Friday, July 25, 2008

Looking for God on IMDb

Many Christian observers of the culture have noted the increasing role of movies in filling our universal longing for the transcendent. The cineplex is indeed the new church of the masses where "worshipers" sit in the dark to encounter something bigger than themselves. Craig Detweiler is one such observer. He's an author and director of the Reel Spirituality Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary. His latest book is Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century (another one to be added to my always-growing mental list of books to read). Detweiler shares some of his findings in an article in the most recent issue of Modern Reformation.

It begins by discussing the debate between 20th-century theologians Karl Barth and Emil Brunner on the validity of sources of divine revelation outside Scripture. Can there be a "point of contact" between God and man in cultural artifacts like movies? Brunner said yes, Barth answered emphatically "Nein!" In Barth's defense, he was defending the unique revelation of Scripture against its theologically liberal detractors like Brunner, but he may have too quickly dismissed the idea that God can use art (in this case movies) to -- in Detweiler's words -- "open us up to neglected truths of Scripture" and "sharpen our appreciation of Scripture." That's been my experience as a Christian and astute (I hope) student of cinema. Art can't in any way replace Scripture -- or the preaching of the gospel -- but it can help the believer see the world with more compassionate, discerning eyes and point the unbeliever toward God: the source of truth and beauty.

For Into the Dark the author went to the popular IMDb (Internet Movie Database) to study the top movies of the young century as rated by this online community of passionate and opinionated filmgoers. He surveyed forty-five films which could be broken down into three thematic groups: cautionary tales about evil ("the next generation of filmgoers isn't afraid of sin-they welcome frank portraits of our fallenness"), explorations of the meaning of community (e.g. The Lives of Others), and portrayals of hope...especially in the fantasy genre. One of the movies from the first group that he highlights in the MR article is Memento. I remember well the disorientation I felt the first time I watched this film. It was one of those "what just happened?" moments. Detweiler sees it as a case study in self-deception. I see the protagonist's memory loss as an illustration of Paul's indictment of unrighteous man: "they exchanged the truth about God for a lie."

Memento (2000) reinvents the tropes of film noir. It turns the jaded private eye into an unreliable narrator. Leonard's short-term memory loss keeps us off balance, trying to piece together clues. By the conclusion of the film, we discover our endless capacity for self-deception. So what are the scriptural connections? These dark, violent films take us back to the garden, to God's first question to humanity, "Why are you hiding?" I was reminded of the excuses we make. How we blame everyone but ourselves for our failing. Memento is a brilliant meditation on original sin.*

What's interesting is that Memento was the film that launched the careers of two brothers from England -- Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. You may have heard about their latest project, a little movie called The Dark Knight. There's a lot I could say about the latest installment of the Batman franchise, but one thing is clear to me -- the character of The Joker as played by Heath Ledger is the most frightening, compelling Satan-figure to ever fill (I can't say grace) the big screen. He's the embodiment of pure chaos -- living only to steal, kill and destroy, and in so doing prove to someone (Batman, God?) that humans are depraved savages not worth the effort to save. He's the father of half-truths. The character of Bruce Wayne/Batman is more complicated. If one chooses to see this movie as some kind of parable -- then depending on how you interpret it -- the Dark Knight could be seen as representing George W. Bush, Christ, or the principal of "good" inherent in a dualistic universe. Then again, maybe it's just a Superhero Movie. But I digress...

Despite all the darkness at the 21st-century moviehouse, Detweiler found that hope is still a powerful theme running through many of the most representative films of our age. Not cheap hope, but hope born out of a filmic world that takes evil seriously -- as in cinematic fairytales like Pan's Labyrinth and the epic Lord of the Rings films. This reflects what we find in the Bible, where neither pessimism or optimism are strong enough words to describe what's revealed to us about the evil that lurks in men's hearts and the hope of a world where good triumphs and there is "no more death or mourning or crying or pain." A new heaven and new earth ushered in at the return of the King. Detweiler uses imagery from LOTR to illustrate the attraction of his third category of films.

Given all the ugliness we've witnessed, we are despereate to get back to the garden to reverse the curse of sin. The hobbits in The Lord of the Rings long to get back to the verdant Shire, to enjoy a pint of ale, to savor the strawberries. But that peaceable kingdom will not arrive without a struggle. We need a fellowship to navigate the journey to Mount Doom...the finest fantasy films remind us of how imaginative and hopeful Revelation 21 and 22 remain. As we wander into the dark of cinema, the longing for the light of God's promises emerges. That's a point of contact I am eager to embrace.*

*Craig Detweiler, Points of Contact: Into the Dark (Modern Reformation, July/August 2008)

1 comment:

redeyespy said...

PAN'S LABYRINTH in particular uses fantastical elements to elucidate the very real presence of evil. What is unique about that film is that it contrasts the fantasy elements with hard reality within the same story line.