When I tell friends and coworkers that I have seen biblical references in Unforgiven and elements of God’s grace in Catch Me if You Can, I get some strange looks. For many, church and cinema work in very different ways and never the two should meet.
I often receive two different responses: one from university colleagues and one from church members. My colleagues often wonder why I am interested in religious imagery in movies. Popular culture is fun, but rather superficial. It is nutritionally worthless, like so much cotton candy or Velveeta cheese. Our time and research should be spent instead in other areas.
My friends at church are even more disapproving. If not deploring popular culture, they at least question the appropriateness of taking secular images from a fallen society and using them in Sunday school or in worship experiences. Be in the world, but not of it. Flee from evil! And of course, what is a better example of evil than the books about young Harry Potter or the films of contemporary Hollywood?
I would like to address these complaints and offer up a suggestion for a more constructive approach to evaluating popular culture in general and film in particular. My approach is informed by Father Andrew Greeley and Albert Bergesen. In their recent book, God in the Movies, they begin with the following supposition. Suppose that you are God. Being God, you are everywhere and can see all things. Since you are everywhere, you are in church during services. Since you are always at church, you surely are aware that many people today consider sermons boring. That’s BORING with a capital B.
But suppose you (being God) still have a desire to tell humanity in the 21st century about yourself. How might you go about it? Greeley and Bergesen suggest that you might look outside the four walls of the church. Indeed, you might use popular media as a vehicle for expressing your grace. You might pursue people by providing glimpses of yourself through film. By revealing flashes of the divine on the silver screen, you might circumvent the sermon and speak directly through popular culture to the people most in need of yourself.
Now I do not take quite as negative a view as Bergesen and Greeley on the issue of contemporary preaching. There are certainly many different preaching methods that resonate with many different types of people. I prefer to see the issue as two modes of God reaching out to the world: through the church, and through the world.
To state the question a bit differently, what if the traditional methods of evangelism do not reach all of those most in need of God? If those most likely to go to a movie are those most likely to avoid going into church, then what would be an effective way for God to speak with them? Perhaps, living in a post-apologetics age, we can see presentations of God in the narratives of this world. In an age obsessed with narratives, God can use the narratives of film and fiction to convey grace and forgiveness to a world desperately searching for both.
Can something as important as praise be offered up by popular culture? When Jesus rides into Jerusalem, His disciples were singing songs of praise to God. The Pharisees heard about this, and they were displeased and rebuked Jesus, commanding Him to silence the disciples. Jesus replied, “I tell you, if these were silent, the rocks would cry out!”
What if we live in an age where genuine praise has been silenced? Our lips are stilled. If society is moving away from a life centered upon God, then what is the response of nature and art? What if, like the psalmist sang so long ago, the rocks are crying out, and the trees are clapping their hands? When the church is loathe to dialogue with popular culture, maybe it is up to Shrek to sing hallelujah. With Christians remaining silent, maybe it is up to Pierce Brosnan to point the way to repentance.