Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Watching Movies Through The Eyes of Faith


Sermon podcast for download and listening is available here

Let’s have a show of hands: Who hasn’t heard of Nicole Kidman? Brad Pitt? Shahrukh Khan? Or Andy Lau? Karl Barth? Probably more people here know more about these movie stars than about famous theologians. For those of us in their teens or twenty-something’s, movies are just a part of life. Our young people are more up to date with what’s coming soon from Hollywood, TVB or Korean drama than perhaps, any other topic.

Because we live in an image-driven culture, a film-watching culture. Otherwise Tanjong Golden Village and Golden Screen Cinemas would not be jam packed during weekends. Or if you need more evidence, try to find a home that does not have at least one television set. Or walk around the neighborhood and count the number of homes now installed with Astro satellite dish that can transmit more than 50 different channels to your living room at the press of a button. How wonderful is that?

When the lights dim and the silver screen is lowered, something magical happens. Movies are a magical portal that transports us into another world. To the grand fortresses of Gondor in Middle Earth. Or the wonderful ecosystem of Pandora. Or a galaxy far, far away where Jedi knights roam amongst strange alien creatures. Movies can enchant us and thrill us, make us laugh out loud or scare the living daylights out of us. They can change the way we think and how we feel. They convey values and meaning, what is good and what is important.

A good movie takes raw materials from the stuff of life – friendships, conflict, our quest for significance and redemption – and turn them into an experience, creating characters and a picture of reality that we can all relate to. It’s a visual storybook that could show us new insights about our world that would otherwise remain hidden from our untrained eye.

Like the short clip we watched a moment ago from the Pixar movie “Up”… It not only makes you smile and draws you emotionally into the story. It drives home gently some lessons about life too. It’s not just a cartoon for kids, I tell you. The scene where Ellie lost her unborn baby especially brings back memories of a similar episode in my own married life. Combining the ancient art of storytelling with cutting edge special effects, movies are, of course, very entertaining. But at the same time, they have also become a powerful medium by which people today discover and interpret meaning in their daily life.

Let me show you how different patterns of communication have evolved in human society: at the dawn of history, stories are passed down by word of mouth, focusing on the ear: an oral culture. Think of our grandfather’s stories or the penglipur lara. Then we move into a literate age where the focus is on the eye: Think of libraries, reading books, the Renaissance, the invention of the printing machine. About a hundred years ago, we crossed over to a post-literate age that focus on both the ear and eye: think of television, movies, and news broadcast. And now with the Internet, Youtube, smart phones and social media, perhaps we are coming to a digital age where people not only consume culture, they also want to actively create arts and culture. People want to share stories, create music videos and short motion picture of their own. In fact, some talented youths in CDPC are already doing that, aren’t they? Have you checked out the recent cover songs uploaded by Eugene See and others? CDPC’s got talent!

If that is how people tend to communicate today, how should our Christian faith relate to the movie world? Or put another way, what has Jerusalem to do with Hollywood?

Well, for a long time, the church has a love-hate relationship with movies. They are often frowned upon for promoting worldliness, profanities, violence and sexual permissiveness. And that is quite often the case. And we are right to reject these elements. But sometimes, we can throw the baby out with the bath water.

For some people, movies are sometimes seen as helpful or acceptable when they depict biblical stories like the Jesus film used for evangelistic rallies. Apart from that, some of us don’t see much spiritual value in them.

On the other end of the spectrum, and perhaps more descriptive of us city folks, we may just mindlessly go along and consume whatever is offered at the box office. “All my friends watched it so why I cannot watch? Aiya… I just want to have some fun only. Don’t think so much lar.”. We don’t discern between good and bad movies. We just switch off our brain and allow our minds to “drift” along with the show. Just as a fish in water doesn’t realize that it’s wet; television and movies are so much a part of our lives that we hardly notice their impact on us. For better or for worse.

So I would like to reflect with you today how we can engage with movies with an open mind and yet, to do so in a discerning way. It’s a practical application of earlier CDPC sermons on “being culture maker” and “cultural engagement”. So, here are three ways we can approach movie culture

1) Dare to say no! (Avoidance and caution)

It may sound obvious but there are many movies that we should intentionally avoid. We mustn’t be afraid of saying no. There’s benefit in leaving some films unwatched, some horrible music unlistened to, some junk food unconsumed. We must not worry about being labeled uncool, uncultured, or legalists. It’s more important that we learn to discern what we see in the light of the gospel and know where our own limits are.
For example, food (nasi lemak) like every gift in God’s created world is a good thing. But it can become a bad thing if we eat it recklessly, excessively or selfishly. It’s good if we consume it not as something we must have (“My preciousss... Gollum must have it”) but as something we can have, delighting in God’s good creation.
So ask yourself: Am I free to abstain from these good things as much as I am free to enjoy them? Am I able to say no? There’s no clear command in the Bible against watching movies or drinking coffee. But if we are not able to go without television or Starbucks for a whole day, then it has become an addiction. Or if we are so insistent on our Christian freedom to enjoy these things, that we look down on others who don’t like arty films or whatever, that’s also a form of legalism pretending to be “free”.
There are times when we need to say: Yes, I am not forbidden from watching this film. It is not evil, but because of my particular weakness and tendencies in this area and so that it won’t stumble my children and friends, and for the sake of my gospel witness, I think the wise thing to do is to abstain. I choose to, not because I have to. For example, if you give me a remote control I can surf channels for hours. If that’s also your weakness then you need to be extra careful how you exercise this freedom.

Cultural exposure is always related to a person’s spiritual and personal maturity. Even an excellent movie like Shawshank Redemption may not be appropriate for a 12 year-old.

You are in the best position to decide what films you are comfortable with, and where to draw the line. Ask yourself: How is my habit shaping my desires? Are they drawing me closer to God or to self? To holiness or to worldliness?

We all know of the glorification of guns, sex and materialism in some films. But there are less obvious spiritual dangers. French philosopher Jacque Ellul notes that the person who has the power to edits images in sequence chooses for you; he condenses or stretches what becomes reality itself for us. We are utterly obliged to follow this rhythm.”

Remember how our mainstream media covers the Bersih rallies last time? Someone has already decided for us what is “reality”– you don’t get to see a peaceful multi racial crowd of thousands. We are just fed with images of a few scattered samseng walking down an empty street, throwing bottles at police. A movie director has the same power of propaganda by making fun of certain people as stupid or intolerant in an unfair manner. As passive spectators, we are constantly being fed with a stream of images. Reality is substituted with an artificial construct like the Matrix that distorts our perception and manipulates our opinion. 

Kairos research director Dr Kam Weng warns us that this image-driven culture can have negative impact on our education and spiritual health. TV, i-Pads and video games may over-stimulate children with fast paced sights and sounds. If we are not careful, it can stifle their ability to sustain attention on their own, to read patiently and use language actively. They just can’t sit still: Here we are now, entertain us!

CDPC Puchong has a library ministry that seeks to inspire children to be a lifelong reader. Why? Well, reading a book allows you to control the pace of information input. It invites you to think over and connect the words printed on the page. You can sit down and pause to explore this imaginary world of wonder, beauty and adventure that the author describes. Real learning needs patience, careful reflection.

After getting married, having a son and working on projects at the office, I can hardly find the time to watch a lot of movies these days. So I need to choose carefully which movies to watch so time/money are not wasted. One way to do this is to find out what is the genre of that movie: Is it a romantic comedy? Is it an action thriller? Is it a ‘slasher movie’ like I know what you did last summer? If it is a slasher movie, it is usually about a mysterious psychopath on the loose killing a lot people in all sorts of interesting ways until the final girl (it’s always a girl, don’t ask me why?) defeat him or escaped. Once I know the genre, I have some idea what is the formula of the story and I’d say: No, thank you. And that’s just me.

There are also solid online Christian resources that can help us make such decisions. They give you a good summary of what to expect, background info about the production and biblical evaluation of its major themes. Sometimes I would browse around and pick one or two recommended ones


2nd Approach: Dare to say yes! (Dialogue and Engagement)

Having said all that, we cannot totally abandon the movie world that modern folks are already immersed in. Otherwise, we will only let this conversation be dominated by other voices and lose our ability to take part and influence it.

We need to talk about the movies we watch in order to celebrate what is good and perhaps clarify our own position on many of life’s questions. This means that we need to "train" our eye to understand the language of movies and not just offer knee jerk response like just counting how many curse words are spoken in it.

In fact, there are many movies that can be watched “redemptively” – when we enter into a conversation with the film on its own terms. As we listen to the story, to ourselves and to God, we may leave the cinema with fresh insights and new inspiration. But to do that, as with any work of art, we need to lay aside our preconceived ideas and biases and listen fairly to what the film has to say. We must first allow another point of view to enter in, to interact and dialogue with our own view before making any judgment. Theological analysis should come AFTER (not before) the aesthetic experience of appreciating a movie. It’s a kind of open minded/suspend-judgment approach that says: “I hear what you say, but I don’t have to believe all you say”.  

When we do that, we may be surprised by some “A-ha” moments that enrich our outlook on life. I’m sure many of you have encountered magical movie moments like that before.

But let me share with you a real story how the movie Awakenings (1990) can impact the life of young man named Yoke Yeow. It appeared at that time of his life when, as a pre-U, he worked hard to get good grades but he has no idea what to do with his life! In this movie Awakenings, Robin Williams plays Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a neurologist who ends up devoting his life to victims of a coma caused by degeneration of nerve cells. He accidentally discovered a wonder drug that brings these coma patients back to life! They have a short but exciting timeframe to recapturing their lost youth. But unfortunately the effect is not permanent. They are doomed to slip back into a prison of catatonia again: living zombies, trapped behind frozen, empty stares.
Struggling through the tragedy, Dr Sayer says: "We can hide behind the veil of science,.. but reality is we don't know what went wrong anymore than we know what went right. What we do know is as the chemical window closed, another awakening took place. The human spirit is more powerful than any drug and that is what needs to be nourished."

That movie changed Yoke Yeow’s life. He cried bitterly as he felt for the patients’ suffering and inspired by Dr Sayer’s passion for his work. Unknown to him, a vocation was being defined: to involve himself passionately in the lives of suffering patients and share in their struggle to keep alive their God-breathed identity. He has found his calling to be scientist, healer and friend.  
Good movies can serve as vehicles of common grace and touch our lives just like that. He who has eyes, let him see.  

Of course, the fun part of a movie is not only in finding some hidden spiritual message hidden inside. But many films actually explore and confront us with themes that relate to faith, relationships and important social issues. They convey our society’s myths, symbols and fundamental beliefs about the meaning of human experience. So we are invited to enter into a dialogue over these overlapping themes where the Bible and film meet together. We need to watch with eyes wide open to appreciate them. Here is just a short sample of such films.

Abortion (Cider House Rules)
Death punishment (The Green Mile, Dead Man Walking)
Biotechnology/eugenics (Gattaca)
Faith and Reason (Life of Pi / Contact)
Freewill/consciousness/Artificial intelligence (I, Robot/The Matrix/Minority Report)
Environment/consumerism (The Lorax, Wall-E )
Conflict diamond trade/child soldiers (Blood Diamond)
Social control/Media ethics (The Truman Show)
Nuclear war (The Sum of All Fears, Terminator 2)
Slavery (Amazing Grace, Amistad)
The Holocaust (Schindler’s List, Life is beautiful)

So as parents and Christian leaders, we can wisely select and use some of them to guide and explore such issues with our children or cell groups for group conversation. A movie study may keep more people interested than a book study, right?

To do this effectively, we need to ask the right questions. In almost any movie, the story of the main character(s) is an argument for a way of living or a world view in the form of a drama. Something is lost and needs redemption: But, how? As the hero changes his attitude or assumptions about the world through his experiences in the ‘reel’ world, so we see what the filmmakers are trying to persuade us about how we see the real world.
When watching a movie, ask yourself,
·                      “What is the character flaw or problems of the hero at the beginning?”
·                      “What makes him change his mind in the story about the way he sees the world?”
·                      “What does he learn about the way life ought or ought not be lived?”
·                      “What is different about the way he sees the world at the end from the way he sees it at the beginning?” (Brian Godawa, “Hollywood Worldviews”)

This could be a good way to start a conversation. Asking such questions and offering answers biblically help us to apply and connect our Christian beliefs both in the ‘reel’ world as well as the real world.

3rd approach: Divine encounter  

A lot of people experience a sense of awe and wonder when they are confronted with something heart-stoppingly beautiful – whether it is listening to an orchestra playing Handel’s Messiah, or gazing at a masterpiece painting in a museum or even scuba diving on a breath-taking coral reef. People often come way from encountering beauty with a small glimpse of the divine. 

Have you experienced something similar? In the movie American Beauty, a broken young man from a dysfunctional family came across a plastic bag swirling around in the wind. It was just dancing around, like a little kid begging him to play with it. And he stood there and video taped the whole thing for fifteen minutes. He said:
“That's the day I realized there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Sometimes there is so much... beauty... in the world, I feel like I can't take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.” It may seem like a mundane event but that encounter with a graceful dancing plastic bag gave him a sense of transcendence.

So it is with a well made film like any great work of art… It can be an opportunity for a burning bush experience if we watch with our hearts open. Common grace is everywhere, ready to burst forth when we least expect it.

Now, let us try to apply these three broad Christian approaches and see how they work with a Steven Spielberg war film “Saving Private Ryan”. Then you can compare and see which one(s) works for you. This is a story of 8 soldiers who were given a mission to rescue one man Private James Ryan from behind enemy lines. Why is he so important? Because his three brothers have all recently been killed in action; leaving him as the only child of a single mother. So the military leaders want him to be brought back alive. At one point, Captain Miller (the Tom Hanks character) says, “This Ryan had better be worth it. He’d better go home, cure some disease or invent the longer lasting light bulb or something.” And it turns out that the rescue mission claims the lives of all these eight soldiers, one after another. At the final battle scene, as the Captain himself dies, his last words to Private Ryan were: “Earn this – earn it”. In other words, look at the sacrifice we have made to save your life. You must earn it. Live a life that is worthy of our sacrifice.

Fifty years pass, and in the closing shots of the film, we see an elderly Ryan returning to the Captain’s grave with his wife, children and grandchildren. He kneels, and as tears fill his eyes, he says: “My family is with me today… Every day I think about what you said to me that day. I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough. I hope at least in your eyes I’ve earned what all of you have done for me”. Then he turns to his wife and asks anxiously, “Tell me I’ve led a good life… Tell me I’m a good man”. He has lived his entire life with the last words of his savior ringing in his ears. Earn it.

How should we respond? Some Christians may choose to avoid this R-rated film because of the graphic, violent battle on the beach of Normandy at the opening sequence. Or they may be offended by the soldiers’ foul language. That’s one possible response.

But others may recognize that this is a realistic description of World War II. They may be cautious about excessive violence, but they will seek a dialogue on the theme of war. Can war ever be just? Or is war always evil for everyone involved? The discussion becomes less abstract as you ‘see’ the concrete messiness of war. Or we may engage the human values of self-sacrifice and courage portrayed by Captain Miller and his men? How would you feel? How would you live differently if someone really gave away his own life so you may live yours?

Perhaps, some may even be drawn to a divine encounter though it is not be the director’s intention. Jesus says: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. You are my friends if you do what I command.” The fact is, Someone has already died for us and gave His life on the cross so that we might live to the full. And if we really get it, emotionally and personally, how can we live in the same old way again? It’s going to change everything. Your life is not your own. You have been bought with a precious price. How can we not love and sacrifice for others? How can we not live in a way worthy of the gospel? But there is a big difference: The Savior’s last words were not “Earn it. Earn my love”. His last words were: “It is finished!” It is done. The price has been paid. I have earned it for you. My love is costly and yet it is free.

As we talk about the movies we have experienced, we celebrate what is good and reject what is evil. It can serve as a bridge to connect with others who otherwise would never walk into a church or talk openly about their beliefs. Imagine your small group or family coming together to watch a good movie and then discuss and pray about them together. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

Movie, like art and culture, is a wonderful thing. It’s a gift immersed with general revelation and at the same time, tainted by sin. So we must be good stewards of it.

Sometimes that means having the courage to say no. Other times, it means we need the courage to engage and have a meaningful conversation. On some rare and sacred occasions, they can even be the humble tools by which the Spirit of God works to change and enlighten us. Or perhaps for some of you gifted young people seated here - you may consider film-making as a calling from God .


Phillipians 4:8 – Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 

1 comment:

幸敏薇 said...

This is exactly a why many people rather have will not benefit from vacuum cleaners who've handbags. fake dior handbags Lots of the bagless vacuum cleaners experience arranged reservoirs who are transparent so the operator has found out just exactly after it is moments to unload all the field. replica burberry The fact is, this approach sole processes to make sure you short-change individual as you will not regret possess suction vitality called for when back pack is normally expensive filled. fake gucci handbgas For that matter, a portion of the airborne dust and additionally earth will likely beginning come to be used up straight to my tv room the moment the country's back pack is normally likewise filled. fake chanel handbags To receive some of the most a vacuum vitality and additionally top economy out of your model, it is recommended to enjoy a in a position way to obtain the perfect void handbags present. replica dior This approach will help you to transformation all the back pack prior to when the software can get likewise filled and additionally prior to when there is whatever disorders of earth being released straight to environmental surroundings on the town. Skimping relating to selecting individuals finally ends up being a whole lot more in the case of absence of economy and additionally practical repairs and maintenance disorders of the machine, the expense of quite often dash by means of handbags who are likewise filled.