Transcendence is a powerful word. It’s a word used to describe a spiritual experience. And it’s an unlikely word choice for a Hollywood movie. But ever since childhood, I experienced transcendence more in a darkened movie theater than in a church service. Movies allowed me to escape from my ordinary suburban neighborhood. I vicariously lived in Paris and at the North Pole, and traveled to galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Movies fueled my desire to write. The flickering image across the screen became my muse as it sparked my imagination and creativity.
I carried the love of film to college as I took every film studies class I could fit into my schedule. I knew how to analyze the films of Martin Scoresese and explore the textured layers of his gritty characters. But then graduation came and the “real” world began. No employer cared that I could tell the difference between film noir and French New Wave. Most employers wanted to know if I could fax, type or answer phones. So, after days of typing memos and filing, I escaped to movies. I longed for that transcendent experience. I consumed movies, videos and cable TV like a junkie. Yet what I longed for was more than a movie plot. I longed for something bigger than me. What I longed for was God.
After exploring different religions in college and not finding the answers, I found them four years later at a Gen X church that used film and music to reach seekers. I accepted Jesus Christ there. As a baby Christian, I abandoned what was “secular” and consumed any resource that was Christian. But as I matured, the lack of substance in a lot of Christian books, music and movies became apparent. There was no deep spiritual questioning or exploration of Christian life. And the church didn’t provide the transcendence that I experienced when I watched movies.
So I became a regular member of the Church of the Darkened Theater once again, searching for deeper meaning in celluloid. For the first time as a Christian, I saw humanity again as Jesus Christ did, at the place where it was instead of watching and judging it from the confines of my Christian bubble. With this new understanding, I used movies to engage in conversation with those who were “out there” in the world.
But a lot of Christians did not agree with my methods. Instead, they wanted to boycott the evils of Hollywood and be satisfied with their fruitless efforts. Yet there are some Christians who do not see Hollywood as the enemy. Take Craig Detweiler of Reel Spirituality, an institute of moving images at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. Detweiler, who has a Masters of Divinity and a Master of Fine Arts in Film and Television, teaches courses on theology and film. I first met Craig at a weekend seminar where he taught three different workshops. I was amazed to hear someone speak from the perspective of “reel” spirituality. I spent all day on a Saturday watching movie clips, discussing the tie-in with theology, and listening to spirited discussions from fellow participants. I learned about Hollywood’s Golden Era, the mythical creation of the American Family, Hollywood’s spiritual hunger in movies like Fight Club and the Matrix and using film to engage the congregation of both believers and seekers. It was interactive and practical, and I was blown away.
As the day ended, I discovered that Hollywood has created a formula of storytelling that depicts all aspects of life—beauty and ugliness, hope and tragedy, love and pain. Ironically, the same formula exists in the Bible and in the life of Jesus Christ. Yet many Christians do not experience this transcendence because a lot of churches teach messages on “How to Be a Better Christian in Five Easy Steps” instead of exploring the mystery and majesty of our Lord in His beauty, suffering, hope, tragedy, resurrection and love. Movies can help us start the journey of a richer and deeper experience by first getting us to a place of transcendence. Movies alone cannot do this, but in conjunction with worship they can enhance the music or the pastor’s message.
Movies touch the head, heart and soul of a person through universal experiences regardless of racial and class background, and reach the masses in ways that the church has not been able to do. Paul knew how to reach the masses at Mars Hill in Acts 17 as he spoke the language of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers to proclaim the gospel. Movies are part of the 21st century’s cultural language, and knowing that language will be a key part in reaching a lost and dying world. Both believers and non-believers are hungry for transcendence. Until some churches acknowledge this, many will find sanctuary in the Church of the Darkened Theater no matter how temporary it is.
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