SOME BOOKS ABOUT THE MOVIES
Over the years I have been an
avid reader of movie reviewsfrom
the acerbic criticisms of the late
Pauline Kael, to the more commercially
friendly viewpoints of Roger Ebert, to
the occasional moralizing of Michael
Medved. The reviews of others have helped
me to do my own thinking and evaluating
about questions of quality, taste, style,
morality, and worldview in film watching
In recent years several
excellent books have appeared, written by
Christian scholars and film critics,
dealing with the question of how
Christians might watch and evaluate
movies. Are there Christian
"canons" of film criticism? By
what categories can we watch and judge
the merit of a film? Bottom line: How may
I as a Christian and a movie junkie
redeem the hours I spend in darkened
theaters? Voila! Others are asking and
answering your questions.
For those who watch
movies and desire to place the film
viewing experience in dialogue with their
Christian values and worldview, I suggest
the following books out of many that
could be chosen and deserve attention.
- Robert K.
Johnston. Reel Spirituality:
Theology and Film in Dialogue.
Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000.
I lifted (and altered)
my column title from this book. If I were
to teach a course on "Theology and
the Movies," this is the book I
would use as a text. Johnston, professor
of theology and culture at Fuller
Theological Seminary in California,
supervises students earning Ph.D.s
in theology and film and mentors the work
of several filmmakers who are Christian.
Johnston summarizes the
history of the churchs attitude
toward movies (from a posture of
avoidance at one extreme, to a belief
that even secular films can be, in some
sense, revelatory, at the other). He
builds a good case for his belief that
movies qualify as serious art and, as
such, deserve the same kind of reflective
response from Christians that the visual
and musical arts have received.
He discusses how movies
have portrayed specifically religious and
spiritual themes, and he analyzes the
work of several important directors and
how they wrestle with matters of meaning,
morality, and God. Finally, he ponders
the parameters of film criticism from a
Christian perspective. How do we engage
in the critique of movies in such a way
as to maintain our integrity as
Christians while going deeper in our
evaluation than counting cuss words and
Ken Gire. Reflections
on the Movies: Hearing God in the
Unlikeliest of Places.
Colorado Springs, Col. Cook
Communications, 2000. 215 pp.
Gires book is
more popularly written than
Johnstons and covers some of the
same territory. He discusses the
influence of movies on our culture, truth
in the movies, and criticism from a
Christian perspective. Even better, Gire
offers reviews of 14 classic films
through history, from Bambi to Schindlers
For Christians who have
been uneasy about movie watching (and
enjoying) and still feel like the
experience is one of the forbidden
fruits, Gire, an evangelical minister and
writer, offers encouragement and the
perspective of one who has been there.
K. L. Billingsley.
The Seductive Image: A Christian
Critique of the World of Film.
Westchester, Ill.: Crossway
Books, 1989. 236 pp.
As the title suggests,
Billingsley views Hollywood and its
creations more cautiously and negatively
than Gire or Johnston. Seductive Image
asks, Are we being manipulated by movies?
Why do films often reflect the worst in
our culture? How does political ideology
affect filmmakingboth the
perspective of the film and the decisions
as to which films get financed and
The book reflects a
perspective that is politically and
culturally conservative, but whether you
agree with the authors point of
view or not, his questions and criticisms
are intelligently framed and significant.
Billingsley himself, interestingly
enough, is a script-writer for television
Thomas S. Hibbs. Shows
About Nothing: Nihilism in
Popular Culture from The Exorcist
to Seinfeld. Dallas: Spence
philosophy at the Roman Catholic Boston
College. His book is really about
television more than film, but the thesis
he advances is significant for both
mediums. Hibbs believes that while
conservative Christians have often
castigated Hollywood for a product that
attacks "family values" and
promotes violence, the real culprit is a
deepening cultural malaise in which both
filmmakers and film viewers are
Hibbs documents a
growing belief in nihilism (the
philosophical conclusion that life itself
has no meaning beyond that which we
assign it) throughout American culture.
In television and film, nihilism is seen
in the growing number of "shows
("Seinfeld," for example) and
films in which characters do not grow or
gain insight, because ultimately nothing
is to be gained from such growth.
I find Hibbss
thesis disturbing because I want to
disagree, but I see strong evidence in
some quarters for what he observes. His
analysis is specific and deep, and like
it or not I have to recommend this book
to thoughtful film watchers.
For me, watching movies
is far more than an escape (though at
times it is that, too). It is an exercise
in worldview evaluation, art
appreciation, and cultural observation.
Here are some books that will enhance the
viewing experience at multiple levels.
is reading books, watching movies, and
going to baseball games this summer on
his sabbatical leave from Souderton (Pa.)
Mennonite Church. He serves as a pastor
there and also as an adjunct professor at
several local seminaries.