At the close of each year it is customary for film critics and arts pundits to craft “top ten” lists, based on their ideas about what constitutes fine acting, solid screenwriting, or exceptional directing. But most people don’t minutely examine their entertainment choices this way. Often, people will simply say “I liked it.” They might not even be able to articulate just what it is about a film that moves them.
You will not soon see a better film about redemption and its effects than Les Miserables. Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, director Tom Hooper has brought the Broadway musical version of this tale to the screen in all of its ethical and spiritual complexity. Sure, there is romance and some revolutionary action (though the story takes place in post-Revolutionary France), but the focus of the tale is Jean Valjean.
Valjean is a convict. After serving nineteen years in prison at hard labor for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, he is released -- but can find neither work nor kindness. Valjean becomes a drifter and a vagrant, sleeping on the streets, constantly exposed to ridicule and brutality. But, by an act of grace, Valjean is approached by a concerned local bishop who invites him to come into the church where he might find rest and food for his body and soul.
Movie theaters are supposed to be a place of escape – for at least a couple of hours -- from the challenges of everyday living. But for the victims and their families and friends in Aurora, Colorado an act of horrifying violence shattered the illusion. Right now they are the center of attention, feeding a 24/7 news cycle. But when the media senses issue fatigue in the minds of its nationwide audience and shifts away to newer, fresher stories, the pain that began in the early morning hours last Friday will linger. For many, it will never go away.
According to S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury in The Avengers, sometimes battles are simply too big for us to fight on our own – for those times, we need superheroes to step in and fight for us. But in the universe of The Amazing Spider-Man, it isn’t that the forces arrayed against the humans are too powerful for us to handle, it is that the authorities that should be in place for our protection have failed. The world Peter Parker inhabits lacks potent authority, and, in watching it, one gets the sense that he is – for the most part – on his own. If there are problems, it is up to him to fix it. This might not be the recipe for a feel-good summer film, but it does correctly identify the ingredients that makes The Amazing Spider-Man ring true for some of its viewers.
The Apocalyptic Life in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
June 26, 2012
You wake up one morning and discover that the only safeguard standing between you and impending death has been obliterated. Death is coming. It is relentless and swift. You have three weeks remaining. Suddenly, years lose their meaning. Every second counts. How will you spend them? This is the scenario constructed in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.
Critics could easily accuse the film of being confused – it has a hard time figuring out if it wants to be a romantic comedy, a raunch-fest, or a serious drama. In actuality, this array of responses might be precisely how different people might really react if they knew that the world was to be destroyed in the very near future. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World does not provide an answer to the problem of annihilation, it just describes possibilities – and, as a result, for those who see it, it may become one of the most personally illuminating films of the year. What would you do if you knew you were going to die?
What are life’s most pressing questions? According to Peter Weyland, head of the Weyland Corporation which is funding an inter-stellar space voyage, they include: “Where do we come from? What is the soul? What happens when we die?” Seeking answers to these questions represents the initial reason behind a trillion-dollar space expedition in the film Prometheus. Millions of theater-goers are encountering these questions this summer for eight to fifteen dollars at their local multiplex. All three questions represent the kind of thought-provoking inquiry that should occupy us in our most introspective moments and amidst our deep conversations with like-minded friends. The answers Prometheus offers represent a cautionary tale, but it does not follow that those who see it must come to similar conclusions. Prometheus, in its quest for God, is looking in the wrong place, searching with the wrong tools, and seeking the right end with a wrong attitude. Fortunately, we need not look to cave paintings to locate an appropriate roadmap to God.
How Family Fares in What to Expect When You’re Expecting
May 31, 2012
What to Expect When You’re Expecting takes the title of a best-selling non-fiction primer on pregnancy and slaps it on to a generic movie about making babies. Like many of the ensemble cast films such as New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day, the hope is that by crowding the screen with a wide assortment of relatable types, everyone will find connection with at least one character. The result – in terms of audience response and box office reception – has been tepid.
It is superfluous to call the film “unrealistic” – this is Hollywood, after all. And What to Expect When You’re Expecting does have a number of positives going for it: babies are celebrated, pregnancy is a good goal rather than a plague to be avoided at all costs, adoption is affirmed, and miscarriages are grieved. But the film also poses dangers by positively spinning some common mythologies about out-of-wedlock births, and portrays men as petulant, whiney onlookers.
Like the Hulk, The Avengers, directed by the imaginative Joss Whedon, has smashed all previous weekend box-office records, hauling in over $200M in just three days. So what is it about these kinds of films that draws people to see them over and over? Part of it is the sheer spectacle of it all, some of it is star power – and piggy-backing onto heroes such as Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, who are or will soon be franchises in their own right, doesn’t hurt.
But I think it goes deeper. Plenty of films with exciting battle sequences tank at the box office. The question always comes down to what’s at stake. People want to see stories about real good and evil, and they are fascinated by superheroes whose existence points up the fact that we cannot always save ourselves. Sometimes, we need someone to fight for us.
Remember when romantic commitment was followed by a ring, a date, a wedding, a house, kids, and a choice to act in a loving way toward the beloved every day until death parted the lovers? If you don’t, you have probably spent the last ten years or so watching Hollywood’s version of “the love story.” This week, three romantic tales are in the top five at the box office: Think Like a Man, The Five-Year Engagement, and The Lucky One. While the films do a relatively good job identifying the problems facing modern romance, their answers to those problems represent half-solutions unlikely to do much to heal the wounds that have been inflicted in the long-standing battle between the sexes.
With more depth than any summer action flick, The Hunger Games speaks to the very real fears and hopes of the coming generation, and illuminates much about contemporary culture. The film exposes both a horrible idolatry and a desperate longing, revealed in the kinds of motivations and sacrifices which support each side in the battle for cultural and spiritual supremacy.
It is easy to read The Hunger Games as a political story of youthful idealism in the face of a tyrannical state (and it is that). But it is also a mirror, reflecting both our appetites and our longings. The Hunger Games is us.
Project X and Wanderlust – On Being Lost in America
March 6, 2012
What does it take to be included, to feel a part of something bigger than yourself? In the past two weeks, two films, made for two generations, have sought to answer that question. Both are comedies, both rated R, and both come to the most dismal answers imaginable. I think it was Francis Schaeffer who argued that this is the first generation of people who do not know what they were made for. And it was G.K. Chesterton who said that people who reject God do not believe in nothing, they will believe anything. Those two ideas are on full, tragic display in Project X and Wanderlust.
The Bible is a war manual. You don’t have to read very far before you discover that there are, as Chuck Colson once noted, “kingdoms in conflict.” The spiritual life is referred to as a battle, and (as descriptions of Armageddon clarify) Jesus is not just Lord of your life, He is a Lord of War. Of course, the weapons with which this spiritual war is waged are quite different from those issued by the Armed Forces. But while watching the film Act of Valor, it occurred to me that Christians could benefit from revisiting some of the military metaphors that undergird their theology and practice. The personal peace and prosperity gospel preached from many pulpits, the easy believe-ism touting a nearly risk-free encounter with God, sedates many believers, making them unfit for the fight. A film like Act of Valor, rightly viewed, can be a real wake-up call.
I have been a longstanding fan of Tyler Perry films since Diary of a Mad Black Woman. And I am no Madea purist. I also thought that non-Madea films such as Daddy’s Little Girls and The Family that Preys were also heart-felt and thought provoking. Perry is proof that filmmakers who believe that African-American actors are limited in their role selection are wrong. He depicts all of the socio-economic diversity of African Americans and never sounds judgmental or patronizing. He just portrays their slices of life, often with a fair amount of depth.
So I was a little shocked upon exiting the theater this evening for the midnight showing of Good Deeds to see that Perry – who serves as director, screenwriter, and leading man in the film – has finally done it and crafted a mediocre movie, that is long on melodrama, but incredibly short on substance.
In Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Nicholas Cage returns as Johnny Blaze, the man who once made a deal with the devil to save his father’s life, and became the devil’s bounty hunter. In the original Ghost Rider film, when he is in the presence of evil, Blaze turns into the Ghost Rider, a flaming skeleton in riding leathers who eats the souls of the wicked. Despite the demon that inhabits his body, Blaze struggles to bring good out of evil.
The whole idea behind edgy, independent film is that by prying themselves from the commercial grip of major studios, filmmakers finally have the freedom to tell the truth. Sometimes this works. Last year’s The Redemption of General Butt Naked and Higher Ground were intense explorations of spiritual life. Both films were challenging in different ways, but managed to maintain a respect for their religious subject matter. This year, Sundance again returns to tackle spiritual matter in documentaries and feature films. While no single look at Sundance can do the entire festival justice – there are, after all, only so many hours in a day one can watch movies – my hope is that my nearly twenty screenings will provide at least a representative sampling.
Today is my first full day at the Sundance Film Festival. Snow is falling on Park City, Utah as I trudge through the slush from venue to venue, taking in movies that are generally revered as some of the edgiest independent films in the world. So far, they have not failed to deliver. Controversial, spiritually evocative, and occasionally unnerving, this is cinema designed to reorient your thinking.
The films on my list for the day: The Surrogate, Red Lights, and 5 Broken Cameras. Each presents its own set of challenges. Sundance is not for the faint of heart, the films are often raw and unsettling – you get the sense that these filmmakers really want to say something. I listened. Now it’s my turn. So here are some short takes on festival films coming soon to a theater near you.
There are all kind of theories floating around about what life must have been like between Adam and Eve and the animals in the pre-fall Garden of Eden, but I wonder if it looked quite a bit like what I saw at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium last week. This impressive facility is the real-world setting of the film Dolphin Tale, which opens on Friday, September 23rd. Inspired by a true story, Dolphin Tale chronicles the rehabilitation of Winter, a very personable porpoise who plays herself in the film (helped along by some CGI and a very realistic animatronic double).
As a young dolphin, Winter got her flukes caught in a crab trap, and the damage was so severe that she lost her tail. In one of the most intriguing rehab stories I have ever seen, Dolphin Tale shows how human love and ingenuity combine to give new life to an otherwise doomed creature. The film is empowering and inspiring, and, for a movie some might mistakenly dismiss as a children’s film, brings with it some deeper ideas about loss, empowerment, and dominion.
Bethany Hamilton has an extraordinary story to tell. Working hard to enter the ranks of professional surfing, by the age of 13 she already had a sponsor. But her life was shattered one morning in 2003. Out in the water, on a beautiful day, she was attacked by a 15-foot-long tiger shark. The shark bit through Bethany’s surfboard, and took off her arm at the shoulder. In a sport that requires the ability to push up on a floating, moving piece of foam and fiberglass, the loss of an arm would be, for most people, a career-ending injury.
But Bethany Hamilton is not “most people.”
Her incredible adventure is the subject of a new film, Soul Surfer, which opened nationwide on April 8th. The filmmakers are banking on the idea that the public is ready for a film that champions the triumph of family, faith, and the human spirit – not usually a big stretch, except that in this case they are willing to share Bethany’s life, all of it, including her deep faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
What is it with British filmmakers and attacking God?
Eighteen months ago, Ricky Gervais took an interesting premise in The Invention of Lying – he creates a world where people compulsively tell the truth -- and uses it to ridicule the Christian faith. The “theology” (and I use the word loosely) that Gervais brings to the screen could be demolished by any second-year seminary student, and even by many lay Christians. Talking fast and being funny isn’t a substitute for clear thought and evidence.
So this week we get another serving of religious ridicule courtesy of Paul, the new film by screenwriters/actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. As someone who appreciated much of the genre-lampooning humor in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, I was interested to see where Pegg and Frost would go with their alternative alien-comes-to-Earth scenario. At first, it appeared as if they were going to carefully skewer the idea of difference – the problems of being an “alien” in its many contemporary iterations. But the one difference that the filmmakers will not abide is a difference in theological ideology.
More Theological Questions than Answers in The Adjustment Bureau – Just as it Should Be
March 7, 2011
I have called The Adjustment Bureau this year’s Inception, because, like Inception, it keeps the viewer guessing, demanding that answers come from the audience, not necessarily from the film. If heated discussion follows a screening, so much the better. Arguing for rival interpretations of a film helps to clarify one’s own view, while remaining open to the alternative experiences of others. We talk.
I could pose a dozen or more questions that occurred to me while watching The Adjustment Bureau. Instead, I will focus on four and leave readers to discover others for themselves. But I think I can confidently predict that there is unlikely to be another film this year that will match The Adjustment Bureau in the sheer weight of the questions with which viewers are left to grapple.
“I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves.” Screwtape, in The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
Somebody down below didn’t get the memo.
The only thing that masks demonic forces in The Rite, a new film by director Mikael Håfström, is the lack of spiritual discernment by the young seminarian, Michael Kovac. His self-imposed blindness to the reality of diabolical forces, and how he regains his spiritual eyesight is the focus of The Rite, a complex story that explores practical faith and wrestles with theological questions. One thing is for sure. If you are a jaded filmgoer, if you think that you have already seen everything an exorcism film has to offer, think again.
Two days in to week two at Sundance and I am detecting a theme, at least in the films that I selected to see at this, the nations premiere independent film festival: we are lost. I am sure that there are plenty of feel-good films here in Park City, but for some reason, I have not seen them. Over the span of 48 hours I have watched as filmmakers shared their vision with festival-goers, and that vision is bleak. What a great opportunity for the faith community.
Some people go to the movies to escape. They gravitate toward formula romantic comedies, something safe and familiar. Sundance understands that films do much more than merely entertain. They can, and should, make you think, challenging the status quo, exhibiting the pain of the human condition, and trying to offer – if not some kind of solution – at least a chance to evoke conversation that might lead to one. So far, I have encountered visions of a declining west that does not know where it is, what it’s doing, or what people are worth. These filmmakers represent a significant cross-section of American culture that is dangerously adrift.
Fear, Temptation, and the Narrow Passage in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
December 10, 2010
Breathtakingly beautiful, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is another in a series of thought-provoking adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. For book purists, there will always be the shock of seeing changes to a beloved storyline (for me, the second viewing is always better than the first because I can now watch the film on its own merits). But none of the films have shied away from confronting important moral and spiritual issues present in the books.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is no exception – fear is the target of temptation, and easy solutions are both alluring and damning, but there is always a way out, if we will only seek it. How many modern books or films deal with these kinds of dilemmas that both children and adults daily face? That is the wonder of Lewis – his stories hold rich meaning at whatever level you encounter them. Whether you are a child, or a parent sharing the stories with your children, you will be challenged.
Aslan, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed: Liam Neeson and the Narnia Press Controversy
December 8, 2010
If all I knew about The Voyage of the Dawn Treader came from the general press conference I attended after the Royal Premiere in London last week, I would come to a pretty startling conclusion: Aslan is like Christ, but could just as easily be like Buddha or Mohammed.
Some outlets – from London’s The Daily Mail to The Catholic News Agency – report that Christians are upset and angry about comments made by Liam Neeson, who is a professional actor and not a theologian. But the proper response to such misguided statements is compassion and education. The knowledge that someone so close to the characters can so fully misunderstand their power only emphasizes the need for Christians to go to the film with friends (or, as Douglas Gresham -- C.S. Lewis’ stepson -- aptly noted, “take your enemies; you’re supposed to love them, too”). That way, we can talk about the film, exploring its themes, and, if necessary, about Neeson’s statements to the press.
Before you go, ask yourself: What can we, as Christians -- fans of the fictional world of Narnia, and witnesses to the factual power of Jesus Christ – do to help those filmgoers who are attracted to Aslan (but aren’t sure why) to know him better?
Christmas films are coming – none is more eagerly awaited than The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Fans of the films adapted from the books by C.S. Lewis know that Narnia was once a land ruled by the evil White Witch who made it a place where it was “always winter, but never Christmas.” The Great Lion Aslan – the Christ-figure in Lewis’ stories – is ultimately responsible for the liberation of Narnia. But he calls four children: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy to partner with him. Most children would give anything to take part in such a heroic tale.
Now they can.
Samaritan’s Purse has joined with 20th Century Fox, Walden Media, and Grace Hill Media to bring the hope and grace of Christmas, in the name of Jesus, to children who desperately need it.
Kick-A** and The Perfect Game: How Kids Are Portrayed in Film Says A Lot About Our Culture
April 17, 2010
The 1957 Little League World Series team from Monterrey, Mexico is facing another David and Goliath story this weekend. This time it doesn’t happen on a baseball diamond, but at the box office. The Perfect Game is based on the true story of a poor Mexican Little League team’s improbable road to baseball immortality. How will these boys fare against an 11-year-old foul-mouthed, blood-spattered vigilante named “Hit Girl” – one of the featured killers in the indie comic book-based Kick-A**? The answer will say a lot about the kind of culture we inhabit, and what it considers “entertainment.”
Letters to God – Christians Should Vote with their Wallets
April 6, 2010
This Friday an amazing thing is going to happen. The kind of movie that evangelicals loudly claim to want is coming to a theater near you. Letters to God -- a film directed by one of the producers of Fireproof -- is a family drama about Tyler, a young boy who literally writes, and mails, letters to God. In the letters, Tyler speaks to God as a close friend in a way that recognizes that he may meet his Maker before too long. Tyler has cancer.
Romance, Tragedy, and Responding to the Gifting of God: An Interview with Nicholas Sparks
March 31, 2010
Romantic tragedy continues to be a strong draw at the bookstore and the box office. Nicholas Sparks, author of numerous best-sellers, including The Notebook, A Walk to Remember, Dear John, and his latest The Last Song, is one of the top writers in this genre. On a sunny afternoon in Santa Monica, Sparks and I sat down to talk about his first screenplay for The Last Song (in theaters March 31), his thoughts about writing from a Christian perspective, and how Christians should respond to God’s call to the arts.
James Cameron will have to console himself with the over $2.5 billion in worldwide box office receipts that his film, Avatar, has raked in over the past few months (and more coming in daily). When it came time to hand out the Oscars at the end of the seemingly-eternal Academy Awards ceremony, Cameron’s neo-pagan/environmental vision was trounced in all the categories that focus on storytelling – though kudos are due to his technical crew who raised the bar on visual 3-D effects. And even the technical thrill is likely to be short-lived. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland – another 3-D extravaganza – had opening weekend ticket sales that eclipsed that of Avatar’s. Still, there is something to be said for delivering first.
So if giant blue indigenous aliens fighting greedy capitalist strip miners couldn’t wrest gold from the Academy, what kind of stories did? This year, it was tales of sacrifice and redemption – at least in the main categories for screenplay, three of the four main acting awards, direction, best animated feature and best picture.
Once again, MovieMinistry rejects the backward-looking top ten lists. (Do you really need someone else’s opinion to determine which ten films you thought were best?) Instead, we look ahead, to try to help you to identify the upcoming films that appear to have some ministry potential. So if you use film for outreach, or if you are trying to find some movies that may have some great clips that represent teachable moments, this is our first take. Do remember that I have not seen most of the films on this list. It is compiled based on synopses of plots, familiarity with the books or myths that inspire the films, and trailers. Release dates are subject to change at the last minute, and any number of great films could suddenly appear on the schedule that are absent from it now. Also, the MPAA has yet to rate most of these films, so exercise discretion.
Here are MovieMinistry’s Films to Look for in 2010:
Committed to Character in Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel
December 23, 2009
“If hardcore Star Trek fans are called Trekkers, I guess our fans would be called Munkers.” Producer Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. was talking about the three generations of people who are devoted followers of furry little band members with high-pitched voices. Since their debut as a singing group in the 1950s, Alvin and the Chipmunks have starred in two television series – The Alvin Show in 1963, and Alvin and the Chipmunks in 1983. The Squeakquel is actually their third theatrical release, and if the blockbuster status of the 2007 film is any indication, Alvin’s third outing will likely be a monster hit.
I grew up with the Chipmunks. Their signature hit “The Chipmunk Song” was released the year I was born, and is still a holiday classic (“Me, I want a hula hoop” – c’mon, you know the words!). In every incarnation, the Chipmunks have found their audience, and a lot of the credit can go to the unstinting commitment of producers Ross Bagdasarian, Jr., the son of the creator of the Chipmunks, and his wife Janice Karman to protect their characters and tell a meaningful story.
When Children Fail, When Parents Love: Keys to a Good Christmas in Everybody’s Fine
December 3, 2009
I don’t know about you, but when the subject of Christmas comes up, a lot of people tell me that they plan to spend the holiday with their extended families. And yet, very few of them seem happy about that. It seems Christmas with family falls somewhere on the emotional spectrum between paying bills and giving birth to conjoined triplets. No one has said to me, “I can’t wait to go home for Christmas because my family is so warm and inviting, like Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.” In an age renowned for tolerance, I find this distressing. Agape love, the queen mother of Christian ideals, is easily understood by everyone, from the most eminent psychiatrist to the simplest simon, to be the soil in which humans thrive. Everybody loves unconditional love. Why is it so hard to give?
Everybody’s Fine, the latest offering from writer/director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine, Nanny McPhee), shows viewers vividly what can happen when we see and accept one another as we truly are. Specifically, it addresses the problem of the high expectations of some parents for their children, and what can happen when the children fail to live up to the family standard as defined by dad.
Self as the Standard of Spiritual Truth, Love as the Ultimate Idol: Old Problems Arise in New Moon
November 23, 2009
I have a confession to make. I am not a tweenage girl. And some of them will take immediate offense that I am criticizing what many of them consider "the greatest love story of all time." I know this because I was at the Thursday midnight screening of The Twilight Saga: New Moon and I saw it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears. With every haunted glance, every near-kiss, every desperate clinch, audible sighs erupted throughout the theater, sometimes drowning out the dialogue. When the film was over, I saw numerous young ladies dabbing at their eyes with popcorn napkins. It was really just too much. Really.
Based firmly in Romeo and Juliet - that is if Romeo were an undead, 100-year-old vampire - The Twilight Saga: New Moon (adapted from the best-selling series by Stephenie Meyer) tries hard to ratchet up the romance. Edward and Bella are about as star-crossed a set of lovers as you are likely to encounter, particularly since Edward has the stunning misfortune of being dead. They separate when Edward feels as if his presence puts Bella in too much danger, and, of course, his absence increases her vulnerability as a target. Needing a protector, in steps lupine Jakob Black. Mayhem, and not a little bit of almost kissing ensues. As someone who spends considerable time in theaters trying to ferret out the cultural and spiritual implications of popular film, I am not unaccustomed to seeing silliness on the screen. And I am not a curmudgeon - I love a good, sentimental film as well as anyone else. So if New Moon were simply a silly, Hannah-Montana-with-fangs type of film, I probably would just let it go.
Unfortunately, New Moon takes advantage of its tweenage audience's budding love interests and spiritual inexperience in ways that really are horrifying. [For other discussion topics related to New Moon, see our FilmTalk Small Group Bible Study at www.movieministry.com] Since the film is breaking box office records, -- the weekend estimates are over $140 million -- meaning that millions of people are rushing to see it, this fictional film opens a very real opportunity to discuss how to approach spiritual issues, the danger of love as an idol (one that demands reckless sacrifices), and why it is the Church, not Hollywood, that has the best answer to the human desire for passionate romance and love.
Living Faith Out Loud: Capturing Authentic Christians on Film in The Blind Side
November 20, 2009
Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy told me that they did not have script approval, and therefore had no control over how they were portrayed on screen in The Blind Side. The film is the story of how the Tuohys brought a troubled, homeless black teen, who could barely read, into their family. They gave him a bed, food, and love, and watched him mature into a dean's list scholar at Ole Miss, and the finest collegiate left tackle in the nation. The young man was Michael Oher, who is currently playing his rookie season for the Baltimore Ravens.
That the Tuohys were unconcerned about their portrayal struck me as an act of faith. Sean said that it really didn't matter how they appeared, because everyone at church who really knew the Tuohys would recognize them if the portrayal was accurate, and dismiss it if Hollywood got them wrong. His only concession to the magic of the silver screen came in a lament. At his current stage of life, Sean is in the "cuddle weight" division. When country western star, and sometime actor, Tim McGraw (who is very fit) asked what Sean thought about being played by him, Sean, laughing, replied, "if you could take your shirt off in the film and walk around for about 20 seconds, you and I are good." But, to be honest, that image would have been an illusion, and the truth of what appears on screen is so much more appealing. The Tuohys trusted director John Lee Hancock to get it right.
God as a Convenient Falsehood in The Invention of Lying
October 8, 2009
No one watching the trailers for Ricky Gervais’ The Invention of Lying would have any idea that the film is largely a thinly-veiled attack on the truth claims of monotheistic religion – one that mirrors Gervais’ personal beliefs (search YouTube for “Ricky Gervais religion” to view his musings). Instead, the unsuspecting moviegoer might think that it is a film about a world in which lying was impossible, until one day, one man found that he could say something that was not so – and he uses his newly acquired trait to get rich, and to trick women into having sex with him. Okay, the film does touch on those themes, but the majority of the film centers on a big, comforting lie that Gervais’ character, Mark Bellison, tells his dying mother.
Maybe it is the fleeting popularity of books by atheism-advocating authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens that prompted someone to greenlight an $18.5M budget for The Invention of Lying. Based on the opening week’s box office grosses, however, it might be a long time before the production company recoups its costs, if ever. Most people, it seems, do not wish to pay to have a comedian speculate that God is an elaborate ruse concocted by some people to make other people feel better about their own impending demise.
Hollywood likes to traffic in the seedy. Redemption stories only seem to appear when 'redemption' means pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps. Studios have had a couple of great chances to talk about real redemption through biographies lately, but they are unwilling to rise to the occasion. In Walk the Line, the filmmakers focus on Johnny Cash as a free-wheeling hell raiser, but give only a tiny nod to the role played by the church in his redemption. It completely ignores his later life, when he turned to Christ and recorded some of the most haunting gospel music ever laid down.
It is far too early to write the memoirs of Mark Whitacre, the subject of the bio-pic The Informant! Whitacre was the youngest division president ever at Archer Daniels Midland - a huge corporation. A biochemist by training, when a chemical process at the plant goes bad and the division starts losing piles of money, he concocts a sabotage story to cover his trail. And that happens draw in the FBI. Moving from the proverbial frying pan, Whitacre explains to FBI Special Agent Brian Sheppard that ADM is actually involved in international price fixing. Thus begins his multi-year stint as an undercover informant for the FBI, while simultaneously running the very company he is in the process of bringing down.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs – A Quick Take from MovieMinistry
September 18, 2009
Don't let the spectacular 3-D imagery in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs fool you. Over the past few months I have become leery of movies in 3-D because touting that technology was always a tip-off that the story was going to take a back seat.
Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, adapting the children's story by Judi and Ron Barrett, have crafted a very clever film.
Critics of the Harry Potter films have noted that Harry and his friends are often rewarded for lying and breaking the rules. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince should put such fears to rest. The Harry Potter books and films are not sequels – a new story coming along just because the first one sold well. They are, all together, a single story. Critics ought to be careful about making hard and fast claims before the entire story is in. The books are finished, but the films are still being crafted. And, as the characters now are on the verge of adulthood, they discover that actions that may have been winked at in the past begin to carry heavy consequences.
The storyline in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince opens just moments after Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ends – with the local paper speculating on Harry Potter as “The Chosen One” after his momentous battle with the Deatheaters and Lord Voldemort. Harry’s “reward” for all of his struggles is greater responsibility. Professor Dumbledore must show Harry some frightening things, and even put him in great peril, because the task set before them is a battle to the death.
With the stakes of the conflict clearly revealed, and the urgency to act demonstrated by a direct attack on London by the Deatheaters, Harry has to transition from bull-headed adolescent to battle-ready young adult. The most important lesson he must learn is to obey. The film reveals the punishment that accompanies disobedience, why obedience is so terrifying to us, what it takes to submit oneself to a higher calling, and why circumstances we can see are less important than outcomes we cannot.
Once you get past the first four of the Ten Commandments that deal with humans’ relationship to God, the first “horizontal” commandment is that people honor their fathers and mothers (Exodus 20:12). Last month we honored mothers. If you went to church, you may have seen moms getting flowers, perhaps being asked to stand, even receiving applause. The sermon likely extolled the virtues of motherhood with a special emphasis on appreciating the women who raised us.
This Sunday is Father’s Day, and I have, on more occasions than I wished, sat through Father’s Day sermons that primarily explained how men have failed as fathers, and why, if we would just adopt a 3-, 7-, or 12-step plan of self-flagellation and growth, we might be able to become the men God intended. Like most men, I am not the perfect father. Like all people, I am not a perfect person. But how will our children learn to honor their fathers if they can’t even get an attaboy from the pulpit on Father’s Day? They certainly are unlikely to get it at the Cineplex.
Still, if you look, you can find some very virtuous dads in film. Here are a few examples.
Losing Your Life to Gain It: Guidelines for Growing Old in Up
June 4, 2009
There is a two-tiered error into which our youth-obsessed culture has fallen concerning the elderly, and Up poignantly illuminates its folly. The first is the myth of retirement. The second is our irrational fear of death and how it affects the way we navigate the latter days of our lives. As Patricia Jung points out in her essay, contained in a must-read book for baby boomers, Growing Old in Christ, “Why do we persist in stereotyping the elderly as ‘over the hill’? Partly this is a consequence of not being able to imagine that such aging has any purpose.” Is there meaningful life after 70? Up emphatically says “Yes.”
When Ron Howard’s screen adaptation of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code premiered in the spring of 2006, Sony Pictures delivered the Church an unexpected gift. People who never would have attended a week-long evening series on Church History were flocking to seminars promising to expose The Da Vinci Code! As a result, millions of people learned more about the history of the Church, and delved more deeply into Christology than they otherwise might. A little confrontation is often just what the Church needs. Nothing raises the blood like battle – even in academic issues.
The controversy “revealed” in Angels and Demons (if it can even be called such) is that the Catholic Church has had an unfortunate history of persecuting scientists, and now (apologies for adapting the words of Reverend Wright) its “chickens have come home to roost.” Unfortunately for Catholic bashers, the chickens in question never really left the coop.
Enough has been written setting the record straight about the relationship between science and the Church that any interested person can find it by mounting even a cursory investigation. In How Should We Then Live, Francis Schaeffer explains how the development of the sciences was informed by a Judeo-Christian worldview. What is of greater interest is the way that Angels and Demons identifies, and then glosses over, Professor Langdon’s responses to explicit questions regarding faith in God. Debates over the historical treatment of science by the Church are questions of fact that, with enough research and open minds among the participants, can be resolved. The results make for poor reading for the conspiracy-minded. But identifying the focus of an inquiry into the existence of God, recognizing the limits of the human mind, and determining the requirements for faith are essentials for every Christian wishing dialogue with unbelievers in the West. All three of these issues make an appearance in a single scene in Angels and Demons.
Healing Comes to the Broken-Hearted in Sunshine Cleaning
April 15, 2009
If Henry David Thoreau was right when he said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them,” then Sunshine Cleaning is a film about some exceptional, desperate people who learn to sing.
Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008, it has taken over a year for a wise distributor to deliver Sunshine Cleaning to the public. The timing could not be better. In the midst of a serious economic downturn, with people wondering which end is up, or even if there is an up, many will relate to the story of Rose Lorkowski – a maid who starts a most unusual janitorial service.
Directed by Christine Jeffs, Sunshine Cleaning explores our chaotic possession-and image-obsessed culture and the people on the outside who greatly desire to be part of that “in” group. The answer Jeffs advances is that the true meaning of life is rooted not in stuff, but in deeper things, and that joy can be found in serving others, in touching their lives. That this revelation comes only to those willing to recognize their own brokenness and their need for help borders on the biblical. Sunshine Cleaning is a thought-provoking film.
Meaning in Life, Inevitability of Death, and the Prospect of Salvation in the Film Knowing
March 25, 2009
Warning: In order to adequately explore the spiritual themes in the film Knowing, this analysis contains major plot spoilers.
Are we a great cosmic accident, or is there a purpose to life on this planet? This question informs debate in college philosophy classrooms, school board schisms over evolution, deathbed discussions, and is the central controversy in the latest film from director Alex Proyas, Knowing. Adapted from the story by Ryne Douglas Pearson, Knowing follows the spiritual awakening of John Koestler, an MIT scientist drowning in drink and disbelief after the apparently meaningless death of his beloved wife in a hotel fire. In an unfinished dream home, he struggles to parent his precocious and often combative son, Caleb. At work, he poses questions to his students about determinism and randomness, indicating, in an unguarded moment, that he no longer believes that life has meaning.
At a fiftieth anniversary celebration at Caleb’s school, local dignitaries unearth a time capsule, containing letters from students predicting what the future might hold. Amid the pictures of flying cars, Caleb receives a curious envelope. It contains neither a picture nor an essay, but a seemingly random sequence of numbers. Puzzled, Caleb shows the letter to his father, who later determines that these numbers represent the date, and body count, of every major world disaster over the last fifty years. The letter creates a crisis of meaning for John, because three dates in the sequence have yet to arrive, but they will, very shortly.
What makes Knowing noteworthy is not its theological precision (more on that below), but its ability to get people thinking, and talking, about one of the most momentous events in the history of Earth: its end. As the West moves toward a post-Christian understanding of the world, it is unsurprising that people – like John Koestler – should experience an unsettling crisis of meaning. And, like those in the film, after initially rejecting faith we might look for answers in unlikely places. But if there is a determined end to this world, how can knowing about it affect the way we live today? As Christians, we should be able to provide responses to the kind of questions Knowing raises.
The first few weeks of any new year are peppered with top-ten lists. Critics re-hash last year’s reviews and place them in a hierarchy -- kind of like their own personal awards show. At MovieMinistry we do things differently. Instead of looking behind, I prefer to look ahead at films that might represent interesting ministry opportunities for those people who use film for outreach, or to create teachable moments.
Keep in mind that I have yet to see most of these films. The speculations built into this preview are based solely on articles that have appeared about these films, their trailers, and plot synopses. Sometimes we get it wrong. Last year I predicted that X-Files: I Want to Believe might offer opportunities for discussion based on the transcendent themes that often were a part of the show. Unfortunately, it was a mess. Quite a number of films that were identified for release in 2008 were actually held over until 2009, so the jury is still out. But most of the films identified as having spiritual or moral ideas worth discussing, in fact, did. Keep in mind that release dates are always subject to change by the studios, and thought-provoking new films that have yet to be scheduled may suddenly appear. Many of these films are yet to be rated by the MPAA, so exercise discretion.
Here are MovieMinistry’s Films to Look For in 2009:
The Romantic Allure of Total Commitment in It’s a Wonderful Life
January 16, 2009
Marriage is the number one killer of romance. Don’t believe me? Take this simple quiz. Try to think of ten movies, made in the last ten years, that depict a married couple who have a sizzling love life – with each other. Stumped? Now try it again, only this time, name ten films that depict two single people having an intense romantic relationship. Not so hard, is it? Just open the paper to the movie listings and select freely.
People make sense of their lives through the stories of their culture. What we “know” about the world is often not acquired first-hand, but comes to us from secondary sources. In this, the most mediated generation of all time, those stories tend to come from film. It is little wonder, then, that so many young people are putting off marriage. Simply look at the stories that they are most consistently told. Movies tell them that all the events leading up to the wedding are electrifying, full of intense emotional longing, heart fluttering, loss, redemption, and professions of undying love. But “I do” is romantic death.
In last week’s column, I compared the romance message of the vampire teen angst film, Twilight, with the cynical, immature, and anti-marriage message of the appalling Four Christmases. Twilight, I argued, is demonstrably better as a romance film because, while it contains all of the trappings of normal teen courting, it also illustrates that patience, waiting, and sexual restraint before marriage can be a fulfilling source of romance. Additionally, nothing wins a woman over quite like the willingness of her man to face death for her. But there is a holiday film that easily ups the ante in romantic wagers: a man who would certainly be willing to die for his love, but who, instead, chooses to live for her. After all, martyrdom is easy – you only have to die once. Lifetime commitment is harder – you have to be willing to die every day.
What do Teens Really Want? -- Romantic Desire, Courtship, and Marriage in Twilight and Four Christmases
December 4, 2008
Coming out of an advance screening of Twilight, I was surrounded by throngs of breathless adolescents and young adults. By my count, about eighty percent of the audience was female, while the other twenty percent of the audience that was male was, somewhat unwillingly, towed along. The gender split among theatergoers is no surprise to anyone familiar with Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling “chick lit” series on which Catherine Hardwicke’s film is based.
Twilight is all romance; filled with teen angst, longing, Eros (emotionally felt, but never physically consummated), and salvation. Bella (Kristin Stewart), the beautiful, edgy new girl in town, lives with her divorced dad, who is the local sheriff. On her first day at school she locks eyes with the dreamy Edward (Robert Pattinson). Sparks fly. It is love at first sight, but, like all adolescent love stories since Romeo and Juliet, this one is complicated.
Did I mention that Edward is a vampire?
Despite that difficulty, which is partially overcome by Meyer’s intriguing makeover of what was once thought to be singularly monstrous, Twilight strikes a chord with teens – not because it is great literature (or a great film), but because it speaks to truths that people intuitively know. Twilight is perfect counter-programming to last weekend’s release, Four Christmases. Both of these films are purportedly about love, but Twilight’s vampire story revives old-fashioned romance, while Four Christmases drives a contemporary stake through its heart.
Eleven Thought-Provoking Films to Look For This Fall
September 20, 2008
At the beginning of every year, instead of compiling some backward-looking “Top Ten” list, I put together a list of upcoming films that I believe will be useful in sparking conversations about spiritual, moral, and ethical issues. So far, most of the films identified have met expectations. Okay, not enough people saw the X-Files sequel to merit much conversation, Inkheart has been moved to January (rarely a good sign), the latest Star Trek film has been moved to a summer date – a sign that the studio thinks it will be a big hit, but it will be competing with the next installment of Harry Potter, which was moved from its original November release date.
The other films on the early roster: Penelope, Horton Hears a Who, Iron Man, Prince Caspian, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Incredible Hulk, WALL-E, Hancock, and particularly The Dark Knight, all contained a tremendous amount of discussion material. (So many people use film as an entry point for outreach, that MovieMinistry created www.myfilmtalk.com to help them – you can try it free for 30 days). Since that initial list, many new films deserving of notice have entered the calendar. So here is MovieMinistry’s fall addendum – eight additional upcoming movies that appear to have a lot of thought-provoking content. As always, these recommendations are based on trailers and insider buzz, but our track record is pretty good so far. Here are the films to look for:
Henry Poole is Here is a timely film in many senses of that word. To the ancient Greeks time was represented by chronos and kairos. chronos was the word that stood for the passing of time. kairos spoke to the idea of timeliness – as in the right or opportune time. In theological terms, kairos is the kind of time in which God acts. The beauty of Henry Poole is Here is how it uses Henry’s time in the film, and our time in the theater, to infuse chronos – the passage of both Henry’s and our own -- with a little much-needed kairos.
All Life is Like Grass
Henry has a chronos problem. He is running out of time. After a visit to a doctor reveals a very rare, but terminal condition, Henry is understandably devastated. Lacking a billionaire to spice up the last days of his life (as Jack Nicholson did for Morgan Freeman in The Bucket List), Henry does what thousands of people, facing the same kind of diagnosis, do every day: he falls into depression and waits to die.
The Allure of The Dark Knight: Speaking a Troubled Truth to an Anxious Audience
July 25, 2008
The Dark Knight has brought in more money at the box office in its first eight days of release than its predecessor, Batman Begins, did it its entire domestic run. Some point to actor Heath Ledger’s untimely death as a factor, others to his Oscar-nomination-worthy performance as The Joker. Both certainly play a role. Either might get fans into seats at least once, but neither can explain the multiple viewings that blockbuster films of this caliber must attract to post the kind of numbers that The Dark Knight boasts: top opening night of all time, top weekend of all time, top weekly box office of all time – which it accomplished in six, not seven, days, and fastest film to $300 million, cutting the time to the record from sixteen days to only ten.
So what drives audiences to repeat viewings of a film that is, by any standard, a dark film set in a dystopian world with, at best, an ambiguous ending? I would like to argue that The Dark Knight is resonating with film audiences because it has tapped into a collective moral angst about the condition of our culture, and the schizophrenic attitudes many have about what it takes to set things right. In line with our culture of narcissism, regardless of what the mirror shows, we enjoy looking at ourselves. The Dark Knight reflects our culture’s troubling truths: our downward slide into nihilism, the impossibility of continuing to draw from a moral well without replenishing it, and the difficulty of wanting heroes while inhabiting a post-heroic age. The world of The Dark Knight looks both grim and familiar – it is our own, writ large.
“The Way of a Man with a Maid:” Real Romance in WALL-E
July 2, 2008
The Earth has become an enormous refuse heap. Toiling tirelessly amid the rubble is a little anthropomorphic trash compactor named WALL-E. With a cockroach as his only companion, WALL-E has been humming along for hundreds of years, cubing and stacking the endless sea of stuff that humans have used up and thrown away. The dust storms that arise from time to time seem bent on choking out whatever remains of life on this bleak, once-blue planet. Such a barren, post-apocalyptic world hardly seems to be a fertile setting for romance.
Living in an antiseptic culture of quick “hook-ups’ and failed relationships, you would think that people would have built up resistance to the allure of real romance. But we have not. Despite the long odds of success – or perhaps because of them – we value real love. And while we often despair of ever finding it ourselves, we still yearn for the possibility. So even in a bleak world like WALL-E’s, we hope that love can bloom.
The Interior Design of Sex and the City Reflects a Culture in Ruins
June 5, 2008
“Women have the right to behave every bit as badly as men” is not a claim made by the big-screen version of the television hit Sex and the City – it is the film’s presupposition. In the world of Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte, women are every bit as callous, petty, unforgiving, and sexually promiscuous as any man. It’s not an aberration, the film reveals, it’s just the way things are.
I have a confession to make. I am not familiar with the television series. But I assume that I am not alone in seeing the film version of Sex and the City as a stand-alone experience. The filmmakers go out of their way to make sure that I am all caught up on the storyline before the opening credits are finished. The world into which I am ushered is one of tremendous financial privilege and faint moral obligation.
The World, the Flesh, and the Devil: Finding the Narrow Way in Prince Caspian
May 21, 2008
The great desire of sin is to kill you. It begins by trying to kill you spiritually, and once it does so, it will try to physically kill you as well. This law applies to Christians and non-Christians alike. Depending on your theological bent, you might argue that sin in the life of a Christian seeks to kill your effectiveness for the kingdom – but the result in terms of the heavenly war is the same: you are taken out of the fray. If life is a spiritual battle, then sin is the enemy relentlessly seeking your death.
The deadly peril of sin may seem a pretty dark theme for a PG-rated fantasy adventure film, and it surely goes beyond the intent of the author from whose book the film is adapted. But The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian would receive C.S. Lewis’ approval, I think, because even though it diverges mightily from the plot of his well-loved children’s book, it tackles what Lewis believed to be among the deadliest of sins: Pride.
Expelled: Science, Stories, and the Rhetoric of Neo-Darwinism
April 28, 2008
If you listen to the scientific materialists in the science establishment, who are training their big guns on a little documentary film called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, you would think that "science" was a static practice that is certain of which presuppositions and procedures it includes and excludes. The way these scientific materialists have it, by definition, doing science must exclude any reference to God, or any supernatural element, when discussing the origin of our material world. Following in the footsteps of the late Carl Sagan, they confidently proclaim: "The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be."
Problems arise for the science establishment when everyday people recognize that when scientists make such statements they suddenly cease to be scientists, and instead are acting as philosophers and theologians. The ability to expose the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the scientific establishment is just one of the reasons why Expelled may be the most important film released this year. But if you want to see it, you’d better hurry.
From Cinema to Sermon: Using Movies to Illustrate (Part Two)
March 18, 2008
In the first part of this essay, I defended the use of popular culture as a source of sermon material, and showed how it has been profitably used to build a bridge to the gospel. In part two I want to look at the when and how to use film clips in sermons and teaching.
Careful Choices Yield Best Results
If film clips are to be used effectively in preaching, guidelines concerning number and placement need to be observed. How many clips should be used in a single message? For preachers who are new to video usage the prospect of illustrating an entire message with vibrant images can be very seductive. I warn against using more than a couple of film illustrations in a single message -- one of which should be an opener or a closer. Movie clips are expansive. If the focus is to remain on the text, it is important not to overwhelm the congregation or your small group.
How does placement in the message affect the way clips are used?
From Cinema to Sermon: Using Movies to Illustrate (Part One)
March 12, 2008
In preaching a sermon, recently, on the subject of thinking from Psalm 23:7, I opened with an image. Actually, it was a succession of images shown to the congregation at a rate of 32 images per second. I used a movie. This film clip from The Great Debaters showed Professor Melvin Tolson (played expertly by Denzel Washington) explaining the slave-breaking methodology of a notorious British slaver, Willie Lynch: “Keep the slave physically strong, but psychologically weak and dependent on the slave master. Keep the body, take the mind.” When the clip was finished, what followed was thoughtful silence. I used this clip to launch a devastating critique of popular culture’s grip on the minds of many Christians, the enslavement that results, and what we needed to do to get back to thinking “Christianly.” It may be confusing to some pastors (particularly if you are new to MovieMinistry) to use clips from the entertainment industry to critique popular culture. But that approach is by no means new to Christian preaching.
Windrider Reveals the Spiritual Elements at the Sundance Film Festival
January 24, 2008
It is a little ironic that at a festival called "Sundance" I have spent upwards of twelve hours a day, sitting in a sometimes-cramped seat, completely in the dark. But, rightly considered, the "Sun" – the truth claims embedded in the films shown here – represents the light the filmmakers possess, and the dance is the dialogue that follows between the creators and their audiences. Coming here is nothing like seeing a movie at your local cineplex. It is, at turns, more delightful and more dangerous (but more on that in the next installment).
I was invited to Sundance as part of a group of concerned Christian cultural analysts, and even though my Sundance experience is just beginning, I have discovered that what is covered by the entertainment press – the premiere parties and "beautiful people" – completely misses out on what makes Sundance important. They often overlook the relationships forged between those who have "made it" and those who want to, and the innovative new voices that have come to the festival to illumine the films with the Gospel, and, alternately to let the films shine a light on their faith.
The first few weeks of any new year are peppered with top-ten lists. Critics re-hash last year’s reviews and place them in a hierarchy, kind of like their own personal awards show. At MovieMinistry we do things differently. Instead of looking behind, I prefer to look ahead at films that might represent interesting ministry opportunities for those people who use film for outreach, or to create teachable moments.
Keep in mind that I have yet to see any of these films. The speculations built into this preview are based solely on articles that have appeared about these films, their trailers, and plot synopses. Sometimes we get it wrong. Last year I predicted that Beowulf might offer opportunities for discussion based on my reading of Seamus Heaney’s brilliant translation of the epic Anglo-Saxon tale combined with my hope that Robert Zemeckis would again lean toward the spiritual as he did with The Polar Express. My “faith” was unfounded, as anyone who saw this laughable film (complete with a ludicrous “Austin Powers-inspired” fight scene) will attest. And let’s not even talk about The Reaping. But most of the films identified as having spiritual or moral ideas worth discussing, in fact, did. Keep in mind, also, that release dates are always subject to change by the studios, and many of these films are yet to be rated.
Here are MovieMinistry’s Fourteen Films to Look for in 2008.
The Golden Compass: Sexualizing Children in the World of His Dark Materials
December 5, 2007
Booklist: How do you think readers will feel about the fact Lyra and Will make love?
Pullman: Well, let’s be clear about this. They go to sleep in each other’s arms. The only thing I describe them doing is kissing. I deliberately withheld my imagination from anything else.
In the first article in this series, I touched on the bait-and-switch nature of the release of the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, the first in author Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series – how the release of the watered-down version of the book was going to lure unsuspecting parents to unwittingly purchase these books for their children, ironically, for Christmas. As the above quotation from an October 1, 2000 interview with Booklist reveals, this is not where the duplicity will stop.
The Golden Compass Brings Nietzsche to Narnia: The Philosophical Underpinnings of His Dark Materials
November 30, 2007
When parents look at the beautiful covers adorning the gift-boxed sets of Philip Pullman’s fantasy series, His Dark Materials, they might be forgiven for believing that these books follow in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. In fact, the publishers are counting on it. The display tables have arrived just in time for Christmas and the release of the screen adaptation of the first volume: The Golden Compass.
What Pullman’s promoters desperately hope is that parents will not get beyond the colorful covers, which appear to depict nothing more than an action/fantasy series filled with talking animals, exciting battles, and a child protagonist. What they desperately fear is that parents will discover the dark and sinister philosophy that unfolds within the pages of Pullman’s work – a philosophy that condones the killing of children to advance knowledge; disparages virtue and glorifies cunning; and which poses the idea that the solution to humanity’s problems is the killing of God. In short, the philosophy that underlies much of Pullman’s fiction is Friedrich Nietzsche’s – a German philosopher whose work was influential with the Third Reich.
The Golden Compass, Phillip Pullman, and The God-Killing Books for Kids
November 13, 2007
“My books are about killing God.” *
Are you concerned with the witchcraft and dark themes embodied in the Harry Potter book and film series? If you are a Christian and your answer is “Yes” then Phillip Pullman thanks you.
Identifying J.K. Rowling’s stories about the boy wizard as covering fire, drawing away the ire of concerned Christians, Phillip Pullman – the author of the best-selling His Dark Materials trilogy – has been slowly advancing what he identifies as an even more subversive philosophy: the need for children and adults alike to kill God. Of course, Pullman also seems to be a little miffed at the universal attention that Rowling has enjoyed – describing his books as “flying under the radar” despite their theocidal themes.
Not any more.
On December 7th, the first of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – The Golden Compass – will hit theaters worldwide. New Line Cinema, the studio responsible for the book’s screen adaptation, shelled out the big bucks to screen selected scenes at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. New Line is betting that this will be the first in a three-movie deal that will bring in a Lord of the Rings-level box office. And based on the high-profile casting and the special-effects wizardry lavished on this film adaptation, the bet’s a good one.
The Problem with The Problem of Evil in 30 Days of Night
October 25, 2007
When Damien Karras, the faith-challenged priest in The Exorcist, decided to liberate Regan from demonic possession, not by invoking the Name of his more powerful God, but by substituting himself for her, I had a strange feeling that an important line was being crossed. If you saw the film, you cannot forget the scene.
Karras walks into the room of that afflicted little girl and finds her standing triumphantly over the fallen Father Merrin. Seeing Merrin splayed across the floor in defeat is more than Karras can bear. Knowing he lacks Merrin's faith, no supernatural help is likely to come to his aid. So Karras reverts to what he knows: boxing. He attempts to beat Regan senseless, and seeing that it isn't working, he simply offers a sweeter deal to the demon inside her. He screams, "Take me!" And once the demon changes residence, with the last ounce of his human strength, he throws himself out the window, down the steps, to his apparent death.
This type of unwarranted self-sacrifice has played out multiple times in films. In order to defeat evil, we have to do, or become evil ourselves. In The Devil's Advocate, Kevin Lomax cannot beat Satan, but rather than join him and complete the Prince of Darkness' plan for world domination, he commits suicide and takes himself out of the picture. In Poltergeist 2, in order to beat back the demonic Reverend Caine, the haunted family has to resort to a pagan shaman and a medium for help. In The Ring, Rachel Keller has to continue to perpetuate evil in order to avoid being its victim.
The latest installment in gratuitous self-sacrifice in the face of transcendent evil is 30 Days of Night. In order to understand how it works, we need to look at the nature of the enemy, the proven weapons, the sacrifice, and what such films reveal about the theological ideology behind them.
There is nothing quite so quintessentially American as a company softball game. Everyone plays, regardless of age or ability. Families cheer on the teams. It is the iconic nature of this softer side of America’s favorite pastime that makes it the perfect target for the radical Islamic jihadists of The Kingdom. Demonstrating careful planning, the terrorists deliver a one-two-three punch that leaves theater-goers gasping at the indiscriminate carnage – and thirsty for payback packaged in the form of Jamie Foxx, who, as FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury, has arrived in Saudi Arabia with a crack investigative team to bring the bad guys to justice.
Critical reviews of The Kingdom range from those, like Michael Sragow at the Baltimore Sun, who see the film as a prime example of the need to combat terrorism with a police response, rather than a military one, to Glenn Kenny at Premiere, who observes that The Kingdom is “designed to stoke audience bloodlust.” Both of these reviews, like many others, look at the film from a U.S. audience’s perspective. As I watched The Kingdom, I tried to imagine how a jihadist might respond to it. The answer was chilling.
C.S. Lewis, Spiritual Warfare, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
July 12, 2007
At its core, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix explores how people react to the unveiling of evil in their midst. We muggles, I mean, humans, are in a very similar predicament. As Lewis notes in The Screwtape Letters, one of the most useful tactics of devils is for them to convince us that they do not exist. Academics all over the west continue to assert that there is no titanic struggle between good and evil in this world, because the whole idea of “good” and “evil” are merely “social constructions” rather than either end of an objective moral continuum. Screwtape would be proud.
Conversing Over Comedy: The Invitation of Evan Almighty
June 22, 2007
Evan Almighty stars God. Okay, not really God – but a very winsome expression of God as portrayed by Morgan Freeman. When He has to redirect one of His errant prophets – newly-elected congressman Evan Baxter – He doesn’t chuck him into the belly of a great fish (VeggieTales already did that one). Instead, God becomes a jocular Hound of Heaven, chasing after Evan until he sees the wisdom of accepting God’s call to build that big boat. It’s funny, and, as many Christians can testify, frighteningly accurate. But that is not the only reason you will want to go to Evan Almighty, and bring friends along.
Like many high-profile Hollywood films, Evan Almighty will stage the premieres and the press junkets at swanky hotels. But unlike any other film in recent memory, Evan Almighty comes equipped with its own ministry outreach program: ArkAlmighty. With a push dwarfing the campaign mounted for The Passion of the Christ, Universal Pictures has committed extraordinary resources to turn the hype surrounding the film, Evan Almighty (more on the film next week) into a long-term opportunity for ministry.
A Diamond in the Raunch: Pro-life Positions Emerge in Knocked Up and Waitress
June 12, 2007
Knocked Up appears poised to be this summer’s Wedding Crashers – a loud, raunchy battle-of-the-sexes film that brings in big box office. Millions of people will flock to this morally reprehensible film, and laugh it up while watching drugged-out, sex-obsessed slackers slouching through extended adolescence do anything to avoid growing up and taking responsibility for their lives. While viewers wallow in profanity, vulgarity, and general tastelessness, they will also see some amazing live ultrasound images of a developing unborn child in the womb – easily enough to give lie to any assertion by abortion rights advocates that what is in the womb is merely a “bunch of cells” or the purposefully vague “products of conception.”
"Arrr Ye Fearin’ the Hereafter?" Theology and Death in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
May 30, 2007
The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are more than prime popcorn flicks. Despite the carping critics who whine that they can’t find, much less follow, any coherent theme or plot in these frothy films, I contend that these pirates are sailing in pretty deep waters.
The only reason I can imagine for failure to see spiritual storylines in the Pirates movies is an unwillingness to recognize the theological thread that ties them all together. (But since some critics refused to see the parallels between The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and the Gospel of Christ, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.) I am happy to report that the latest, and supposedly last, installment in the trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End does not disappoint – either as a slam-bang action-adventure film, or as a movie that looks at serious theological themes while successfully masquerading as a mindless comedy.
External battles of good and evil are what superhero figures are all about. Whether fighting for “truth, justice, and all that stuff” (Superman Returns), or fighting against sociopathic gangsters (Batman), radiation-enhanced electrified megalomaniacs (The Fantastic Four), or the devil himself (Ghost Rider), the battle against evil is often focused on the outside. There is no lack of external villains in Spider-Man 3 for our web-slinging hero to try to defeat, but as hinted in the trailer and the still photos for print media, the most dangerous antagonist that Peter Parker faces is the one lurking inside: sin.
Bridge to Terabithia: Let's Hear it for Mindful Entertainment
February 16, 2007
Bridge to Terabithia is the best kid's film for adults I have seen in years. Directed by Gabor Csupo, from the best-selling children's classic by Katherine Paterson, the movie tells the story of Jessie Aarons, a boy from a poor, struggling family who strikes up a friendship with the new girl in town, Leslie Burke.
It's that time of year again. While other critics rummage through their pile of spent films from 2006 trying to determine which movies will make their "Top Ten" lists, MovieMinistry chooses instead to look ahead at 2007 to see what films might create interesting opportunities for ministry and spiritual discussion. Fair warning. I have yet to see most of the films on this list, so this analysis is based solely on trailers or film synopses. Here are the films in order of their release date, but recognize that film calendars are fluid, so some dates will surely be pushed up or back.
The Miracle of Friendship in a Perilous World: The Lesson of Charlotte's Web
December 15, 2006
When we shun true friendships, we reject a gift from God. Charlotte's Web, the latest offering from Walden Media and Paramount, reinforces the value and beauty of friendships for an audience at risk of moving toward isolation. Young people (and most adults as well) need reminders about how people care for one another in a perilous world, and how miraculous such friendships can be, especially when they require sacrifice.
How The Nativity Story Breathes Life into the Petrified Dime-Store Creche
December 12, 2006
Nativity scenes are iconic. They are not really meant to show the reality of the birth of Jesus as much as suggest it, or remind us of it. But in the modern west, most of us have never remotely encountered anything like the kind of lives that Jews lived in the first century. I have never seen a nativity scene that included Roman soldiers, even though the land was occupied by Rome at the time of Jesus' birth. Providing a unique vantage point from which to examine an old story is why The Nativity Story is such an intriguing film, and particularly worthy of a look as we approach the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child.
Paranoia about Christianity Reaches New High as Chicago Dumps on The Nativity Story
December 1, 2006
According to news stories from the Associated Press, Fox News, and a host of other media outlets, the City of Chicago allegedly put pressure on the Christkindlmarket (I'm surprised they didn't make them change the name to "kindlemarket") to dump ads for The Nativity Story, a film opening on Friday, December 1. Now that news reports are beginning to circulate, the city is trying to spin this. Jim Law, executive director of the Mayor's Office of Special Events said that the motivation for withdrawing the ads was that they did not want to offend non-Christians attending the event.
Making Invisible Children Appear Through the Power of Film
November 22, 2006
I would like it if every reader of this column, and every subscriber to the MovieMinistry.com site, would take some time, this Christmas season, to stumble across Invisible Children. I did. And this documentary, shot by three inexperienced young filmmakers -- Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole -- will challenge you in ways that no slick television special ever will. If you think that African hunger ended with "We are the World," you will be in for an unsettling shock. If you are addicted to the Bandwagon Issue Syndrome promoted by commercial media outlets that bounce people from one "crisis" to another, thinking they are making a difference, only to be reoriented when the ratings slump and the fear that "compassion fatigue" has set in -- this is the cure.
Borat: Repulsive Comedy Sells, but Can We Afford the Price?
November 14, 2006
I am sure that Sacha Baron Cohen would like nothing more than to be labeled a morally subversive envelope-pusher, and there is a side to his comedy in Borat which does force Americans to confront the worst in themselves. But self-evaluation can be achieved by more constructive means than mere debunking, and the movie is much more likely to pander to some college students' desire to watch a morally noxious film (while feeling superior to the mostly middle-class dupes that are Cohen's targets) than it is to turn them into the kind of reflective citizens who would want to repair this damaged world. At its worst, Borat desensitizes people to the very behaviors that need to be challenged (racism and religious bigotry, for example).
Don't get me wrong. If your production standard for film fare is Lord of the Rings or even The Guardian, Facing the Giants is not a great theatrical release. The acting is mostly wooden, the location sets lackluster, and the story's multiple conclusions are too miraculous for my tastes. By all normal measures of evaluating film as art, Facing the Giants fails. But the film is striking a chord with audiences because it is told with conviction when it counts, depicts Christians turning toward and trusting God for the results (something rare in film), and even though the tidy ending might be much, it reminds people that with God nothing is impossible.
In order to grasp the meaning of the emergence of a brand like FoxFaith, it is useful to invoke a couple of theological terms: chronos and kairos. Both words refer to time. Chronos is what we all experience as chronological time. Kairos has in it the sense of timeliness, the right time, or a special time. Chronologically, FoxFaith may have a bumpy start, but it is headed in the right direction. More important is the kairos of FoxFaith and others who are entering the film market, and what their arrival on the entertainment scene could mean for the Church.
Making "Christian" Movies: An Open Letter to Fox Faith
September 26, 2006
Dear Fox Faith:
I read with great interest about 20th Century Fox's launch of your new entertainment division that is dedicated to the production of Christian and family-friendly films ? particularly when the About Us section on your website clearly defines your intent: "To be part of Fox Faith a movie has to have overt Christian Content or be derived from the work of a Christian author."
As a new brand, I recognize that money may not flow too quickly to your division; perhaps that explains why most of the films will have small budgets -- around $5 million ? and that many titles will go straight to DVD. I want to assure you that I, and millions of other people who are hungry for good films, wish you only the best. And, even though the advice comes to you unsolicited, I'd like to share with you a few thoughts on how you might achieve your goal.
Sports Films, Discipleship, and the Great Game of Life
September 19, 2006
Blame it on the fall (the season, not the spiritual state), I suppose, but lately there seems to be a glut of sports movies. Fall is when young men's fancies turn to football – or the baseball playoffs. Movies like Gridiron Gang, Invincible, and Glory Road (now available on DVD) are calculated crowd-pleasers. They are stories of tough coaches and underdogs who, through grit and determination, manage to make something of their lives. Action on the playing field serves as a barometer for his progress in the real world.
But sports movies do not always mirror what actually happens in the world of sports, much less in the real world. Accusations of blood doping, exhibitions of unsportsmanlike conduct, and the sheer bad luck that befalls opponents tarnish and taint victories. So why are we drawn to sports movies? Perhaps it is because that, deep down inside, we are desperate see stories that reinforce what all of us intrinsically want to believe the world should be: a place where if we discipline ourselves, if we play by the rules, and if we persevere, that we will be granted the rewards of our labors.
We are so used to having the studios tell us what movies to see, directed, cattle-like, by loud, frantic multi-million-dollar advertising blitzes using bandwagon techniques to herd us into multiplexes, that it is easy for a smaller, brilliant film, such as Her Majesty, to slip by unnoticed. Despite a fistful of awards, the beautifully-shot Her Majesty did not find its way into wide release. Fortunately you now have an opportunity to support the kind of movie that many people have told me they would like to get behind, but cannot find, at their local theater: a family-friendly movie that is also entertaining, challenging, heart-warming, complex, funny, and thought-provoking. Her Majesty comes out on DVD on August 29th.
When Steven Spielberg remade War of the Worlds, my biggest complaint was that, amid all of this mayhem, the audience never once sees Ray Ferrier, the frantic father, pray. Unlike the 1953 original, in which everyone across the country was huddled in churches petitioning God for deliverance from the Martian spacecrafts, by 2005, I guess, no one had an inclination to call out to the Almighty as heat rays were vaporizing everything in sight. I just didn't buy it. But where family-friendly Spielberg, who made The Prince of Egypt, could not find a place for God in his remake, in steps Oliver Stone – an equally accomplished, if often subversive, filmmaker -- and surprises everyone. His God-infused World Trade Center is the most spiritually honest film of the year. Stone uncovers every Christian aspect of this true story and gives it full voice. The results linger long after the lights come up.
"What's That Pirates Movie About?": Turning Movies from Monologue to Dialogue
July 18, 2006
"Nobody knows what this movie is about!" Imagine my surprise as I was driving back from UCSD, where I had been doing research for a new book, when I heard KFI radio talk show host John Ziegler exclaim over his inability to ferret out a meaning from the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie. His sentiments were echoed by reviewers such as Ethan Alter, writing for Premiere Magazine, who claims, "Still, even with all that cash at their disposal, returning director Gore Verbinski and screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio couldn't come up with a story worth telling." Carina Chocano, of the Los Angeles Times writes that the film is "unsure of what it wants." So maybe it wasn't so surprising that Bill O'Reilly's office contacted me this week to do a short segment on The O'Reilly Factor last night about the spiritual implications of Dead Man's Chest. With all the spinning going on in the mainstream press, perhaps he just wanted somebody to give it to him straight.
In Peril of Our Souls: Theological Considerations from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
July 11, 2006
"Funny what a man will do to forestall final judgment." G.K. Chesterton? Soren Kierkegaard? Nope, Captain Jack Sparrow, bon vivant of the Black Pearl, desperate lover of his own hide, and armchair seminary professor in one of this summer's most explicitly theological action comedies. Okay, so there may not be too many theologically explicit action comedies this summer, but that does not undercut the surprising opportunity posed by Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest to discuss the state of your soul.
Superman Returns and So Should the Church: Recovering Our Commission
July 5, 2006
But the single, most important non-starter in trying to apply the moniker of Savior of the World to Superman is that he strayed from his mission – at least temporarily. There is no doubt that Superman is emblematic. But I would like to argue that, at least in Superman Returns, he has more to teach about the mission of the Church than the nature of the Christ. Superman Returns serves as a microcosm of what can occur when the Church abandons its mission to the world: it leads to bitterness and emboldens evil. However, the movie also suggests fruitful ways for the Church to re-engage.
Using PG-13 to Groom Kids for an R-rated World in My Super Ex-Girlfriend and John Tucker Must Die
July 2, 2006
Barna Research in 2002 revealed that less than 10% of teens believe that there are such things as moral absolutes to guide their actions. These teens were initiated into this "value-free" environment by their parents – adults who believed in moral absolutes made up only 22% of the research sample. So perhaps it is fitting that My Super Ex-Girlfriend and John Tucker Must Die were released as this summer's one-two PG-13 punch. If we are going to encourage a new generation of morally ambivalent teens, after all, we need to make sure they can attend the instruction.
Cars challenges its viewers to slow down, to see value in old things, and to reconsider what it means to be a winner. What comes across isn’t a series of New Age platitudes; instead each idea is illustrated fully and represents a number of biblical perspectives on life.
Remaking Man in Our Own Image: C.S. Lewis' Conditioners and the World of X-Men 3: The Last Stand
May 26, 2006
C. S. Lewis argued in The Abolition of Man that humans, unmoored from the restraint occasioned by fidelity to a transcendent moral order, would create a world of their own choosing. Humans think that by doing so they will be free to make of themselves what they will, but Lewis disagreed, noting "For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please." The men in charge of such a program Lewis called "the Conditioners" – and they are making a spectacular appearance this weekend at your local theater in X-Men 3: The Last Stand.
Why Ears Itch for the Theology of The DaVinci Code Film
May 19, 2006
What is important for Christians to know, if they are thinking of using The DaVinci Code film as an opportunity to talk about their faith, is that some of the plot changes are rhetorical devices designed to make the arguments in the film appear even more persuasive than in the book. Through these changes, Howard has tried to preempt the hoax criticism, use the conversion of a respected, yet hostile-source, character to bolster the credibility of the film's arguments, and try to blunt reaction from Christians by giving them a place (albeit a much smaller place) at the theological table – all the while making everyone else feel good about themselves.
Christians Should Not Shrink From The DaVinci Code
May 11, 2006
A lot of people have read, and will read, The DaVinci Code. Millions more will see the movie. In a nation as biblically and historically illiterate as our own, some will swallow the film's assertions without stopping to chew. At such a moment, viewers should not be abandoned by the very people who best can challenge the film's false claims. In a bizarre way, The DaVinci Code may represent the kind of bad behavior that provides what parents recognize as "a teachable moment."
Hoot: A Movie Challenge for Stewardship in Our Own Backyards
May 5, 2006
At a time in which evangelical leaders are putting themselves forward to tackle global environmental concerns, it seems a small thing to care about your own backyard. That is why I was intrigued when I discovered that Walden Media and New Line were making a film adaptation of Hoot. Though there isn't anything particularly "religious" about Hoot (at least on the surface) the movie does bring up a lot of questions about our relationship as creatures to the rest of God's creation.
Beyond Narnia: Dramatic Glimpses into the World of C.S. Lewis
March 28, 2006
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe just passed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to make it the number two top-grossing film released in 2005. It is fair to say that Narnia has eclipsed just about everyone's expectations and the sequel – Prince Caspian – is already green-lit for release in December 2007. Rising with Narnia's box office receipts is interest in the story's creator, C.S. Lewis. While there are a number of good Lewis biographies, those introduced to his stories via film might prefer that medium to gain insight into his life. Fortune has smiled upon them.
The Mindful and the Mindless: Making Films Good for Families
March 14, 2006
The fashion these days is for makers of films targeted at children to include winking adult references that will, supposedly, fly over the heads of kids while making the movie bearable for their older siblings and parents. Somehow, someone must have determined that having a solid story was not enough, or that including racy or profane humor would widen the demographic for kid's movies.
Stories, Upsets, Contradictions: Just Another Night at the Oscars
March 6, 2006
There were no blockbusters to root for at the Academy Awards this year. All of the films had an indie feel (though only one Best Picture nominee is truly from a small independent studio – the rest are from small arms of the big players). Still, a hush fell across the conservative blogosphere as the Best Picture was announced. Having picked up awards for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director, and riding a wave of critical support, it was only a matter of moments before Brokeback Mountain would be crowned Best Picture. Only it didn't happen.
In Doc Hollywood, Michael J. Fox plays Ben Stone, a doctor planning to run from his inner-city trauma care unit to a cushy job liposucting fashion models/actresses in Hollywood. Stone justifies the move to his exhausted colleagues by saying that the plastic surgery for the rich and famous is what makes all the free third-world cleft palate surgery possible. The scene is practically a parable for this year's Oscar nominations.
At the end of a slumping year at the box office, the Hollywood elite appear determined to salve their wounded wallets by congratulating themselves for making movies that few actual patrons wanted to see. The artistic community would have you believe the Doc Hollywood scenario – they only make those blockbusters to enable them to create films that really "matter" – like Brokeback Mountain and Munich. Four of the films nominated for Best Picture have a clear, overt agenda.
Top-ten lists and gratuitous award shows are ways that critics and insiders pat themselves on the back for their superior insight. Let's have a look at what the Academy awards, what Hollywood rewards, and whose vote really counts. Clear-eyed analysis overcomes Hollywood hoopla every time.
The Connection Between Discipline and Delight in Nanny McPhee
February 1, 2006
In a culture where discipline is often in short supply, Nanny McPhee asks us to examine our own attitudes. Beginning with our distaste for rules, the film makes a case for self-control and obedience. Nanny McPhee has a special way to demonstrate consequences that leads to enlightenment. The results extend beyond the children to the adults in their circle. Far from being poisonous, the children -- and the adults -- learn that discipline leads to delight.
Empathy for Sin, Sympathy for Sinners: Brokeback Mountain and the End of the Spear Controversy
January 24, 2006
It is important for Christians to understand why Brokeback Mountain is resonating with many people beyond the homosexual community, why the poisonous response to Chad Allen's portrayal in End of the Spear is not only unwise, but unbiblical, and what the Church should do in either case.
Imitators of Christ: Why You Need to See End of the Spear
January 20, 2006
I can't wait until the end of the article so I'll just say it: End of the Spear portrays Christians in a better light than any other Hollywood film since Chariots of Fire. End of the Spear invites viewers to visualize the sacrificial lives of Christians. These missionaries are not Christ in disguise, as is Aslan, but Christ writ small enough for even the most jaded theater patron to recognize, sympathize, and connect. The consistency of their witness – in death and in life – shines a light into the darkened space of a cinema near you.
Many critics are busily compiling their “best of” lists for 2005. But ministry-minded people who want to use films as a springboard for discussing the Gospel need to look ahead. DVD releases of last year’s films can help to plan Bible Study and teaching illustrations, but there is nothing like a trip to a film in current release to spark talk at the diner afterward. With that in mind, the following list represents MovieMinistry’s Thirteen Films to Watch in 2006.
Rediscovering a Gripping Gospel Through The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe
December 9, 2005
The Church of the Cinema does at least one thing better than most evangelicals: it remembers how to bring to life a passionate drama. While disputes over doctrine are important, some churches have become so preoccupied with in-house debates that they have forgotten that Christianity begins with a story. Before we can care about the Deity of Christ, we must first come to believe the narrative of His incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. His story is true, and it should grip the soul. But sometimes, in our desire to get to the graduate-level theological detail, we rush over the story -- and our tale of the Gospel has all the allure of a badly-written history text.
C.S. Lewis recognized this tendency within his own denomination, so he crafted a story designed to slip past the “watchful dragons” of church-enforced “sanctimony” and restore the Gospel’s innate passion, potency, and sense of adventure. Lewis wanted children (and adults with the eyes to see) to meet Jesus in fiction so that when they encountered Him in fact they would not merely acknowledge Him, but love Him.
The film version of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe sticks to the essentials of the book.
Why, in a culture that prizes scientific materialism, are grown men and women discovering a catch in their throats and tears of longing welling up in their eyes as they watch the trailer for The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe? The answer to that question may well be found in our desperate longing for wonder, rescue, and the triumph of good over evil that many are discovering today through a remythologizing of the Gospel found in Narnia.
When the News Mattered: Why I Like Good Night and Good Luck
November 16, 2005
Recognizing that this is a drama and not a documentary, Clooney does a terrific job of creating in Murrow a human hero, with many admirable qualities, whose loyalty is to the truth above the corporation that employs him. Murrow’s pluck allows him to persevere despite perceived government threats, and he is as unsparing toward his colleagues in the media as he is toward McCarthy.
Few would deny that the Disney brand has a long history of making family-friendly blockbusters, but strict faithfulness to the text has not always been high on their priority list. Still, I have great hope that the version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe will ring true to the novel because of the production company behind it, the promises being made, and the sheer folly of getting it wrong.
The two certainties of cultural utopias are that humans are drawn to their creation and that these visions are doomed to failure. To put it in biblical terms – people are desperate for heaven, but they are enslaved to sin. The latter precludes the former, though, occasionally, light finds a way to break into the darkness. Two recent film releases, Oliver Twist and Serenity, look at cultures centuries apart and cause us to conclude that nothing has changed. Both glimpses of past and future illuminate our present. We are desperate for heaven on our own terms, but the persistence of sin gets in the way. The glimpses of redemption that we do see come not as a result of utopian planning, but through the moral choices each of us make.
Stories resonate most fully with us when they contain timeless truths, or when they convey a sense of the world as it should be. Despite the fantastic circumstances present in Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, Burton manages to infuse his comically gruesome story with just the kind of moral arc that can move an audience. You'll know you’re hooked when you start rooting for Emily, the slightly decomposed Corpse Bride.
Questioning spiritual claims is laudable. Luke, the chronicler of Acts, praised the Bereans because they did not blindly accept teachings but rather searched the Scriptures to see if what they were being taught by the Apostle Paul was true. Paul told the Thessalonians to “examine everything carefully.” The Exorcism of Emily Rose puts theology on trial, uses ambiguity to draw the audience into the debate, and trades a tidy ending for increased conversation.
Innocence, Corruption, and the Screening of Childhood
August 11, 2005
In his book, The Disappearance of Childhood, cultural critic Neil Postman notes that since the 1950s the line separating children and adults has blurred, often to the point of being indiscernible. Children are now depicted not as kids, but as mini-adults. Postman places much of the blame on mass media, primarily television, for providing cross-generational access to what had previously been considered "adult secrets" -- about social problems, sexuality, crime, etc. How the media depict children can tell viewers a lot about societal attitudes toward children -- movies, for example, can both move and mirror culture.
In writing to the church in Rome, the Apostle Paul noted that people who know God, yet suppress the knowledge of their Creator, are driven to worship creatures. Such people become debased in their thinking and are given over to all manner of sin. In time, people regress from a belief in God to a belief that they are God, and once that belief becomes entrenched in significant elite cultural power bases the results are devastating -- they are willing to do anything. Michael Bay’s new film, The Island, represents his first real foray into thoughtful action films. He gives us a glimpse into that Romans 1 world.
Mayhem and Meaning: What's Missing from War of the Worlds
June 31, 2005
Teleology is the philosophical study of purpose -- for example, in nature, design, or morality. Rick Warren’s best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Life, would have been considered an unnecessary title at the beginning of the twentieth century because people already believed that they had a purpose. The malaise that infected the late twentieth century, and which continues unabated, comes from the loss of a sense of purpose among many in the West. We have become an a-teleological culture, but, I think, not an anti-teleological culture. We may not have a purpose, but we certainly are looking for one.
Batman Begins, is perhaps the best of the franchise to ever hit the screen. The reasons Batman Begins resonates so well with certain audiences are because the film is not afraid to make bold (and biblical) claims about the world, or struggle with the dual natures of his humanity. But perhaps Batman’s most potent allure lies in the fact that while he is young, rich, smart, and highly trained -- he is not super-human. Batman is just a man.
In Cinderella Man, director Ron Howard focuses his lens on boxer Jim Braddock -- a former champion who is given a single chance to return to the ring, and who then turns that opportunity into one of the greatest comeback stories in American sports. Howard uses this story from the past to rouse the audience to defend, right along with Braddock, foundational ethics, fidelity, friendship, and family. But this is no Ward and June Cleaver story about championing easy virtue -- Braddock’s story is framed by the Great Depression. True virtue, challenged by trying circumstances, is never easy.
From Apostle to Apostate: Revenge of the Sith as Cautionary Tale
May 23, 2005
For Christians willing to use a fictional movie as a mirror to examine their own behaviors, Revenge of the Sith can serve as a cautionary tale, particularly about how some churches treat their young members. When the Church feels like a hostile place, acts hypocritically, is insensitive, and avoids dogma, it, like the Jedi, can contribute toward pushing people to an embracing, waiting Dark Side.
Robots, Million Dollar Baby, and Terri Schiavo: Stories of Life and Death
March 29, 2005
G.K. Chesterton once noted that “children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.” Youth is idealistic, while many of us, more advanced in years, have become jaded – trying to find our way through a fallen world, praying we are not judged too harshly. These disparate attitudes create very different stories – for children, fairy tales, for adults, sometimes desperate dramas. Children’s stories are fantasies, we tell ourselves, while the uglier stories of our adulthood are “realistic.” The existence of this dualistic view of the world is the only way I can explain the simultaneous success of two films currently sharing space at the cineplex: Robots and Million Dollar Baby.
Pastors in Film: The Good, The Bad, and the Absent
March 1, 2005
The aim of many filmmakers is “authenticity.” They want to tell stories that resonate with people’s lives -- that “tells it like it is,” or at least as they would like it to be. The kind of movies that win accolades tell the stories of wealthy, reclusive men (The Aviator), ordinary people struggling with relationships (Sideways), extraordinary people struggling with disabilities (Ray), people pulling themselves up by their collective bootstraps (Million Dollar Baby), and benevolent authors with difficult marriages (Finding Neverland). Million Dollar Baby won Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year. The one kind of life that Hollywood tends to shy away from -- or if it does reflect it, the mirror is muddied -- is the pastor’s life.
The Benefits of Bad Theology - Part One: The Movie Constantine
February 21, 2005
I can already hear the wailing beginning in some circles over three blockbuster films due to be released this year: Constantine, and the latest installments of the Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises. All three films deal with spiritual issues, and all three get it wrong to some degree. The question that Christians ought to ask is not, “How dare they?” but, “Do films that contain bad theology provide any benefits for Christians?” The answer to the first question is that they dare because they recognize the hunger that people have to see the transcendent on the screen. The answer to the second question is a resounding “Yes!”
Everything I Needed to Know About Outreach I Learned at Because of Winn-Dixie
February 10, 2005
When films come along that break the adult/child barrier, they deserve closer scrutiny. Because of Winn-Dixie, opening in theaters on February 18th, is such a film. Children will enjoy the slapstick antics of the dog and other animals, and they will feel the pain of the main character, ten-year-old Opal, as she struggles with the absence of her mother. Looking at the film with adult eyes, what I saw flowing from the screen was one of the better illustrations of Christian outreach I had seen in quite a while. Best of all, these expressions: of childlike faith, the revelation of sin, the extension of love to the unlovable, and the need for community, all occur in an unapologetically Christian context.
IF we want to make the most of movies as a resource to introduce people to the Gospel or as a means to spark meaningful discussions of moral and transcendent issues, then a look ahead to the coming year is vital. It is when movies first arrive that the buzz is high -- providing the best environment in which to engage our culture.
Fear, Escape, and a Good End -- The Christmas Present of I Am David
December 12, 2004
Ever since I picked up and read my grandfather’s copy of A Christmas Carol, I recognized the need for any good holiday story to have hidden, dark undertones. There is an undeniable seriousness to the Christmas season. Certainly it is a time to sing carols and to rejoice at the coming of the Messiah, but we must not fall into what cultural critic Richard Weaver calls “hysterical optimism” -- often represented by the Rudolf and candy cane crowd. Weaver knew that the recognition of tragedy was the necessary foundation for the understanding of redemption. That is why The Polar Express needed the Lonely Boy and the problem of unbelief in order to work its magic. It is also why the film I Am David is a welcome entry this holiday season.
When the Audience Talks: Moving from Film to Discussion to Decision
September 24, 2004
Rhetoricians have long held that the most powerful strategy to convince people is self-persuasion. Researchers Richard Petty and John Cacioppo claim that persuasion is most potent when the participants are engaged in prolonged talk about the topic in question. As long as we are discussing a message, we are open to persuasion. While no minds appear to change on camera as the "experts" verbally slug it out in each of the program's "conversations," the open-ended way each section of the film ends turn these debates into a kind of attention-getting device to jump start real-world, small-group discussions. Participants can begin where the experts leave off.
Joanne Rowling reportedly began to write her fantasy series on scraps of paper she found at a local café. Little did she know that within a few years her efforts would translate into 192 million plus books in at least 43 languages sold world-wide, three motion pictures to date, billions of dollars gained in residuals from video sales plus toy tie-ins, and marketing a phenomenon that continues to astound, entertain, enthuse, and anger. Harry Potter is an industry to "himself," a fictional young boy who has, in recent years, fomented controversy that continues to rage throughout a world that consumes his literary adventures voraciously.
Mel Gibson may not be a Gutenberg, but he might be a William Tyndale. Gutenberg invented the printing press, but it was Tyndale who first used the breakthrough medium of his age to make the Word of God more accessible to the masses. In The Passion of the Christ, Gibson takes a story largely removed from the daily experience of what some have called our "post-Christian" and "post-literate" culture and fused it with the West's most powerful medium: film. And it works better than previous "Messiah movies" because Gibson knows how to exploit the strengths of film to intrigue, affect, and transform. By paying attention, Christians can learn a lot about sharing their faith with a cynical culture.
A recent Los Angeles Times article lamented that, in recent years, films have been skewed toward younger and younger audiences. Most modern movies are designed for teenagers, and as a result much of the content lacks weight. That is why I find it particularly gratifying that two of the most thought-provoking popular films released this holiday season deal with the very grown-up issue of maturity. Both of these films, Peter Pan and Big Fish, allude to important truths about the right way to grow up.
The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is more than just a series of blockbuster Hollywood films, it is a penetrating exploration of the human condition. This article discusses how Lord of the Rings communicates biblical truths about sin, judgment, friendship, character, faithfulness,sacrifice, and reward.
Whenever something religious occurs in Hollywood film these days, you can nearly bet that if the religious forces are explicitly arrayed in the film they will be anything other than Christian. If Christianity is present, it will be as a side note, and the main Christian characters will be hypocrites.
In writing to his infernal nephew Wormwood, the senior demon Screwtape, in C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, offers advice about how to deal with humans who get too close to recognizing the truth about satanic activity. Screwtape tells him to train his human patient to find the demonic ridiculous, but if he could, he should conceal himself. The whole idea was to put the supernatural element out of the human's mind because that is when the demonic is most powerful. The goal, Screwtape notes, is to create the first "materialist magician" -- one who denies spirits, but virtually worships material forces. Screwtape, I fear, would be most pleased with the materialist turn in horror films.
In the Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis argues that the major problem plaguing young people is not exuberant emotionalism, but "cold vulgarity." When we teach children to be exceedingly wary of emotions, we are not preventing them from being duped by those who would take advantage. Instead we are preparing them to eat up anything because they are emotionally emaciated. The best defense against emotional gullibility is to teach the proper place for excitement. But in our fear of emotionalism, many churches have abandoned that ground, leaving the cinema as the surrogate to school our children's feelings. And the kids are lining up around the block for lessons.
In children we call it “wishful thinking.” In adolescents the term is “teen angst.” By the time we reach adulthood we clothe it in respectability and simply say, “yearning.” And we like it. It drives millions of us to the theaters each weekend to see the happy ending. C.S. Lewis argued that longing for something is actually superior to having, because what we truly long for is not something we can have right now. We long for heaven -- we often settle for romance.
Makers of ugly films don't require audiences to dig deeply to get at the message. Instead, their movies step up and slap you in the face. Sometimes the audience reaction is revulsion -- but other times the response is (or should be) "Thanks, I needed that." Thirteen should get this grateful response -- from anyone who can manage to sit through it.
Slasher films are a potent draw among young people. After two weeks at the top of the box office, Freddy vs. Jason had raked in over $65 million, ensuring another sequel. Jeepers Creepers 2, the following horror installment, also opened at number one. Theatergoers are looking for an experience, and they find it in horror films, but it is not the postmodern experience you would expect.
The good hero is the strong, silent type. The evil he confronts is unrelenting and without compromise. It threatens the universe. If necessary, the hero will sacrifice everything, even his own life, to redeem the world. Finally, good and evil meet in a predetermined arena and the battle is enjoined. The outcome appears in doubt, but in the end the good hero carries the day -- even if his own life was forfeit in the cause. This all sounds tremendously religious, doesn't it? It is these religious underpinnings that explain the appeal of the Western, and why they represent an outstanding opportunity to discuss and illustrate the apocalyptic coming of the Kingdom -- and sometimes a little more.
Some in Hollywood are poised to make the same error in their movies that Thomas Jefferson made with his Bible. They want to take the super out of the supernatural. We live in a scientific age. We expect to be able to know and understand everything. If there is a problem, we invent a technology to solve it. In an age brimming with hysterical optimism, a few filmmakers are deciding to dispense with the magic. It's a mistake.
One of the reasons that people come to horror, adventure, and fantasy films is to connect with something beyond themselves. Will Rockett, in his book Devouring Whirlwind, says that many churches essentially abandoned speaking about the supernatural from the pulpit, so film stepped in to fill that void in people's lives. They screened it, and people came.
From Fluff to Stuff: Giving Weight to Summer Popcorn Films
July 9, 2003
Summer is in full swing at the cinema. People, trying to escape the heat (and their problems) are heading to the theaters in droves. Mega-blockbusters are raking in the receipts. Historically, summer is the time for "popcorn films" -- heavy on the artillery or laughs, light on the brain. At least, that is what we have been told. Critics routinely bash summer fare as "mindless entertainment" -- but they could not be further from the truth.
Imagine that it is Sunday morning. You arrive at church to find people lined up around the block waiting to get in. In fact, they have been there for over two hours in hopes of getting a seat. Some of the people gush that they have been anticipating this moment for months; others have come dressed as their favorite Bible character. Most will be disappointed if the service lasts less than 90 minutes, but they are secretly hoping that it will last two hours or more. Are you bewildered? Let’s change the location.
Dig deeper into themes of the Matrix, and discover how watching fiction can impact the way we interpret reality. Download a free copy of an essay on the Matrix adapted from Dr. Marc T. Newman’s work - named 2001 Dissertation of the Year by the Religious Communication Association.
Would you lay down your life for a hand-carved chest of drawers that you crafted in junior high school? How about sacrifice yourself for an invention you created? If we had a chance to reflect for a minute, my guess is that we would not. These items are merely things – so far beneath us on the value scale that to discuss trading our lives for them seems ridiculous. Yet is this not the message of the Gospel -- how the Creator came to Earth to die for His creation in order to redeem it from destruction? As the Church seeks fresh metaphors for the Good News with which to engage culture, along comes the Matrix trilogy to give us points of contact.
The Notebook: The Enduring Sacrifice of the Heroic Lover
On the surface, The Notebook appears to tell the simple tale of Noah and Allie, two young lovers parted by class distinctions and circumstance, who find their way back to one another. The depth of the film is revealed not merely in the lovers' passion, but by the couple's long-term fidelity and commitment, despite the ravages of time. Heroic love is hard.
From Santa to Salvation -- Jump Aboard The Polar Express
If a missionary were to come across such a tribe they would praise God for their good fortune. Like Paul, with just a little explanation, they could say, "What you have worshipped in ignorance, this day I declare to you." Amazingly, Christians in the West run across this cultural myth every year but the response in many circles is not joy but either scoffing or fear -- scoffing at people's ignorance, or fear that a myth can supplant the truth. If you are wise enough not to scoff, and brave enough not to fear, then you might find The Polar Express to be one of the most spiritually engaging films you see (or better yet, take someone to) this year.