Can secular film and the Christian church find common ground in America's so-called culture wars? Absolutely, say 30 individuals from Fuller Theological Seminary who bridged the cultural chasm to attend the Sundance Film Festival, which took place January 25-30 in Park City, Utah.
There is a serious God-conversation going on in our culture, but often the church is unaware of it—not even invited to the dance, many say. The Sundance Film Festival provided a dynamic learning laboratory for students to engage in this cultural dialogue as it takes shape.
Justin Bell, a Fuller student in Pasadena and assistant director of Fuller's Reel Spirituality institute, commented: "These films were so prophetic, so honest, so thirsty for life, that faith conversations were inevitable in post-screening discussions."
These discussions took place in question-and-answer sessions after each film, in classroom meetings visited by Sundance filmmakers—and while waiting in the lines, sitting in the coffee shops, or attending the parties that all make up the Sundance scene.
"At the heart of many of the Sundance films is a cry for compassion," said Kara Stewart, another Fuller participant. "If that's what we're about as followers of Christ, then we have some middle ground—a place to start a meaningful dialogue."
Fuller students joined others who were part of an inaugural dialogue on film and faith in Park City called the Windrider Forum, sponsored by Priddy Brothers Productions. Windrider is a loose partnership of several faith-based institutions, including the Colorado extension of Fuller Seminary, undergraduate film students from Biola University and Northwest Nazarene University, award-winning student filmmakers from the Angelus Student Film Festival, and members of the Park City church community. Participants screened more than a dozen films during their time at Sundance. Craig Detweiler, chair of mass communications at Biola University, served as the instructor for the forum. Detweiler is also an author, screenwriter, pastor, and PhD student in theology and culture at Fuller.
In order to become effective ministers, it's increasingly important for seminary students to know how to "read" a film and develop a theological response, say those involved in the Windrider Forum. In the past this conversation has tended to be unidirectional, flowing from faith to film, from theology to culture. Says Robert Johnston, professor of theology and culture and co-director of the Reel Spirituality institute at Fuller: "We might profitably reverse the 'hermeneutical flow.' The conversation is most productive and vibrant if it is two-way. Movies function as modern-day parables, giving us fresh eyes to see and ears to hear." Johnston has authored many books on the intersection of faith and culture, including his most recent, Useless Beauty: Ecclesiastes through the Lens of Contemporary Film (Baker, 2004).
For many participants, the Windrider Forum offered an opportunity to identify the place of the artist in the life of the church. Offered Bell, "I've always wanted to be both a minister and a filmmaker. This has made me feel crazy at times. But experiences like these show me that these two vocations don't have to be mutually exclusive."
The same sentiment was echoed by Stewart, an actress who has wrestled with doubts during her time at seminary. "I finally know what direction my life is supposed to take," she said. "I'm an artist, and I'm not going to be shy about it anymore. It's as if God called my cell phone and said, 'Hey Kara, it's time to get some new headshots and a better editing system! Have your people call my people.'"
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