Current Events, Movies

Engaging Culture: A brief guide for movies

There has been much furor recently over the release of the Hunger Games movie. My own discussion of that movie has drawn a number of comments from Christian visitors, both good and bad (and I appreciate the candor!). One theme that has reverberated throughout the discussion is the appropriateness of Christians watching violent movies or even considering using them to try to engage with the culture at large. There are no easy answers to these questions, but in this post I seek to provide a brief guide for Christians who hope to use movies to engage with the culture at large.

Appropriate?

Perhaps the most contentious issue that was brought up in my own discussions of the Hunger Games was the appropriateness of viewing violent movies and even using them to engage with others. Jonathan Morrow, in his important book Think Christianly, provides an excellent discussion of the topic at hand. He prefaces his remarks with the comment that “the Bible would probably get… an NC-17 rating in [some areas like the end of Judges]…” Yet it is important to note that “The Bible does not use evil for exploitation” but rather “always records evil and sinful behavior and the consequences that come with them” (193). Violence in a work does not necessarily exclude it from the Christians’ sphere of engagement.

Morrow provides a number of useful questions for Christians to consider when looking at a movie. Here are a few samples (see p. 194):

  • Does it endorse evil…?
  • Does it incite us to evil acts?
  • Is the evil gratuitous?

These are the types of questions Christians must ask as they consider a movie. Now, it is clear that Christians won’t always agree on the answers to these questions. What some consider gratuitous might be something someone else considers necessary for a plot. But violence of itself does not mean a Christian cannot engage with a movie. In particular, some movies use violence in order to point out the horrors which follow from it. This is, in fact, Biblical. Throughout the Bible, violence is depicted along with its consequences, yet it is clear that in all God is in control (see, for example, the Joseph narrative). As Christians interact with movies that have violence, they can focus the discussion on the consequences of humanity’s sinfulness and the need for a savior.

Engaging With the Movies

Morrow suggests a three-layered approach to movies: examine the form of the film (this involves engaging with the artistic elements such as music, cinematography, and the like); observe the content of the film (what is the message the director is putting forward? who is the hero/villain [these characters generally convey that which the director wants to show as good or bad]); note the function of the film (what is the film’s purpose? does it portray sinful behavior in a positive light?) [191].

These questions allow one to proceed to the level of engagement with the culture. If a film is inappropriate, it is not enough to simply dismiss it as a horrible, immoral movie. Rather, one can engage thoughtfully with those who want to discuss the movie. “Why did you enjoy the movie?”; “What kind of message do you think the movie tried to put forward?”; “Do you agree with the central theme of the film?”–these are the types of questions Christians can ask in order to engage with the culture. Note that none of these questions comes across as antagonistic or angry. Rather, they come across as interested and thoughtful. Whether one has seen a movie or not, one can easily engage in a dialog which can lead to some interesting discussions.

The brief overview I’ve given here is merely a guide. Interested readers should check out Morrow’s book (linked below).

A Case Study: The Hunger Games

I’ve already discussed The Hunger Games at length in both the film and book versions, so I won’t repeat that discussion. Here, let me just apply what we see above. There are a few minor spoilers below.

What is the form of the film? -Generally, it seems to be a blockbuster movie with grandiose special effects and stirring musical scores. The visuals often dazzle with bright colors in the capitol but they are very subdued in some parts, particularly in the districts which are under the oppressive rule of the capitol.

What is the film’s content? -In my post on the movie, I argued that the content largely serves to direct the audience’s attention inward: we are, in a sense, the capitol. We are the ones who actively participate in activities to give ourselves comfort while there is great suffering around us. The violence in the movie is there, but it is portrayed in a way which does not glorify it. It is the people of the capitol who glorify the violence, and it is the people of the capitol who are the confused villains.

What is the function of the film? -Again, it seems to be a social commentary on the evils we bring about here. The decadence of the capitol is our own indulgence; the violence going on in the Games are the evils of the world. I see the film as a stirring commentary on social injustice.

But what if you think the violence is too much? What if you think I’m just wrong about this particular film? Should you jettison it altogether? I think not. Instead, I suggest you turn to the questions above. Ask: “Why did you like the Hunger Games?”; “Do you think the film glorifies violence, why or why not?”; “What current problems do you think relate to the film?”

Conclusion

Christians are called to engage the culture around them in a transforming fashion (1 Cor 9:19-23). Engaging with popular films is just one way to engage with the culture. As popular movies come out, it is important for Christians to know the relevant issues they raise and be ready to comment on them as they come up. If we can more effectively open discussions with people about these highly relevant topics, we can help show Christianity is an extremely powerful worldview that touches upon every aspect of our lives in a positive way.

Source

Jonathan Morrow, Think Christianly: Looking at the Intersection of Faith and Culture (Zondervan, 2011).

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

19 thoughts on “Engaging Culture: A brief guide for movies

  1. Very thoughtful approach to Christians and films, J. W. I especially liked your suggestions for questions a believer can ask even if they have decided to not see a particular film.

    Posted by Maureen | April 23, 2012, 5:31 PM
    • Thanks for your encouraging comment, Maureen! I think it is important for Christians to realize that even if we are offended or not watching movies, others are. And we need to be able to engage with them.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 23, 2012, 5:35 PM
      • Absolutely! As a movie fan myself, I relish talking about films and their significance–but I do know I have personal limitations on what I am comfortable watching. I liked your suggestions because they provide a way for believers to engage in film discussions without having to view something that we feel would go against our personal convictions (and those, of course, differ from believer to believer).

        Posted by Maureen | April 23, 2012, 6:57 PM
  2. “Christians are called to engage the culture around them in a transforming fashion (1 Cor 19:19-23). Engaging with popular films is just one way to engage with the culture.”

    There are only 16 chapters in 1st Corinthians so I don’t know what you’re talking about, but it doesn’t matter. There is not a single syllable of biblical support for this entire VERY widely held idolatrous view.

    It won’t make any difference anyway. The great and mighty gods of art and entertainment have utterly enslaved the American church. You are just one more in a vast sea of media addicts who have contrived a way to feed your addiction and convince yourself and others that God approves. I wear the charges of “legalist” and “pharisee” proudly from people like you. I read your comment policy so I won’t be surprised if you delete this. That’s ok, I admittedly am not looking for a discussion anyway. Just shaking my head at another reminder of how far the visible church in this country has fallen.

    Posted by Tiribulus | April 6, 2015, 8:49 AM
    • Thanks for catching the typo. It is supposed to reference 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.

      Quite a few accusations here from someone who doesn’t know me personally at all. It’s one thing to take what one thinks is a justified stand against sin; it is quite another to just assume a kind of me vs. the world attitude and circle the wagons against anyone you happen across in the relatively anonymous world of internet blogs. I see you aren’t looking for engagement, nor does your comment suggest any willingness to consider contrary views. Thanks for stopping by anyway. God’s peace to you.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 6, 2015, 9:08 AM

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