Over the past few years, I’ve been in a number of conversations and seen many social media posts in which Christians—some of whom are my good friends—talk about how much they love a certain movie or adore a particular director. Many of these films and filmmakers, however, boast ideas and notions that run contrary to the Christian faith. They condone and glamorize sexual immorality and violence. They pose a godless, nihilistic vision of the world. Yet these folks—followers of Jesus Christ—don’t seem to notice or care as long as the movie is “entertaining” or “made well.”
In his book Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste, Frank Burch Brown wrote that, compared with issues of morality and theology, Christians tend to see issues of aesthetic taste as inconsequential. Twenty years ago, this statement would ring true, but for younger people of faith, it no longer seems to be the case.
Whereas generations before us swung the pendulum too far one way, dismissing aesthetics and limiting movies to nothing more than a message, we’ve now swung the pendulum too far the other way, dismissing the message and limiting movies to nothing more than aesthetics. Put simply, in the past we only cared about what a movie said and not how it said it, but now we don’t care about what a movie says, only how it says it.
The gospel rubs against both of these wrong approaches, specifically the trend to see, consume and judge movies based on mere aesthetics. As the Bible tells us, the Christian life is the “ministry of reconciliation” in all that we do (2 Cor. 5:18-19). Quentin Schultze says that “Christian communication is every symbol that flows from a human heart that is anchored in Christ’s discipleship and inspired by the Holy Spirit.” In other words, Christians cannot divorce their faith from art or entertainment; they are to incorporate the call of discipleship into all spheres of life—and that includes movies.
Decades before us, Christians attempted to bring their faith to the movies through an emphasis on content (the what) to the neglect of aesthetics (the how). Despite good intentions, this approach led to the creation of Christian movies that use bad aesthetic vehicles to deliver good messages, as well as the boycotting and banning of particular movies with sex, nudity and profanity—the position of “Christ against culture.”
Responding to this unbalanced approach, Christians today make a different mistake. Perhaps influenced by a postmodern thinking that negates the concept of truth, fear of being labeled as unintellectual or uncultured as it relates to art or by something else altogether, many young believers no longer consider or engage the content of movies, even when that content runs contrary to a Christian worldview. In many cases, they don’t even appear to be affected by such content, though they certainly are given that movies are what James K. A. Smith calls “formative liturgies that are trying to make us a certain kind of person.” But by failing to engage the content of movies they watch, Christians will end up with an appreciation of film that cares only about aesthetics, the vehicle, and dismisses the message within that vehicle.
In doing this, we are not living faithfully to our call as Christians—we are ignoring Christian responsibility. On the one hand, we ignore the fact that movies, as cultural liturgies, actually shape our hearts and minds with a vision of “the good life” and human flourishing—often one that looks quite different than that of Scripture. On the other hand, we operate out of a fragmented understanding of art and entertainment, which dismisses the reality that all communication derives from a specific person or set of people with a specific worldview and set of beliefs that, in turn, influence and inform what they say and create. So, when we fail to merge our biblical mandate—to make disciples and to be a light in a dark world (Matt. 28:18-20; 5:16)—into the way we interact with movies, we fail to follow the mandate in its totality.
We need to swing the pendulum back to the center, away from both of these skewed extremes. Christians have an opportunity to shape and renew culture through the way they watch and talk about movies. As Ken Myers points out, “the ability to say that a work of art can be aesthetically good, but false in the worldview it assumes provides an opportunity for the cultivation of moral capacities that popular culture cannot offer.” If a “great” movie expresses an unbiblical or untruthful message, it has the potential to be destructive to culture. According to Francis Schaeffer, “If we stand as Christians before a man’s canvas and recognize that he is a great artist in technical excellence and validity—if in fact he is—if we have been fair with him as a man and as an artist, then we can say his worldview is wrong. We can judge this view.”
To be sure, as Christians, we should not exercise arrogance or intolerance to those who share different worldviews, especially artists themselves. The goal is for Christians to redeem film by using it as a means to point culture toward Christ—the Author of all that is true, good and beautiful. The goal is for Christians to use art and movies in the work and ministry of reconciliation. We can only do this with a view and approach that sees and appreciates the message and the vehicle, the content and the aesthetics, the “what” and the “how.” Put simply, we should care about what a movie says and how it says it. This is what it means to take the gospel to the movies.