Living at the Corner of Hollywood and Divine (Nov-Dec 2002)

By Matt Dabbs

by Darrell Tippens

I live somewhere near the intersection of Hollywood and the Divine. It’s a noisy, fractious neighborhood—with lots of mutual suspicion and occasionally some shouting. Those who live on Hollywood Boulevard love movies. They defend them passionately as the greatest form of entertainment in human history.

But the people on the other street—the church folks—often see it differently. They’re trying to get people to heaven; and, as far as they are concerned, movies are a major distraction. Didn’t Marilyn Monroe say it all when she confessed, “Hollywood’s a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul”?

Despite all the tension in the neighborhood, I enjoy the excitement of standing at the intersection of Hollywood and the Divine. I keep thinking that Hollywood could definitely use a dose of old-time religion, but I also think that believers shouldn’t be quite so pessimistic either. Neither side seems to be planning to move. Both sides are stuck with each other for the foreseeable future. I keep wondering: maybe these neighbors need each other, even if they don’t know it.

If I were to continue this little parable, I would have to explain that the intersection of film and faith is getting pretty crowded these days. More and more Christians, despite the problems, are huge fans of movies, at least certain ones. Quite a few Christians are in the entertainment business, trying to make a difference. Many churches are using film and video as a means of outreach. A local congregation recently blanketed my neighborhood with free copies of a video on the life of Christ. A feature-length Veggie Tales presentation, Jonah: the movie, opened in October. Other recent movies, such as Joshua and A Walk to Remember, treat Christian themes and characters positively. Mel Gibson has announced that he will direct a new film called Passion, focusing on the last twelve hours in Jesus’ life. There is room for faith and values in film today, despite all the bad stuff.

Cinematic Art as Sacrament
Fortunately, a number of Christian intellectuals are helping us to think more deeply about film and faith, two domains that have long been seen as natural enemies. Robert K. Johnston, for example, in his book Reel Spirituality, maintains that evidence of God’s truth can be found in film: “God is involved with all mankind and uses the wisdom and insight of nonbelievers to communicate his truth to people who believe.”

To appreciate Johnston’s point, we may have to revise our understanding of creation and the arts. Some Christians see the world as beautiful, yes, but relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things, since “the saving of souls” is our only serious business. Such a view easily degenerates into a stark dualism. (The world is all bad; only heaven is good). In this “otherworldly” view, movies, because they are so bright and sensuous, so emotionally potent, so appealing to eye and ear, are, by definition, inherently evil. This view was formerly held with regard to theater. (Early Christians closed the theaters in Rome; the Puritans closed the London theaters in the 17th century). This negative view of theatrical art still survives today. Today, even as I write, the news reports on the bombing of a crowded movie theater in Asia because one terrorist group views all movies as inherently evil.

A different approach sees God as the ultimate source of beauty and art. When human beings make pictures (whether static or moving) or compose stories, they imitate their Creator, however imperfectly. This view says that all truth is God’s truth, whatever the source. In the creative act, the artist, screenwriter, director, or actor pierces the veil and exposes some deep truth about life. This “sacramental” view is well expressed by Simone Weil: “Every true artist has had real, direct, and immediate contact with the beauty of the world, contact that is of the nature of a sacrament. God has inspired every first-rate work of art, though its subject matter be utterly and entirely secular.”

“There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the incarnation,” writes Madeleine L’Engle. If we adopt this incarnational view, then hanging out at the intersection of film-making and faith makes a lot of sense. Why movies? Here are three brief answers.

First, movies feed the imagination.
As an art form, movies are intended to do what all art is designed to do—entertain by allowing us to imagine. Movies are artful dreams captured on celluloid, yielding pleasure. Sigmund Freud observed perceptively that art is actually a form of daydreaming. (Steven Spielberg calls his movie production company “Dreamworks” for good reason.) A movie is “a vivid and continuous dream,” to borrow John Gardner’s language. In their power to approximate dreams, movies connect us to the longings and the fears of the unconscious mind. Escape through story is the oldest human entertainment.

But movie watching is more than escape. It can be therapeutic or liberating, in the way that sports, recreation, or dream-filled sleep refreshes and revives us. Often, after a taxing week, I come home, weary to the core. My brain is too addled to absorb a book; but a movie, ah, the right movie, lifts my spirits like nothing else. When life is tough, at times overwhelming, a couple of hours’ release with popcorn and Coke in hand is not to be lightly dismissed.

Movies, it is necessary to reiterate, are stories. Movies flourish because they satisfy a fundamental human need for narrative experience. Whether we receive stories by flickering campfires in the forest or by flickering movie projectors in modern theaters, we will, we must, have our stories. In the past, stories came to us primarily through aged men and women of the village, hearth, and home, who delivered their legendary fictions orally, sometimes set to music. In the 18th and 19th centuries the storytellers’ art was largely transferred to the great novelists. In the 20th century movie-makers ascended the great chair of storytelling. Though the medium has changed, our need for narrative remains constant and essential.

Second, movies reveal moral and spiritual insights.
One of the great paradoxes of art is that it can, through the guise of fiction, tell us very important and lasting truths about the human condition. “Photography is truth. And cinema is truth twenty-four times a second,” quipped the French director Jean-Luc Godard. Often the best films function as parables of truth (Babette’s Feast, Life Is Beautiful, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, The Mission, Signs, and Lord of the Rings come immediately to mind), revealing important things about us and our world—the power of love, the grace of generosity, the search for faith, the evils of war and greed, and so forth.)

Finally, movies are an excellent means of communicating with an unchurched world.
Movies are a central feature of America’s popular culture. Indeed, the world’s appetite for American film is staggering. The biggest films produced in America are seen around the world within weeks of their release. Sometimes they are pirated and seen around the world before they’re released in theaters. When you consider the billions of videos and DVDs rented annually, one realizes that movies are truly the lingua franca of our day, as Robert Johnston argues.

I have found it possible to engage even casual acquaintances in significant conversations about life’s meaning and purpose through “movie talk.” Movies provide a particularly sturdy bridge to youth culture. If you want to fathom the spirit of the age, then there is no better means than film. If you haven’t seen Matrix, Minority Report or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you simply have less to go on when it comes to engaging the people of our culture.

Since movies are “the language of mankind,” powerfully mirroring the spirit of the age, it is necessary to learn this language if one is serious about outreach to the unchurched. A Christian community concerned about outreach stands on perilous ground if it severs itself from the very culture that it is attempting to reach.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Film-making today seems starkly bipolar: the good is very good; the bad is awful beyond words. Can we feel good about film when there is so much stupid, cruel, prurient, blasphemous, and banal trash? It’s worth recalling that hundreds of films are released each year, if we include those from around the world. In this deluge, Christians are called to discern: “Prove all things; hold fast to that which is good.” Just as corrupt politicians do not undermine the validity of good government, just as medical quacks do not refute good medicine, and just as religious hypocrites do not negate pure religion, so bad movies do not invalidate good ones.

We do face the great task, though, of educating ourselves in how to discern good films from bad. Parents, church leaders, and educators in particular ought to develop and adopt curricula that teach our young how to read movies for hidden content and implicit values. (One could argue that some of the most dangerous productions appear innocuous and inoffensive on the surface.) Robert Benne’s book Seeing Is Believing and Robert K. Johnston’s Reel Spirituality are good places to begin.

C. S. Lewis, in arguing for Christians to become good scholars in the secular world, provides an argument for getting educated in film: “A cultural life will exist outside the church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated.” Dialogue, engagement, and education require hard work, but this seems much preferable to a life in the cloister where one abdicates the right to communicate with the world.

Carl Sandburg proclaimed, “All movies, good or bad, are educational. Hollywood is the foremost educational institution on earth. What, Hollywood more important than Harvard? The answer is not as clean as Harvard, but nevertheless farther reaching.” We may debate the virtue of the medium, but there is little doubt; movies (with television) are our chief sources of story. One might say that today nearly every Christian lives at the noisy intersection of film and faith, Hollywood and the Divine. We can complain, or we can figure out how to make better use of our remarkable location.

Robert Johnston quotes Barry Taylor, a minister who serves a church frequented by those in the movie industry, on the fact that many in Hollywood do care about spiritual values: “There is a very, very serious conversation going on in our culture…about God. And the church is not part of it. We’re not invited to the conversation most of the time…and we’re not aware.” Perhaps now is the time to stand on the corner, look around, and join the conversation.New Wineskins

Darryl Tippens

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1581 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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