Once upon a time, in Buster Keaton’s immortal Sherlock Jr., a young projectionist falls asleep on the job. While his body sleeps, the young man’s spirit awakens. Bewildered at first, his spirit sees the movie flickering on the screen at the other end of the theater. The actors in the movie look like people the young man knows in real life. The plot of the movie resembles the events of the young man’s real life. The young man’s spirit steps over the frame into the movie, and before the movie ends, his real-life problems are solved.
Once upon another time, in Woody Allen’s sublime The Purple Rose of Cairo, a young woman finds herself going to the same movie again and again and again to escape the stresses of her life. Unlike Buster Keaton’s projectionist, she doesn’t fall asleep, for she is enthralled by what she sees on the screen. Then one time, she notices one of the actors watching her. Suddenly, the actor steps off the screen and walks right up to her. He wants to meet her, because she seems to take such delight in the movie he is in. They leave the theater together and talk into the wee hours of the night about the movie world, the real world, and the ways they are different and the same.
Now, I’ve never literally stepped across a frame into a movie, but I have seen semblances of myself and my friends and family on the screen, and I’ve made use of the larger-than-life events in movies to help me make sense of the more mundane problems in my own life. Though I’ve never had a movie character walk out into the night air holding my hand, I have felt like movies were asking me questions about the world, inviting my response, and puzzling over me as much as I puzzled over them.
I needed a way to watch movies that enabled me to respond to them in the way they seemed to want me to respond. First, I had to learn how to better understand what a movie is saying by learning how it says what it says. Second, I had to learn how to respond to the movies genuinely, in a way that is consistent with the key principals of my Christian faith – without fear and with humility, generosity, and love. I call this “talking to a movie.”
Once I started talking to movies, I discovered that the conversations I was having with movies were having a deep impact on my life. Talking to movies made movie-watching become more than mere distraction. Watching movies became a kind of devotional practice in which God meets with me in the space between the silver screen, my day-to-day life, and God’s word.
Be Entertaining Not Entertained
Almost everyone watches movies, though people watch movies for different reasons and with different attitudes. Many people say they just watch movies to be “entertained.” They just want to shut their mind off for a couple of hours. They don’t want to engage with the film. However, engagement is still technically happening when people watch movies just to be entertained. The entertained viewer is just letting the movie do all the engaging work. The entertained viewer is simply going wherever the movie takes him or her. The entertained viewer isn’t having a conversation with the movie, because though the movie is still talking, the entertained viewer simply isn’t saying anything back.
I believe that talking to a movie is a more Christian way to watch movies, because it’s a more hospitable way to watch movies. As modeled and commanded in both the Old and New Testaments and throughout Christian history, the spiritual discipline of hospitality is at the core of what it means to be part of the people of God.
True hospitality humbles the host and elevates the guest. Christ’s kingdom is one in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Gal 3:28). All are equal. Also, God has a history of commending the equal treatment of the outsider. In Leviticus, God exhorts the Israelites to love the alien among them as themselves because they were once aliens in Egypt (19:34). Because of Christ’s work on the cross and by rising from the grave, love is available to all. Love isn’t foreign anymore.
Nowhere is this kingdom-establishing potential more evident than in the Eucharist, in which Christ performs the ultimate act of hospitality. He offers himself for our sustenance. Christ invites all to sit at the table as equals and feast on him. As members of the Body of Christ, when we discipline ourselves in hospitality, we become the Eucharist – we offer ourselves to the world.
A work of artistry made by a person is a surrogate for that person. In the case of movies, it is a surrogate for many persons. When you sit down to watch a movie, you are welcoming-in strangers. The entertainment paradigm becomes the most appropriate to call on again, but instead of being entertained by the movie, the viewer is the one doing the entertaining. To watch a movie is to entertain it and, by proxy, the people who made it. It is an act of hospitality, or at least it can be if it is done with openness, grace, and a self-sacrificial spirit.
Placing hospitality at the core of this movie-watching ethic impacts how we respond to explicit content in movies. If we are merely being entertained by movies and consuming them, of course we want to be careful about what we ingest. But if we are seeking to have a conversation with a movie about what matters in life, we’ll interact with movies differently. We will be more forgiving and more gracious. We will not approve of everything we hear or see, but just as we wouldn’t reject a person simply because they use coarse speech, we won’t reject a movie simply because its manners aren’t as refined as ours. And just because a movie uses profanity or violence or sexually explicit images doesn’t mean God isn’t able to use that movie to speak to you, just as God is still at work in the lives of people who cuss and tell dirty jokes.
For most of my life, I obeyed an extremely strict ethic concerning what I would allow myself to watch. Before I watched any movie, I researched its content and would close my eyes and ears whenever scenes arrived that I already knew contained explicit content. Often, I even left the theater or the room entirely until one of my friends or family members called me back in once the scene was over. I was like Paul – “with respect to observing the law (which I had established for myself) a Pharisee … with respect to righteousness under [my] law, blameless” (Phil 3:5-6). I refused to let what I heard or saw in movies corrupt my mind.
Then I learned that movies were the work of people asking questions about the world and God and humanity’s relationship with both. I realized that my neighbors and friends who were watching those movies were doing so in large part because they too had questions about the world and God and their relationship to both. I knew that Christ wanted me to love those people, to be in relationship with them, and to talk with them about the questions they have. And I knew that, as Paul wrote, “In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from [any law] but rather from the faithfulness of Christ” (Phil 3:9). I didn’t have to maintain my righteousness by avoiding sex scenes in movies. Christ maintains my righteousness.
A little later in Philippians, Paul writes this, which has become one of my guiding texts for interacting with media of all kinds:
Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather bring up all your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:4-7)
Free from the fear that what I heard or saw was going to corrupt me and happily secure in the Lord, I was able to interact with movies with a gentle spirit absent of anxiety or hostility. When something bothers me, I pray that Christ will guard my heart and mind as he has promised. I have had such peace since I learned to happily rest in God’s care for me.
Ultimately, your ethic of interacting with explicit content in movies is up to you. No one will or can force you to see or hear anything you don’t want to see or hear. Whatever your decision on this subject, do what you do with a clear conscience and secure in the knowledge that “the Lord is near … and the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.”
Learn to Listen First and Then Respond
A conversation happens when someone speaks and then someone else listens and responds. Too often, we Christians are too eager to speak about and against movies without listening to them. Sometimes we do this without even seeing a movie first, much less seeking to understand what it might be saying.
This tendency is understandable. It sometimes seems as if our culture read the Bible’s list of the fruits of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control — and chose lust, despair, violence, greed, cruelty, malice, callousness, selfishness, and overindulgence instead. Movies appear to be built on a foundation of those nine vices, and they seem to make those vices attractive. We fear that movies are winning the hearts and minds of our culture for evil. So we get angry, and we rail against the movies, those “tempters” who are leading our society astray.
We forget what James teaches. He writes, “Everyone is tempted by their own cravings; they are lured away and enticed by them” (1:14, emphasis mine). The temptations come from within us, not from without. When we watch a movie and feel desire for evil things begin to grow within us, it’s because like the characters on-screen, we too are inclined toward sin. The moral choices the characters in movies face, we face, though usually in much less intense circumstances. Lust, despair, violence, greed, cruelty, malice, callousness, selfishness, and overindulgence are facts of the characters’ worlds just as they are facts of ours. What matters is how they and we respond to those vices.
If you engage in conversation with movies, I think you’ll be surprised to discover that most movies support the kind of moral framework for life that Christianity supports. Most movies are on the side of good, or at least they want to be. When they are on the side of good, we can credit that goodness to God and thank God for it. As James also writes, “Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all” (1:17).
James continues and helps us learn how to listen. He writes, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. This is because anger doesn’t produce God’s righteousness. Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you – the very word that is able to save you” (1:19-21).
We listen first and listen well, then speak, and seldom become angry, because anger isn’t helpful. Then, after we have listened, we are supposed to humbly push aside what is bad and welcome what is good – the word of God already in us. When we listen and humbly respond, God’s good in us sprouts up, and we are close to salvation. When we watch a movie, we need to listen to it, temper any anger, humbly set aside what is bad in the movie, and embrace what is good, listening to our own hearts to hear the good placed in us by Christ reverberating at the good we hear in the movie.
We’re not done yet though. It is not enough to simply cheer the good we discover in movies. We are not called to be merely lovers of good. James tells us to put it into action. He continues:
You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do. (1:22-25)
Ultimately, talking to a movie makes us more aware of what God is doing in the world and in our lives. It helps us know what we are supposed to do to love ourselves, each other, and the world better. If we do this consistently, and if we put into practice in our lives what God says to us through the movies, talking to a movie becomes a kind of spiritual discipline. Movie-watching can be tool God uses to make us more like Christ.
Johnston, Robert. God’s Wider Presence: Reevaluating General Revelation. Baker Academic, 2014.
Pohl, Christine. Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Discipline. Eerdmans, 1999.
[This essay is adapted from How to Talk to a Movie: Movie-Watching as a Spiritual Discipline, by Elijah Davidson (2016).]