Jeffrey Overstreet has been reviewing films for CT Movies for several years. In his book Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies, Overstreet recounts his obsession with cinema, his job as a film critic, and his efforts at reshaping how and why Christians watch movies. CT associate editor Rob Moll talked to Overstreet about his views.
Why should a Christian go to the movies?
For the same reason we read books or listen to music or visit new restaurantsto experience life in all of its variety and creativity and beauty, and to learn to look closely at the world, in search of what it all means. Also, as we encounter the world through the perspectives of others, we have an opportunity to respectfully and compassionately consider what others see, hear, and think. Then we can begin thinking that through in the company of our friends and neighbors.
That might be true for artistic, thought-provoking movies, but is it worth the trouble and money to find such movies when I've got good spiritual books to read and a family to spend time with?
Films do more than give us something to think about. They can overwhelm us with the power of spectacle and sound. It is tempting to stop thinking while we watch and just feel, absorb it all. Movies that are cheap, mediocre, lurid, or crass waste our time, at the very least. At worst, they can cultivate unhealthy appetites and lead us into serious consequences. But if a work is truly artfulif it's characterized by excellence, truthfulness, and beautyit can minister to us in mysterious ways.
I'm not saying books are a waste of time. Heaven forbid! I'm a writer! In fact, literature has an advantage over cinema in that it demands more of your imagination. When you're attentively reading, you're doing a lot of brainwork. You're collaborating with the author's imagination, dreaming up images to go with the words.
Do the benefits of seeing a good film outweigh the offenses to the conscience likely to come from looking for that good film?
If I watch Bruce Almighty, I might come away pondering Bruce's story, which is about self-centeredness, pride, and the way we all want to be God. There are valuable lessons there. But if I get my kicks from watching Jim Carrey's obnoxious and devilish behavior, then I'll miss the lesson entirely. Or, if I'm preoccupied with Jennifer Aniston's shapeliness, I might miss out on much more meaningful things.
Each person needs to know their conscience and their weaknesses. That means we need to do more than check the film's rating. Christians have famously objected to films that contain sex, violence, and nudity; but every movie, even the best films, contain things we can pull out of context and exploit for the wrong reasons. We might be influenced by Bugs Bunny's wicked trickery or Road Runner's delight in mocking his enemies, but that doesn't mean Looney Toons should be condemned.
I'm learning to proceed with caution, but I'm also learning to reject the approach I learned growing up in the church. I want to quit lamenting culture and start engaging it. We need to approach movies the way we approach people. Jesus and the apostles got involved with messed-up people all the time and walked in to some of the most pagan places. But they did so with discernment, conscience, discipline, and, above all, grace.
I don't have time to research a movie before I see it. I go to the library or the video store, see what's there, and pick out something I like, or I borrow something from a friend. It's a hit or miss approach, which has largely turned me off from watching movies. But for you, I'm not doing my Christian duty to engage culture.
I don't think every single Christian needs to become a full-time film critic. But just as film critics can benefit from good advice about nutrition and exercise, I'll bet most athletes could stand to learn a thing or two about conscientious moviegoing. In the years I've spent chronicling Christian engagement with film, it's been discouraging to see how so much of that engagement has been characterized by contempt, arrogance, and ignorance. If we do come to the table to discuss movies, I would hope that our contribution would surprise people with depth, insight, humility, and grace.
You're pretty critical of Christians who object to Hollywood's immorality. If so many people are bothered by your positive reviews of films with nudity, profanity, or violence, don't you think you have something to learn from them?
Most of the letters I receive are very familiar to me. I used to write angry letters just like them.
I do not regularly recommend films that have nudity, profanity, or violence. I write reviews so that readers can think about the work for themselves. When it comes to R-rated material, I hope to help readers consider if violence, profanity, or sexual misbehavior is being glamorized or merely portrayed, exploited or presented in a meaningful way.
We live in an R-rated world, and a lot of movies reflect back to us what is happening all around us. If I am recommending films by irresponsible artists who are glorifying bad behavior, then take away my critic's license. But if I am sifting through the good and bad of a film, equipping readers to proceed with care and conscience, then I'm doing my job.
I still have things to learn about being a responsible, conscientious critic. But I have no doubt that we've got to get past this judgmental stage, this habit of standing at a distance and pointing fingers. We should be examples of attentiveness, compassion, and grace.
When people outside of the Christian community are asked about Christian engagement with film, they think of people with picket signs, protesting and complaining and accusing filmmakers and moviegoers.
Is that an accurate perception or a stereotype?
It's a bit of both. From the e-mail beatings I take every week from other Christians, I can tell you that the negative stereotypes we see on TV and at the movies are not exaggerations. I've lost track of how many times I've been informed that I am not saved and that I am not really a Christian.
On the other hand, people who don't want to deal with the promises and claims of Christ will jump at opportunities to label and stereotype Christians. They'll smirk when a Christian says something foolish, and they'll throw a party when a church leader is disgraced. Christians who speak up with wisdom and integrity are rarely acknowledged in the mainstream media.
What should a good movie do?
A good film will be an exquisitely crafted expression of a particular experience. It will invite us into someone's creative expression, so that we can think it over and discuss it. And a good moviemaker will avoid including anything gratuitous, anything that isn't a meaningful part of the whole. That kind of art cannot help but present us with beauty and truth, to some extent.
A good movie will reflect the world we live in, even if it does so through the imagination of fantasy or the deliberate distortions of comedy, so that we understand it better. A good movie is truthfulwhether the subject is something beautiful or something terrible, whether it's an inspiring story of a virtuous hero or a troubling story about bad choices and painful consequences.
What should a good Christian movie do?
I'm uncomfortable with the term "Christian movie." What does it mean? A movie made by a Christian? Or a movie that preaches a Christian message? Or a film version of a Bible story?
A truly Christian perspective is one that apprehends hope when all seems lost and design when all seems chaotic. A truly Christian perspective acknowledges that all human beings are flawed and fallen and that we cannot divide the world easily into us versus them, good guys versus bad guys. It doesn't glorify Christians; it glorifies God.
How should the church, not just individual Christians, approach the film industry?
We need to approach it differently than we have been. When people think of Christian engagement with art, I wish they thought of how we love great art, how we celebrate it, and how we respond to it with the most insightful and intelligent commentaries to be found. I'm afraid that's not currently the case.
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Through a Screen Darkly is available from Christianbook.com.