written by Brent Dickman, MDiv, Recruiter & Adjunct Faculty, Urbana Theological Seminary Alumni 2011
Just a few days ago movie lovers and film aficionados from all over the country made their way to Champaign/Urbana for Roger Ebert’s Film Festival (Ebertfest). For five days thousands made their way in and out of the Virginia Theatre to see movies selected by America’s foremost film critic for their outstanding worth in the art and craft of cinema. Just a few days from now thousands more people will make their way in and out of the multiplex nearest you to kick off the beginning of the summer blockbuster season with The Avengers. It’s debatable what the two crowds have in common. But I can think of one obvious thing: they love movies.
George Barna offers some striking statistics on our love of movies (Barna Update, July 2004). Half of Americans cite the movies as one of their top means of entertainment. Ninety-five percent of American adults will watch at least one movie in a given year, with the average number closer to forty. And it’s not just for entertainment.
A few years ago, Barna pollsters discovered that at the turn of the millennium, 1 in 5 Americans turned to cultural sources, particularly the media and arts and culture, as their “primary or exclusive means for experiencing and expressing their faith.” Slowly growing, by 2025 that figure looks to be 1 in 3 (Barna, Revolution, 48-49). If there ever were a time for thoughtful Christian engagement with “media, arts and culture” it might be now. And the movies top the list. As Christians, what should we make of all this?
A theological study of film does more than look at motion pictures whose stories are about God and religion. It needs to go further than a search for Christian themes and motifs in otherwise ‘secular’ movies. First, it strives to understand film in its own right – as elements of culture, products of consumerism, and works of art. Doing so avoids the temptation to impose our own Christian views and perspectives where they might otherwise not belong. In doing so, we put ourselves in a position to understand what spiritual experiences people are finding in movies – entertainment and art. And as Christians with a high view of Christ and Holy Scripture, who are committed to the Gospel, we need to figure out how to respond. Sometimes we will decide that we are compelled to offer a critique or some constructive (film) criticism. Other times we might humbly find that we have something to be taught and to learn about how the experience and understanding of God is working itself out in our particular context.
In order to help us do these things, this summer Urbana Theological Seminary will be offering an introductory class on theology and the movies. We will watch five feature length films together as a class. Students will also have the opportunity to choose and to watch, as a part of the class, several more films from the comfort of their own homes. I invite you to come and join our discussion. To help entice and excite you about the possibilities that await, here is that anticipated list with a few brief notes of where our discussions might take us.
The Biblical epic remains one of the most successful film genres of all time, with two major Hollywood epics loom on our horizon – Gods and Kings and Noah. If we adjust film grosses for inflation, the Charlton Heston classic The Ten Commandments remains the 6th highest grossing film of all time, only recently being edged out by James Cameron’s Titanic and its re-release in 3D. One Night with the King, an Evangelical Christian production of Esther, didn’t fair as well, at least at the box office. Why? What makes for a successful adaptation of scripture onto the silver screen? What makes a movie ‘Christian’ and how does that impact its reception by audiences? Can a faithful adaptation of the Bible still score big in Hollywood?
Sometimes the spiritual dimension of mainstream cinema has roots within the Christian tradition. One striking example is post-apocalyptic fiction. As a subgenre of science fiction it takes its cues from interpretation and reception of Revelation. As a motif it uses echoes of the forms, practices, and symbols of religion to help us make sense of the troubled world in which we currently find ourselves. Children of Men subtly interacts with the Nativity, Apocalypse, and Messianic prophecy on its way to constructing its own understanding of our current and future spiritual condition. The post-secular spiritual experiences of many American might be post-church, but if they are not quite yet completely post-Christian, then what might they have to say that is worth hearing? And how might we, as Christians, respond?
What does it mean for a movie to be art? How do we understand and interact with art as Christians? While many so-called “art films” are often derided for being unwatchable, Take Shelter is a riveting and engaging drama that will have you on the edge of your seat. This is a movie that I hesitate to say much about because the experience of watching it can be so powerful. We’ll discuss science and faith, work and family, and even a few issues of current political controversy – just to name a few!
Eight years removed from the Ash Wednesday release of the utter phenomenon that was Mel Gibson’s movie we will revisit its meaning, impact, and legacy. What does this movie try to do to and for the viewer? Is it inherently a religious experience? Is it art or worship or some not often seen form of entertainment? And after all the controversy that has surrounded him these past several years, what do we make now of Mel Gibson and his involvement in this project? For those of you who missed it the first time, it’s time for you to see what the hype was all about.
The class’s concluding and summarizing thoughts come by way of a movie and a metaphor. What do we do with what we hope will be our newfound knowledge of film and theology? Where do we go from here? How do we as Christians interact with the movies in a way that brings our Christian faith, hope, and love into the cinematic conversation? To find out, we will look at an adaptation of a stunning true story and its relationship to a remarkable aspect of our culture’s love of movies.