The question is how those interactions occur. Fundamentally this is one of the things that need to change: the fundamentals of how the church understands itself in the context of culture. Also, we often use the metaphor of war. The scriptures use those metaphors too, referring to spiritual battles. But they say that our war is against the powers and principalities of the spiritual realm -- not against other humans. We are, essentially, all on the same side. Or rather, we are all the battleground over which spiritual battles are fought. That should bring us together, not cast us over against one another.
Several recent books reconsider the Christian engagement with culture and advocate a more productive relationship in which Christians make culture and not only stand apart and criticize culture. Are these encouraging developments?
I was just doing a set visit to a film being shot down in Tulsa last week. I was talking to the director and producer about that very issue. I said that it seemed to me that when Fundamentalism really was getting a bad reputation in the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s, the Protestant Church basically removed itself into its own cultural enclave. If we're going to get our nose bloodied, they thought, we'd rather retreat to our own corner and do our own thing. Even as late as the 1970s with the contemporary Christian music scene, the response was essentially to produce our own subculture, a version of popular culture that would be pure and ennobling and would cater to the needs of the faithful.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church and Orthodox traditions continued on their millennia-old path, recognizing that you will get your nose bloodied and that just happens from time to time.
Now, finally, the Protestant Christians seems to be getting back in the game. Protestants who have been watching mainstream films for twenty to thirty years are making their own films now, and they look more like mainstream films. With the advent of technologies that make filmmaking cheaper and more accessible, we're now seeing a generation of Protestant filmmakers who know what real quality films look like. Their films fuse mainstream production values with a Christian sensibility, and they do it naturally, because that's just who they are and it reflects who they are as people.
That's a tremendously positive development. Within five years or so, a lot of these young filmmakers are going to be turning out very professional films because they'll have the training and the taste to do so.
A Christian walks into a theater to see a movie -- how do you recommend that she watch the movie discerningly?
First, one should bear in mind the moral implications of the movie. There is a moral weight in dealing with the art form of film because of the influence it wields and its potentially addictive nature. It is an unbelievably powerful art form, and therefore anybody who approaches it on any level, whether an audience member or a filmmaker, should seriously consider the moral implications. The stakes are incredibly high and the influence is disproportionate.
Ingmar Bergman, obviously a genius filmmaker, was of the opinion that when we enter into a theater we voluntarily abandon our will and intellect, essentially placing ourselves in the hands of the filmmaker to tell us what to think for two hours. Arguably, you have to concede that he's right. That's certainly the standpoint that filmmakers bring to filmmaking. So if Bergman is right, and the art form is so incredibly complex, then it behooves us to study and understand the language of filmmaking.
Then, as it speaks to us, we can understand what is being said. If we devote six to twelve years of education as children to learning a language we already speak, English, then why should we not invest time in learning the language of film? Given that it's influencing our will and our intellect in such profound ways, I highly recommend that everybody find a textbook and invest time learning about the syntax of films and the way that they're made.
When you see a scene played out in front of you, you will have the intellectual capacity to dissect it and understand what is being said to you and how. Filmmakers always play with the syntax of filmmaking, but the audience is largely unaware of what they're doing. If you're absorbing the movie without thinking, you're unaware of the decisions the filmmakers have made and you fail to appreciate the richness of the language and its message.
Many Christians perceive tensions between "Hollywood values" and Christian values. Should Christians be offended when they see movies that seem to have anti-Christian values or messages?