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.


  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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© 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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