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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© Tony Watkins, 2020
The Tony and Jane Watkins Trust oversees and supports the ministries of Tony and Jane Watkins in Christian training, education, and communication. It is a charity registered in England and Wales, no. 1062254.
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