I love movies. Any chance I get, I try to get a few minutes watching some of my favorites. I love Star Wars, Star Trek, and especially the Lord of the...moreI love movies. Any chance I get, I try to get a few minutes watching some of my favorites. I love Star Wars, Star Trek, and especially the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
So, it should come as no surprise that I love to combine my passion for theology and reaching the culture around me with "reading" the story of film and engaging those stories, seeking to find the truth that the "common grace" of the Holy Spirit is seeking to speak to the world around us. I even have a blog (much neglected, to be truthful) at Finding Christ in Film where I have tried to engage film in this exegesis of culture.
Into this passion of mine comes the book Reel Spirituality by Robert K. Johnston which I add to my list of film based books along with Through a Screen Darkly Jeffrey Overstreet and Into the Dark by Craig Detweiler. This is an excellent primer to the theological practice of reading film.
A little heads up, though. This is not a book for a casual reader. The implication is that the person reading this book is someone who takes the task of theology seriously and the world of film and film criticism seriously. I find myself rather humbled, actually, reading this book because I realize how much of an amateur I am in the world of film criticism and theology in light of the high standards that Johnston seems to require.
But if you are willing to subject yourself to a period of learning about how these two worlds, theology and film, intersect than I cannot recommend a better book. Johnston explores the history of the interaction between the church and film, both the good and the bad (and even some ugly) and describes the power that film has to communicate through image, sound, light, and story. In this historical discussion, the author describes several stances that critics take to film when discussing it theologically. Johnston seems to come down closer to a middle of the road "dialogue" with the film in contrast to either a criticism of avoidance or a criticism of divine encounter. He recognizes film can bring out themes of the divine, but there is a discernment that is necessary in order to separate the profane from the divine.
Theology is applied to film, then, by pointing out the narrative quality of the Christian experience. The theology of the faith is one that is expressed in our primary documents, not as a system of beliefs and doctrines but a series of stories and other writings that are evidence of the narratives behind them. Since our own theology is based upon story and the human experience seems best expressed in story, it only seems logical that the primary story medium of our day should be examined for similar encounters with God.
Johnston then gives an excellent clinic through the mechanics of the storytelling of the film industry describing the use of plot, character, atmosphere and point-of-view. The combination of these four pieces are found in all stories and any conversation or dialogue with the story needs to take these pieces into consideration. Additionally, within these considerations, there are the contextual pieces of the viewer, the filmmaker, the world within the film, and the general cultural view outside the film. These stories relate within this framework and a good critic will spend time within these considerations. But Johnston points out that film story also includes the use of image (camera angles, light, framing, mise-en-scene, montage) and music (score, composition, themes, silence) that cannot be found in the written word. To be able to read the story of film, these tools in the story-tellers toolbox needs to be included in any discussion of the story.
Johnston does spend a chapter discussing ethics and morality of watching film. There is recognition that not all that is in film is necessarily the "good and pure" that Paul asks his readers to consider in his letter to the Philippians. But when stories are being told of the human experience, many times that human experience is very raw. One cannot tell the story of the holocaust around WWII without including images of death and brutality as Spielberg used in Schindler's List or the violence and injustice of war as in Hotel Rwanda. The viewer should enter into viewing of film with full awareness of what they are viewing and with a preparation to recognize the difference between these horrific truths of reality and the purity that we are called to dwell on. In other words, not all films are for all people and discernment is necessary.
Johnston then moves into discussing how to approach films theologically. Once the tools of the story are understood, the "reader" can then apply theological criticism to the film using a spectrum of experience versus reflection. For experience, the theological critic can find a film along a range of presentations that either call the viewer to experience a Transcendence into the holy or a transcendence of the human condition. For reflection, the viewer will find a spectrum of films that call you to dwell within the story of the film to the other end where the viewer will enter into a conversation with both the film and other theological partners. By engaging all these areas of the film presentation along with the understanding of the film story-telling art, the viewer can bring out a serious dialogue with the film and the intertextual interplays between films, literature, scripture, and the human experience.
Johnston wraps up the book with an examination of Peter Weir's films including Dead Poet's Society, The Truman Show, and Witness and others. A book like this would be useless if there was not a practical application and, with such a prolific and varied auteur as Peter Weir, the final chapter was able to engage all the different aspects described through the rest of the book.
I set this book aside right now with a heavy heart. It is not my own personal copy but it belongs to a church library so I won't necessarily have it at my side to refer to. But next time I have a few bucks to spare, I'll be buying this book as a primary reference for anyone seeking to engage culture through film. I highly recommend it and I look forward to using some of my new-found insights and knowledge in future film readings.(less)