By Marilyn Stewart
When it comes to telling stories, no one does it better than Hollywood. But behind each story is a worldview that Christians must be prepared to critique, said Rhyne Putman, assistant professor of theology and culture at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
“The narratives presented in movies are what are shaping our culture,” Putman said. “In order to have relevant conversations with our culture we need to be informed and able to engage them.”
Through visual images and story, movies capture imagination and shape culture without addressing beliefs head-on, Putman said.
In “Free Birds,” an animated PG-rated film about turkeys who travel back in time to change the Thanksgiving Day menu, the main character, Reggie, exposes that the Great Turkey, a voice that speaks to the character Jake in a Damascus Road-like experience, is not a supernatural being.
“It’s a pretty clear example of atheism in a children’s movie,” Putman said. “An undiscerning parent might not pick that up.”
Hollywood has great influence because story is the fundamental element of every worldview. Most experiences and knowledge are organized in memory as stories and have elements of plot, characters, setting and dialogue, Putman said.
Putman noted renowned theologian N. T. Wright’s description of worldview as “the basic stuff of human existence, the lens through which the world is seen, the blueprint for how one should live in it, and above all the sense of identity and place which enables human beings to be what they are,” to show the importance of understanding others’ worldviews.
How one answers life’s ultimate questions—Who am I? What is my place in the world? What is wrong with the world and what is the solution?—comprise fundamental beliefs, Putman said.
Movies are cultural texts that show what the culture thinks and believes. Christians must be “cultural exegetes,” Putman said.
In a breakout session at Collegiate Week, Glorieta Conference Center this summer, Putman drew from Ted Turnau’s book “Popologetics” to provide tools for assessing and critiquing popular films. Examples of movies with eschatological themes include “Tomorrow Land,” “Mad Max Fury Road,” and “Elysium,” Putman said. “Elysium” seeks a paradise; the world of “Mad Max” is post-apocalyptic dystopia; “Tomorrowland” is a search for utopia somewhere in space and time.
“’Mad Max’ is overly pessimistic. ‘Tomorrowland’ is optimistic, but it doesn’t know why,” Putman said. “People want to know where this world is headed, whether it’s hope or whether it’s pessimism.”
Putman said the hunger to talk about spiritual matters shows up also in the movie “I Origins” where a scientist sets out to prove a materialistic view of the world by mapping the human eye’s evolution. By the movie’s end, the scientist embraces a type of Eastern pantheism rather than turning to Christian theism.
In “Jurassic World,” the fourth installment in the “Jurassic Park” series, man is pitted against nature. Theologically the film illustrates the danger of playing God, Putman said, a theme that is “common in monster movies and goes back to ‘Frankenstein.’”
Viewing movies as entertainment only or avoiding movies altogether is not helpful, but neither is judging a movie strictly by its objectionable content or by a postmodern approach that allows the viewer to determine his or her own meaning, Putman said.
Drawing from insights put forth by Ted Turnau, Putman offered the following criteria for critiquing movies:
- What is the theme or point of the story and who are the main characters?
- What makes life good or meaningful in the story world represented by the movie? What counts as good or evil?
- What is beautiful in this world and how does it reflect God’s common or special grace? What does it say about creation or redemption?
- Look for underlying themes of idolatry in the movie: What is false and ugly? What does salvation look like in this story world? What is its unpardonable sin?
- How does the Gospel answer desires raised by the movie producer in this film? How does God’s redemptive plan silence its idols?
- How does the film address life’s ultimate questions?