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.

© Used under a Creative Commons (CC-BY-SA-2.0) licence.

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). ↩︎

Image credits (from top) Used under a Creative Commons (CC-BY-SA-2.0) licence.

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