‘Death at the Movies’ is a lively read

‘Death at the Movies’ is a lively read February 12, 2014

Review of Death at the Movies by Lyn and Tom Davis Genelli

A confession: I know little about Buddhism. Other than Death at the Movies, the only other Buddhist texts I’ve read are the Dhammapada (reviewed here) and a number of decidedly non-religious books by Buddhist scholar Irving Babbitt. So if I miss anything, get something wrong, or fail to do proper justice to a tenet of Buddhism, kindly drop me a note in the comments section—I’m happy to be corrected.

With that caveat out of the way, I can say whole-heartedly that Death at the Movies is a well-written, thoughtful, and fascinating interpretation of cinema through a completely different filter than most of us are used to. Namely, it interprets a number of well-known (and not-so-well-known) movies from a Buddhist perspective on death. Most often, it deals with the question of how films portray the passage from life to the afterlife, or “transit,” though several other themes are covered as well. Ghost (1990), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Poltergeist (1982), Groundhog Day (1993), and a number of other films are used to explore variations on the Buddhist perspective of the relationship between life, death, and everything in between.

Of course, the authors of this blog are mostly Reformed Evangelicals (and if they’re not, they should be), which raises the question:  What good is a book like this for us? While I would certainly not encourage you to pick it up and read it as a source of information about the afterlife, I think there is still something we can get from this text that is of theological value. Namely, it is a wonderful tool to help us begin thinking about how best to evangelize our friends from backgrounds steeped in Eastern thought.

I should point out that with certain rare exceptions, Christians have generally done a poor job witnessing to those coming from Eastern perspectives. We make two mistakes: First, as a preface to evangelism we all too often we hold out the promise of progress, science, material prosperity, and the affluent lifestyle of the average middle class American. We become evangelists first for the American dream, rather than offering a bloody and broken Savior on a cross reconciling a just God and a sinful people. And when we make this mistake, we not only fail to serve our God well; we radically misunderstand those we are talking to. (To be sure, the former is the far greater sin, but the latter needs attention as well.) More on this in a second.

Second, when we do manage to set aside the superficiality of technological and material prosperity, we have a tendency to offer a watered down version of the Gospel. A sort-of “God’s awesome/you’re awesome/God loves you/shouldn’t you love God back?” Because we’ve discussed the shallowness of American Christianity on this blog before I don’t think I need to go into detail, I just want to be sure to point out that such an empty faith falls flat when faced with Eastern thought.

With that said, Death at the Movies is a great place to begin for those interested in communicating well with Buddhists. It provides a taste of the sorts of things that Buddhists think about and will help us engage in conversation from the perspective of what they are interested in, rather than beginning from our own cultural biases. (Of course, we do not stop at such a beginning point—we obviously need to end any such discussion with an explanation of how Christianity alone can satisfy.) Consider the following passage drawn from the discussion of Ghost (52-53):

Most of us agree that love is the highest fulfillment of human life. Whether a spiritual believer or not, we know it intuitively and are drawn to love as a plant is to light. We sense that love is our ultimate purpose—the fullest expression of humanness. Love allows us to transcend the lonely prison of individual existence into a greater, warmer, and sweeter existence of unity with another—’souls yearning to fully meet other souls’ could be a spiritual way to put it. Religious traditions tell us that through love we achieve transcendence. Only love has the motivational power to carry us beyond the world of separateness into the realms of unity. Love, the Bible tells us, is stronger than death. Neither goodwill nor good ideas in themselves can achieve much unless energized by the motivating force of love.

If this is typical of Buddhist thought (and so far as I can tell with my limited background, it seems to be), then any evangelism that begins with iPads, nuclear reactors, or whatever the latest gadget may be and ends with “Jesus is my buddy and wants to be yours too” is going to fall flat. Love, unity, transcendence, and overcoming death are the tools we need to be using—every one of which is sufficiently provided for in the Bible. We can talk about the love of God for His enemies on display at the cross; the unity of the church in Christ despite all our cultural, economic, and personal differences; the transcendent God who became flesh and walked among us; and the victory over death we receive through faith in the Gospel.

Hopefully the point is clear. We must be careful not to defend the faith from the foundation of Platonic reason, Aristotelian logic, Liberal Individualism, or any of the other more modern Western innovations. We need to engage with Eastern religions as Christians, not as representatives of Western Civilization. To fail to do so is to sin against our Buddhist friends by not listening to what they have to say, to fail to reflect well the forgiveness offered in the Gospel, and ultimately to preach something which does not save.

No doubt you’ve noticed that I have nothing to say about the actual movie reviews provided in Death at the Movies. That is because I am not a Buddhist, and as such have no real ground to stand on in that particular discussion. As far as I know this is a legitimate and accurate representation of Buddhist interpretation of these films (and if it’s not I’m happy to be corrected). The only modification I would suggest is the addition of a chapter on Star Wars. The omission of this openly Buddhist film is a bit surprising. Which is clearly one of the highest forms of praise that can be offered to an author: your book should have been longer.

So long review short: if you’re interested in evangelizing Buddhists or even just reading a well-written and fascinating book, I am quite happy to recommend Death at the Movies as a worthwhile read. 

This book is part of the Patheos book club. A review copy was provided for free, and although I was not required to write a positive review it was a delight to do so.

Dr. Coyle Neal lives in cosmic bliss in Bolivar, Missouri , where he answers all his students’ questions with snippets of eternal wisdom.

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