossil fields. You can often experience the truth of the human condition – and our relationship with God – as much in villains as heroes, and moral failures as goody two shoes. We need prayer, but we may also need Prozac and Paxil, to set us right. We need aspirational characters, but we also need to remember that aspiration does not exclude ambivalence, and that, as C.G. Jung asserts, we are constantly dealing with our shadow as well as our light sides. Or, as a spiritual teacher once averred, we are always falling and getting back up again on the Christian walk. In film, fiction, science, and medicine, wherever truth and healing are found, God is its source, even if God’s name isn’t mentioned and religious figures are ridiculed or questioned.
Josh Larsen gets it! A committed Christian, he also sees divine inspiration in what appears, at first glance, to be challenging to faith. The films he cites are about real women and men, who struggle with anger, sin, violence, race, and who don’t always succeed in staying on the upward path. Larsen knows that real people commit real sins; and their regret, guilt, grief, and confession is also real. This is pure Bible! The Bible is far from being a mausoleum of pietistic prudes. The great heroes and heroines of scripture struggle light we do with sex, greed, ambivalence, cowardice, hypocrisy, and yet in the struggle discover is with them, challenging and accepting them. Even Jesus was tempted and tried, and – as Howard Thurman reminds us – Jesus spent his whole life under the thumb of oppressive and violent Romans, whose machinations eventually led to the cross. That arch-sinner – or is he simply an arch-human – Paul of Tarsus confesses that the good I want to do, I don’t; the evil I seek to avoid, I end up doing, and sometimes over and over again. (Romans 7:15-20)
Josh Larsen hits the mark! I read this text in two sittings. His descriptions of movies I’ve seen captivated me and his accounts of movies I haven’t seen made me want to hit Netflix or On Demand in search. All things are words of God, as Meister Eckhardt proclaims. Although God’s word and wisdom appears to be less than a whisper in some films, we can be inspired to understand ourselves and, accordingly, understand our relationship with God and one another as we listen for God’s presence in sound, sight, and film.