In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis argued that the major problem plaguing young people is not exuberant emotionalism, but “cold vulgarity.” When we are taught to be exceedingly wary of emotions, we are not being prevented from being duped by those who would take advantage. Instead, we are being prepared to eat up anything because we are emotionally emaciated. The best defense against emotional gullibility is to understand the proper place for excitement. But in our fear of emotionalism, many churches have abandoned that ground, leaving the cinema as the surrogate to school our feelings. And we are lining up around the block for lessons.
One of the most chilling tutorials is the film, Thirteen. It chronicles an adolescent’s desire to feel something, anything. In the opening scene, we find 13-year-old Tracy sitting on a bed with her friend Evie. Both are huffing on an aerosol can, each then challenging the other to “hit me.” Finally, Evie hits Tracy in the face so hard she falls off the bed, bloody and unconscious. The girls involve themselves in meaningless sex, and their dead-eyed response to the world only registers occasional anger. These kids are ready and willing to engage in anything that will bring some emotional response to their empty lives.
Similarly, Lost in Translation explores the unfulfilled lives of Bob, an over-the-hill actor, and Charlotte, a young married woman, who happen to cross paths in a Tokyo hotel. Bob is burnt out—entirely unconnected with his work, his wife and his children. Charlotte is desperate for an experience. On a phone call home to the United States, she tells a friend about her visit to a Buddhist temple where monks were chanting. Sobbing, she explains that she didn’t feel anything, and instead of commiserating, her friend gets distracted and doesn’t respond. The “answer” the film offers is that Bob and Charlotte, these two lonely people, engage in an emotional, yet chaste, affair in hopes of gaining some connection that makes life worth living. Thirteen and Lost in Translation resonate with audiences not because people want to be like these characters, but because in them they see themselves. They want to feel, and alternatives abound.
On the other end of the emotional spectrum are films about adventure and romance. In movies like The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings or even The Rundown, people can live—vicariously—through the exciting deeds of the hero. They can see life as they just know they would live it, if only they too had the opportunity to be heroic. In romance films, such as Under the Tuscan Sun, the emphasis is on the ups and downs of relational life. The protagonist, Frances, experiences the pain of infidelity and divorce, the raptures of an illicit affair, the warmth of quirky friends and “the happy ending,” complete with a gorgeous home, a husband and children—all in under two hours. With lives like these available for around $9—who wouldn’t want to buy in?
Likewise, in the independent flick Bubba Ho-Tep, an elderly Elvis Presley manages to struggle out of bed to assess his new role as protector of his nursing home from a soul-swallowing Egyptian mummy. He doesn’t know much about what it all means, but the one thing he does know is, “I’m having an adventure.” To a generation of elderly folks who feel warehoused, Elvis’ declaration is a clarion call.
Spiritual excitement is in short supply at the Cineplex. The closest offering this past summer was The Fighting Temptations. I have to admit that the gospel music in the film was so rousing that a woman seated in front of me waved her hands and stomped her feet. She did everything but jump a pew and give her testimony. Unfortunately, the majority of the characters in the fictional choir are revealed as having little connection to the faith of which they sing. Nearly all of them are in it for the money. When it is discovered that the leader of the choir is facing charges back home, one of the older women laments, “To think I was going to sleep with you.” There may be emotion available in the modern Church, but the film indicates that it is manufactured by hypocrites.
What are we to do? If the Church will not engage the culture, it will be viewed by many as a sterile repository of theological facts disconnected with the kind of exciting life people inherently know they were created to experience. The movies they see are a nagging, if unrealistic, reminder of what could be. Elvis, and the Elves, recognize and want an adventure when they see one.
In his book, Ancient-Future Faith, Robert Webber noted that “postmodern” culture desires the emotional impact that comes from community, experience, ritual and “the impact of the visual.” It is remarkably like the Church in the first century. While it’s impossible to go back, we can learn from the past and apply it to the present.
People are not entirely duped by film experiences. They can recognize, and they desire, authentic feeling. The Church needs only to show them where it can be found. By re-energizing the story of the drama of faith, complete with a cast of flawed humanity, a dangerous adversary, a powerful Helper and the need to rescue all in peril, we can begin. When people see that they are in a struggle with a soul-swallowing culture, they will recognize the adventure. And though it brings with it real dangers and true obstacles to overcome, deep down inside, many will respond—passionately.[Marc T. Newman, Ph.D. is the president of MovieMinistry.com. He has been writing and speaking on film for over 20 years. He teaches at Palomar College in Southern California.]
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