Studying the Silver Screen
Jeffrey Overstreet has been reviewing films for CT Movies for several years. In his book Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies, Overstreet recounts his obsession with cinema, his job as a film critic, and his efforts at reshaping how and why Christians watch movies. CT associate editor Rob Moll talked to Overstreet about his views.
Why should a Christian go to the movies?
For the same reason we read books or listen to music or visit new restaurantsto experience life in all of its variety and creativity and beauty, and to learn to look closely at the world, in search of what it all means. Also, as we encounter the world through the perspectives of others, we have an opportunity to respectfully and compassionately consider what others see, hear, and think. Then we can begin thinking that through in the company of our friends and neighbors.
That might be true for artistic, thought-provoking movies, but is it worth the trouble and money to find such movies when I've got good spiritual books to read and a family to spend time with?
Films do more than give us something to think about. They can overwhelm us with the power of spectacle and sound. It is tempting to stop thinking while we watch and just feel, absorb it all. Movies that are cheap, mediocre, lurid, or crass waste our time, at the very least. At worst, they can cultivate unhealthy appetites and lead us into serious consequences. But if a work is truly artfulif it's characterized by excellence, truthfulness, and beautyit can minister to us in mysterious ways.
I'm not saying books are a waste of time. Heaven forbid! I'm a writer! In fact, literature has an advantage over cinema in that it demands more of your imagination. When you're attentively reading, you're doing a lot of brainwork. You're collaborating with the author's imagination, dreaming up images to go with the words.
Do the benefits of seeing a good film outweigh the offenses to the conscience likely to come from looking for that good film?
If I watch Bruce Almighty, I might come away pondering Bruce's story, which is about self-centeredness, pride, and the way we all want to be God. There are valuable lessons there. But if I get my kicks from watching Jim Carrey's obnoxious and devilish behavior, then I'll miss the lesson entirely. Or, if I'm preoccupied with Jennifer Aniston's shapeliness, I might miss out on much more meaningful things.
Each person needs to know their conscience and their weaknesses. That means we need to do more than check the film's rating. Christians have famously objected to films that contain sex, violence, and nudity; but every movie, even the best films, contain things we can pull out of context and exploit for the wrong reasons. We might be influenced by Bugs Bunny's wicked trickery or Road Runner's delight in mocking his enemies, but that doesn't mean Looney Toons should be condemned.
I'm learning to proceed with caution, but I'm also learning to reject the approach I learned growing up in the church. I want to quit lamenting culture and start engaging it. We need to approach movies the way we approach people. Jesus and the apostles got involved with messed-up people all the time and walked in to some of the most pagan places. But they did so with discernment, conscience, discipline, and, above all, grace.
I don't have time to research a movie before I see it. I go to the library or the video store, see what's there, and pick out something I like, or I borrow something from a friend. It's a hit or miss approach, which has largely turned me off from watching movies. But for you, I'm not doing my Christian duty to engage culture.