Watching the box with your brain turned on

A highlight for me for many years at Christmas, was getting the Christmas edition of the Radio Times and circling all the TV and films I wanted to see over the festive period. All of us at home would circle various programmes and then fight over who would get to watch what, and who would have to settle for videoing it. Well, as we all look forward to those seasonal delights, here’s a reminder from a recent series at Grace…
A few weeks ago, inspired by Paul’s debates in the Areopagus in Acts 17, we had a series looking at films. We asked what the films said about life, the universe and everything, and what we can say about the message of those films. This is a little reminder of some of the things we covered so that when we watch the TV, or go to the cinema, we can ask the right questions and link the stories we love to the greatest story of love.
Why even bother to ask these questions? Films don’t mean anything do they, they’re just entertainment? James Smith says, “We live into the stories we’ve absorbed, we become the characters in the drama that has captivated us.” What he means is that stories can change us. When a story captures our imagination, it can bypass our reason and realign our desires, our aspirations, and our moral compass. If we don’t stop and check to ask what messages we’re being fed, then without really ever thinking about it, we can become what we watch, read, and listen to. So what messages do films have – what are our own poets saying?
All stories echo the truth. The films we watch will get things right about the lives we live and the world we live in. Whether it’s about the goodness of kindliness and generosity, as in the (Muppet) Christmas Carol, or the sadness of being alone, as in a film like Frozen. That’s because we’re all created in the image of God to relate to others and to create things (Gen 1:26-28). And our creative efforts are shaped by the good that we can see of God in creation (Acts 14:17) and by our conscience (Rom 2:14-16). So when we watch a film, or listen to a story, we need to be on the lookout for God’s fingerprints so we can cheerfully allow them to form us and inspire us.
A warning however: if we take God’s fingerprints in the films and stories that inspire us and divorce them from the original artist, we’ll be in trouble. So if we see the kindness and generosity in The Muppet Christmas Carol, and do not give thanks to God for his tremendous kindness and generosity to us, we’re missing the point. We take a good gift from God, and elevate it above the giver himself, and run the risk of worshipping kindness rather than our infinitely kind God. This is something the Bible calls idolatry, and it always leads people away from God, no matter how good the idol appears to be!
This leads us to a second point. All stories also twist the truth. Sometimes they do this subtly, in the way just described, by taking something good and taking God out of the picture. Sometimes they will do this more blatantly by proclaiming white is black, or black is white. This happens for example, in a TV programme like the Good Wife, which leaves us as viewers rooting for the main character Alicia Florrick to pursue an extra-marital affair. Thus wrong becomes right, bad becomes good, and our moral compasses begin to tell us that a marriage can be justifiably thrown aside if our present feelings leads us into ‘love’ with someone else.
Another warning at this point! It’s always helpful to view films somewhat charitably. If all we do is look for the faults, we won’t enjoy the good that God, by his grace, is doing all the time through all sorts of people, and we may well fail to value our peers and connect effectively with them. All films are a mixture of both truth echoed and truth twisted.
But how do we spot where and how a film echoes and twist the truth? Well it’s helpful to know that most stories follow this sort of pattern:
  1. The setup: where we’re introduced to characters and their lives
  2. The crisis: where the people to whom we’ve been introduced are subject to a difficulty of some sort
  3. The quest: where our hero/heroes embark on a mission to overcome the crisis
  4. The climax: the culmination of the dangerous journey which brings resolution of one sort or another
  5. Happily ever after… or not (?)
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Now we have an idea of the sort of pattern we’re looking for, we need to ask some what questions. For example, who are the heroes, what’s the crisis, how do they overcome it, who are the baddies? Those should help us understand the plot of the film. Then we need to ask some deeper questions, like what does the film say is right and wrong, where can hope be found, what does salvation look like, what does a ‘good life’ look like, what is valued, esteemed, and what is mocked, ridiculed? The answers to those questions should help us identify the ways in which the film goes with the grain of God’s truth, and ways in which it jars against his creation and his character.
All our films, either by echo or contrast, should point us back towards God’s story, as Mike Cosper says: “I believe the big story of creation, fall redemption, and consummation is the primary story in the world.” We need to ask ourselves how does Jesus’ story fulfil and exceed our own? And we need to think carefully when we watch films or TV, read books, or listen to music because Ted Turnau argues they make a claim on our imaginations: “This is a tug-of-war for our imaginations, the way we image the world. And at the heart of imagination is worship.” What Turnau is saying, is that films, any story for that matter, can lead you to worship, and we need to be careful we are led to worship our saviour God and king Jesus in thought, word, and deed.