What do we do when we disagree with one another—or with the culture at large—about a movie?
I've been contemplating this question in the light of what I wrote a few weeks ago about art and biblical epics—especially about how form and content are equally important when we are thinking, talking, and writing about art. The movies we disagree with as a culture are the ones that have permeated our collective imaginations in one way or another. But so often, I find that when we, as a culture—and Christians especially—disagree about a movie, we haven't set the groundwork for our disagreement. Often it turns to shrill shouting, rather than fruitful discourse.
Remember that movie or a TV show is both content and form (both logos and poiema, C. S. Lewis would say). I think of the content as the Wikipedia summary of the work, which includes a plot and maybe the message. The form is the shape, the contour, the things perceived by our senses—the stuff you can't get from the Wikipedia summary. Hans Rookmaaker and his friend Francis Schaeffer call this the “communication” and the “form.”
The content connects with us in our rational register. “That makes sense,” we say. It tells us something; it answers a question we are asking about the world; it teaches us a new concept or idea; it makes an argument for a thesis. By contrast, the film or show's form connects with us in more of an aesthetic, bodily register. We jump, or cry, or laugh, or squeal. We feel something inside. We sit forward on our seats and grip the edge of them.
We could stay at home and read Wikipedia summaries of movies for free, but instead we go to the movies and pay for cable to feel something: happiness, sadness, terror, beauty, tension, shock.
This is amazing, if you think about it: we actually pay money to seek out an experience that will make us sad or frightened, things we normally avoid in real life. We seek catharsis, the feeling of being made new. Lewis points out that we seem wired for this; we seek out experiences that make us feel emotions. Another way of saying this is that God made us both minds and bodies. We don't just want ideas; we want a felt desire fulfilled.
This all gets interesting when we start talking about popular culture, which in many ways is the “common text” of our time. Even though the mass audience for many shows and movies is shrinking due to the plethora of options and technologies that let us choose more individualized experiences, these mediums still form the basis for our conversations around the water cooler, on social media, at church, and in public. They have power to shift our perceptions and explore explosive ideas.
One thing I've noticed lately is that our conversations as a culture about “controversial” movies and TV have a lot to do with the content—with the plot points, the things that happen that we could read about—and not much to do with the form. But this is a problem. We criticize a movie or TV show based on whether the content, the logos, line up with our individual commitments. Is this movie prowar or antiwar? Was it feminist enough? Does it portray God the way we believe he is?
Of course, it is totally valid and important for us to think and talk with one another at this level about a work. Certainly, it matters. The messages a film or TV show convey are often entertaining, and so they can “slip by” our barriers more easily than, say, a lecture in a classroom or a sermon. We absorb the overt messages a work conveys.
But this level of analysis, whatever its merit, is not enough. Especially for Christians.
Christians believe that God made us with both minds and bodies, equally important. We are not materialists or rationalists; we believe in the whole person. We believe that God gave us rational, reasoning capacity, and also desires, and that both of these capacities are ways that we know God and come to understand his world.
Furthermore, we believe that art is a thing that engages with both of these capacities, and so it should be easy for us to understand that people watch a film or a show not just for its overt message, but for how it “connects” with them—that is, for the ways that the movie's poiema connects with a visceral desire. They are hoping to “experience”something through explosions, or ghosts, or romances, or scenes of seduction or war or death, through swelling music or quick cuts or glorious long pans across scenery.
The point is, we see these things to experience catharsis. We seek them to make us feel like someone other than we are, just for a little while. As Lewis puts it in Experiment In Criticism (he is writing in the middle of the 20th century, and so he's writing about books): “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. . . . In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. . . . Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself, and am never more myself than when I do.”
So here is where the trouble with the way we disagree about movies, when we focus on the content:if people go to the movies, invest time in a show, to fulfill a need, then we need to be talking about the thing that often fulfills that need: the form.
When we focus on the content to the exclusion of the form, we tend to condemn a work without asking an important question: Why is this popular?
After all, we're talking about popular culture. What we're asking is this: what need is the audience looking to fill when they go to see this movie?
Now, let me be clear: the object of pop culture we're discussing may actually represent a bad or false fulfillment of that need. It may fill a disordered desire, or it may not satisfy, or, in the process of fulfilling these needs, it may create or awaken new ones that are out of order.
But what happens when we avoid this question? First, we make bad diagnoses, suggesting that a work is popular for all the wrong reasons. Second, we invalidate the audience. We suggest that they love a work for its objectionable content, for instance, instead of loving it for what it does for them in a deeper, more visceral way.
And, most troublingly, we puff ourselves up. I'm not like them, we think. I don't like that thing. I'm better. This is insidious, and I am continually rooting it out of my own heart.
So what would this look like? I've been thinking about two examples that are much more similar than they appear.
First: Fifty Shades of Grey, the definition of a controversial movie, and one that's poised to take in record numbers at the box office (and one that, no, I still haven't and don't plan to see). The arguments I've read about it—all of them good, some of them published here at Christianity Today—have been about important issues like morals, sexual consent, abuse, gender, and more. But most of these have to do with the content. And from the answer, it's easy to assume that people are becoming worse. We're going to hell in a handbasket.
As I understand it, though, the appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey is not merely the sexual content (though that may be part of it). Here is another answer: what's appealing about this work, to some people, is that is it a story of an ordinary girl, one who doesn't have anything special about her, who is able to overcome, subdue, and even control and become the object of desire of a powerful man with powerful appetites.
That's the story of every fairy tale, isn't it?
Like most women alive, the contours of this story are appealing to me. I feel ordinary and inadequate most of the time. I want to feel desirable and in control. I want to have the fantasy that I am appealing to people who are strong, confident, and in control. I want to be those things.
Certainly we can argue that Fifty Shades of Grey is a poor answer to this desire. But in looking at it this way, I have reframed the question. Now, I'm forced to admit that I'm no better than another person (I am the worst of all sinners, as St. Paul says). I want to feel as if inadequate, ordinary me can be powerful and appealing to powerful people.
In some ways, God's Not Dead isn't much different from Fifty Shades of Grey.
God's Not Dead has become the touchstone for many of us embarrassed by the movies produced by and for a Christian subculture—and yet, it is wildly successful. Shot for $2 million, it's made over $62 million. The film's acting and technical execution are actually above average for a film of its budget, which I find impressive. That is the sort of formula Hollywood executives dream of reproducing. Clearly, it touched a nerve.
Watching the film was difficult for me, mainly because I think that in its characters, it teaches viewers harmful ideas about people who don't believe as they do. But it was wildly popular, and so, I want to think about why.
In God's Not Dead, a young, powerless, insignificant college freshman is in a relationship (this time, a classroom one) with a powerful, swaggering, domineering man—this time, a professor. Supposedly the professor is very smart, but is overcome and put in his place by the unassuming young man through the power of his intellect.
The difference in this case, of course, is that the freshman has God on his side. But the desire is the same: to believe that ordinary me, with the help of God, can overcome a force of nature against all odds. My desire is to think that with the help of the Almighty and a lot of hard work, I can see my beliefs validated. I can overcome.
Because of this, I can speak about my problems with the film—and I have many—but I have to acknowledge that I want essentially the same thing as the audience. I feel ordinary; I want to be transformed. I want to tap into a source of power beyond myself.
It's important to note that while these are all parts of the narrative, you won't get the same sense of titillation and empowerment (from Fifty Shades) or joy and empowerment (from God's Not Dead) from just reading the film's Wikipedia summaries. Watching the films means you engage in their music (it's no accident that a triumphant Newsboys concert fills the last ten minutes of God's Not Dead), their cinematography, their acting, the speed and tempo at which the films move you through their plots. Just knowing the content isn't enough; the viewer has to go have an experience to fill his or her desire.
Both Fifty Shades of Grey and God's Not Dead let me tap into this fantasy, and so they are wildly popular. And that means that those of us who care about culture and our neighbors—and Christians in particular—do ourselves no favor when they don't pay attention to what moves people in a work.
If we want to have fruitful conversations about works, we need to be asking the right questions—and identifying with the answers. Then our discussions are not about us and them, but about how we, as humans, want things. And as a bonus, once we have taken the time to walk in someone else's shoes—to give them the benefit of the doubt—then we have affirmed the person, and can start to talk about TV and movies in a fuller way that acknowledge who we are as people.
Is it a lot of work? Yeah. Is it worth it? Absolutely.