Johnston: Movies Have Become Primary Storytelling Medium

Post a Comment » Written on December 16th, 2003     
Filed under: News
PASADENA, CA (December 16, 2003)  – The Christmas season announces the arrival  not only of a Savior, but also a host of blockbuster movies that send  millions to theaters all over North America.

Robert K. Johnston, an ordained Evangelical Covenant Church minister,  has been among those in the religious community most aware of the  significance of the latter phenomenon. Johnston, who served for 11 years  as dean of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, has been a  faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena since 1993. He  served as provost at the school from 1993 to 1995 and is currently  professor of theology and culture.

Johnston co-authors film reviews for The Covenant Companion with  his wife, Catherine Barsotti. Johnston’s notoriety in that realm has  also received national attention. His book, Reel Spirituality, addresses movie mediums and religious implications for the church. He  received the first-ever Spiritus Award during the 2002 City of Angels  Film Festival in Los Angeles. He recently discussed the important role  movies play in our society’s spiritual life during a telephone interview  with Craig Pinley, staff writer for the Department of Communication.

Pinley: What makes the movie industry so important in terms of  determining the spiritual pulse of North America?

Johnston: The advent of video – and more recently DVD – has  changed the way movies function in our society. Rather than being simply  one form of possible entertainment on a weekend night, movies have  become the primary storytelling medium for our culture. Even if you miss  a film the first time around, a recommendation from a friend is  sufficient enough reason for you to drive to the nearest Blockbuster to  rent a movie. Where novels functioned to explore the depth of life’s  meaning 30 or 40 years ago, now our best sellers tend more to be “pulp  fiction.” Think of the leading authors of the 1960s and 70s – John  Updike, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Connor. The best selling  authors today are Danielle Steele and John Grisham – theirs is simply  escapist fiction (writers). They’re fun reads, but not particularly deep  or significant. Of course, there are a host of movies that function  similarly –  Bad Santa (a recently released movie) is not meant  to be deep or life changing. On the other hand, there are a number of  movies that are providing a vision of humanity – how it is supposed to  be. These provide an important expression of our spiritual pulse. They  reveal our myths and pictures of life.

Pinley: But movies have been around for years. What makes them  especially significant now as a medium?

Johnston: For persons over 40, watching a movie is one possible  way of using your discretionary time. For persons under 40, however,  it’s often like eating, sleeping, using your computer – it’s simply part  of life, an expectation of what happens. And perhaps it’s worth noting  that computers are included as one of those givens for those under 40.  They also would not be part of life’s expectations for those over 40. If  television is ubiquitous, it functions more as background noise. We  might spend more hours there, but we take it less seriously . . . even  though we see fewer movies, movie viewing demands more attention. It  focuses our energy to a greater degree, attempting to usher us into  greater understanding of truth. When you go to a theater, the lights go  down, you expect to be shown something and when you’re not, you feel  cheated. The movie has the possibility of making you see something you  otherwise would have overlooked. In that sense, it’s a particularly  powerful artistic medium, perhaps the most powerful.

In a novel, you can pause to daydream. When watching a play, you can  focus your attention on any of the actors present on the stage. When you  watch a movie, the filmmakers point you to what you are to see and  demand your attention. And the music and editing simply guide your  response. Here is why Blockbuster is so significant. Thirty years ago,  you had no ongoing access to a movie. On the other hand, today you’ll  see a movie and know you’ll be able to rent a DVD and get what you’ve  missed. If you missed a movie and a friend tells you the movie made him  cry, you go and rent it. This has transformed the way films function in  our society and around the world.

Pinley: A couple of generations ago, movies were seen as  blasphemy by many churches. Now, you’re telling me that churches can’t  afford NOT to be aware of the movies that are out there. What can the  church learn from the movie industry that can be taken back to the  pulpits and the pews?

Johnston: If you asked someone how many sermons you can remember  in the last two months, and then how many movies they remember in the  last two months, most persons under 40 will do a much better job  recounting the movies they’ve seen, the plots they covered and what was  significant. Movie going is, in this way, putting significant pressure  on church communicators on how they tell the greatest story ever told.  It is being demanded that we return to a more narrative form of  preaching. We might have used a story as an illustration or a throwaway  30 or 40 years ago. If we’re not using narrative as a significant  portion today, many are simply tuning us out.

Pinley: Are there any recently released movies you would recommend?

Johnston: Let me comment on two movies my wife and I have  recently seen. In Elf you have this innocent elf/human, played by  Will Ferrell, who remains true to his vision of goodness throughout the  film, even when he’s put into the foreign environment of New York City.  The movie is a comedy, it’s meant to be hilarious. It’s not a “message  movie,” but it functions, nonetheless, in a way that holds up an image  of wholeness or possibility.

In The Master and Commander you have a road movie, only now the  road is the open sea in which the center of power and meaning in the  movie is the relationship between two buddies, the ship’s captain and  the doctor. The adventure takes a backseat to the importance of human  relationships. When push comes to shove, both are willing to forgo their  professional ambition for the sake of the other. Viewers leave the movie  theater with a sense of “here is how life is or should be,” at least  with regards to the importance of friendship. These movies are more  significant than many suppose. Their stories provide us with an  interpretive background that we can base our reality on – the same way  nursery rhymes function for little children or C.S. Lewis wanted his  “Chronicles of Narnia” to function.

Pinley: What about the much-heralded Matrix movie and the  upcoming Lord of the Rings film – The Return of the King –  which comes to theaters on Wednesday?

Johnston: Both the Matrix and The Lord of the Rings are important movies for Christians to see. Both have significant  religious dimension that invites and demands our dialogue. Christians  lined up at the gates for Matrix 1 were frustrated by Matrix  2, and now in Matrix 3 their initial interest seems somewhat  vindicated. On the other hand, as many have pointed out, where Matrix  1 was revolutionary in its filming, in both Matrix 2 and Matrix 3 the screenwriters have much lost of their originality.  The sequels seem to suffer from a lack of a convincing story.  Nevertheless, we are given a vision of rebirth, sacrificial death and  redemption that invites dialogue with the Christian faith. We also have  shown to us images that help the society understand something of the  spiritual depth in all of life. We do, in fact, wrestle against  principalities and powers in high places. There are forces of good and  evil that exist in the world. But speaking personally, because Matrix is so obvious in its religious allegory, I have not been  as interested in it. It hits you over the head.

In that sense, The Lord of the Rings is more effective. Readers  of J.R.R. Tolkien have marveled at his ability to provide a mythic alter  reality that gives us the taste and feel of a Christian worldview  without expressly naming it. In that way, it functions to provide a read  on reality that is consistent with the Christian story. Having  experienced the trilogy, one might more easily be able to hear the  Christ story in new and enlivening ways. It’s giving you the feel of truth.

Pinley: Any others?

Johnston: The Passion will be a significant religious  experience for all who see it. I saw it several months ago. Mel Gibson  is a faithful conservative Catholic who has created an homage to his  Lord. It’s a Catholic presentation – think of the crucifix, which is  typical in a Roman Catholic Church, as opposed to an empty cross. The  divinity of Christ and his resurrection are everywhere assumed in the  movie, but the focus is on the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life. In  particular, there’s almost an hour given over to Jesus’ torture and  death. Those with any interest in, or commitment to, the person of Jesus  will simply be overcome by the extent of his sacrifice on our behalf.

The movie also is unique because it doesn’t put the language of Jesus  into modern English, encouraging us unconsciously to recast Jesus in our  image. We’re instead forced to experience him cross-culturally. It’s a  different time and a different place and a different voice. We’re  invited into Jesus’ world, rather than recrafting Jesus into our own. I  found this to be compelling. It was at times even breathtaking. I think  the movie will be too much for some. The cruelty and inhumanity has a  terrible “beauty,” but it’s still terrible. Surely, there has never been  a Jesus movie with such craft and care.

At the same time, those who found Braveheart too gory might have  trouble with Mel Gibson’s current role as a violent, redemptive  superstar. Others, however, will find their faith being strengthened as  they see a suffering that produces redemption.

Copyright © 2011 The Evangelical Covenant Church.

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