J. Robert Parks' principal job is tutoring Chicagoland children in the basic subjects of reading, writing, and math. This heart for education also manifests itself in his volunteer job as an editor and movie critic forThe Phantom Tollbooth. Through the Christian Webzine, he hopes to educate the church about the wide variety of opinions Christians may hold, educate young writers to grow and hone their craft, and educate readers to understand film as an art form."What we wanted to do was say, 'There are a lot of unique ways to look at movies that are all Christian-they're valid,'" says Parks, explaining why the Tollbooth invites writers other than himself to submit movie reviews. "If people are only reading one critic, they're missing the point. … The message [God] has for me is different than the message he has for you. Sometimes he works through films in different ways. … So we have evangelical Catholics on staff; we have people who would be very conservative theologically and very liberal theologically but still within the broad evangelical framework." The purpose of such diversity is to challenge the church's tendency to compartmentalize culture. "[Christians] have these boxes, and everything has to go into a box. If it doesn't, they don't know what to do with it and they just throw it out. And movies so often don't fit into the boxes Christians have. And so they can't think about it. … I think it's really important for Christian writers to try to encourage Christians to think [more] broadly, and to give them the vocabulary to be able to do that."Parks is excited about teaching other Christian writers to develop such a vocabulary. "There are some people who made a big difference in my life," he says, "both with my writing and how I look at the world, who challenged me-and I'd like to think that I can do the same for other people, pass some of that wisdom on that I received." Parks explains that one of the reasons The Phantom Tollbooth was founded (originally as a site for just Christian music reviews) was "to give young writers a chance to write, to develop their craft, and get better. … In the first year of the Tollbooth, we took some writers who were genuinely not good and really turned them into fine writers, and I'm proud of that. … My hope is to get more involved [with the movie reviewers] and try to develop some writers." In the meantime, the Tollbooth has created the OnFilm eGroup, which allows Christian critics and fans to share reviews, discuss opinions, and learn from each other. "It's a good group. We don't get any of the silliness you sometimes see in online groups. … I think it's done a lot for the people who read it. It took on a life of its own."In his own film reviews, Parks seeks to educate casual moviegoers by helping them discover insight as well as entertainment. "I think a good reviewer is always trying to do a balancing act," he says, between informing readers and instructing them. "One aspect of a movie review is trying to give people a sense of whether this is worth seeing. … Did I have a good time? Was that worth the two hours I spent? Do I think it's worth the two hours other people will have to spend?" Since Parks' reviews are first published in his local newspaper, entertainment value is an important part of his criteria. "But secondly, I openly try to get people to think about movies beyond just a sense of whether it's good or bad, try to think about film in a more sophisticated way, try to guide them into what to look for. Why is this good acting style? Why is this a formulaic plot? … Why is that an interesting allusion? To provoke people into saying, 'Hey, film can be an art form.' This is particularly true for the Christian audience, to be able to think about movies differently and to give them new ways to look at films." The film's success on an artistic level will ultimately affect whether Parks enjoys it. "I like movies that make me feel, that somehow provoke me to understand myself better and understand the world better."In the end, Parks feels that his passion for education, entertainment, and art are intertwined. All three, he says, "are attempts to communicate. I've come to believe in the last couple years that one [aspect] of the human condition is our incredible need to communicate with each other-to somehow describe what my life is like to you, and in turn to understand what your life is like. One thing that has excited me about the church in the last several years is that they've come to realize that with regards to how we share the gospel. When we share the gospel we are communicating what's important to us. On the flipside, we must also be interested in hearing what other people are saying to us." Watching and discussing movies, he says, is one way to hear how other people perceive their world. "If we're going to reach that world, we at least have to understand that world."

Steve Lansingh is editor of thefilmforum.com, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.

Related Elsewhere

Read our other profiles of Christian movie reviewers on the Internet:

  • David Bruce of Hollywood Jesus
  • Doug Cummings of Movies & Ministry
  • Jeffrey Overstreet of GreenLake Reflections
  • Michael Elliott and Holly McClure of Crosswalk.com.