A Feature Review of
Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning
Review by John Berard
I was in university in 1983 when I went with a friend to see the The Big Chill. Part comedy and part drama The Big Chill is a reunion picture about a group of university friends that find themselves, now in their thirties, together again for a weekend. I was captivated. It may have been the sharp and funny dialogue of writers Lawrence Kasdan and Barbar Benedek. It may have been the inspired soundtrack of soul, R&B and rock classics of the 1960’s and early 70’s. It may have been the themes of youthful idealism, the cracks in long-term friendships, or the chaos and uncertainty of a ‘cold world out there.’ It was, clearly, all of that and more. I saw the film again that same day in the same theatre and I’ve been watching the film and listening to the soundtrack again and again ever since. “The power of a movie,” the writers of Deep Focus tell us, “lies first of all in what transpires within the individual viewer as the person gazes at the screen” (Baker Academic, 2019). Something happens, or can happen to people who watch films because of how films work and because of what people bring to the film (experiences, expectations, immediate concerns, values, etc).
By the late 1980s and into the 1990s a wave of books were being published to bring the church in conversation with movies and theology. In 1991 I sat down to read Dancing in the Dark (Eerdmans) devouring the first chapter with delight and not just because the chapter was titled ‘The Big Chill’. Dancing was the result of a collaborative effort of six faculty Fellows in the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship (1988-89) exploring youth, popular culture, and media. It was in that collection that I first came across the work of William Romanowski, now Professor and Arthur H. DeKruyter Chair in Communication at Calvin College. Romanowski teaches broadly on and about film, is equally at home with rock-n-roll and pop culture, and would emerge in the 1990’s as a leading voice in the evolving discussions at the intersection of evangelical faith and pop culture both in the academy and the pew.
From his Risky Business (on films using rock music as soundtracks); to the more widely read Pop Culture Wars (a brilliant book guiding readers towards understanding pop culture and entertainment with biblical vision and without diminishing the arts); to his 2012 Reforming Hollywood, a significant book on the history of film and the relationship between the Protestant Church, film, and Hollywood; in addition to his teaching and wide variety of articles Romanowski has made a significant contribution to the faith and pop culture discussion. These books are a feast for those wanting to develop a coherent understanding and reflective approach to the study of faith and pop culture.
Romanowski went further though with the popular and widely read Eyes Wide Open. This book, now revised and expanded from the first edition, sets out to guide readers through a practical theological matrix as a way to engage a variety of popular art and culture (video games, television, movies, advertising, music and concerts to name just a few). In short he helps us understand how pop culture works and that God is indeed present in pop culture and how we might engage it appreciating the art and guided by our faith.
So, to say that Romanowski more than has the chops to write about Cinematic Faith is no understatement and his new release, in a way a natural follow up to Eyes Wide Open, is something to savor for anyone who enjoys movies.
Often Christian approaches to films tend to be rooted in various traditions that represent different beliefs about the relationship and role of faith and culture. Broadly one approach is to view movies as a conversation and the other is to view film as a medium to teach moral values. Various approaches render differing uses and appreciation for movies: from movie discussion groups to the use of film ‘clips’ as a form of object lesson or illustrations in teaching. Very often then Christian books on film treat movies as ‘content’ or discuss only what the film is about and how it can be used. Then there are fine books that engage movies ”in dialogue with” theology or the Bible. And here is where Cinematic Faith stands out as a very good book on movies. Romanowski is not a theologian proper, nor is he a filmmaker, and he doesn’t privilege one over the other. The approach Romanowski develops is anchored in the movie itself and in understanding the unique capabilities of film as an audio-visual medium: movies are both content and experience. “To engage a film on its own terms,” he writes, “means to resist the temptation to unfairly impose your own point of view, while adhering to your own vantage point as a place of reference to understand and think critically about film.” In Chapter 2 Romanowski is very much the mentor as he guides the reader through a thoughtful and biblical approach to film criticism rooted in a faith perspective that sees God at work in the everydayness of things, including our entertainment and our movies. Movies have value beyond the mere entertainment they provide Romanowski tells us. Movies create and communicate meaning, convey insight into ourselves, others, the world, and even something of the mystery of life and faith. And that is deeply theological.
Romanowski then takes the reader to film school to understand the craft of making movies (such as narrative, cinematography, production design, sound, acting, and editing) and here again the book stands out as a different kind of Christian book about film. Chapter 3 is about how stories work; what viewers bring to the movie experience, and how filmmakers interpret reality. Throughout the book Romanowski cites really good movie critics, scholars, and writers including his colleague at Calvin Carl Plantingas superb book Moving Viewers: important and really interesting but not obscure or heavy. Chapter 4 unpacks a movies form – how a film is made, craft, techniques and patterns, and content – narrative and story, the film’s subject. Chapter 5 takes the reader through style – the ways filmmakers use techniques and patterns, and perspective – the film or the filmmakers point of view and how this works to create meaning. Throughout Romanowski weaves together comments and examples from film after film after film to illuminate, reinforce, and demonstrate and what he is saying. Chapters 6 through 9 take the approach and apply it to genre discussions first with melodrama, then to the tropes often found in classic Hollywood movies, then to a whole possible range of issues and myth you might find in action adventure films, and then lastly a look at gender in the movies in Chapter 9.
There is much more in Cinematic Faith. “Movie Musing” for example are 15 sidebar features that demonstrate his point in a given chapter or explore some aspect or theme of a film. Along with a few students they have curated an excellent online resource bank of video, and additional materials to accompany the book.
Practical, helpful, engaging and valuable; but don’t be mislead. There is a gravitas to this book. Romanowski takes readers seriously, takes movies seriously, and at the same time delights in the joy of film viewing. I used movies as a youth pastor. Then as a national trainer for a large youth parachurch organization I used movies to help our staff learn how to think about films as it related to their ministry. Cinematic Faithwould have been the perfect guidebook in that work. It certainly does provide some answers as to why The Big Chill< resonated with me all those years ago.
John Berard is a PhD candidate at Durham University (UK).
A word of thanks to Graf-Martin Communications for providing a copy of this book for review and for their support of publishing and of good books.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com