I read a good little post at Mockingbird today, and it reminded me why it’s so hard to write about culture as a Christian, for a Christian audience.

In the reflection, Will McDavid wrote that “cultural engagement”—a term I, too, have come to dread—is a poor substitute for the sort of cultural isolation that evangelicals and other Christians embraced in the twentieth century, and have just begun to claw their way out of in the relatively recent past.

But as McDavid points out, our “re-engagement” with culture has sometimes amounted to, well, talking about talking about culture. Things get much trickier when we actually pull out the actual cultural artifacts: it’s one thing to talk about watching movies, and a whole different, more complex thing to try to talk about specific movies (Noah, say, or Before Midnight, or Her, or Free Birds, or Wolf of Wall Street).

I think that’s because we tend to treat actual cultural artifacts in the way we sometimes treat the Bible: as “proof texts” from which we can draw principles or truths for application. Though we love the Bible, we evangelicals in particular have often treated verses as if they stand alone, forgetting that the story in which they appear speaks just as much as the verses themselves. Form speaks, as well as content.

Similarly, Christian critics can lean (lazily) into the idea that products of culture mainly exist as object lessons to be turned into “truths” when we talk about them and figure out how they do or don’t line up with our beliefs. McDavid puts it this way:

Culture, even in its currently “secular” period, does a good job of listening to the voices which testify to that truth; we listen, but often we’re already comparing their words with what we already know to be the right answers . . . But we tend to crave a Christian take on everything, a personal angle, and we want it fast, easy. And a prefabbed complex of ideas provides that for us.

I was thinking about this last night as I sat in a theater for my press screening of Gone Girl (review coming later this week). I only get one chance to see a movie before I write about it, so I’m scribbling notes as I try to absorb the movie and also write a pre-draft of my review. What will my thesis be? What themes seem important? What will CT readers find most useful and interesting?

Of course, with a movie like Gone Girl—and this is true of everything David Fincher does, from Fight Club to Se7en to The Social Network—the immediate answer, the one that leaps off the screen when your audience is largely Christian and heavily evangelical, is something about the eternal battle between good and evil and the wickedness that dwells in the heart of man.

Somewhere in my notes is the line, “good vs. evil?”

That’s always a nice thesis to be able to grab, because the Bible of course says many things about good and evil, sin and judgment, and that means I will find something theological to say about the film, and we’ll all be happy and satisfied that we learned a lesson.

But here is the thing: that is really not what Gone Girl is interested in. Actually, that would be the easy way out. The movie is about something intensely metaphysical and also concrete, but in it sin is a matter of fact, not its obsession. Some movies are “about” good and evil, but Gone Girl is about something else. So while it says some things about good and evil, and I could write about that, it would be at the cost of some Giant Important Stuff.

I realized around the 90-minute mark that if I were to try and shoehorn the film into that framework, I’d be treating the movie disrespectfully: not as a movie, but as a teaching tool. And I’d be treating my reader disrespectfully, too—assuming that he or she (or you) can’t grasp other, potentially more complex ways of thinking about it. That you need me to give you the clearly “Christian take” on the movie, rather than something that takes the movie into account both for what it tells us and how it tells us that, and in this case it has to do with things like movie history and cinematography and light.

It’s actually really hard to do that kind of writing. And, I’ll be honest: sometimes it can be hard to write it when you know that it may not get as many click-throughs.

But as a critic and an editor, I am increasingly committed here at CT Movies to trying to not just look for truths in the movies and TV we watch, but also treat them as movies and TV, treat their creators as intelligent world-builders with particular contexts and aesthetic visions, and treat readers as the intelligent, thoughtful Christians they are. I think we do a pretty great job of that, and some truly brilliant writers here pull that off with every review, but we can always get better.

Christians, of all people—people who still believe they’re embedded in a cosmic story, one with both form and content—ought to be the ones who get why we focus on how a comedy works, or what’s going on in the background of a shot, or why a filmmaker might be drawing on the past, or whatever. If we think art is designed to work both on the level of form and content, then we can’t possibly be satisfied to get the “message,” evaluate it, accept or reject it, and move on.

We should be hungry for more. I am. I hope you are, too.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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