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Valuable viewing

Photograph by Greg O'Beirne / GFDL / Creative Commons
This post is a slightly modified version of my column which originally ran this month at MWR.

The Barna Group conducted an online survey about people’s movie watching habits and attitudes last year. They found that the average American saw 1.7 movies in the theater and 10 more on DVD or streaming and still more on cable. Interestingly, Evangelicals saw 2.7 movies at the theater—more than the average.

But most interesting to me was this: only 11% of respondents said “they saw a movie in the past year that made them think more seriously about religion, spirituality or faith.”

Really? With Pew Research indicating 73% of Americans identify as Christian, I think this response may have more to do with how we approach films than the films themselves.

Maybe we don’t feel spiritually challenged by films because our culture encourages us to compartmentalize—put our faith in one box and our movie watching in another. Or perhaps we think of the culture around us as secular or absent of God and include movies in that.

But if we pay attention, movies can tell us about ourselves, the world and our own Story.
In an interview with Christianity Today, film critic Jeffrey Overstreet reflects, “A good movie is truthful—whether the subject is something beautiful or something terrible, whether it's an inspiring story of a virtuous hero or a troubling story about bad choices and painful consequences.

Movies have the capacity to reflect something of the truest and best Story, the one in which we all live and breathe. Movies can reflect God’s truth and help us understand it in our lives today.

“I visualize an arch with one end anchored in the ancient world and the other in a contemporary cultural situation,” says Robert Jewett in Saint Paul at the Movies, who is alert for “parallel stories” in film that resonate with the stories in Scripture. “I look for the spark that flies between the two arches of the biblical text and the contemporary film.”

What we find, says Jewett, will help us understand biblical truth and “throw light on contemporary situations.”

So, how can we be more open to encountering those sparks?
First, we need to start thinking about movies as stories with the capacity to, as Jewett puts it, “disclose truth in their own right.” How does that truth help us better understand ourselves, the world and our own Story?

And we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss genres that don’t seem valuable. The Barna survey notes that the most attended films among Evangelicals were The Avengers (42%) and The Hunger Games (36%). While we might be tempted to dismiss science fiction or superhero movies as irrelevant to our faith, both stories have elements that bring God-talk into open spaces.

Don’t stay away from a film simply because it deals with darkness or suffering. There is value in these stories. “In depicting darkness, art … can also serve as a vivid reminder of the world that ought to be,” says Brett McCracken in RelevantMagazine. “[T]he redemption journey moves through all manner of blood-curdling atrocities and skin-tingling horrors along the way—and the Gospel is all the more beautiful because of it.”

That doesn’t mean every story is worth viewing. “Each person needs to know their conscience and their weaknesses,” Overstreet says. “That means we need to do more than check the film's rating.

Read about the films you see. Find critics whose reviews are informed by their faith. And talk with others about the stories—and the issues they raise.

Movies have an amazing capacity to tell good stories full of truth. If the films we watched last year didn’t make us think more seriously about our faith, perhaps we didn’t choose wisely—or we didn’t watch well.

(A few more of my favorite faith-informed online resources: Image/Arts & Faith Top 100Films, FilmChat, 1MoreFilmBlog, Abnormal Anabaptist and