Meeting God at the Movies

Humans are creatures who love to hear and tell stories; our brains seem to be hardwired for this way of communicating. Western literature and theatre have long fed our insatiable appetite for story and drama; all stories have the power to captivate readers and hearers, leaving a lasting impression. Preachers know the power of a true story to engage a flagging congregation and rekindle attention. And of course, the Bible writers knew this too: much of God’s word comes to us in story form, both tragic and heroic, with the power to fire our imaginations and inspire faith. For the most part the great storytellers of English literature, like Shakespeare, George Eliot, or Charles Dickens, who all shed such light on our human condition, are becoming minority reading, perhaps fading with our memories of distant school days.  We live now in the age of moving images, whether on the big screen or the iPad. It is the scriptwriters, film makers and actors who are the storytellers of our time.

At every priest’s ordination, the candidate is reminded that the Church is charged to proclaim the gospel afresh to each new generation. If we are to do that now, then we must engage fully with contemporary visual culture. That will mean thinking about the films we watch from a Christian perspective, seeing how they can speak to us about our own beliefs and how they might help us to communicate gospel truths to others today. The Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, once advised that it was important to keep the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, but then to interpret the news through the lens of the Bible. If that is true, then it stands to reason that we should seek to bring our film-going into dialogue with our scriptures. And just as some of us really do enjoy reading and may value a regular Book Club get-together over coffee, so there is likely to be genuine value and pleasure in joining with others to discuss a good film.

Those who attend homegroups might enjoy doing this during one or more of their regular sessions, just for a bit of a change. There is now a rich resource of materials available to help groups bring a particular film into conversation with the Bible. These have usually been designed for the weeks of Lent, but can easily be used at other times of the year. Hilary Brand has been a pioneer in this field, producing a number of useful studies. Her first was Christ and the Chocolaterie (2002), which looks at the film Chocolat, and another is Finding a Voice (2011), inspired by The King’s Speech. Tim Heaton has produced The Naturalist and The Christ (2011), a challenging look at evolution through the film Creation, based on the life of Charles Darwin. Also, The Long Road to Heaven (2013), which charts the progress of a motley group walking The Camino de Santiago, in the film The Way. I have run all these with church groups and found that they attract more than ‘the usual suspects’ for Lent groups and have generated lively discussion of gospel-related themes. More recent offerings are Rachel Mann’s Still Standing (2020) which reflects on the life of Elton John as depicted in the film Rocketman, and Rose Hudson-Wilkin’s The Room Where it Happened (2021), the first course to draw on a musical (Hamilton). The films involved don’t need to be overtly Christian, indeed my own modest attempt, Thoughts of God (2022), has as its two central characters an atheist and a Hindu. However, these films all lend themselves to prompting some of the big questions of life about identity, truth, salvation, and so on.

Naturally we don’t need to wait for someone to write a course before a group can talk about a film. It will certainly help if someone comes prepared with good starter questions to give the evening a Godward direction, and perhaps suggests a Bible passage that will fit the occasion. Films based on true stories are often the best. Examples might be The Mercy (2017); Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017), The Dig (2021), or my own favourite The Queen of Katwe (2016).  But others might easily work: Great Expectations (2012 or 1946); Atonement (2007); The Aftermath (2019) – the list goes on!

The Bible Society’s Reel Issues project (now sadly defunct) was a great resource for any fledgling Film Club. A simple Internet search today will find its helpful framework of questions for use with any film, and it is even possible to find some of their old resources addressing particular films. The group should try to tease out the issues the film raises and explore them with a Christian mind. Which characters attract or repel; does the film support or challenge the group’s values; does the Bible seem to have anything to say on these matters; how would group members wish to act if they were in a certain character’s shoes?

Film, like any other form of art, can carry meaning and truth, revealing ourselves to ourselves, like a reflection in a mirror. When we empathise with a film’s characters, seeing situations through their eyes, then our thoughts turn to the pains, joys, and puzzles of being human. When this is done alongside an encounter with scripture, spiritual growth can occur, particularly in conversation with others. Why not give it a go?