Towards a Theology
of Watching Movies

“The basis I want to establish at the start is that we need to come off our religious high-horse and get our feet on the lowly, earthly ground of God's primary activity as creator and sustainer of life. We must relinquish our missionary presuppositions and begin in the beginning with the Holy Spirit. This means humbly watching in any situation in which we find ourselves, in order to learn what God is trying to do there, and then doing it with him."

--J.V. Taylor, The Go-Between God

The West End Movie Group loves watching movies. Specifically, we're drawn to exploring faith with people who love to watch and reflect on movies. We each come to movies with a world view, whether we articulate it or not. This is certainly true for those from Watershed Community, who have been influenced by over 15 years of watching movies; a theological perspective has emerged for us. One of the hopes of the The West End Movie Group is to foster a spirit of true dialogue on meaning and movies. In this spirit here is an attempt to flesh out one perspective on movies and faith that has become formative for us at Watershed. At the very least it can be a departure point for discussion; perhaps it may also be formative for others.

As the opening quotation suggests, our approach to movies is one of being open to the Holy Spirit speaking through Creation. So our first step is to listen to the movie on its own terms. We try to select movies that touch on larger themes, movies that grapple with living meaningfully. In the movie Doubt, we explored the role of the wind as a character. How do plot and characters contribute to the narrative? How does the cinematography aid or work against this narrative? What is the director trying to say? What meta-narrative or worldview is informing the film? What themes seem to stand out? It's natural to make connections to our own point of view, but we don’t want to squeeze the movie into our own mold. Paying attention to these attributes helps us listen deeply to the film.

Letting the movie speak for itself also assumes that faith doesn’t need an apology. Our approach is not to defend the Christian message or try to prove Christianity is the only way. Rather it trusts that Christ contains all things, is Lord of all. This is a mystery. It doesn’t mean that all religions are the same or lead to Christianity. But rather Christ is reflected in the most authentic expression of each faith, “drawing all things unto him.”

There is an assumption that Christ, through the Spirit, is present in the natural process of creativity in people’s souls. These human processes, reflected through storytelling, are universal; humanity is always looking to make meaning. Some people call this Christ Incognito, with the understanding that the Spirit works in all people to move them toward the truth. Not propositional truth so much as the truth of being authentically human. The Spirit works to bring people towards a more authentic human expression: understanding, tolerance, compassion, openness to mystery.

The Christology that fits this perspective could be called Christ as The Human One, the person who best represents what God intended for humanity. Christ lived in such a way that he revealed God most clearly. God’s compassion on humanity expressed itself best through self-emptying, through entering human experience completely, including death. This compassion, expressed most deeply in the crucifixion, meets people where they are and seeks to draw them closer to God, often through crisis or difficult moments.

If we let the movie speak for itself with this kind of open attitude, we find that it asks questions of us. As we look to answer those questions, we find our own perspective is augmented or challenged by the film. In what ways does the theme of the film compare or contrast to biblical stories, to Christian discipleship? In what ways is the world view of the film similar to or different from the Christian meta-narrative? This step is more about dialoguing with the film than critiquing it. Our purpose is not to rate the film to some external standard. This is a worthwhile endeavor in itself, but our goal is to see the movie as a partner in understanding more deeply how God speaks through all of life. In Doubt we found ourselves reflecting on questions of forgiveness of those deemed social pariah and on the nuances that can so easily turn admonition into judgementalism.

A natural third step is to ask how the movie speaks to us personally. How are the questions that have arisen a Word to our faith journey? We tend to do this with a combination of personal reflection and community discussion. In keeping with the best biblical tradition, we believe that revelation continues through communities as they study and pray. It isn’t just about an individualistic communion with God. Rather we listen as individuals in community for God’s guidance: “where two or three have gathered.” With Doubt, we found the movie asking us whether doubt, in terms of holding one's own certainty or conviction with humility, can be a way to deepen our love for each other, as 1 Thessalonians 4:9,10 encourages. While Scripture is our central text, we also see God speaking through Creation, often deepening or illuminating Scripture in relevant ways. A symbol from the movie is often placed on a coffee table to evoke our perceptions of God's creational presence. Sometimes God’s word is consolation, encouraging faith, building fellowship. Other times God speaks through the desolation of loneliness or separation from spiritual communities. Consolation and desolation can often be illustrated by listening to what we are drawn to or repulsed by in a film. God’s word isn’t intended to make us feel comfortable, but to lead us more closely to God’s intention.

We find it helpful to focus our discussion on these three facets of movie-watching with a series of questions: questions about the movie, questions on movie themes and questions of application. The questions are usually good springboards, and have sometimes sparked discussions late into the night. We have found these discussions one way to follow John Taylor's suggestion of listening for what God's Spirit is trying to do in our world. Our hope is that we may be faithful in following that lead.

For more on the West End Movie Group or Watershed Mythic Movies, visit Stories of our Lives or Mythic Movies. Also A Movie Group Proposal.

For more resources in connecting film and faith, see Gordon Matthies’ Movie Theology: Movie Reviews & Resources.

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