I have a condition known as Cinematic Narcolepsy. CN is a sleeping disorder, affecting moviegoers like myself. More often than not, I sleep through movies. This frustrates me, as I really do enjoy movies, and I really don't enjoy taking 12$ naps (14$ if the movie is in IMAX).
Thankfully, my CN has improved of late. Over the past few months, I've been able to watch several films. These cinematic experiences have prompted me to think more about how we, as Christians, should evaluate movies. Is there a distinctively Christian way to watch a film?
Jerram Barrs has sharpened my thinking on this topic. He says,
[The] three truths, that we come from Eden, that we have lost Eden, and that we long for the restoration of Eden - the recognition of those realities is true for all human beings, even for those who are not Christians. This is the truth about the human condition. And all great art, whether it is produced by Christians or not, is going to reflect elements of that true story.
Every human lives in God's world, bears God's image, and acts in God's story. Thus, every human can (and does) bear witness to the good, the true and the beautiful. By virtue of the Fall, however, a cosmic fracture exists. In one way or another, every part of God's good creation has been distorted. In the words of Cornelius Plantinga, God's shalom has been vandalized. And all of us long for things to be made right again.
Remembering these truths changes the way I view movies (or any cultural product for that matter). When watching a movie, I ask three questions; does it bear witness to; (1) the goodness of God's world? (2) the futility of our condition? and (3) our need for redemption? A fourth question would be, "does the movie acknowledge these realities, affirm them, or distort them?" Thus, I'm not simply evaluating a movie based on its content (e.g. "what kind of language is used?"). Nor am I merely in search of an overtly Christian message, as if God's truth can only be communicated through patronizingly obvious means (e.g. the protagonist arising at the end of the movie to tell us"the moral of the story"). Rather, I'm trying to discern where the story aligns with God's story.
Recently, I watched Gravity with these questions in mind.
(Spoiler Alert: If you really want to see the movie, don't read any further).
As I reflected on the film, I was struck by the conflicting "takeaways" it offered.
On the one hand, Gravity could be interpreted as a tribute to Darwinian tenacity; to the indomitable desire to survive, and conquer adversity though individual resolve and self-actualization. Dr. Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) faces insurmountable odds. After her shuttle is destroyed, the novice astronaut must rely on her limited skills to find her way back to earth. Her physical displacement in space serves as a metaphor of acute psychological (or spiritual?) alienation. Stone is haunted by the passing of her daughter, who died in a freakish playground accident. Moreover, she has no relationships rooting her to a purposeful existence,
Emmanuel Stubezki's stunning cinematography continually reinforces the idea that the universe is a cold and inhospitable place, indifferent to Stone's plight (or anyone else's). But after surviving several near-death experiences, Stone experiences a kind of rebirth. In a scene of particular symbolic significance, the reborn Stone floats in zero-gravity, tethered to an umbilical cord-like air hose. She decides to live (though her motivation for so doing is never clearly explained), and defeats seemingly impossible odds, along with her own existential crisis. Viewed through one lens, Cuarón's film doesn't seem to "echo" Eden (as Barrs would say) much at all. It is, rather, an ode to our primal desire to stay alive.
On the other hand, Gravity resounds with Eden's ehoes; with allusions to the story God is telling. We identify with Stone's profound sense of displacement, because this is our lot under the sun. Creation has been subjected to futility (Rom 8:20), and thus we are often struck by God's absence and apparent indifference. Moreover, the vivid portrayal of space's cold vacuity functions as a foil for the earth. As we float with Stone through space, we long for our earthly home. In this way, the movie affirms the inherent goodness of God's world. As Christians, we acknowledge that the earth is good. And yet we feel great homesickness, because we know that the earth is not yet liberated from its bondage to decay (Revelation 21-22). Furthermore, while Stone certainly draws on inner reserves to survive, she couldn't have done so without help from others (and perhaps from God). The cruciform self-sacrifice of fellow astronaut Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney) enables her to travel to the International Space Station. And Cuarón subtly suggests that Stone receives some form of divine help. As she sits in solitude, Stone cries out to her deceased daughter, reflects on the afterlife, and even attempts to pray. At one point she says,
No one will mourn for me. No one will pray for my soul. Will you mourn for me? Will you pray for me.
Stone experiences alienation not only from other humans, but also from God. She years for deliverance from this sense of lostness in the cosmos. Cuarón doesn't offer clues as to where we should turn for rescue, but he underscores our innate desire for Eden; our longing for home; for a place where we are known and loved. In this way, he reminds us of many things we know from Scripture, and from our experience as Christ-followers.
And, if you want way better thoughts on how to connect the Christian faith to culture, go check out Mockingbird.