God in the Movies: A Guide for Exploring Four Decades of Film
Catherine Barsotti / Robert Johnston, Eds.
Paperback: Brazos Press, 2017
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Reviewed by Fred Redekop
The Sound of Music (1966) was the first movie that I saw at the theatre. My parents and their eight children went the Brock Theater in Niagara-on -the-Lake, Ontario. The other movie experience that I remember growing up with was The Wizard of Oz. It came on once a year, in the spring, and our family sat down and watched it together on television. My first R-rated movie I saw was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. So, I am a movie-watcher, who likes movies from all over the world. My brother is a set designer and set builder for the movie industry in Toronto. I was a pastor for over 30 years, and know from the people that I was pastor to, that movies are a powerful medium of storytelling
I had read the book Reel Spirituality a few years ago, and so I am excited to review God in the Movies by Catherine Barsotti and Robert Johnson. Barsotti and Johnson are professors in the arts at Fuller Theological Seminary. In the book, they have a few introductory chapters, and then offer reviews of movies from the 1980’s through the 2010’s. In the introduction, they give short biographies of all the film reviewers who write in the book. These writers are theologians and people who actually participate in the movie-making process, making for good cross-section of contributors.
In the introductory chapter, Catherine and Robert tell personal stories of how they got into this work. Rob states that Becket was the pivotal movie that made a difference in his life. For Catherine, it was A Year of Living Dangerously. All of us have movies that have played a role in our lives. Maybe, we can point to a scene, or a piece of dialogue that is still fresh in our mind. Watching movies is very personal event. The writers talk about watching movies at home as well as in the theatre, but for me movies are only on the big screen. You have to get in your car, and pay at the box office, and the images are more than life size. It is a very different experience to watch a movie on your phone or on your television. The writers says that movie watching is different now, “ … Rather than experience laughter, tears, surprise and anger together with an audience, today’s movie watcher watches many movies alone. Rather than move watching being a communal event, it is for many a solitary pursuit. Does watching a movie on the small screen make it a different story and experience? For example, if you watch Noah on the small screen, what is lost in the effects that are so meaningful on the big screen?
Barsotti and Johnson write on page xxii, “Few debate the power of stories we see on film and television to shape our beliefs and action. For movies image life, through words, sound and image, through screenplay and editing, framing and music, they give expression to memorable stories . As the central art form in our culture, we might even say that movies tell our collective stories.” What does this do to the written Scriptures that we have to read and reflect on for our faith? Noah and its images stay in my mind. It has little to do with the story in the Bible, and so when does the movie take over my holy book? I guess you say that film is my new Apocrypha?
For me, the most important part of the book, are the 10 insights that they give (xxiii ) when leading a discussion group on movies. I am reminded that in the Bible studies that I led, I used to say, “let us begin by reading the Bible. So, you do not start with all the opinions that you have gained over the years. So, they invite all movies goers to start by watching the movie. In number 7, they say to ask people to tell how they experienced the movie. If, someone begins to go to the abstract meaning, ask them to just respond with how they experienced the movie. Number 4, “always be respectful.” We see and are moved by different movies. I liked Noah because they gave a voice to Noah that is not in the biblical text at all. He says nothing in the Bible. Others who watched the movie hated it, because it was so far from the Biblical text . Number 3, says that when leading invite discussion, there are no right or wrong answers. You can never go wrong by saying this about movie watching. And finally, number 1, “in the pursuit of beauty, goodness and truth, have fun. “
I have seen 24 out of 40 of the movies that are reviewed in the book. The editors put each of the movies that that are reviewed in five sections: “Synopsis and Reflection”, “Dialogue Texts,” “Discussion Questions and Clip Conversations,” “Bonus Material,” and “Selected Additional Resources.” I think this is a good outline.
My favourite movie that is reviewed in the book is, Of Gods and Men. It is a story of Trappist monks during the civil war in Algeria. I really appreciated the rhythm of the movie. It was like a worship service for me with the readings, the chantings and the worship symbols. It was a slow movie with many conversations about the ethics of faith, and whether you are open to the possibility of martyrdom. I am part of the Mennonite faith tradition, where martyrdom plays a role in our history. The movie gave me much to think about for my own faith and action. Am I will to die for faith now?
As I write this interview, I am reflecting on my most recent movie experience watching Wind River (2017) with my wife and two friends. The movie is about violence, Native issues, weather and the beauty of nature. We were so overwhelmed with the violence at the end, that we had little to say each other. In our personal lives, we are going through much transition, and so that also has something to do to how we viewed this movie, or any other movie. Our lives are so peaceful, so how do we experience such violence?
As I watch the other movies that I have not yet seen, the book will be a great resource for me and others. I cannot wait to get to the other movies.
Fred Redekop is the storyteller for Mennonite Central Committee Ontario. He preaches and teaches about the worldwide work of the relief and development work of the this organization.