“Hey Christians, Just Shut Up & Watch the Movie!” by: Rev. Chad Smith (part 1)

Posted: August 30, 2012 by jperritt in Guest Post, Uncategorized
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I remember a couple of years back being at RUF staff training and one night, after our meetings, going to see the movie No Country for Old Men with some other campus ministers. This, of course, was the very dark, existential Cohen Brothers adaptation of the brilliant writer Cormac McCarthy’s novel. It won an Oscar for best picture in 2007. I remember being speechless when it was over. As I walked out with my friends none of us said a word. We had an encounter with a great work of art that yes, according to the film makers at least, seemed to be a story where no God was present and man was left to himself. And yes, the feeling I had was not a very good one, but I knew I had encountered something that impacted me and had to be reckoned with. I think any work of art that leaves an imprint within our imagination and cuts to the core of humanity in some way, is something that by nature has truth and worth and therefore intrinsic value. Well, as I made my way through the halls of the theatre I walked past a group of men, Christians no doubt by the way they talked, who instead of being speechless had an awful lot to say. They seemed to be having a break-out session of sorts with each person giving their take on authorial intent and how it reflected different trains of thought in our culture, and it seemed as though they were ripping this work of art apart. For some reason their attempt to immediately move in to ‘apologetic mode’ left me a bit queasy.

The same sort of thing happened recently in the wake of the release of Terrence Malick’s breathtaking film The Tree of Life, which was nominated for an Oscar for best picture last year. Contrary to No Country, The Tree of Life was much more pleasant to watch. It was stunningly beautiful and left me with a completely different feeling. The only way I could summarize it was….well I couldn’t really, except that it somehow made me want to be a better person. I think the best art has a quality about it that, although we can’t quite articulate, makes us want to be better people. The same thing happens when I watch the beautiful sun rise over the majestic Northeast Tennessee mountains. I can’t really put what I’m seeing in to words, all I can tell you is it made me want to worship God and for that day be a better person. However, many in the Christian world who would dare risk seeing Tree of Life had a different response, and they certainly had much to say. There was some religious imagery used throughout the film, and as a result many Christians rushed to explain and clarify and even refer to the film as a ‘Christian’ movie. And as a result I was at times left with the same pit in my stomach as I heard and read some of these summaries.

The reason I think I had this visceral reaction to many of my fellow Christian brothers and sisters responses to these two films and many, many others is two-fold:

  1. I think it is quite arrogant of us to think we can exactly interpret the artist’s multi-layered reasons for doing what he or she does; especially when the artist might not even know. At times I think there really is something bigger at work, and the truth is I’ve never met a rationalistic artist that was any good at least. I think by rushing to an explanation, we are in a way demeaning the art which leads me to my second and I think most important reason…
  2. When we treat art as simply a means to something else, like ‘understanding’ culture so that we might better know how to evangelize it, or for some other purpose; we are in fact abusing the art. When we do this, I think we bring dishonor to the one who created the work, and even worse, we bring dishonor to THE Creator Himself.

Does this mean we cannot talk about art at all? Absolutely not! I just think often times we are having the wrong discussion. Those of us in the Reformed tradition have historically at least seen value in engaging in the culture and the arts, but I do think at times we are misapplying our Biblical world and life-view. There is a very subtle distortion in our presuppositions when we approach art as a tool for something else. And correcting this presupposition won’t always leave us completely in silence; but it will change the nature of the discussion in a way that I think is more Biblical and honoring, both to the artist who created the work, and to the the Master Artist whom the artist is simply imaging.

So what is this subtle presuppositional mistake? Well, it is this: I think in function sometimes we treat the chief end of man as to glorify God by evangelizing the world, instead of what the Westminster Shorter Catechism actually says which is to “Glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” The first is man centered. You see, our primary purpose is to worship God, and evangelism fits UNDER that. In the Reformed community we are quick to point out when others confuse this, but I’m afraid we are making the same mistake in our approach to art. Good art has an intrinsic value to it, and is an end in and of itself, and it does not have to have an overt, evangelistic message to be good. Good art is intrinsically worshipful and just going to the movies can be a way of glorifying God. It can even be a way of experiencing the pleasure of God. Who can forget the iconic scene in the classic movie Chariots of Fire when Scottish runner Eric Liddell says these words: “I believe God made more for a purpose, but He made me fast and when I run I feel His pleasure.” My favorite part in that scene is watching the audience’s response to Liddell’s accomplishment, because in that moment they realize they are beholding greatness and Christian or not, they cannot help but worship. There are times when I am reading a book, or at a movie, or taking in a concert and I behold something great and regardless of the religious beliefs behind the one creating the art, I am left in a state of worship. In that moment it is as if I am God’s audience and He is telling me something about myself or even better, He is delighting in me and I too feel His pleasure because like any good Dad, He delights when His children take joy in something that ultimately comes from His hand.

______________________________________________________

Rev. Chad Smith is the RUF Campus Minister at East Tennessee State University in beautiful Johnson City, TN. He grew up in Memphis, got a BA in History at the University of Tennessee and a Master of Divinity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS. Chad is married and has three lovely children. You can follow him on Twitter @ChadMSmith2

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Comments
  1. Matt k says:

    Well said Chad. I do love both of those movies. The whole ‘reverse apologetic’ thing on No Country probably works pretty well, though you still have to take into account the view of the authors. On the whole Malick thing it is tough to take the whole Christian take, because once you do that you have to realize that suddenly youre voluntarily placing yourself in the overall intention of the director as opening it to one’s own interpretation, and therefore putting the Christian worldview on a kind of level playing field, which isn’t where it belongs (since the Biblical worldview ought to stand above all). Yet, at the same time sure, the creation scenes that certainly refernce God, with the eye imagery and such and also a kind of portrait of new heavens and new earth at the end, its all tempting to make it some sort of Christian message, but the fact is, it is meant more as a kind of abstract portrait of all human longings for something. Malick is a Philosophy major and Rhodes scholar, but mostly subscribes to more modern philosophy than any kind of orthodox Chrisitanity. But yeah, the emotions and longings that the movies put out there certianly have a lot to say about man in the image of God…

    So far as Chrisitans and art goes, Christians have proved through time as adept in many areas like art (formally speaking, like paintings), architecture (Christians are responsible for the great look of so many European cities I think), literature/non fiction, classical music, even some modern music, but for some reason there are very few really great Christian directors. i’m not really sure why.

  2. Chad Smith says:

    Thank you Matt. Great points, especially on the dearth of Christian directors engaging in mainstream film. I do think the Blue Like Jazz film was a nice attempt by Steve Taylor.

  3. DustyOldTrail says:

    Is this…is this the end of reel thinking then? Well y’all had a good run. Deserving of a slow clap or two. Go team.

    Really though I should thank God for this article. It seems like every time I start thinking I’ve mastered a certain area of my christian walk, something like this comes along and says “no, oh goodness no, what were you crazy, thats not it at all, just no, also why do you smell like onions and mint flavored candy?”. It’s one of the main reasons I want to be a pastor. Being humbled by the cross again and again and again is one of the only things that keeps life interesting.

    I’ve been caught thinking that I can’t tell other people my sins because it might cause them to fall away. First off, it’s legalism. Secondly, it goes against the word (confess your sins to one another). Thirdly, who am I that people should put their faith in me to be good? The list goes on and on. I’ve fallen into this thinking on almost a yearly basis and time and again the pressure is lifted off of me to present a perfect life. That’s but a taste of the peace that surpasses all understanding.

    That was just one example of many. Still I thought well hey at least I have movies. I’ve always had a certain knack for eating in the dark and staring at a screen.

    I think the excessiveness of movie watching can be gauged not on how many movies one has seen but on how many bad movies one has seen. Trust me I’ve seen a lot of a lot of bad movies. Now that’s not all Nicholas Cage’s fault (sorry J Kwaz), some of the blame falls onto me for wasting the time I’ve been given. (I’m also great at wasting time by the by, doing pointless things like commenting on the internet about things other than sports.)

    Then I came across reelthinking and I suddenly had a justification for seeing terrible movies all the time. I could crack wide a movie and make it all about finding the juicy bits I could relate back to my theology. This isn’t a bad thing in itself and it did help me salvage some bad movies. (If you squint your eyes you can almost pretend Nicholas Cage is white Jesus and the bunny in the box bit is about our souls or something.) Still the danger came when I used that hack and slash method on good or even great movies. (My bit about The Road being an epic of our walk with Christ instead of just incredibly depressing.) Yes, movies give us great common examples to relate others to biblical truths (I Am Legend – hatred of the light, Shutter Island – just as a dog returns to its vomit) but they’re more than that.

    I’ve forgotten how to see a movie and first taste and see that God is good. There’s time enough for both but I all too often skip the good bits. It’d be like intravenously injecting ooey gooey pumpkin cake into my arm because I had gotten tired of flavor (shut yo mouth). I’m missing a lot by watching movies only for the biblical parallels instead of for the beauty of art or the fellowship of the friends around me.

    This isn’t by any means reelthinking’s fault. Like I said I honestly believe examples from movies can be used by God to reach the masses. Jesus used parables to explain truths so certainly there is room for ‘illuminating film through the lens of scripture’, It’s just I tend to go overboard on things like these. God is infinite and thus if you dig into any created work you will find evidence of truth. However, this doesn’t mean that we should use movies as only a means to an end. (Honestly if you guys didn’t review movies I’d spend all my time on wookiepedia and nobody wants to see that.)

    Great article Chad. It really helped and humbled me. Great site guys keep it up.

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