By / Aug 25
By / Jun 3

Memorial Day weekend indicated one thing (among others): The summer movie season is here.

Summer has meant blockbuster movies ever since Steven Spielberg sent a man-eating shark into the water and George Lucas sent the Death Star plans to a desert planet. School is out, vacations are on, and Hollywood studios that have saved their most crowd-pleasing efforts until now.

The chances are that you’ll be visiting at least a couple of these summer movies. Here are four questions you can take with you into the cinema that will help you contemplate and savor what you see:

1. Is this movie well-made?

The summer blockbuster is often an action-packed, thrill-a-minute crowd pleaser with plenty to keep your attention. But many times, it will also be a quickly made, unimaginatively written spectacle. Because major movie studios know that people are looking for some quick entertainment from summer movies, it’s common to see an entire season’s worth of predictable “formula films” (let’s face it: The Lone Ranger was basically Pirates of the Caribbean 5) or tired, umpteenth sequels.

While it’s easy to be content with something that merely keeps our attention for two hours, there are deeper joys to be had at the movies. As Francis Schaeffer reminds us, Christians should care about the excellence of art. We should care whether a film script shows creativity and intelligence or is too busy blowing things up to say anything. We should care whether a story is compelling or is something we’ve seen a hundred times before. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask a movie to be well-made. 

2. Does this story resonate with truth? 

Sometimes Christians will exhort one another to test a movie’s worldview and examine it in light of revealed truth. This can be a helpful and often revealing exercise. But the problem is that art, such as film, is not created to be subjected to a rigorous intellectual exercise. Film, like music, is meant to be experienced in an emotional and spiritual sense. It is, as James K.A. Smith says, a “pedagogy of desire,” rather than a purely propositional lesson in worldview.

Instead of plotting a movie on a purely theological grid, a better approach is to ask: “Does this film resonate with truth? Do the arc of the story and the moral journeys of the characters awaken a sense of, ‘Yes, the Scriptures say this,’ or a sense of confusion and doubt?” This kind of questioning requires a well-formed moral imagination and is usually not as black and white as simple worldview tests. But it is exactly the kind of imaginative reflection that art demands.

3. Does this film offer humor or flippancy?

To be honest, I find most new comedy films fairly worthless. Bawdy and off-color humor is one reason, of course; many comedies seem to imagine that raunch is its own reward. But there’s a deeper reason as well: Many comedy movies don’t offer humor; they offer flippancy.

In The Screwtape Letters, the senior demon advises his junior, Wormwood, on the difference between humor and flippancy. Jokes, Screwtape writes, are a species of joy, and joy resides in the orbit of God, not of Satan. Humor is part of the life that humans are given by God, and thus, not in itself useful to the demons. 

Flippancy, on the other hand, is precisely where Screwtape tells Wormwood to keep his patient:

Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it . . . It is a thousand miles away from joy. It deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.

Flippancy is, in other words, a prideful dismissal of life as meaningless, a latent assumption that whatever happens to us should be laughed at for no reason at all, because there is no reason to it in the first place. I’ve seen many “comedies” that make no interesting or warm observations about life but merely guffaw at people and truth because there’s nothing better to do. These are not films that inspire the kind of laughter that leads to joy. 

4. Is this film something you want to exult in with others? 

Whenever we see a great piece of art, our first instinct is to invite others to share our joy. A couple weeks ago, my wife and I saw the latest Captain America film, which I found to be a thrilling and profound summer flick. As we left the cinema, I couldn’t wait to tell my friends to go see it. There’s something about the joy we take in things that isn’t completed until we’ve opened it up to others to exult in.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen movies that I didn’t want to share with others. Perhaps I was surprised by something in the film and was embarrassed to recommend it. There have been times when I’ve thought about what I would tell a friend about a movie, and have realized that I would have so many warnings and caveats that I couldn’t actually recommend it at all. This isn’t a foolproof test, of course; you may have different tastes and expectations than those around you. But it is a useful exercise to ask yourself, “Is this film a pleasure I can share with joy, or is it something I’d rather not talk about with people that I love and trust?” 

Summer is a wonderful season for movie lovers. Make time to catch a flick or two (or 3!) this season, and use these questions to help you not just passively experience a film, but take it captive to the mind of Christ. 

By / May 6

Dan Darling interviews Mike Cosper about his book "The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth" and how to think more deeply about the stories we consume.

By / Dec 12

Ridley Scott's Exodus movie recently released, provoking thoughtful discussion on this important part of redemptive history. As always, it’s important for us to reference God’s Word—not Hollywood—in order to find out what really happened.

A few years ago, Russell Moore preached an entire series through this fascinating book. His sermons will help you learn more about what God says to us through the book of Exodus.

By / Dec 16

It is during this season, the glorious Christmas season, that my wife watches her favorite channel the most. Unfortunately for me, that channel is not one of the ESPN family of networks, but the Hallmark Channel. I’m generally a fan of Hallmark’s usually wholesome television programming, stuff you can actually watch with your nine-year-old in the room, so please don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say.

Here it is: The endless string of Christmas rom-coms I’m forced to watch with my wife makes me want to channel William Wallace in Braveheart, rip off my shirt, and yell, ”Freedom!”

Maybe it’s the very simple plot lines (wealthy developer wants to tear down a small town’s sacred institution to build condos–oh, the horror–until a scrappy heroine saves the day with a pitched local campaign and then falls in love with the formerly evil developer), the overwrought sentimentalism, or the poor acting. Or maybe it’s just the difference between men and women. My wife can’t get enough of the Hallmark Channel at Christmas.

If there’s a message in every new Christmas special (and perhaps every Christmas movie ever made), it’s pretty simple: Do you believe? By “believe,” we typically mean that really joyful, spirited, wonderful people put their faith in Santa Claus at Christmas. And this faith injects a spirit into a normally grouchy, stressed, terrible world.

Christians have historically been all over the map with Santa, from denouncing him as a work of the devil (Santa = a rearranged version of Satan!) to moderate disgust, to passive participation. The latter is where I’d guess most evangelicals are now. And if you’ve read my work for long, you’ll know that I’m no Santa grouch. Like most parents, we make the annual pilgrimage to the mall to have our kids sit on the fat man’s lap. I’ve yet to talk to a prodigal who fingered Santa as the catalyst for his departure from the faith, so I think an honest engagement with Santa Claus is mostly harmless and fun.

But I want to circle back to the theme of most Christmas movies: Do you believe? It seems absurd to most rational people that a man in a red suit lives in a cozy home workshop at the frigid North Pole, and that he could possibly worm down every chimney and deliver gifts to good kids. It’s a pretty far-fetched idea. So rational people don’t actually believe it. Yet this part of Christmas makes us really want to believe it. Because, the story goes, if this were true, all would be right in the world.

Does that not sound just a wee bit familiar to another argument? I’m not suggesting the Santa myth is a perfect allegory of the Christian story or that to believe in Christ is the same as believing in Santa. We know the gospel narrative is not “be good for goodness sake” but that Christ was good for us, satisfying the law’s righteous demands and absorbing the punishment of a just God on our behalf.

But this question, Do you really believe this? Is this not the same question asked of us by the world about the Christian story? 

Of course, the substance of the Christian question is a more robust, more unbelievable premise than Santa: Do you believe God became a man, entered space and time, was born of a virgin, lived a perfect life, was unjustly crucified, stayed dead in a rich man’s tomb for three days, and then miraculously was raised to life and is now the reigning King of the world? 

The Christian story is buttressed by solid circumstantial evidence (many infallible proofs), and yet it is an unbelievable narrative. Perhaps we American Christians have gotten so used to the gospel story that we’ve forgotten just how incredible it is. But an increasingly secular society is asking us the question, Do you really believe this? It’s not an intellectual question they are asking. It’s not a search for archeological proof. It’s a rhetorical question of near incredulity. You can’t possibly believe this. 

Because rational people, educated people, progressive people just don’t believe that this man Jesus was the Son of God, that there really was a virgin named Mary, that the ugly intersection of humanity and divinity at the cross really is the pivot point of human history. Young people spend their parents’ hard-earned money at our finest educational institutions learning just how preposterous this is. Scientists write strongly worded rebuttals to the biblical narrative, because things like this just don’t happen. We’re enlightened.

And yet …what if it were true? Imagine if the story the Bible tells about Jesus is not allegory or myth, but actual historical record? What if the 500 witnesses who saw the nail-scarred Jesus after his resurrection were right? If this is true, then the world really will be made right. Evil really has been defeated, and a new kingdom awaits those rescued by the King. Lamb and lion really will lie down together. All races will one day come together in praise of God’s glory. Creation will once again be restored from its tumult.

In other words, if the real story of Christmas, the Incarnation, is true, it changes everything. In fact, I would argue, even if you don’t believe it to be true, you might wish it to be true. Maybe this is why we cling to fantasies like Santa Claus, like the Disney fairy tales. It reflects within each of us a deep, heart-felt longing for things to be made right.

Could it be that the nostalgia for the good old times is really us missing our original home, Eden, before sin and death destroyed what God made perfect? Could it be that our hopes for a world where things are magical and beautiful is a yearning for heaven? Perhaps this inspired Phillips Brooks when he wrote the famous words of “O, Little Town of Bethlehem” and the line, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee (Christ) tonight.”

To believe in Santa defies logic, to be sure. But to believe in the Christian story is also to believe the unbelievable. Not that Christianity cannot be logically explained. Not that the wisest believing scholars haven’t given it weight. But at the end of the day, to follow King Jesus, to be a Christian, is to bow the knee to a baby turned man, God in the flesh, fully human and fully divine. And the question of Christmas becomes rhetorical: Do you really believe this? 

Yes, with my life, my heart, and my mind, I do. And I hope you do, too.