Taking God to the Movies

Taking God to the Movies (1): Introduction

Bruce Riley Ashford

No offense intended toward seminary professors, publishers, and pastors, but the most influential theologians in the United States of America are screenwriters, producers, lyricists, and musicians. These Hollywood theologians’ convey their messages through movies, televisions shows, and popular music, which become the lingua franca of the various cultures and sub-cultures of the USA: John Mayer, Jay-Z, and Black Eyed Peas have more access to American homes than Piper, Driscoll, and Mahaney. Quentin Tarrantino, Oliver Stone, and M. Night Shyamalan have had more formative influence than Grudem, Frame, and Packer. Avatar and Taken have captivated more people than Mere Christianity or Knowing God.

Without even realizing it, many people allow movies, music, and television to have a formative role in shaping their worldviews. These media have the power to convey messages, make impressions, and rouse emotions unlike most anything else. They create a narrative world in which the viewer or listener perceives life from the narrator’s point of view. Embedded in that narrative world are memorable scenes, one-liners, and lyrics that give “snapshot” or “sound-byte” summaries of the narrator’s worldview.

In light of the pervasive influence of these media, this blog series will encourage Christians to watch movies with wisdom and discernment, viewing them through the lens of Scripture, and using their stories to open up conversations with others to whom we can introduce the Story of the world. In the next installment (2), we will summarize the biblical narrative, the master narrative of the world, which teaches us how to think about God, the world, humanity, knowledge, morality, history, death, and redemption, and in so doing, teaches us how to view the narratives set forth at the cinema. In the remaining installments, we will (3) discuss the nine elements of a movie’s storyline which help us to understand the movie’s message; (4) expose the storylines of two popular movies in order to illustrate those nine elements; (5) delineate six prominent themes in Hollywood movies, listing under each themes one or two movies that illustrate it; and (6) answer two possible objections to this series and give some concluding thoughts.

Allow me a couple of prefatory notes, however. I first became interested in “how to watch a movie” under the influence of a philosophy professor, L. Russ Bush, who taught us to always think critically, whether we were in a conversation, reading a book, listening to music, or watching a movie or show. During his Ph. D. seminar on the modern mind, I first discovered theologian John Frame’s Theology at the Movies and screenwriter Brian Godawa’s Hollywood Worldviews. All three men have influenced my thinking in various ways and I want to acknowledge that influence and encourage the readers of this series to consider purchasing Frame’s manual (available only through Westminster Seminary’s campus bookstore) and Godawa’s book. Godawa’s book in particular has helped me to shape this blog series.

Finally, I cheerfully admit that I am not a professional movie critic. I am a Christian theologian and missiologist who seeks to provide a basic starting point, trajectory, and parameters for watching movies with wisdom and discernment. I do so by offering guidelines for understanding a movie’s storyline and for viewing it through the lens of the biblical narrative. I will not spend much time discussing other significant and influential aspects of cinema, such as sound, lighting, and production. I welcome your comments and hope that you enjoy the series and find it helpful in your endeavor to view the world Christianly.

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  1. wlh   •  

    Man, been looking forward to this! Sorry I missed it at 20/20.

    Wesley H.

  2. Aaron   •  

    Much needed and too often overlooked area of cultural influence within Christianity. Glad to see it take up here on BtT.

    One thing I did when I was working with youth was have a movie night and watch a popular movie, then analyze it. Any truth we can glean from it? Any lies we need to be wary of?

    I’m thankful for Christians who engage the culture in this area, either through teaching believers to think critically about their media diet (instead of banning certain types of media) or actively producing media from a Christian perspective (often times different from “Christian” songs, movies, etc.).

  3. ScottH   •  

    Thanks BA. Looking forward to this series.

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Dr. Welty, thanks for the heads up about Frame’s book being available at frame-poythress.org. Maybe we’ll be able to spotlight it again in the last installment.

  5. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Aaron, right on. You are talking not only about cultural criticism, but cultura making. I agree with you. A great book on matters “cultural” is T. M. Moore’s “Culture Matters.” He gives 6 historical examples of Christians engaging the culture, and distills insights to be learned from all 6.

    Wes and Scott, thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  6. Nate   •  

    Great blog series. I’ve been pondering these issues for years, and have been working on that elusive screenplay. I look forward to reading on.

    I’d encourage readers of this blog that if you like these sorts of conversations, look into supporting Christians who are living and working in Hollywood as missionaries to the culture, not trying to make Christian bubble films, but really well told films that resonate with a culture that is hungry. They are doing a great job, but face a huge uphill climb as stark as any missionary in a third world culture. Maybe more stark, as they are reaching out to people who are often strongly and vocally opposed to things associated with the Gospel, and further, the domestic church doesn’t see them as missionaries.

    Of course, as opposed to those third world missionaries, they do have good coffee and Carl’s Jr’s, so it’s not all bad…

    The Act One Writers and Producers program (www.actoneprogram.com), and the Hollywood Prayer Network (www.hollywoodprayernetwork.org) are two organizations that come to mind that are amazing, and in need of support.

  7. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Nate, thank you for your comments. I’ve checked out the websites you’ve mentioned above, and am thankful for these professionals who are seeking to work out their calling in a way that pleases the Lord. And you are right that reaching Hollywood is like reaching a people group in another country.

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