THE MESSAGE BEHIND THE MOVIE: How to Engage With a Film Without Disengaging Your Faith – Douglas M. Beaumont (2009)

The Message Behind the Movie by Douglas M. Beaumont discusses the importance of engaging with worldview themes in movies.  The author reveals his cards upfront (which is increasingly rare these days, especially in a movie).  He writes as an “evangelical, philosophical, theological, movie lover” and seeks to unite these interests in his approach to the book.

The book is organized in three basic acts.  Act one focuses on watching and understanding movies.  Act 2 discusses the evaluation process.   Act 3 explores what kinds of movies to watch and what kinds of movies to avoid.  Ultimately, the author seeks to “show how we can all better interact with our culture by understanding the movies that shape and reveal it.”  His aim is “to show how we can all better interact with our culture by understanding the movies that shape and reveal it.”

ACT ONE: Watching and Understanding Movies

The author begins by setting forth the historical context by which we knowingly or unknowingly evaluate entertainment.  The two positions find their origins in Plato and Aristotle.  Plato held that art is basically useless and even may be harmful.  Aristotle’s view was quite different.  He believed that art has the ability to “describe ultimate reality” and as a result should not be avoided.  The author sides with Aristotle and writes approvingly: “An Aristotelian approach to movies needn’t condone sinfulness; instead, it can recognize how central storytelling is to human experience and seek to accurately critique the messages that stories in films are communicating.”

Beaumont points out that movies either engage in direct or indirect communication.  He argues that if a blatant message is promoted in a movie, most people will consider this propaganda.  “Almost by definition, then, popular movies will rarely state their messages explicitly.”  All the more reason for disciples of Christ to carefully discern the times.

The author makes it clear that when a filmmaker produces a piece of work, this does not necessarily mean that he/she is endorsing what emerges on the screen.  “This is the difference between description and prescription.”  Therefore, readers are urged to evaluate the message of a movie with objectivity.

The author helps readers understand the story or plot-line of a movie.  Style is discussed (or style elements).  Again, caution must be exercised not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Beaumont takes time to explore the suppositions that emerge in movies – what we generally refer to as a worldview.  However, the author stresses that the worldview is “not necessarily the same thing as its message.  In fact, distinguishing the two is one of the most important, and difficult tasks of evaluating movies.”  Again, discernment is critical.

ACT TWO: Evaluating and Discussing Movies

The author encourages Christians to discern good and bad in movies.  He prompts Christ-followers to use movies as a starting point in sharing the gospel message.

Beaumont encourages Christians to explore movies from a philosophical angle.  He adds, “[Movies] can also open doors to conversations about philosophical issues that might be a hindrance to faith.”  The author presents a basic approach to epistemology and rightly notes that “truth is objective (based on reality, not our thoughts about reality), absolute (true for everyone), and knowable.”

ACT THREE: Applauding and Avoiding Movies

The author not only has his eye on culture; he also rejects the sympathetic attitude that some Christians have toward postmodernity.  By embracing the correspondence theory of truth and the law of non-contradiction, he places himself in a school of thought that is oriented to classical apologetics.  For this we can be thankful.

Beaumont writes boldly and humbly.  His mingling of authoritative teaching with a sympathetic heart to lost people is encouraging indeed.

Evangelicals have a track record of retreat.  For too long, we have fled from culture instead of interacting with and influencing culture to the glory of God. The Message Behind the Movie is a step in the right direction.

3.5 stars


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MEANING AT THE MOVIES: Becoming a Discerning Viewer – Grant Horner (2010)

Meaning at the Movies by Grant Horner is not designed as a set of glorified cliff-notes for Christian movie buffs.  Rather, it is as the author notes, “An extended meditation on why we have movies at all, why they are so powerful, and why Christians need to think deeply and theologically about film art – indeed, about all human cultural production.”  These words alone were enough to draw me in.

Horner endeavors to explain the curse as a two-fold problem, namely, the search for meaning and death.  He holds, “Culture is what we produce in our futile attempts to understand the world.  It is what we believe and what we do to deal with the twin problems of meaninglessness and death.”  This is where movies emerge, which are in the eyes of the author, “the modern-day equivalent of philosophy,” or “the absolute center of modern culture.”

Practical Considerations

The author builds a strong case for developing Christian discernment (a discipline that seems to grow weaker by the day among Evangelicals).  He argues that when we walk away from movies we should be “stronger for having been exposed to error, and exposing it as error.”

Horner proposes a simplified definition of worldview I rather like: “Who believes what about what and why?”  The five elements that emerge in this definition may be directly applied to movies and promote Christian discernment.  He builds on his initial definition by adding the following: “A worldview is any collection of ideas and their attendant attitudes that attempt to explain and systematize, at some level, how the universe works.”

Horner rightly maintains that ideas never occur in a vacuum.  “Ideas are related to other ideas … Most ideas that claim to be new are merely rehashed versions of old ideas” (think, New Age movement and recall the original lie in the garden, for instance).  Accordingly, he sets out to briefly explain the dominant worldviews that are entrenched in culture including theism, deism, naturalism, nihilism, and pantheistic monism.

Discernment is crucial.  The author notes, “If you watch a film with the powerhouse combination of a mind saturated with Scripture and a working understanding of the major worldview systems, you will in many cases be able, even with a single viewing, to analyze a film with a high degree of discernment.”

The author continues to sharpen the discerning skills of the reader in a chapter entitled, “How to Interrogate a Movie.”  Thoughtful questions are encouraged, including:

1. What view of anthropology is presented?

2. What metaphysical view is presented, i.e. ultimate reality?

3. What is the view of destiny, i.e. random or determined?

4. Is the universe progressing or decaying?

5. What ethical framework is presented, i.e. moral absolutism, relativism, or pragmatism?

6. Is the film in the modern or postmodern stream?

Horner adds, “The next time you watch a movie and don’t think biblically, you’ll be disobeying God.”  This sharp and necessary admonition catapults the reader immediately into section two.

Analysis

The second half of the book is devoted to exploring various aspects of film including comedy, “the invention of fear for pleasure,” romance, and dark themes that emerge in contemporary movies.

Horner’s discussion on fear is worth the price of the book.  He writes with great insight here: “Because we are wired to gain pleasure from the fear of God, yet as a race we do not fear him, we find ourselves in the rather perverse position of experiencing certain pleasures coming to us in the form of highly manufactured and densely controlled fears packaged as entertainment.  I believe this is why ‘fear for pleasure’ has become such a profitable  sector of the film industry.”  He argues that people in general want control over the things they fear.  They want to “limit that fear within prescribed boundaries, which [they] can never do in the case of the ‘fear of the Lord.'”

Meaning at the Movies is a good resource to turn for thoughtful Christians who are concerned with the content that is being propagated on the silver screen.  Horner’s analysis is biblical and balanced.  And he demonstrates a good working knowledge of movies and the worldviews that lurks behind the storyline.

A MIND FOR GOD – James Emery White (2006)

“Thinking Christianly” is the purpose of James Emery White’s, A Mind For God.  He writes early on, “While short in length, it sketches out a very large challenge and investment: to develop our minds in light of a biblical worldview that is then used to think Christianly in the world.”

The author reaches his intended goal.  First, he explains the Christian mind and stresses the importance of recognizing and submitting to propositional revelation.  “The Christian mind is a mind that operates under the belief that there is something outside of ourselves that we must take into account.”

Second, the author develops the cultural mind.  In so doing, he explains the cultural battle that faces every Christian, namely, moral relativism, autonomous individualism, narcissistic hedonism, and reductive naturalism.  James Emery White argues essentially that Christ-followers must recognize these cultural competitors and respond in a biblical and winsome way.

Third, the author spends time developing the importance of developing good reading skills in order to nurture the Christian mind and provide a solid foundation for intellectual development.  Scripture, of course, is the centerpiece of the strategy here.

Fourth, there is a certain body of truth one ought to know if he or she is to nurture a properly informed Christian mind.  Included among the most important items are biblical, historical,  and theological literacy.  “Before a mind can contend with culture,” White argues, “it must first ground itself in a sound and vibrant Christian theology.”

The author stresses the need for spiritual discipline: “We need to recapture a sense that the development of our minds is a spiritual discipline.”  He props up specific rules for reading, learning, and reflection.

Finally, James Emery White brings everything together by making an appeal to the lordship of Christ, the issue that stands at the crux of Christian mind development and discipleship.  He writes, “This is the vanguard of Christian thinking – knowing how to live and then working to make the kingdom of God a reality for others to be able to live as well.”

I really enjoyed this book.  James Emery White has the perfect blend of Bible, cultural awareness, passion for the truth, and creativity. A Mind for God is a welcome addition to my own book, Developing a Christian Mind in a Post-Christian World which creates a workable framework for “thinking Christianly.”

4.5 stars

HOLLYWOOD WORLDVIEWS: Watching Films With Wisdom and Discernment – Brian Godawa (2009)

Whenever a book is dedicated to Francis Schaeffer, I usually stand at attention.  Brian Godawa’s book Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films With Wisdom and Discernment is no exception.

Godawa presents the purpose of the book in to introduction: “I want to inform the reader of the nature of storytelling and analyze how worldviews are communicated through most Hollywood movies.  As readers sharpen their understanding of movies, they will be more capable of discerning the good from the bad and avoid the extremes of cultural desertion (anorexia) and cultural immersion (gluttony).

This work is divided into three parts and  are summarized below:

ACT ONE: STORYTELLING IN THE MOVIES

The first section includes a survey of movies that are laden with violence, profanity.  Also included are movies that stress stories, myth, and redemption.  The author is quick to point out that “every story is informed by a worldview.  And so every movie, being a dramatic story, is also informed by a worldview.  There is no such thing as a neutral story in which events and characters are presented objectively apart from interpretation.”

The author challenges readers to watch movies with a discerning eye and avoid generic responses such as “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.”

ACT TWO: WORLDVIEWS IN THE MOVIES

In section two, the author presents a wide assortment of movies that promote existentialism, postmodernism, romanticism, monism, evolution, humanism, and Neo-paganism.  He honestly and thoughtfully interacts with and dissects dozens of movies and contrasts them with the Christian worldview.

ACT THREE: SPIRITUALITY IN THE MOVIES

Godawa explores the identity of Jesus in the movies and how Christianity is represented (usually poorly) in contemporary films.  He rightly alerts the reader to the fact/value dichotomy that emerges in many movies.

Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films With Wisdom and Discernment is an excellent overview that clearly outlines the strengths and weaknesses in literally dozens of movies.  The author candidly interacts with worldview themes and carefully summarizes themes that are inconsistent with Scripture.  Godawa’s work is a breath of fresh air as he evaluates film and contemporary culture with a spirit of grace and a clear-headed approach.

4 stars

THE JOURNEY: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims – Peter Kreeft (1996)

The Journey by Peter Kreeft is a sort of philosophical roadmap for truth seekers.  This allegorical tale which is something akin to Pilgrim’s Progress is a practical tool for travelers.  It is a practical guide to help them choose a life philosophy.  The author is quick to remind readers that every person has a philosophy.  Even a “n0n-philosophy” is a philosophy!  Ten questions are stated in advance by the author:

1. Shall I question?  Shall I go on this quest for truth at all?

2. If I question, is there hope of answers, or should I be a skeptic?  Is there objective truth?

3. If there is any objective truth, is there objective truth about the meaning of life?

4. If there is an objective truth about the meaning of life, is it that life is meaningless?

5. If life has real meaning, is it spiritual and not merely material?

6. If it is spiritual, is it moral?  Is there a real right and wrong?

7. If there is a real right and wrong, a real moral meaning, is it a religious meaning?  Is there a God?

8. If there is a God, is God immanent (pantheism) or transcendent (deism), everywhere or nowhere?

9. If God is both immanent and transcendent (theism, creationism) his prophets, his mouthpiece to the world?

10. If the Jews are God’s prophets, is Jesus the Messiah?

Socrates accompanies the pilgrim throughout this allegorical journey.  He reiterates the point made above, “Remember – you do not have a choice between some philosophy and no philosophy, only between good philosophy and bad philosophy.”

The traveler encounters a wide variety of philosophers, one of which is Protagoras the Sophist.  He maintains, “Truth is subjective, not objective … Whatever you believe is true, is true for you.  Man is the measure of all things.”  Thus Protagoras promotes the lie of relativism so prevalent in American culture.

The next traveler on the path is Diogenes who admits that there is some absolute truth.  He also admits that “it is self-contradictory to say otherwise.”  Socrates confronts the cynicism of Diogenes by showing the futility of the “proving is believing” model.

Gorgias emerges next on the path who represents a nihilistic worldview.  He summarizes his worldview: “First, nothing is really real.  Second, if it were, we could not know it.  Third, if we could we could not communicate it.”

Next, the traveler and Socrates come face to face with Democritus the materialist (Darwin, Marx, and Freud’s predecessor).  Socrates makes mince meat of Democritus’ arguments and “unquestioned faith.”  The author (who speaks through the Socratic character) clearly delineates the reason for the popularity of materialism as a worldview: “It offers exculpation from guilt … only a self can be guilty, because only a self can be morally responsible.  If we are nothing but clever apes, as Darwin says, or pawns of our economic system, as Marx says, or bundles of sex urges, as Freud says, then there is no free moral agent to blame, and no one to feel guilty.  Morality becomes a myth.”

The thoughtful friends continue their philosophical journey and eventually encounter the relativistic worldview of Thrasymachus.  His worldview that embraces the notion that “there is no natural law of good and evil” is immediately exposed.

Xenophanes is the next philosopher to appear on the trail who magically transforms into Nietzsche, the quintessential atheist.  The travelers are unimpressed with the antics of Nietzsche, so they scurry down the path.

Parmenides, who some consider to be the first philosophical pantheist appears next alongside Aristotle, the “first philosophical deist” (Kreeft compares him to John Locke and Immanuel Kant).

The travelers continue their philosophical quest and bump into Moses who quickly turns the discussion Godward!  He reveals the essence of man’s problem: “Sin.  Rebellion against God, and his will, and his law.  Sin blinds the mind.  Sin makes us forget God, and his will, and his law.  It makes us rationalize instead of reasoning.”

Moses directs his new friend to the creative power of God: “Our God gave the universe not just its shape or its motion but its very existence.  He created it out of nothing, not out of something.  Matter itself is his creation, not just form.”

The journey ultimately leads to the foot of three old crosses.  The middle cross pointed to the “King of the Jews.”  C.S. Lewis appears and reveals that his responsibility is to point people to the truth.  Lewis turns the attention of the traveler to the Messiah: “His claim on you is to be more than your teacher, like Socrates, and more than your prophet, like Moses.  His claim is to be your God.”  Lewis continues his dialogue with the traveler and unpacks the gospel message in a way that is theologically correct and philosophically pleasing.

Kreeft brings the journey to an end in an epilogue that finds its culmination in the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  He points readers to Christ, the true source of freedom and forgiveness!

Most people would immediately turn away upon seeing some of the philosophers presented in Kreeft’s book.  And people are generally intimidated by emerging worldviews.  However, Kreeft’s work enables readers to interact with ancient worldviews that have surfaced in our culture and effectively dismantles erroneous arguments and unbiblical presuppositions.  His narrative forces readers to choose between worldviews when faced with a fork in the road.  As usual, Kreeft’s work earns high marks for creativity and clarity.  The book is both educational and witty.  Postmodern pilgrims (and college students) need Kreeft’s book in their arsenal, especially in the difficult days ahead.

4 stars