The Beauty of Film

written by Brent Dickman, MDiv, Recruiter & Adjunct Faculty, Urbana Theological Seminary Alumni 2011 

A little over ten months ago I became a father.  My son, Isaac, already lives up to his namesake, commonly filling our home with laughter, joy, and wonder.  So often, when I look into his big eyes or hear his voracious little laugh I am overwhelmed by the innocence of his infancy.  And then sometimes my mind turns to the problems of our world.  If I have the courage to allow it, my heart cries out in anguish when I consider that innocence someday being shattered by those problems.  When will the laughter stop?  Will it change, the wonder and joy slowly drifting away from it?

Years ago, I would listen intently to one of my campus pastors, Wayne, discuss such things as he raised his children.  He told me that he was very careful to shield them from certain things, even going so far to eschew the violence and sensuality in animated features (e.g. The Little Mermaid, otherwise a favorite).  This shocked me, at first.  But Wayne loved movies as much as I.  And, like me, wasn’t one to personally shy away from a more graphic or raw movie if its meaning and morality fell in line with his Christian convictions in some rather profound way.  But he told me that if he showed his boys some of the standard fair out their, in for instance the PG-13 world of the summer blockbuster, then they would be overwhelmed, sometimes even horrified at the images on the screen.

Getting to know children and discussing their viewing habits opened my eyes to the complexities of a much larger problem.  As Christians, how do we live in a world of wickedness and darkness, a world of painful misunderstanding and despair?  And should we ever watch movies that show us something of that part of our world?

We can be misled by the question of moral content in the movies if we become overly concerned by our country’s movie rating system.  That system, implemented by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) treats the movies and their sights and sounds objectively.  Is there nudity/sex/violence/obscenity or isn’t there?  And how much?  But what about what actually happens to the viewer in the course of watching a movie?  That is a much trickier issue.  It explains why two movies with R-ratings, The Passion of the Christ and Porky’s, draw entirely different audiences who react in totally different ways.

I would like to posit to you that as Christians, the way we react to movies is NOT first and foremost about what is up there on the screen.  It’s about what it does to our imagination.  The Passion moves many to worship.  Porky’s moves many to entertain rather different ideas of lust, violence, and disrespecting others.

When we begin to consider the imagination we enter into a far more subjective realm than the objectivity of the MPAA.  What might be a completely innocuous movie for me might cause my friend to entertain damaging and unhealthy thoughts.  But are our imaginations static and unchanging?  I don’t think so.  I think that they are dynamic, and with maturity and proper exercise in love, compassion, truth, and goodness our imagination can help us see the world with new eyes.  What do I mean by this?

Paul counsels, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Phil. 4.8).  What do these things have in common?  They are all beautiful.  But what does it mean for something to be beautiful?  Beauty is anything that brings glory to God.  We might look to specific movies for examples.

Consider Chariots of Fire, a movie about Scotsman Eric Liddell, who delayed going to China as a missionary so that he could run in the 1924 Olympic Games.  Why?  Because as he explains to his sister, even though he feels called by God to go to China, he knows that God also created him to be a gifted runner, “and when I run,” says an impassioned Liddell, “I feel His pleasure.”  Liddell’s running brings glory to God.  It is beautiful.  But it is a beauty not found in his work within the walls of a church building, but out on the Olympic racetrack of Paris, France.  The film tries to teach us that God’s glory, God’s beauty, is not only limited to the work of missionaries.  It is in our love and our pursuit of things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable.

Or consider Saving Private Ryan, a movie that graphically depicts the horrors of war.  Its images are shocking and at times perhaps even overwhelming.  But what is the film trying to do to our imagination?  It tells the story of Private First Class James Ryan of the 101st Airborne.  All three of his brothers died within days of the American invasion of Normandy.  His mother receives three telegrams, all on the same day, notifying her of this terrifying loss.  And Private Ryan is missing in action.  Our hearts are awakened to the singular pain and despair that is warfare.  They are filled with pity and compassion as we watch seven soldiers brave the unknown to bring this young man home to his grieving mother.  Can you sense the beauty?  It lies in the conviction to bring together a family, to try to bring healing and peace in a most desperate time.  Can that bring glory to God?  I think so.

With practice, we can watch for beauty in movies.  And we can begin to see places in this troubled world that need the love of Christ.  We can begin to understand that even moments of darkness, like those horrors of World War II, can awaken our imaginations to see more acutely the need for God’s glory, opening our eyes to the need for hearts of compassion and pity in a world in need of the love and light of Christ.

And that is what I will tell my son someday when the innocence begins to leave his eyes.  I will tell him of an imagination of beauty, captivated by the joy and wonder of offering the compassion and love of Christ to those who need it.  Just as in my efforts and my prayers, I will try to offer such things to him when he is in need.

This summer I take my first steps in this direction, answering God’s call on my life to be a theologian looking for beauty who discusses where it might be found with others on the same search.  Think of the blessing that can come from watching movies in Christian community.  Get the perspective of brothers and sisters in Christ who may pick up on things you may not see.  I invite you to come explore in more depth and detail what it means to look for and find the beauty of God in movies of all sorts.  Come be a part of the story of beauty I will someday tell my son.  And your classmates be a part of the story you might tell others.  For our story is the Gospel and our darkened world’s need for its light, its beauty.  It is a story that comes to wounds and despair, yes, but that brings joy and wonder and the innocence of a pure heart.