On my first date with the woman, who would later become my wife, we went to see a movie. While there are a number of poignant and funny aspects of that date and the movie that could be shared, I will focus on one aspect that gave my wife a glimpse of the man she was to marry. After the movie, as we were driving to get something to eat, I asked, “What did you think of the movie?” She replied, “It was OK.” Not getting the response I desired, I asked, “No, I mean, what do you think the movie was about? What was it trying to teach?” I wanted to hear what she thought the movie was teaching. I had already been to seminary where it had been instilled indelibly into my mind that all communication, whatever form it may take, is trying to communicate a message and essentially a worldview. That was what lay behind my question.
This book is about the worldviews that Hollywood seeks to promote through the medium of cinema (thus the title). The author, Brian Godawa, is a screenwriter, who adapted the story that is the script for the movie, To End All Wars. As the subtitle indicates, Godawa hopes to assist people in viewing movies with “wisdom and discernment.” To that end, he doesn't focus on the acting, sound tracks, visual effects etc., but rather the plot of the story and the worldview being expressed through the plot.
The book consists of three sections of eight chapters, a conclusion, and an appendix on “Sex, Violence & Profanity in the Bible.” The first section, “Storytelling in the Movies” begins with a chapter on “Stories & Mythology” and then a chapter on “Redemption.” Godawa begins with a discussion of the role that myth played in storytelling and continues to play as part of communicating worldviews (philosophies) and values. A movie intends to communicate the way the world is viewed by the writer. In the chapter, “Redemption,” Godawa begins to unfold how the theme(s) (“message,” or “moral of the story”) is communicated in the story. The theme is developed through a basic structure with a hero, the hero's goal, the adversary, the hero's character flaw, an apparent defeat, a self-revelation, and finally resolution. Godawa correctly points out that these are the basic elements of redemption. He then outlines various types of redemption. Throughout the chapters, Godawa helpfully illustrates his points with examples from many movies. He also includes what are called, “Director's Cut” which are highlighted marginal notes, that refer one to further bibliographic information on a point under discussion often found on his website, www.godawa.com and often written by Godawa.
The second section, “Worldviews in the Movies” consists of three chapters entitled, “Existentialism,” “Postmodernism,” and “Other Worldviews.” As Godawa notes, it is via the medium of popular arts such as songs, novels and movies that the philosophy of the academic world comes to the general public, often without self-conscious recognition by the masses of the philosophical nature of the art. Godawa gives a brief overview of the role of the Enlightenment and the subsequent rise of existentialism and then focuses upon three emphases of existentialism in films: (1) chance over destiny, (2) freedom over rules and (3) experience over reason. To give but one of numerous examples that Godawa lists, the first is illustrated in the movie, Forrest Gump, the second in Pleasantville, and the third in Titantic. The fourth chapter addresses postmodernism, which is defined in simple terms as “rejecting all absolutes of any kind whatsoever” (83). He delves a little further into the philosophical background of postmodernism, arising from existentialism and notes the differences between them, before giving a detailed analysis of Pulp Fiction as a film that illustrates the postmodernist worldview. Godawa perceptively shows how so many recent films embrace the postmodern worldview. In the fifth chapter on “Other Worldviews” he selects four other popular worldviews; fate (Cast Away), monism (Powder, Phenomenon) emergent evolution (Bicentennial Man) and neopaganism (Chocolat) for discussion.
The third section of the book, “Spirituality in the Movies” consists of three chapters, “Christianity,” “Angels & Demons, Heaven & Hell,” and “Faith.” Godawa points out that Christianity is often lampooned in movies, with Christians portrayed as crazy, dangerous even murderous people (e.g. the character, Mason Verger in Hannibal). This anti-Christian portrayal “teaches” that Christianity leads to intolerance, violence, wife beating, the oppression of women and murder (132-33). Yet there are still some films that affirm the Christian faith (Chariots of Fire, Les Miserables). Certainly, even the adapted, “Lord of the Rings” movies still contain numerous redemptive images.
Many movies have less than biblical portrayals of heaven and hell, angels and demons and many continue to give their “interpretations” of the book of Revelation from “The Thief in the Night” (1972) to the popular “Left Behind: The Movie” (2001). Godawa, thankfully, even if only briefly, injects a word of caution about the theology behind this popular movie. Many evangelicals, who embrace this view of eschatology, would be greatly embarrassed if they read the book by Dwight Wilson listed in the footnote (145), which critiques the “ever-changing” interpretation of last times in this eschatological view. When my wife and I watched the “Left Behind” movie, my wife astutely noted that the movie implies that all teens and young kids will be raptured to heaven. Do we need to only preach the gospel to those over eighteen? The final chapter on “Faith” begins with a brief discussion of what is meant by faith and its relation to facts and then proceeds to examine films that portray faith in a variety of ways and in facing doubt (Shadowlands).
In the conclusion, Godawa reminds us that not all films are worthy of our time and it is valuable to get a preview of a movie in terms of its content and detail before going to see it. There are a number of Christian on-line sites one can go to for reviews such as the Focus on the Family site and his own website. I once had the unfortunate experience of taking my wife and younger brother to see a movie only to find it wasn't playing at the theater after all and so we decided to see another movie that we didn't know much about (a sports movie) only to be exposed to an explicit love scene. Godawa addresses the value of discussing movies and some of the difficulties that arise due to people's propensity to classify movies simply and passionately as “good or bad” and thus overlook the positive and negative qualities found in all movies. He then helpfully addresses issues concerning whether to watch certain movies and the role of one's Christian liberty.
The appendix on “Sex, Violence & Profanity in the Bible” will surprise some people since our Bible translations tend at times to “sanitize” some of the euphemisms and expressions found in Scripture. At this point he also addresses issues such as whether Christians should go to “R” rated movies. He responds that the Bible contains material that would be “R” rated so we can't simply respond with a definitive, “No!” In discussing these issues, he seeks to differentiate between movies that exploit sex, violence, profanity and movies that make a moral exhortation while containing these elements. He wisely calls for balance between total absorption of all that is available to be viewed and total avoidance of movies. One should note that we are not obligated to go see any movies. Film critics, who do reviews for a vocation (and ministry) enable us to know enough about the ideas and content to interact with our culture without having to actually watch the movie. The “apologetic” purpose then shouldn't be used to justify watching “all and any” movie. Also, the sex portrayed in the bible is not “visual” as in the movies and we must recognize the impact that visual sense can have on our thought life and behavior. Yet, as Veith points out, sometimes a Christian should consider going to see an “R” rated movie and he points to the movie Godawa was involved with,“To End All Wars” or “Shindler's List” where the nudity is not erotic but a shocking sign of the humiliation the prisoners endured.
In summary, one thing that disappointed me was the lack of an index of the movies referred to in the book, it would have so helpful in quickly looking them up to see what comments Godawa made about the movie. Yet, this is a minor quibble, the book is an excellent guide to important principles necessary to watching movies with wisdom and discernment and is highly recommended.
Brian Godawa, Hollywood Worldviews Watching Films with Wisdom & Discernment (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002).
For a fine review of this “R” rated movie and its Christian worldview, see; Gene Veith, “To end all culture wars,” World 18:1 (Jan 11, 2003): 17-19.
There are three excellent articles on “The Lord of the Rings” in the Chalcedon Report (Dec 2002). See: Ronald Kirk, “The Need for Discernment in Imaginative Literature,” pp 7-9; Greg Uttinger, “The Lord of the Rings: A Good Story,” pp. 19-21; Forrest Schultz, “Christological Typologies in The Lord of the Rings,” pp. 22-25.
Godawa's article, “Sinning at the Movies,” Christian Research Journal 24:4, evoked a storm of letters and even cancellations of subscriptions because Godawa concluded that Christians are “biblically obligated” to watch some “R” rated movies so as to interact with culture, citing Paul's quoting of Greek poets (Acts 17). For the response see, “Response,” Christian Research Journal 25:1, pp 4-5, 49.
Gene Veith, “Rating the ratings” World 18:1 (Jan 11, 2003): 11.