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Art’s Desire: Responding to Film and Literature (part six)

This is the last in a series of six posts, which was first published as an article in Anvil journal, Volume 28 No 3 (November 2012), and is published here by kind permission of the editor.

Two more aspects of responding to film and literature

4. Morality

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We have considered the moral dimension of the underlying worldviews, but it is also worth reflecting on the morality of the book or film as a whole, relating back to my earlier comments about beauty, truth and goodness. Is this a work of art which has integrity? Is it being honest about life? The morality within a book may be reprehensible, but does the work as a whole reveal the writer’s moral stance towards that behaviour? Is this behaviour which is shown to be reprehensible, or is it being celebrated? There is much more to say about this, which will need to wait for another post.

5. Spirituality

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Since we are God’s image-bearers, it’s no surprise that explicitly spiritual or religious themes keep surfacing in the arts and media. Malick’s The Tree of Life is a stunning, though enigmatic, reflection on the book of Job, exploring suffering and grace.1 That film is unusual in the way it has Christian theology right at its heart, but it’s far from alone. In the last few years we’ve had films like Gran Torino,2 with a powerful theme of redemption, and The Blind Side,3 an inspiring true story of Christian compassion for the disadvantaged. More often, Christian belief is relativised or straightforwardly attacked. Examples abound: The Invention of Lying_4 and, more recently, Prometheus5 spring to mind in the film world. In the world of literature (as well as the obvious contributions from the New Atheists), there have been books like Kevin Brooks’s Killing God,6 and Philip Pullman’s controversial The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.7 But spiritual and religious themes go well beyond whether the film or book is pro- or anti-Christian, as in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen8 or _Life of Pi,9 both of which are based on best-selling novels that explore questions of spirituality.

But the spiritual aspect of responding to art and media is not simply whether or not explicitly spiritual or religious ideas are present. It’s also about what the book or film is suggesting about the right way to live, or about the ultimate goal of life. This relates closely to the fifth of the worldview dimensions — what is it we really need above all else?

Another way of thinking about this aspect is to ask, what deep longings of the human heart are being expressed here? Is it the pursuit of happiness? A craving for freedom? Is it a yearning for love, or a desperate search for purpose and meaning? All these are good things — part of being made in God’s image — but all of them can be idols. The longing for these things is a pale reflection of the longing for God himself. They are expressions of Lewis’s Sehnsucht. The tragedy is that so few people ever realise it. Which is why we need to help them.


Footnotes

  1. See my article on it: ‘He Will Wipe Every Tear — Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life‘. ↩︎
  2. Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, Warner Bros., 2009). ↩︎
  3. Blind Side, The (John Lee Hancock, Warner Bros., 2010). ↩︎
  4. The Invention of Lying (Ricky Gervais and Matthew
    Robinson, Universal Pictures, 2009). ↩︎
  5. Prometheus (Ridley Scott, Twentieth Century Fox, 2012). ↩︎
  6. Kevin Brooks, Killing God (Puffin, 2009). ↩︎
  7. Philip Pullman, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Canongate, 2010). ↩︎
  8. Paul Torday, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007);
    Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (Lasse Hallström, Lionsgate,
    2012). ↩︎
  9. Yann Martell, Life of Pi (Canongate, 2002); Life of Pi (Ang Lee, Twentieth Century Fox, 2012). ↩︎
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Art’s Desire: Responding to Film and Literature (part five)

This is the fifth in a series of six posts, which was first published as an article in Anvil journal, Volume 28 No 3 (November 2012), and is published here by kind permission of the editor.

Celebrate the good1

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If the ideas actually make sense, we need to acknowledge that fact, even if we profoundly disagree with them. A coherent worldview deserves to be treated with respect. We need to engage with it critically but positively. We need to take seriously an approach to life that works, because others around us will be taking it seriously. And where a film or a worldview is a true reflection of reality, we need to acknowledge the fact. To do otherwise has two serious consequences. First, if other people perceive us to be continually disparaging, attacking or ridiculing ideas which seem to them to be true, they will soon hold Christians in contempt. Second, as Nick Pollard points out:

Whether we like it or not, other worldviews contain truth. If we reject them totally, we shall find that, as well as rejecting error, we are also rejecting truth. And if we reject truth, we push ourselves into error.2

Paul tells us to ‘Fix [our] thoughts on what is true and honourable and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise’ (Philippians 4:8 ,NLT). William Romanowski says that Christians,

. . . often employ this passage to defend whatever appears nice, heart-warming, and comforting over what is true, right and excellent. This has contributed to a preference within the church for popular art that is sentimental and melodramatic.3

He points out that the Bible includes accounts of ‘the most heinous, violent, and immoral behaviour’.4 yet it surely meets Paul’s criteria. Romanowski continues:

The advice to the Philippians suggests an attitude and way of looking at things; in short, a perspective. . . . The virtues listed in Philippians are meant to serve as a guide for Christian discernment. This passage should be used not so much to limit artistic engagement but to open the whole world up to Christian treatment and evaluation.’5

Thinking about what is true means recognising the grim reality of our fallen nature — ‘the waste and ugliness of war and injustice, the depths of human despair, the chaos and confusion of life’6 — as much as valuing integrity, compassion, and other Christian virtues. If a book has integrity in the way it highlights aspects of human fallenness (whether or not the writer understands things in this way), we should commend it. Thinking about ‘things that are excellent and worthy of praise’ means that we should applaud a work’s emotional honesty and artistic excellence. In fact, Peter Fraser and Vernon Edwin Neal write concerning films:

Our first concern should be cinematic and dramatic excellence. Regardless of the message of the individual film, Christians ought to be the first to recognize and praise a film’s artistry. All beauty reflects God’s beauty, whether it is understood to be from the Creator or not.7

In short, we are looking for anything which reflects the likeness of God: truth, insight into the nature of things and a right sensitivity to the difficulties, dilemmas and tensions of life. We are also looking for evidence of the longing for God which is innate in every human being. We were created to know him and worship him, and if we cannot do so we express that urge in many other ways. Our longings for happiness, love, freedom, fulfilment and peace are really expressions of our deeper longing for God.

Challenge the bad

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We must not, however, become so concerned to be positive that we neglect to point out those things which fall short of truth and excellence. There is strong pressure within Western culture not to disagree with someone’s beliefs or values — not to be judging someone. But to sweep disagreement under the carpet is not intellectually honest. It fails to treat the other view with respect because it refuses to engage with it in any meaningful way. Every worldview is reduced to a supposed lowest common denominator which fails to do justice to any of them. If I disagree with someone, the respectful response is neither to deride their worldview, nor to diminish it. Rather it is to enter into dialogue so that I understand it more fully, attempting to see it from their point of view, so that we can both see exactly how and why we think differently.

It is important to remember that it is much easier to disagree with the worldview of a film than with a person. We all, consciously or otherwise, sit in judgment on every movie we see, and on the characters within it. Learning to challenge a lack of artistic excellence and integrity, or the values and ideas expressed within a film, can be something which opens up stimulating debate — especially when we are being positive about other things rather than expressing a knee-jerk response.

So we are also looking for error, for examples of human blindness and of people looking for the right things in the wrong direction. We are looking for those God-substitutes which people chase when they cannot or will not pursue a relationship with the Creator himself. We are looking for ways in which our rebellion against God is expressed consciously and unconsciously.

This process of engaging with worldviews in films (or with people) can seem daunting at first, and it does require some hard thinking. But it does get easier with practice, and after a while it can become second nature to engage with a film without this getting in the way of our enjoyment of it. I long to see Christians find this way of thinking becoming so much a part of them that they cannot help but watch films ‘worldviewishly’ — and so become far more effective at naturally sharing Christian perspectives on what they watch.

Read the final part of this series of six posts


  1. For parts three and four of the process of positive deconstruction, I have substituted ‘celebrate the good’ and ‘challenge the bad’ for Pollard’s labels of ‘affirm the truth’ and ‘discern the error’ (pp. 55–56). While these are appropriate labels when talking about worldviews in terms of their belief content, they seem to be too narrow in the context of art and media. We need to be engaging with the emotional and aesthetic dimensions, not only the intellectual ones. ↩︎
  2. Pollard, Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult, p. 55. ↩︎
  3. William D. Romanowski, Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2001) p. 142. ↩︎
  4. Romanowski, Eyes Wide Open, p. 143. ↩︎
  5. Romanowski, Eyes Wide Open, p. 143. ↩︎
  6. Romanowski, Eyes Wide Open, p. 143. ↩︎
  7. Peter Fraser and Vernon Edwin Neal, ReViewing the Movies: A Christian Response to Contemporary Film (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2000) p. 32 (their italics). ↩︎
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Art’s Desire: Responding to Film and Literature (part four)

This is the fourth in a series of six posts, which was first published as an article in Anvil journal, Volume 28 No 3 (November 2012), and is published here by kind permission of the editor.

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Worldviews in film and literature

While not wishing to over-emphasise this aspect of responding to art and media, it is important that we briefly consider how to think about how to identify them, understand them and respond to them. There are four key aspects to this — a process called positive deconstruction.1 We need to analyse the worldview and evaluate it. As we do so, we must celebrate the good and challenge the bad.

Analyse the worldview2

First, we need to identify the worldviews we encounter in films or literature. I am not so much interested in applying a particular label to a worldview (merely labelling can fail to allow for the deeply individual nature of worldviews) as in discerning and analysing its core components. What beliefs, values and attitudes underpin what we are hearing. Where is the writer or director — or my friend — coming from? It is helpful to be familiar with the broad worldview categories, but more helpful to know what questions to ask of any worldview, any person or any film.

Various writers have suggested frameworks for considering worldviews. I use a set of five questions which I formulated some years ago (drawing on Sire’s seven basic questions,3 and Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton’s four questions4). These key questions are really headings — an easily-remembered framework which opens up many specific sub-questions. I keep this framework in mind every time I watch a film, read a book or have a significant conversation.

  •  What is reality? This is perhaps the most foundational of my five questions. The others, in some sense, follow on from this question of what really is real. It is a question about ontology — about being; about what reality is and what it is like. Is the physical world all there is, or is there a spiritual dimension as well? Why is the world like it is? Where did it come from? What kind of God or gods are there, if any? Many books and films deal explicitly with this theme. For example, Alex Proyas’s film, Knowing,5 centres on a physics lecturer who has turned his back on his father’s Christianity and embraced a purely materialist view of reality. But when strange things start happening, he begins to wonder if there is more to the world than meets the eye. The Invention of Lying,6 by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, repeats the common notion that religion is just a human invention — a lie to make us feel better about death.
  • What does it mean to be human? This is another huge question and is also about ontology. What are the distinctive things — if any — about human beings? What is the point of life? Where did we come from? What happens when we die? Are some human beings more important than others? What does community mean? How should we relate to each other? This is one of the most significant areas of exploration in literature and film. Proyas’s earlier film, I, Robot,7 for example, questions whether there is anything unique about humanity. Could an artificially-intelligent robot develop emotions and the ability to dream? That is, could it become a person, worthy of being considered as equal to a human in every way, except biologically?
  • How do we know anything? This question deals with the philosophical issue of epistemology or knowledge. This is often the hardest of the five questions to think about. Why do we believe the things we do? What are good and bad reasons for believing? How do we know what is true? Where does wisdom come from? Where does meaning come from? These kinds of questions are a key element in Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi,8, an acclaimed feature film adaptation of which was made by Ang Lee.
  • How do we know what is good and bad? This question deals with issues of ethics. Is there such a thing as good and evil? How do we know what is right and wrong? Should we be concerned primarily with the consequences of our actions, with ethical principles, or being a good person? What values should we live by? What do goodness or beauty mean? There are plenty of examples of books and films exploring morality, including Suzanne Collins’s best-selling trilogy The Hunger Games,9 Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films,10 and countless others. We need to consider not only what moral choices are made by characters, but what the overall ethical framework is.
  • What is the fundamental problem confronting all human beings, and what is the solution? Within films, there is often an implicit, if not explicit, suggestion of a right way to live and think in order to be happy, fulfilled or complete, or a way to be redeemed in some sense from the problems which humans face. Amélie11 has a clear message that the world can be made a better place by an accumulation of acts of kindness to other people. Gandhi12 powerfully argues for the importance of peaceful resistance and simplicity of lifestyle.

We will not be able to answer every one of these questions for every film or book. Many films, for example, never touch on the question of how we know things or why we believe things. However, by thinking carefully about each of these five areas, you will often be able to identify what is being assumed as well as what is being shown more explicitly.

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Evaluate the worldview13

Having identified the beliefs, values and attitudes that are being communicated through a particular film, or those that shape the communication, we need to evaluate them. Which can we be positive about because they are consistent with a Christian worldview, and which do we need to be more critical of? So we have some more questions to ask.

  • Coherence: Do the ideas cohere? That is, do they hang together and make sense? Something which does not make sense cannot be true. And something which is true should make sense.14
  • Correspondence: Secondly, we need to ask, do these ideas correspond with reality? Do they describe the world as it really is? Or are they a distortion, or even complete invention? Do they ignore some significant factor? For many philosophers — especially Christian ones — this is the most important of the three criteria for evaluating worldviews. The more truthful a worldview is, the better its description of reality and of human beings will fit with our experience. The biblical understanding of humans as rebellious image-bearers explains what we see in human nature better than any other perspective — it explains why we can be so noble and good, and yet so selfish and wicked. Looking for correspondence with reality is not something confined to realist films. Fantasy and science fiction films and literature are sometimes profoundly true in their view of humanity and the problems we face and their non-realistic context can help us to see the truth more clearly. Beauty and the Beast15 is an animated fairy tale for children, but who could doubt that it has much to say which is true on the subject of relationships and how we perceive others?
  • Pragmatism: Thirdly, we need to ask if the ideas work. What happens if you push them a little further? What kinds of tensions and difficulties would you run into? If a worldview is true we should expect it to work in practice — it should have some pragmatic results. Perhaps a more helpful way of thinking about this is, does this worldview enable an individual or a society to flourish?

As we work through part two of the positive deconstruction process, we need to be identifying where the ideas are correct and where they are incorrect. Like Paul in Athens (Acts 17:16–34), we should be positive about points on which we agree and express clearly our disagreement on other issues. Tragically, it seems that all too often Christians are quick to condemn something, but very slow to praise. As we evaluate the ideas within a film or book in terms of coherence, correspondence and the potential for human flourishing, we are looking for truth which we can affirm as well as untruth which we must dispute. So parts three and four of the process do not happen consecutively after part two, but instead happen concurrently with it. I separate them out to ensure that we pay close enough attention to both aspects.

Read Part FIVE in this series of six posts


  1. Nick Pollard, Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult (Leicester: IVP, 1997) pp. 48–56. Note that I use different labels for the four stages of the process, but the methodology remains the same. ↩︎
  2. Pollard expresses this as ‘identifying the worldview’ (Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult, p. 48). This seems to suggest finding the correct label to apply to a worldview as a whole. However, since many people feel that they do not have the knowledge to be able to do so accurately, and since labelling has limited value, I think it is more helpful to see this stage as teasing out, or analysing, the component parts of the worldview. ↩︎
  3. James Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, fourth edition (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2004), p. 20. ↩︎
  4. Brian J. Walsh and Richard J. Middleton, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 1984) p. 35. ↩︎
  5. Knowing (Alex Proyas, Icon, 2009). ↩︎
  6. The Invention of Lying (Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, Universal Pictures, 2009). ↩︎
  7. I, Robot (Alex Proyas, Twentieth Century Fox, 2004). ↩︎
  8. Yann Martell, Life of Pi (Canongate, 2002); Life of Pi (Ang Lee, Twentieth Century Fox, 2012). ↩︎
  9. The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, Lionsgate, 2012). ↩︎
  10. Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, Warner Bros., 2005), The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, Warner Bros., 2008), and The Dark Knight Rises(Christopher Nolan, Warner Bros., 2012). ↩︎
  11. Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Momentum,2001). ↩︎
  12. Gandhi (Richard Attenborough, Columbia Tristar, 1982). ↩︎
  13. Pollard expresses this as ‘analysing the worldview’ (Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult, p. 52). Analysis seems to suggest the kind of process described in the first stage — identifying the component parts. This second stage is perhaps more intuitively understood as evaluation since we are trying to determine the truth or falsity of the ideas. ↩︎
  14. We do, however, need to allow for the possibility of a paradox as opposed to a contradiction. ↩︎
  15. Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise,
    Walt Disney Pictures, 1991). ↩︎

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