Sarah Barnett, content editor and film reviewer for Anglican Media Sydney, says her experiences as a movie critic have been an effort in overcoming "my prejudice against modernity."
"I have always loved film but until recently I've been fairly myopic about modern movies," says Barnett, who was raised on the classics by her film-devotee father. "When my friends were queuing up to see Top Gun, I was watching Rear Window. In terms of style and charisma, Tom Cruise pales into brash insignificance next to the likes of Cary Grant, James Stewart and Gregory Peck."
Fast-forward 14 years, though, and Cruise earns a measure of redemption for his more mature film work. "There are some films, like Magnolia, that I haven't really enjoyed watching but there is so much richness in them that I think about them for weeks afterwards." Barnett says these thought-provoking films are what make the job worthwhile. "I love being moved and challenged by a film ... You [can] easily dismiss films like Terminator, The Matrix, Magnolia, American Beauty and Dogma based on the morality test. But in doing so you would be dismissing films that have a rare depth."
Modern films have their drawbacks, too, of course. Barnett says, "it's a constant fear that frequent exposure to film will harden my heart. It is a struggle to maintain a faithful Christian perspective when immersed in worldly viewpoints ... I find that I need to talk about what I've seen and deal with it if it's been spiritually unhelpful." So she tries "to encourage my readers and my friends to talk about and analyze what they've seen," both to avoid its pitfalls and the plumb its depths.
"There's a dangerous lack of discussion about meaning and consequence" among moviegoers, Barnett says. "I frequently hear people chatting on trains about movies and TV programs they've seen and the conversations are generally rehashes of the dialogue, or comments like 'Wasn't it cool when this happened?'" Barnett says this lack of engagement is reflective of western society's shifting approach to education. "Education no longer suggests mental stimulation or the enabling of minds to develop and think for themselves. Education is more about disseminating information which is intended to be accepted. Debate and investigation have become too time-consuming in our busy world." Taking the time for discussion and analysis, though, can turn the movie theater into a classroom.
Barnett worries that too many Christian spokespeople have taken the "informational" approach to movies rather than the educational. "When I started out in this sort of work I was fairly disappointed by some of the Christian film reviews I'd read. Often a film, which raised important issues, was dismissed because it had too much swearing or nudity ... It can be quite tedious if all you're pointing out is that sex before marriage is wrong, divorce is wrong and profanity is wrong. It's much more interesting when you can tackle the film on its thematic content." For example, Barnett wouldn't endorse Prince of Egypt just because it lacked swearing and sex. "At its heart it is a film which endorses humanism. The hero of the film isn't God but Moses. The miracles depicted in the film seemed to be predicated upon human faith and strength and not on the power of God. ... I thought the rush to adopt it as a 'Christian' film was somewhat naive."
As Barnett has encountered modernity, the church in Australia has faced similar transitions in its cultural response. "The Australian Church has had the same fear and suspicion of cinema as our American counterparts," Barnett says, but that fear is slowly melting. "Younger clergy are particularly interested in film and culture and seeing how it interacts with faith." Film is becoming a strong part of Australian culture that the church wants to address. "There has been a dramatic increase in the popularity of cinema over the last 5-10 years. There is more discussion in the media about films, and cinemas, especially suburban multiplexes, are proliferating." Barnett mentions that her film reviews for Southern Cross, the Anglican church monthly, are "the best read section of our newspaper." That level of interest far surpasses her expectations when she started reviewing. "I started it up initially as a way of keeping myself sane ... At times there are limited intellectual challenges in journalism. I see engaging with popular culture as a way of stretching myself mentally, and hopefully challenging others about what they are watching and absorbing."
Steve Lansingh is editor of TheFilmForum.com, an Internet magazine devoted to Christian conversation about the movies.
Read Christianity Today's 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
J. Robert Parks of The Phantom Tollbooth
Josh Spencer and Brian Heflin of Stranger Things magazine
Film Forum is featured every Wednesday. See earlier Film Forum postings for these movies in the box-office top ten: Meet the Parents, Remember the Titans, The Contender, Lost Souls, The Exorcist, The Ladies Man, and Dr. T and the Women.