How to Watch a Movie

(As a Christian)

Movie Theaters Are Our Culture’s Synagogue

“Super cute”, says a young mother, after watching Frozen. “So good” says your friend, walking out of Boyhood. “I loved it when they killed the guy” says your dad, wiping popcorn butter off his chin outside the ubiquitous Liam Neeson revenge movie. This is usually the extent of our responses to a movie after seeing it.

Each of these “super-in-depth” movie reviews arises from the false assumption that films are merely entertainment. Seeing a movie provides two hours of escapism, happy endings, disconnected from real life. Reality is found outside theater doors, past the arcades. This assumption, however, is simply not true.

A movie theater is like a Synagogue: a place of worship where ideas are exchanged and truth (or lies) spoken. Movies are the preeminent medium for communicating ideals and beliefs in our culture. Therefore to watch a movie is a chance to engage the culture around us: to discern cultural beliefs and idols, where we can say like Paul to the Greeks, “I perceive that in every way you are very religious” (Acts 17:22).

“We walked into some very large doors, into a dimly lit room. And the ceiling looked like a church. It felt like a place of worship, a little bit like a synagogue. We sat down at some seats, not pews but seats. The curtain opened, the lights went down. I was no longer in a theater, no longer in a seat, I wasn’t aware of the surroundings; it was no longer a church. It was a place of equal devotion and worship, however. I became part of an experience.” (Steven Spielberg)

Whose Story Is Being Told?

If we hope to engage the culture around us, we must face the idols that come with it. A missionary cannot be constantly thinking, “Should I visit this part of town? Should I talk to that kind of person?” Yet most Christian film reviewers only ask the question, “Should I see this movie?” A better question that I think opens up more gospel conversations is, “Whose story is being told?

You see, all films tell the same general story: Person A is in trouble and needs to be rescued. Person B is capably powerful and saves Person A. For example: Rachel is in trouble, Batman saves her (er…). Okay, a better example: Scotland is in trouble, William Wallace saves her. Even within a larger story arc, the same can be seen: Frodo is in trouble, Samwise saves him. Luke is in trouble, Han saves him.

All stories, Christian or not, tell of a larger story arc: our desperate need to be saved and the Messiah who took on the world to save us. This is God’s story. Every story communicates, in one way or another, this truth: that we are in need of salvation. The special effects, the humor, the entertainment value — these are just tools in the arsenal of the filmmaker.

Finding this truth in some films can be a bit like panning for gold while knee-deep in mud. Sometimes the story being told is not God’s story. Many times it’s the story of karma or of “finding the good within”. I believe the messages of films like these, despite their G-rating or family-friendliness, should be wholeheartedly rejected by Christians.

Sometimes a film betrays an indifference to being saved at all. I find the films whose endings are the most bleak — the main character dies or is strung out on drugs — speak the most highly of God’s story, because they are recognizing the reality of sin in the world. Like Paul in Athens, when you find the tiny nugget of truth, you can begin to connect the dots and fill the gaps with the true Hero.

Who Is The Hero?

Jesus was a master storyteller. His parables are the most famous in history. His Bible is the best selling non-fiction book of all time. Even though the Bible is compiled of sixty-six books, its authorship spanning millennia, it still has one hero: Jesus Christ. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). He is on every page. “Every story whispers his name” (The Jesus Storybook Bible).

Thus, another question you should ask when you see a film is, “Who is the hero?” Who saves the day? Who stands for justice? Who brings peace to the land? When you ask this question, you can begin to find commonality between the film’s hero and Jesus Christ. It’s much like finding Christ in the character of David when he fought Goliath, or the offscreen orchestrator in the story of Esther. The hero’s crescendo contains reverberations of the work of our Savior.

Yet a movie’s hero never measures up. Often, he’s conflicted, facing his own “demons”, or even an “anti-hero” such as Michael Corleone. Sometimes he makes a mistake before redeeming himself at the very end. Many times he dies sacrificially for the good of all. In any case, the hero’s flaws point to our desire for a true Hero.

Much has been said about the poor quality of “Christian” cinema. Many are merely well-marketed right-wing propaganda plus the word “God”, or worse, presentations of Judeo-Christian “values” minus the message of salvation by grace. Even then, most of the “values” don’t entail things like justice or helping the poor — they’re usually about hot-button culture wars.

The archetypal “Christian movie” of the 21st century (opposed to the 20th: movies like Ben Hur and The 10 Commandments) is The Passion of the Christ. Film producers have tried to capitalize on faith-based movies in its wake, to varied success. However, one critical, overlooked fact remains: The Passion is the story of Jesus’ death on the cross. He is the true Hero. That’s the greatest story ever told.

We don’t have to look far to see this story woven throughout our culture’s own legends. For a Christian, seeing a film is an opportunity not only to be informed as to the ideas being communicated to the culture around us, but to connect the dots with Christ, as we discuss the film with friends and family. Then we can stand in the movie theater as Paul did on the Areopagus and say, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”