Art is to be enjoyed, admired, and appreciated for its beauty as well as the medium in which that beauty is expressed. Art is also an outward expression of the beliefs and values of its artist. Art is beauty but it is also a message. Unfortunately, people often watch movies as passive observers treating the stories in movies as mere entertainment without giving due attention to the message being presented. We believe that every expression of art, whether it is a movie, a song, or a painting, is a medium to communicate a certain worldview of its creator with an accompanying message. We also believe it is our responsibility as humans (created Images of God endowed with the ability to create) to discern whether this worldview is in line with the Christian worldview expressed by the Author of Life through Scripture.
Why should we be discerning viewers of movies?
It is always good to start with why we do what we do. Why should we watch a movie critically in light of Scripture? Here are a couple of reasons:
1. To protect others from faulty worldviews expressed through popular movies.
Whether it is an over-the-top action movie starring Bruce Willis or a chick flick starring any of the Jennifers (Aniston, Lopez, Garner, etc.), movies have a tendency to influence culture according to their views from masculinity to marriage. We have to be prepared and equipped to understand what is being projected through popular movies and discuss what is true and what is not.
2. To train others to know how to understand, critique, and engage the worldviews of movies, and use that ability to better communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ with those who are non-Christian.
As stated above it is too often that we watch movies as passive observers, which can be a dangerous thing. It would be easier if watching movies was a black and white issue, or if there was an inspired list of movies that was acceptable for viewing. However, since there is not, we must use wisdom and discernment when engaging the various expressions of art and train others to do so as well. It is important to teach skills of observation and interpretation to those we are discipling so that they may protect, equip, and engage others.
3. To engage, understand, and interact with the different worldviews expressed by our culture through films (and other forms of art) so that we may be more effective in communicating the Gospel.
It is by hearing what the culture is saying that we can better understand how to respond according to the questions being asked. Martin Luther once said, “If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere fight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.” Movies provide an opportunity to understand and engage the culture on the very questions they raise and the challenges they present to the truth.
4. To enjoy beauty and art expressed through films.
It would be tragic not to mention this important point. Even if a movie expresses views I disagree with it does not mean that I cannot appreciate the technical quality of the art or elements of truth that are beautifully portrayed. Critical observation does not have to be divorced of appreciation and joy of a story well told. If anyone were to read the famous film critic, Roger Ebert, they would not accuse him of not enjoying films because he is a critic. His joy is not hindered by his critical observation but rather enhanced by it.
How should we watch movies?
We should be able to watch movies with a critical eye. There are several good books out on how to evaluate movies. Hollywood Worldviews by Brian Godawa andMeaning at the Movies by Grant Horner are two great books on the topic. .
Probably the best book on the subject is Francis Schaeffer’s book, Art and the Bible. It is a short read but potent with wisdom. From his book we will take three principles in evaluating art and apply them to movies:
1. Technical excellence
We should be able to appreciate a movie for its technical achievement in storytelling and expressing beauty. Even though the worldview might disagree with that of Scripture, we as humans can acknowledge the creativity given to humanity. An example of this is the film, The Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan. Though its final message contradicts a Christian worldview, one can still appreciate the technical quality of Nolan’s excellent film making, Han’s Zimmer’s powerful score, and the academy award winning performance by the late Heath Ledger.
Here is an important quote by Schaeffer in regard to this point: “We are not being true to the artist as a man if we consider his art work junk simply because we differ with his outlook on life. Christian schools, Christian parents and Christian pastors often have turned off young people at just this point. Because the schools, the pastors and the parents did not make a distinction between technical excellence and content, the whole of much great art has been rejected by scorn or ridicule. Instead, if the artist’s technical excellence is high, he is to be praised for this, even if we differ with his world view. Man must be treated fairly as man.”
In order to better analyze a film’s technical quality it might be helpful to read reviews by critics to understand what makes a technically good film (i.e. plot development, character development, editing, dialogue, etc).
Validity is the second criterion. By validity I mean whether an artist is honest to himself and to his world view or whether he makes his art only for money or for the sake of being accepted.
I won’t name any names of films, but we all know those movies that are made just to make money without respect to being an expression of art. Such motives obviously take away from a film’s validity, coming across as insincere. It, however, will not hurt box office sales because many people do not care about this quality; therefore, we will continue having those sorts of movies.
This criterion can also be applied to political motivations and other overt philosophical agendas that tend to bully the audience to agree with their message. It takes away the validity of the art as a whole, and the message in particular, when the creator is not being fair in his treatment of those with whom he disagrees.
It is very helpful to recognize this criterion for anyone who desires to create something himself, whether that is a book, a sermon, or a house.
3. Intellectual content (the worldview which comes through)
The third criterion for the judgment of a work of art is its content, that which reflects the worldview of the artist.
Understanding the worldview of the director, writer, or artist is the most important component when evaluating art. The definition of a worldview is “a conceptual framework that contains our fundamental beliefs and is also the means by which we interpret and judge reality.” There are no “neutral” movies simply because there are no “neutral” creators. Every film contains a worldview (or belief system) that is expressed in the story. The worldview expressed in a movie must be judged by the truth of Scripture. Meaning, we must be able to discern what is true, untrue, moral, immoral, beautiful, or ugly within the artist’s worldview in light of Scripture.
The most popular movies often present a message that stands in contradiction with the truth of Scripture. Therefore, it is all the more important that we be equipped to understand and engage. Listen to Schaeffer’s sound advice: “We should realize that if something untrue or immoral is stated in great art it can be far more destructive and devastating than if it is expressed in poor art or prosaic statement…But the greater the artistic expression, the more important it is to consciously bring it and its world view under the judgment of Christ and the Bible.”
Therefore it is all the more important to understand the messages being preached through the medium of movies (and other arts). When we know how to watch a movie, we can protect others from faulty worldviews, engage the non-christians with the truth, better appreciate the beauty of a film, and train others to do the same.
Some Final Exhortations
1. Be a Person of the Word so as to know how to correctly judge things in our Culture
If you don’t know Scripture you will be a ship without an anchor thrown to and fro by the waves of culture. (Eph 4:14) It is pointless to engage culture if you are not consistently reading, meditating, and studying the Bible, because you are unprepared for the discussion.
2. Be Discerning in Watching Movies
Though this whole post has focused on the manner in which a person should watch a film, it is important to note that there are movies that have content that should be avoided altogether. It could vary from person to person, but if a movie or even a genre of movies causes a person to stumble (i.e. lustfully) it should be avoided. If you find yourself being influenced by a worldview that is in contradiction to Scripture then you need to stop and consider what has authority and prominence in your life. This also speaks to how a person stewards his or her time. Though movies can be enjoyed, they are not to be such a high priority that other aspects in life are hindered (i.e. time in Scripture, time with family, etc.)
3. Watch movies in Community
Watching movies with others provides numerous benefits. It gives accountability for material that could cause a brother to stumble, it sharpens one another to think better, and allows the opportunity for edifying fellowship.
Therefore, let us continue to grow in how we watch movies with a discerning mind, appreciating beauty, evaluating what is true, and communicating the truth to others.