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God and the movies

April 8, 2014

I see a lot of films: good films, bad films, so-so films.

There is a name for this: my day off.

I don’t see a lot of overtly religious films. I half-jokingly told my congregation when “Son of God” came out that I don’t normally rush out to see new movies about Jesus because none of them measure up to the book. And I guess I must admit that I am also wary of the cringe-worthy moments that some of these films produce, like white Middle Easterners with English accents.

My local movie theater is offering two movies with the faith-based movie consumer in mind: “Noah” and “God’s Not Dead.” (“Son of God” was also recently showing.) I have not seen any of them.

“God’s Not Dead” feels too predictable. Based on the trailer, I think I might know how this story ends. I am also not a big fan of what seems like another scenario depicting God vs. higher education. I tend to avoid movies that I think want to hit me over the head with a religious message, and I guess I am the same way about churches. I have always preferred the ones that point me toward God rather than try to give me the hard-sell.

“Noah” is getting a lot of attention right now – at least on my Facebook timeline where a (Christian) friend who is involved in promoting the film does constant battle with some evangelicals whom claim the movie is an attack on God. This finally seems to have devolved into an examination of the filmmaker’s faith or lack thereof – as if that had anything to do with whether biblical themes can be depicted, sometimes powerfully, in film. Others, however, have said they just don’t think it is very good movie.

I cannot criticize any of the three movies mentioned since I have not seen them. I am trying to stick to that policy -not tearing down a movie I have not seen or ripping a book I have not read. After all, who knows? If I saw them, perhaps I would have a different impression than what I have taken from trailers or from what others have written. I try to remember that movies, are, well, movies. In certain cases I have found some very flawed theology yet still liked the motion picture or found it had something valuable to offer.

All of this got me thinking about where I have encountered God on the big screen. Here are a few places. Maybe this will prompt your own list.

“Places in the Heart” – Not just my favorite movie with spiritual themes, it is my favorite movie, period. The love and grace and mercy of God, wrapped in mystery, are depicted in one of the most memorable final scenes of any movie ever made, IMHO.

“The Shawshank Redemption” – My TV remote will stop here every single time, whether it is the first, middle or end of the movie. So many powerful biblical themes – particularly hope and redemption. I have used the movie in an Easter morning sermon and in the eulogy for someone who was like a brother to me: “…I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend, and shake his hand.” (Apologies for the language at the beginning of this clip).

“Cesar Chavez” – Chavez had the zeal for righteousness of an Old Testament prophet. His Catholic faith, nonviolence and the strength of community are all important parts of the story. On two occasions in the film, the sacrament of Holy Communion is seen as binding the community together in its holy journey toward justice. 

“The Apostle” – another all-time favorite, the story of a Southern Pentecostal preacher with a few issues, to say the least. “Sonny” is a contradictory character who is in an all-out struggle with God and himself – not unlike many of the people we meet in the scriptures.

“A River Runs Through It” – A movie about grace and living, demonstrated through the art of fly fishing, with the main characters being two sons of a Presbyterian minister on different paths in life. The story is told amid the majesty of God’s creation, the Montana setting continually overwhelming the viewer and suggesting the unreachable glory and beauty of the Creator. 

“Bells of St. Mary’s” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” are two sappy, dated movies that we watch every Christimastime at our house – and we are drawn into the stories anew, every time. The faith of Father O’Malley and Sister Mary Benedict, and the strength of their convictions, inspires me in “Bells.” “It’s a Wonderful Life” reminds me that we are all connected and influence more lives than we know. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.” – Matt. 5:13.

“Freedom Riders” is a powerful experience of the Gospel bringing people together to sacrifice everything, putting their bodies on the line to overcome evil – six months in 1961 when 400 blacks and whites traveled together on buses through the Deep South, enduring savage beatings and imprisonment. It is a story that is terrifying, inspiring and largely forgotten.

So … where have you seen God at the movies? 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Matt A permalink
    April 8, 2014 2:07 pm

    I have most recently seen God in the movie “The Life of Pi.” I think I might be the only one, but I most definitely did. It’s a story about how a young boy created a fictional crew of animals to occupy his mind while he survived a ship wreck. My take away from the movie was that the Tiger was his Emmanuel, God with him. I might be wrong, but that has stuck out to me in recent movie watching experiences.

    • April 8, 2014 3:19 pm

      Life of Pi, of course! I would have included it, too, had I thought of it. Deeply spiritual film. I was thinking this morning that I should have included “Gandhi.” Gandhi the movie made a deep impact on me spiritually, especially in thinking about how people of various faiths can work together for good in the world God so loves. You cannot think about MLK’s work and Cesar Chavez without also thinking about the influence of Gandhi. There were scenes in Chavez, certainly his hunger strike, that made me remember the Gandhi film.

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