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Blog // Thoughts
October 13, 2006

Film And Christian Communication

Thanks to Next Reformation for providing a link to an interview with Dick Staub at Relevant magazine. The whole interview is worth a look, but my eye was also caught by the opening responses, “As film becomes our common language and Christian communicators desire to connect with today’s audience, it is understandable that the use […]

Thanks to Next Reformation for providing a link to an interview with Dick Staub at Relevant magazine. The whole interview is worth a look, but my eye was also caught by the opening responses,

“As film becomes our common language and Christian communicators desire to connect with today’s audience, it is understandable that the use of film clips is on the rise. Unfortunately there is a cloud in this silver lining.

1) If the Church was creative instead of imitative, we would be “creating” contemporary media instead of piggybacking on and exploiting media created by others.

2) Because so much of contemporary media is mindless, we see superficial movies being used in churches to communicate truths that are deep and timeless; this can have a trivializing effect on faith.

3) Too often having demonstrated our inability to exegete the Bible, resorting to proof texts, we’ve now expanded our incompetence to incompetent interpretation and applications of filmic texts. The majority of evangelicals are driven by the redemptive mandate not the mandate of creation, so they see film as an evangelistic tool more than an artistic expression. I am encouraged that a remnant of mostly younger Christians are seeing film for the art first ‚Ķ may their numbers multiply.”

Some five or six years back I did a little work on a research project looking at the ways preachers used film quotes, allusions and clips in their sermons. My intuition was that younger preachers felt compelled to reference films, but were not always clear or sure in what they were acheiving by doing so. I piloted by talking to 5 young preachers and making notes on their use. Approaching some lecturers created a tiny bit of interest, but not enough to make think I could attract funding for a broader work.

Staub’s comments bring me back to a lot of that thinking. What really is the point of all this interest in film? What does it really achieve?

I’m not trying to create cynicism here. I’m a strong advocate of referencing film in all theological work. To me, film is the major cultural artefact of of our era, not just in European cultures, but across most of the world. If you want to speak meaningfully about culture, then you have to speak about film.

But, it is also pretty easy to misfire when quoting film as well, to succumb to “silver-screen fever.” In particular, I’m concerned about what Staub refers to as trivialising effect of “…superficial movies being used in churches to communicate truths that are deep and timeless.” My feeling is that we underestimate the negative impact that comes from the poverty of our communication – especially with regard to popular culture.

It is not enough simply to make reference to popular culture in some attempt to be relevant. We need to interogate why we do it and ask ourselves if our exegesis and interpretation of culture is thorough enough. Claiming that a film like American Beauty (O.K. I do pick on this one a little), reflects some deep point about the meaning of life is clearly asinine. However, referencing a film like that because some people seem to imagine it says something profound is quite a bit more interesting.

Part of the problem is alluded to in Staub’s third point – treating films as some giant book of visual sermon illustrations. It’s easy to get it really wrong (and getting it really wrong is the only problem, everyone excepts getting it a little wrong), if we choose not to treat films as works that exist on their own terms, if we ignore the commercial and economic realities within which they are made and marketed and if we ignore the way the experiences and locations of cinema function in the life of the movie-viewer.

I’ve found it a fairly good guide that if someone starts talking at length about theology and film without mentioning the big, who, what, where, why questions, then their interpretations of films will often be shallow, or self-serving, or both.

Who – makes the film, makes money from the film, doesn’t get to make the film, sees it, doesn’t see it, has access to films or not, does and doesn’t get films made about them or their struggles and stories, scored the film.

What – does the film deal with outside the little bit you want to quote in your sermon/blog/book, is the impact of the film, are the reviews like, are film scholars saying about that film/director/genre/technology/era, is the marketing strategy, distinctive about the film in relation to other films, films/plots/directors does it reference/rip-off, technologies were used.

Where – will the film be screened/viewed and how does that impact it’s experience, is the film set, is the film made, is it most commercial successful or not successful, is it available to buy as DVD, do people talk about the film, is it referenced in non-theological works, is it reviewed, did the idea for the screenplay come from, did the music come from.

Why – was the film made, why do films like this get made, why do some films not get made, why did people go to see, why did some people not see it, why was it popular or not, why did it get a lot of press or not, why do people pour so much (or so little) money into films like this, was the film shot the way it was, were the production values in place, was the technology used in the film employed, was the film as long as it was, were the cast members chosen.

[tags] Dick Staub, Theology and Film [/tags]

Responses
Matt Stone 16 years ago

That’s a top quote and its an interesting set of questions you raise

jan 16 years ago

A great, thought-provoking post. At my large, southern California mega-church, we’ve wrestled many times with the use of a particular movie clip. It can sometimes conclude with an “end justifies the means” justification, if the particular point the movie illustrates is especially strong.
It’s a little off your topic…but I just posted a short series (Oct. 12-13) about Christians and the arts, including film, if you might be interested.

samlcarr 16 years ago

There have been numerous films with Jesus as the subject tackled by some of the leading producers and directors of our age. Apart from this I can think of only a very few that were overtly Christian productions that stood out in any way. I wonder why? The people with the resources would be the evangelical christians of America but the output has been dismal…

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Jan thanks for the comment – I’m checking out your blog posts and will comment soon.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Sam – it is a fascinating point that the resources to create the overtly evangelical works doesn’t seem to produce quality.

Dana Ames 16 years ago

Fernando, you might enjoy this blog:
http://www.churchof themasses.blogspot.com

Author is Barbara Nicolosi, former nun and now employed in Hollywood (!) as a screenwriter and screenwriting teacher. She has a lot of interesting ideas.

I enjoy your posts, particularly about worship music. I find it a very large sticky wicket: finding songs that are interesting melodically. with good theological and “literary” content, but not so complex that people are stressing over getting the notes correct. I’m also frustrated that instrumental-only music is seen by congregants (and some leaders) as filler music only.

Thanks for the thoughts-
Dana Ames
Ukiah California

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