The brief for this column is to provoke discussion. It’s called Outside Edge because it’s meant to be edgy. OK then, here goes. Christians ought to watch more films. Is that edgy enough for you? No? OK then let me say what I’m really thinking. Christians ought to watch more films, including those with swearing, violence and sex.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I’m preparing for our MA summer school on contemporary spirituality when I’ll be leading a session on spirituality and film. I’m planning to show a recent film that deals with spiritual issues. But which one? Turns out that most of the leading contenders include the kind of content that offends some Christians. I understand this and I don’t want to cause gratuitous offence. But it bugs me. It bugs me because I don’t think we should be offended – at least not in a “tut, tut turn it off quickly before I’m corrupted” kind of way.
Part of the value of films is that they introduce us to the reality of our world or at least the reality as seen by film-makers and their audience of millions. At its best film is unquestionably important art. You know, the kind of creative production that helps us see deeper into our world. Think The Lives of Others, think Shawshank Redmption, think Magnolia. Even so-called escapist films give us insight into the desires, longings and fantasies playing out in people’s hearts and souls.
Now I know that some readers will already be reaching for Philippians 4:8 “ … whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” I know this verse well; it was used to prod me into the Christian ghetto shortly after my conversion. I know it and I affirm it. Of course, we should be inspired by and aspire to such qualities but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make ourselves aware of the shadow side that is part of our world, part of ourselves.
If we are to love our world and those with whom we share it, the better we understand and feel its issues, the better our loving. Not necessarily easier, but truer. At one recent showing of Clint Eastwood’s wonderful Gran Torino one person commented that there was no need for film makers to “rub our noses in the seamier side of life”. I disagree. That’s precisely what we need.
This is not about tittering behind our hands like an eleven-year-old who has just heard a naughty word, it’s not about voyeurism, it’s not about greedily gobbling lashings of violence. Nor is it about mindlessly approving everything that passes before our eyes. One of the shallowest ways of dismissing a film is to assume that the film-makers approve that which they depict. The Colour Purple was not a tract in favour of domestic violence.
Our call in Christ is to love this world of his and to love it as it is, not to hide from that which we find unpleasant, not to love some fantasy of the world as we would like it be to. You can’t tell me that Danny’s powerful speech at the end of Brassed Off was very moving but would have been better without the swearing. No it wouldn’t, it would have been sanitised pap, a lie. Of course watching films is no substitute for proper, flesh and blood, dirty-handed encounter with reality but it just might help to introduce us to the world for which Christ died – the real world.
My turn to do a month's worth of opinion pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm posting my BT article here. To check out the Baptist Times as a whole click here.