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Christianity and Film part 1 (of 7). Overview

by David Lichty

Christians are stereotyped as having an approach to movies best described as “too holy.” They avoid anything that disagrees with them, and respond to almost any film experience with either praise and support, or shock and derision, regardless of the real qualities of a movie, done instead on the basis of its alignment with their beliefs, or their culture. It’s a stereotype for a reason - a lot of us do it, and those who do can be pretty vocal. It can also dominate the approach presented in Christian Living advice programs at a less histrionic levels, leaving those who sense that there is more to get from our films with little to go on but a lot of warnings. My approach is intended to remedy that. Movies are no different - no more harmful or helpful - to Christians than they are to anyone else. They are also just as rich. If you’re not a Christian, here’s a peek behind the cultural curtain, and you’ll see me quote the Bible, among other sources, as it tends to be the Christian’s guiding text. Hopefully this remains interesting to you. These videos have been a little beefed up, visually, to make up for not being able to see the guy who’s talking, but the text and video clips were shown in a classroom setting. The audio will also be podcasted.


Christianity and Film part 1 (of 7).  Overview

...if you extract the precious from the worthless, you will become My spokesman.

-  God, Jer. 15:19  NASB

Hi, this is David Lichty, and I did this first session.  I opened by asking people to listen to a description of a dramatic scene, and use their imaginations to see it in their minds.  It was cut from a screenplay, so it does’t represent great prose, but it still describes.  I read this:
No one has ever seen Superman.  It’s the end of Clark Kent’s first day at The Daily Planet, and he’s just said goodbye to Lois, who doesn’t think much of him.  It’s night and she emerges through a rooftop exit as she sees a helicopter arriving. It lands on the pad and LOIS runs for the open door.  The rubber-encased cables connecting the helicopter pad floodlights dance wildly in the wind like black snakes. The helicopter struts are precariously near to them, and one cable inadvertently hooks itself around a strut.  The helicopter starts to rise and suddenly jerks back as the hooked cable takes hold.  The helicopter lurches down violently, one strut hanging over the side of the building.  The PILOT has been knocked unconscious by the impact.  LOIS looks over at him, paralyzed with fear. She looks down to the street, terrified.  A small CROWD has already started to form, staring up, pointing excitedly. CLARK arrives on the scene, looks up as well, eyes widening in horror as he sees the helicopter dangling half over the edge of the roof.  He pushes his way through the crowd, looking for something.  He finds a phone booth, but this is a modern booth -- it covers only the top half of the body.  CLARK crosses to an alley.
Meanwhile LOIS looks up past the unconscious PILOT to the edge of the roof.  She has only one chance.  She unbuckles her safety belt and tries to crawl over him. As she moves, the helicopter shifts position and swings out farther over the roof.  The cable jerks with the weight. Sparks fly.  LOIS tumbles back with the movement, and falls out the door grabbing her unbuckled seatbelt at the last minute on the way out.  The CROWD screams as LOIS dangles from the roof, holding on to her seatbelt for dear life.
A PIMP sees SUPERMAN in full costume heading past him, and says, “Say, Jim! That is a bad outfit…”  Superman excuses himself and rises from the ground into the night sky. The PIMP watches in wonder.  LOIS dangles from the helicopter, her mouth moving in some sort of silent prayer. The helicopter suddenly snaps.  The helicopter falls.  LOIS screams, eyes welded shut. Suddenly SUPERMAN'S mighty arm reaches out, grabs her around the waist. With his other hand, he takes the bottom strut of the helicopter.
“Easy now, Miss,” he says, “I’ve got you.”
LOIS' eyes open tentatively, then flutter unbelievingly.  “You've got me? Who's got you?”
SUPERMAN smiles warmly as he lifts both LOIS and the helicopter back onto the roof.  He gently deposits the awestruck LOIS on the roof, then lowers the helicopter.  He smiles at Lois.
“I hope this little incident doesn't put you off flying, Miss. Statistically it's still the safest way to travel.”
LOIS opens her mouth to speak, but SUPERMAN takes off again. She stares after him. gaping.


Then I ran the same scene from the film Superman: The Movie.  The video version of this session includes it, but if the one you have does not, it can be seen on YouTube here:

(as of Summer, 2016).  It can also be found on the DVD of Superman, chapter 20.

As I say in the recordings, when we ran the scene, we had a great picture, and great sound… except for the dialogue.  The sound went out-of-phase, so there was no dialogue, just people moving their mouths as if speaking.  It ruined the experiment.

If it had actually worked, I probably would have turned on the lights to see a room full of smiling faces.  I usually do when I run this clip.  I would have said, “You just imagined it.  Now there’s the scene.  Why are some of us smiling so much?”

My original title for this session was  “WHY ALL MOVIES ARE BETTER THAN ALL BOOKS”   Why the provocative statement?  Because movies, TV, books and all stories from the world will provoke us with their assumptions.  The default view for most people is that books are always better than movies, whether the people are avid readers themselves or not.  I wanted to challenge that assumption with a statement which is just as silly.  In the 12 month period starting June 1st, 2014, I read 157 books (not including 6 re-reads).  That’s more than the number of movies I saw in twice as much time on any screen - theater, TV, computer - anywhere.  I like books very much.  Sometimes they’re better than films, but “they’re always better than movies” is a personal preference, not a general truth.

Why even focus on books?  Because they’re the other most popular way we get stories, and because our church, to say nothing of our faith in general, is pretty book friendly.

Books engage the mind in very specific ways:

They allow, and sometimes encourage, the use of our imaginations possibly more than any visual art can do.

They can say a lot more without coming off as preachy.

They are easier to forgive, because the actors in books are always believable, even when their dialogue is a little shaky.

They have more time than a film, and so can be more complex.

Books are not bound by "real-time" as films are.  They can fill moments with far more content, such as internal monologue and concurrent events.

Good books are better than mediocre movies at allowing us to see characters without preconceived notions, which is harder to do when  specific actor we know is cast.

Books are physical. They have weight.  Even if you are reading on an eReader, there is a tactile experience to books that movies don't have.

Books are a solitary experience.


“…for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.”

- Roger Ebert


Cinema is often completely neglected when people talk about the arts because it has so saturated our lives, but it is the art form which encompasses almost all of the others:

It is theater.

It is writing.

It is lighting, by which it contains sculpture in the form of sets and objects on screen.  It is sculpture/architecture.

It is painting and photography with its visual compositions, color, special effects…

It is music, even back in the silent era.

It is dance, if not always literally; everything in a film, from action sequences to dramatic courtroom motions to a touching kiss can be choreographed and executed to convey more meaning through motion than is given in the dialogue.

Movies are often corporate experiences - we often see them with others.


Movies are not “low art”.  They are not a passive experience. They engage the mind in very specific ways.  They both form and challenge assumptions.

Movies slice time like no other art form. They cut from scene to scene.  They cut within scenes.  Books rarely jump from moment to moment with such brevity.  In theater people have to walk off stage, they don’t just disappear after finishing the important line, and yet in movies, time is cut more frequently than it is left alone.  Only the art of comics comes close to doing this.  Movies have close-ups.  They have shots where you see both the thing and the person seeing it. Why do we laugh when someone asks why no one ever says “goodbye” before hanging up a phone, or reloads a gun in a gunfight, or goes to the bathroom in a movie?  We laugh because it’s generally true, and we generally don’t think about it.  Movies cut time in such a way that we never notice those things unless we are making a deliberate point to catch them.  Evan after a few conscious checks, it works even after it’s been pointed out to us.  Paintings can’t do anything like that.  If every painting done in the 1600’s featured people with no elbows, we’d always notice.   Even if they were cleverly hidden by shadows and objects, it would jump out at us after we saw it just five times.  “Why does nobody ever have ELBOWS!” is what we would ask.

Movies allow, and often encourage, the use of our imaginations in ways different from any other art form.  They frequently don’t show, or just show enough. We’re given part of an image, or a reaction shot, and our minds fill in the rest.  The serial killer movie Seven shows us crime scenes, not violent acts, but we feel like we’ve seen the acts, not in their visual gruesomeness, but in their pain and immorality.  By not showing, we process those bad events the way we should, not with glee, but with due horror.

And when movies DO show us things, we get what a book might not do for us - confirmation.  A sense of reality. When it is absolutely, positively crucial that the picture in your head of a person, place, action sequence, or object is exactly like the picture in the director's head, a film is the best way to make that happen. In JAWS we finally SEE the shark everyone has been afraid of for the first hour and 20 minutes of the movie.  We might have imagined it being big, but we when see it against a real boat, it’s real size is huge in a way that makes a stronger impact than our imagining it huge might make it, because in our imagination, everything huge is just huge.

Then I ran a long clip from Jaws illustrating the last point, the next point, and how wrong we can be about the tone of movies we have only heard about.

If it’s not included in your copy of this, it can be found on the DVD and Blu-Ray starting at Chapter 14 (and rewind a little bit).  It’s also on YouTube, but in four parts:

Movies tell stories too, with words.  This ended with Quint telling The Indianapolis Story.  We have a monument on the downtown canals with more information, more details, and some of them are pretty dramatic.  It doesn’t have half the impact of Quint telling it like he did there.  Part of that comes from seeing the reactions of Sheriff Brody hearing it for the very first time, and Hooper, the expert, who knows all about it, still unable to take his eyes off Quint.  It’s important and says a lot, yet it’s not at all preachy.  Additionally, the acting isn’t just believable, like our mind actors. It’s impeccable.  Sometimes film actors are much better than our imagined actors.  These real people have put all of themselves into their roles, and may have found things we would never have come up with, and are glad to have seen.  They add.  These actors add to what we’re experiencing, much as the words in a book can add.  They guide our imaginations, like the words of a book do.

This can happen just with the visuals too.  The book and the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey were created concurrently.  Neither is an adaptation of the other.  Both are original works based on the story that Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick came up with together.  In this case, the movie is three times more vast and complex than the book.  It shows and implies far more in its images than Clarke pulled off with his words.

ON SCREEN:  Discernment and the Holy Spirit bring us freedom in movie watching, give us practice in engaging with people and views which are new, even disagreeable, and enable us to bring Christ into conversations where He would otherwise be absent.

Engaging with stories is scriptural.  The Christian gets to do this.  Perhaps we are even required to.  Much of our Bible comes in the form of stories given without commentary.  We are simply told what happened.  God does this in the Old Testament.  Jesus himself does it in the Gospels with his parables. He told stories to illustrate things. Movies are our time’s parables.  YES many of them are wrong, but even those show us how others think about the world.  They are the form of story we are most likely to be able to share and talk about with the greatest number of people, more than a popular television show, and Harry Potter excluded, more than even the most famous books. They are the form of storytelling we have most in common.

Coming ahead we are going to look at is why movies are great.  We’ll look for the messages they wear on their sleeves and the ones they hide under our pillows.  We’ll consider when and why it is reasonable to guard ourselves, as well as when and why we may not need to guard ourselves even when our culture tells us to - our Christian culture.  We’ll look at why not being so protective lets us bring Jesus into conversations we otherwise couldn’t, and which things really deserve to be avoided, and maybe even rejected.  I’ll help as much as I can with how to know what’s worthwhile, and how to pre-evaluate content.  We’ll see how seeing movies that offend us could help us engage with people who could offend us, and vice versa.  We’ll look at things we can learn about God just from how we watch films.

And in all of this, we will not take away your ability to enjoy movies, to just watch them.  In fact, we hope to bolster that.  It’s a both/and, you really can enjoy and discern.

Christianity and Film part 1 (of 7): Overview

This is a slight rewrite of the notes used to introduce the overview of a class hoping to open minds about the value of cinema.

from Christianity and Film (2016)
Creator: W. David Lichty
Posted by David Lichty