The World Behind the Movie
With the winter release of a variety of films—from Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas to O Brother, Where Art Thou?—evangelicals again debate the Christian value of these movies, especially their implicit or explicit religious content. But what exactly goes into movie producers' heads as they make decisions about how to treat religion? By what criteria should Christians judge a film that comes out of Hollywood? And what really makes for a "Christian-friendly" film? To prod our thinking about such issues, managing editor Mark Galli talked with William Romanowski, professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College, and author of the forthcoming Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (Brazos).
How have evangelicals traditionally evaluated Hollywood films?
The more conservative groups have simply condemned movies. One critic in the 1940s said Hollywood was "the place where Satan has his throne."
For most evangelicals, evangelism is the primary justification and purpose for popular art, both for producing it and thinking about it. Thus, for most evangelicals, what makes popular art "Christian" is the clarity of its presentation of the gospel, like films that are explicitly about the faith or about Bible stories. The religious classics—Ben-Hur, The Robe, Barabbas, The Ten Commandments—immediately come to mind, as does Chariots of Fire. More recently, there's The Prince of Egypt, the Dreamworks animated cartoon on Moses; some Christian reviewers liked it because they were hopeful the film would lead people into faith.
I take it you use a different grid.
I think the better way is to look at the life perspectives films represent, what Nicholas Wolterstorff calls "the world behind the work of art." There is a collection of beliefs, values, ideals, attitudes, and assumptions embedded in the narrative of every film. A film that incorporates a Christian cultural landscape would be one I'd say can be characterized as Christian.
What are the features of this Christian cultural landscape?
I look at four central ones in Eyes Wide Open: (1) God is at work in the world; an invisible spiritual realm exists. (2) Believing people inhabit this landscape, and faith is integral to all of life. (3) Human sin is real, and evil exists. (4) God offers forgiveness and the possibility of redemption.
These are basic ways Christians look at the world, and any film in which they are embodied, I'd say, is undergirded by a basic Christian worldview.
By way of contrast, the scripts of most Hollywood films assume that people are inherently good. What's interesting is that many films Christian reviews hail as promoting family values are films in which people are basically good and have no need for a Savior outside of themselves, like Jurassic Park or Toy Story II.
What do you mean by "magical outside assistance"?
I might qualify that slightly: as Alan Trachtenberg puts it in The Incorporation of America, it's individual self-reliance with "some magical outside assistance."
The character gets a little assistance from God or a spiritual being or fate or destiny or luck. Take the Mel Gibson, Helen Hunt film What Women Want. It's about a male chauvinist who gets shocked by a hair dryer in a bathtub (the outside assistance), and suddenly he can hear women's inner thoughts. Then he goes on to become a sensitive male. He really changes himself, but he needs a little outside help to show him what women are really thinking about him. But he's inherently good, and he does the right thing.