A formidable, culture-shaping entity called “the movie” exists. We can curse it, fight it, or boycott it, but untold billions of dollars have gone into perfecting it. Elements that appeal to an individual sense of reality, from music to story to special effects, have combined to construct a parallel universe for many millions of people. How do we live and minister in this Hollywood world without becoming reactionary or disconnected from the people around us? How can we relate without becoming zombie consumers ourselves? I dug up a book in my library by Dick Staub, entitled Too Christian, Too Pagan, written about 15 years ago. The examples are a bit dated now, but the thoughts are worth noting again. Here are an edited few:
The Power of Movies
Film has tremendous influence in our culture. Entertainment Weekly said in 1999, “Today’s media is the most powerful mythology-creating medium ever invented.” In a 1996 TV Guide interview, Susan Sarandon said of film, ” Film and TV shows have so much influence; they can define the expectation of what it means to be a man or woman, of what’s fun and what’s not, of what is acceptable and what’s not.”
Use Film to Understand Culture
Film gives us a picture of the questions people are asking and the contemporary theological responses to those questions. Our ability to communicate the gospel is enhanced when we know how to frame it to fit our audience. Film helps us do that because pop culture is where people are raising life issues and working out their theology.
There are countless thoughtful and exceedingly popular films that offer insight into contemporary issues. In a period of one year, filmmakers released Deep Impact, Armageddon, and Contact. Why? All these films tap into millennial themes, and people are curious and sometimes anxious about what’s going to happen in the new millennium. The Thirteenth Floor, The Matrix, and other films asked what is real and how we can know it is real. City of Angels, The Sixth Sense, Ghost, Always, Meet Joe Black, and What Dreams May Come, all treated the subject of life after death. Stigmata, The Exorcist, and The Devil’s Advocate probed beliefs about the supernatural and spirit world.
By becoming conversant with film, we can understand the issues our peers are wrestling with, and parents can get insight into their own kids.
Use Film to Trigger a Conversation
Having seen the life questions and theology emerging in film, you can make these themes the basis for cultural conversations about the centrality of the gospel for all of life. Films provide a common language (pop culture) and a series of provocative themes as springboards for conversation or as illustrations showing the relevance of the gospel.
Chuck Colson tells of a conversation that was going nowhere with a prominent journalist. When he talked about his experience the journalist countered with “That’s great for you, but I don’t believe in Jesus”; when Colson talked about eternal life, the journalist parried with “Death is final, there is no afterlife”; when Colson talked about the Bible the journalist retorted, “All legends.”
But then Colson introduced Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors to illustrate the problem of human sin, the conscience, and guilt. . . Colson then asked the journalist, “Are you Judah Rosenthal?” [the guilty, troubled character in the movie]. The journalist laughed nervously. Colson reports that only when he used the contemporary metaphor of film did the “lights” go on and productive conversation ensue.
Applying Staub’s remarks to 2014, I’ve begun to realize afresh why viewing audiences are fascinated with themes about freedom from bondage, sacrifice, love that never ends, hope that can’t be quenched, and Superheroes who fight for righteousness and save people. They can say they don’t want Jesus, but somewhere down deep inside they really do.