Hi everyone.

This is the first of three seminars I gave at our church on Engaging with Culture. The first is largely borrowed from Andrew Fellows’ talk which can be found at http://www.bethinking.org/resource.php?ID=250 – well worth having a listen to.

Hope you find it useful!

Engaging with Culture :: Film – Part I

Engaging with film

It doesn’t take much looking around to recognise the huge impact of film on modern, western life. From the movie celebrities who ‘sell’ products to us simply by being pictured holding them to the magazines that fill our shelves telling us the latest, dirtiest story about an actor, whether true or not.

Cinema attendance is on the increase after a slump around the advent of TV in the 1960’s, while technology for watching films at home has progressed significantly. You no longer have to travel to a video shop to get the latest film – you can have it delivered straight to your door by one of a number of companies now renting out movies. The pub trade has steadily struggled as it has to compete with entertainment that is easy to get and doesn’t take much effort in engaging with.

When a film celebrity dies, like the recent death of Heath Ledger, it makes national news. Quote a line from the latest film and you can almost guarantee a conversation revolving around further quotes and analysis of the story of that film.

If it weren’t for film how many of us would know what it meant to ‘sleep with the fishes’? Who doesn’t respond when you say the immortal lines ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far far away…’?


Film is such an integral part of our culture.

But what does film ‘do’? Is it merely mindless entertainment? Is it simply a way for someone to get rich quick?

Films are in fact incredibly powerful. They are an art form that bridges the ‘two worlds’ that have developed in our culture – the private and the public. What we watch on our screens in private, as mentioned above, can be talked about in the pub with little explanation needed.

Have you ever cried when watching a film?

Have you ever struggled to get to sleep, still trying to get your head around the twist?

Have you ever nipped on to the internet after a film to find out what it was all about? (I had to do that with Donnie Darko… and makes interesting reading!)

Did you struggle to wait for the sequel to come out, or for the film to come onto DVD?

All of these things show just what an impact film can make on our lives.

Film as Narrative

What makes a good film?

People will have various opinions about what they class a good film, but what is probably common to all these opinions is that a good film is one that has a good story – whatever you might class as a good story!

The new Star Wars films illustrated how essential a good story, told well, is – they were lacking and no amount of special effects could make up for it (and this is a big Star Wars fan speaking!).

Something that seems to have gripped humans for as long as stories have known to circulate is the ‘epic’. The re-imagining of the ancient story ‘Beawolf’ illustrates that the epic is far from dead. Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Narnia, even ‘his Dark Materials’ Trilogy show that the appetite for epic stories that reveal whole worlds, if not universes, to us is alive as ever.

However good stories aren’t simply limited to the Epics. (Dare I say it) love stories also capture the imagination. There seems to be a winning formula that tirelessly draws audiences in. We start at the beginning, (the characters are set up, we grow to love them etc), then move to the middle (there is some kind of break down in relationship) before arriving at the end (where they get back together and live happily ever after!).

True stories also demand attention. There is something especially engaging when we realise that the drama unfolding before us actually took place involving real people like us.

The danger as Christians when coming to engage with films is that we simply want to use it as a springboard to talk about the gospel. It almost doesn’t matter to us what part of culture we are engaging with, as long as we can find a neat way of skipping over into a gospel outline. So we find a film about a hero who rescues other people at great cost. ‘That’s just like Jesus…’ we say and off we go with our presentation, and the film is hardly mentioned again.

There’s also another danger that we simply focus on the ‘morals’ portrayed in the film, and again we have a springboard for talking about sin and thus the cross.

However in both these approaches we miss out on two very important things. One is outlined more in the seminar ‘engaging with culture by doing culture’ and that is what God is doing by not simply redeeming people, but also redeeming the whole of creation including culture. We miss out on the opportunity of helping people to see the God glorifying aspects of culture, in this case film, and also the idolatry that’s revealed as film is used in self-worship instead of God-worship.

The second thing we miss out on is engaging with film as the genre that it is – story telling. We miss out on the impact of the story as a whole as communicated in pictures and music. There’s so much more to film than communicating propositions that lead to talking about the gospel. Just as the different genres of scripture communicate in more ways than simply propositionally. Poetry, stories, music, images do things to us that need to be engaged with as well.

Take the film ‘Life is Beautiful’ for instance.

You could engage with this film on the level of morality – the Holocaust was evil. The murder of millions of people almost unspeakable. And yet… is that what the film isroberto_benigni_nicoletta_braschi_life_is_beautiful_001.jpg about? To focus simply on such things would be to miss the fact that the story being told, communicated with scenes of such vibrant colour, humour mixed with serious drama and a score to go with it, is all about relationships – that of a husband and wife who are deeply in love and a father who is trying to protect his son from the horrors of war with a game. It is about the emotions and the love and care that are between these people.

If we simply approached this film through the ‘morality grid’ we’d miss out on what the film does, the way it engages the emotions on so many levels.

Film is art and so should be approached as art.

When we approach film as art and narrative we will be on much more common ground with our non-christian friends. It is unlikely that they are approaching it to find out how it relates to abstract ideas that we might want others to be convinced of. They are probably watching the film to be entertained, to be moved, to be gladdened, to be saddened, to laugh or to cry.

So engage with the film as film, as a story.

However, be warned – there is no such thing as a mindless film, every film has a ‘world-view’ behind it… but that is what shall occupy us in part 2…