A presentation by Vic Thiessen at the Anabaptist Network Theology Forum, December 7, 2004
Smoke is a wonderful film about a writer named Paul, a young man whom he befriends and Auggie, the owner of a street corner tobacco shop in New York. Paul frequently stops in at the shop, which is located near the place his wife was killed by random gunfire. One evening, Paul, who has not been able to write since his wife’s death, rushes up to the door just as Auggie is locking up and asks if he can still buy some smokes. As Auggie gets change, Paul notices the camera on the counter for the first time, and asks Auggie about it. Auggie explains that he uses that camera to take a picture of the street corner at the exact same spot and time each day (8:00 am.) and shows Paul his photo album. “It’s my corner,” Auggie says. “Just a small part of the world, but things happen here too.” As Paul pages through the album, bemused by the identical nature of the photos, Auggie says: “Slow down. You’ll never get it if you don’t slow down, my friend.” As Paul does so, he begins to notice the subtle differences in each photo, the way the light changes with the seasons, the changing shadows, and the different passers-by, including his wife. Tears form in his eyes as Paul thinks about his wife and about the amazing diversity of life he has been missing, even at this one street corner. This scene can elicit a similar response in the audience, teaching us to slow down and look around at the wonderful world we pass through daily, to see the same old things in a new light. At the same time, this scene is a metaphor for what can happen when we watch a movie, because movies provide a countless variety of stories and experiences that can help us see life in a new way. Movies can educate us, shape our values, help us question our worldview and help us make sense of the world around us.
I was seven years old when I saw my first film. That was the animated Disney film: The Sword in the Stone. Because it was my first film, I have very special memories of it. I’m guessing that many of you also have special memories of your first film. But not only do I have a soft spot for The Sword in the Stone, it also had a profound impact on my life. Because of this film, I became a huge fan of the Arthurian legends, began reading every book I could find on the subject, collected dozens of books on it over the years, and was led to C.S. Lewis through it because a friend told me that That Hideous Strength was about Merlin and Arthur. That Hideous Strength became my favourite novel. Reading it led directly to my reading of everything C.S. Lewis ever wrote, which in turn was critical in the development of my faith. My interest in England continued and eventually resulted in me visiting this country, first as a teenage backpacker in 1975, then again in 1978, 1982 and 1993. These visits led eventually to my applying for my current position and moving to London, encouraged by a daughter who had also caught the bug of fascination for the Arthurian legends through my interest. So I am here today because of the first film I ever watched, back in 1963. One film! Is that scary or what? Even scarier is knowing that all the Disney films I watched as a child profoundly shaped my thinking about life. And then there was The Sound of Music, which I first saw when I was nine. This film not only fuelled my desire to visit Europe but helped me through years of terror and nightmares as I thought of “My Favorite Things”, and it started me thinking that I could find my dream, make it come true even if I had to climb every mountain, ford every stream and follow every rainbow. 39 years later, I can still feel its affect on the shaping of my life. Yes of course there were many other things, like my parents and my church, that shaped my life, and I do believe that ultimately it was God and not The Sword in the Stone that led me to the London Mennonite Centre, but films played a huge role. While many of the films I watched as a child, like Disney cartoons, The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music, affected my faith more indirectly, other films like Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, and King of Kings would have directly shaped my thoughts about God and Jesus. Films are a tremendously powerful medium that can permanently alter our lives, our thoughts, and our faith. It can be downright scary to contemplate this and sometimes keeps me awake at nights until I start humming “My Favorite Things” and fall asleep. And today’s children start watching films long before they are seven years old. By the age of seven, most of them have probably seen a dozen or more James Bond films – isn’t that a scary thought. Yes, if anything, movies are more popular today than ever. Not everyone’s lives are affected or changed by films as dramatically as my own life was (my wife, for example, can’t recall a single film that had a significant impact on her), but I believe it is vital for Christians to be aware of, and engaged with, this most popular entertainment medium of our time.
Gareth Higgins, author of my favourite book on film and theology, called How Movies Helped Save My Soul (which is thoroughly Anabaptist), says that films are the sermons of our time – they speak to the existential condition of our time and the spiritual condition of our souls. They help us to think about God and talk about God – it’s theology for the masses. Higgins writes: “Going to the cinema can be a spiritual experience akin to worship, which can inspire and convict as well as any sermon.” Theresa Sanders, a theology professor and author of Celluloid Saints, writes: “Some of the most profoundly theological works of the past century have been movies. Movies shape our hopes and our desires. They tell us who we are and who we ought to be. They give us a language to express our loves and our fears and the full scope of our messy complicated humanity. As members of it, we share one thing in common: a desire that something matter. We long for something to devote our lives to with all our heart and with all our mind and with all our strength.” Sanders goes on to say that “any theology worth its salt begins in human experience. If a theology cannot be translated into the language of events and emotions, dreams and love, despair and fulfillment, then it has lost its way. Revelation is always revelation to someone. To be meaningful, it has to be able to render itself in a language that people understand. That language, I suggest, can be film.”
My own love of film led me to hosting a movie night every week for the past five years, where we watch a film together and then spend an hour or two talking about it. Almost inevitably, the discussion turns theological, regardless of the movie. Some of the people who have attended my movie nights have seen it as the place where most of their theological interaction and learning takes place – more than in church. For others, it restored their belief in a community of faith and brought them back into the church.
Robert Johnston, author of Reel Spirituality, notes that films help viewers to see life more clearly. “Movies broaden our exposure to life and provide alternate readings of life’s meaning and significance.” They help us empathically understand both others and ourselves as well as helping us to understand and critique our culture. Johnston writes: “It is from movies that we get our collective image of ourselves, our values, and our social world. Movies both identify our anxieties and reveal our society’s values; they tell us something about the age we live in.” Johnston suggests five reasons why Christians should dialogue with film: 1) to discover the wisdom and insight of nonbelievers; 2) to understand the Holy Spirit’s presence within the human spirit through film; 3) if viewers will join in community with a film’s storyteller, letting the movie’s images speak with their full integrity, they might be surprised to discover that they are hearing God as well; 4) the ability of a film to transport its viewer to some central place, an experience of “joy”; and 5) Christianity is a story – movies as story provide viewers a means of recapturing the meaning and power of our story-shaped gospel instead of being abstract.
Andrew Greeley suggests that “movies can capture and create a sacramentality of ordinary folk, their hopes, their fears, their loves, their aspirations. In the experiences, images and stories of life, God can be heard. If the rich sacramental power of films that are currently being made is not being disclosed reflectively and explicitly to the Sunday congregations, the reason is that those who preach to those congregations have not themselves been sensitized to the enormous sacramental power of film.”
Clive Marsh, editor of Explorations in Theology and Film and author of Cinema and Sentiment: Film’s Challenge to Theology, argues that films now do what the Bible used to do in providing the narratives through which people discover themselves and make choices about how to live. Films can provide inspiring and thought-provoking images and worldviews that help viewers develop their own worldview and ethic. They do this by moving us, getting us thinking, compelling us to make links, and drawing a contrast with life experience, past and present. When this leads to asking questions of ultimate meaning and value, then we are talking theology, whether or not the viewer thinks of it in those terms.
So the experts seem to agree: If the church is to have anything to say to our culture, it is essential that it learn how to dialogue with film. But what does that dialogue look like? This is a question Christians have been debating for decades. Many Mennonite churches in North America tried to prohibit movie-watching altogether for its members. Others suggested extreme caution, avoiding all films that might contain bad things. Theologians today still debate about how Christians should approach film, especially films that deal with religion in some way. Should we approach them with our theology safely in hand and see whether the film matches that theology, condemning it if it does not? Some presenters at Greenbelt were doing that. Or should we dialogue with film after watching the movie on its own terms rather than beginning with our own theology and views, letting theology inform film and be informed by film. My own view is that we should let the film suggest meaning and direction first and then follow with theology. Johnston writes: “It is not to theology that the critic must first turn, but to a film itself. And the goal in relating theology and film is not to render moral judgments, but to achieve greater insight. Only in light of a movie’s own vision of the nature of the human can the theologian effectively enlarge his or her horizons as movie and critic engage in conversation. … More than dialogue is called for. The theologian must be receptive to encountering spirit in a new guise and only then turn to respond from the viewer’s own theological point of view.”
I think Marsh would largely agree, but he focuses not so much on the content of the films but on the impact films have on people. In Cinema and Sentiment, he makes a case for the importance of watching sentimental films, films that have a strong emotional impact on us, that have the power to move us to tears. He makes this case on the basis that more and more serious film study is looking at the impact films have on viewers, and not just at the films themselves. Films have the power to work transformatively in people’s lives and any dialogue between theology and film needs to examine and reflect on what films are doing to people. Marsh notes three central themes of most good sentimental films: 1) separation and reunion, involving the difficulty with attachment; 2) justice in jeopardy, involving the emotional response to a moral dilemma such as someone giving themselves up for a just cause; and 3) inspiring awe and wonder.
With this as a focus, Marsh argues that good films stimulate our senses and challenge our ideas and beliefs, allowing viewers to live life more fully. But to do that, viewers need to be in dialogue with them. And that’s where Christians can help. Theological engagement can both enhance film-watching and help us process film. Theology can provide the framework for interpreting a film as well as the structure for our disjointed lives. It can help us be more critical of what we see and experience. Marsh writes: “My contention is that theology is one important conversation partner in the task of structuring emotional responses by viewers to film, Theologies brought to film must resist the tendency to ‘correct’ films or their impact, or merely to impose a worldview on the film or its watchers. But given that any theology worthy of the name will address human concerns at the deepest possible level, it cannot but be keen to respond to and dialogue with an art-form which at its best has the potential to expose human experience at its rawest. I stress that this is not simply about what is on the screen, but about the results of the interplay between what is on the screen, and the viewer.” Later he adds: “The only theology worth bothering with is a culturally informed and culture-critical theology. Attention to film and the practice of film-watching accentuate these mutually critical aspects of theology’s task: how culture critiques theology, and how theology critiques culture. Theology must be constantly critiqued by cultural product all around it, for it too is located within culture (understood as human society) and many cultures (in the sense of particular communities of practice and discourse). It must also critique what it sees around it, for it has a part to play in cultural development.” So the dialogue between theology and film must go both ways: We learn about the issues and values dominant in society without accepting them. Instead we interact with them and with the reaction of viewers to them.
Higgins is less theoretical and more practical: he wants to talk about what film can really help us with – our loss of community; life not being what it was meant to be; making sense of our lives and our place in the world; and an encounter with God to heal us. Movies have helped him to see the need for all of us to be honest about our brokenness, our fears and our anxieties; to let go of our egos and be who we really are; to trust in others; to be vulnerable and hope friends are honest enough to see themselves in us; and to be the seeds of healing in a broken world, inspiring us to make the world a better place. Higgins writes: “Any film that makes us reflect on choice, or confession, or our mutual brokenness as fallen people, or our need to accept responsibility and its consequences, or the power of love, or the need to engage in remembrance instead of denial, or that reminds us that forgiveness is a free gift, must be welcomed. We must always be attentive and sensitive to the unknown pain of those around us.”
With that, I’d like to start dialoguing with films by looking at theological themes particularly relevant to Anabaptists. The first is what Higgins was just referring to: community. Many films today reveal the loneliness, isolation and alienation that have become so prevalent in our society. Among the best of these are Magnolia and American Beauty. Magnolia is the story of a number of very lonely and alienated people. During the first two hours of this three-hour film, these people’s lives are spiraling downward towards despair and thoughts of suicide. To highlight this, the film takes a slightly quirky turn when the characters suddenly start to sing together (while alone) the Aimee Mann song: “Wise Up.” This scene brilliantly captures the commonality of the suffering of these characters while also inviting us to participate in that commonality, for we have all been broken and alone. After this song, a number of the characters begin to relate to each other in new ways and strange things happen to intervene in events. As people begin to connect, there is hope for many of them. This is particularly exemplified in the case of a lonely police officer (Jim) and a cocaine addict (Claudia) who is still suffering from the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. Jim takes Claudia out to dinner and Claudia talks about how people lie to impress each other or to mask their true selves and suggests that they make a deal not to do that: “Wanna make a deal with me? What I just said: People afraid to say things. No guts to say the things that are real or something. To not do that. To not do that which maybe we’ve done before. … I’ll tell you everything and you’ll tell me everything and maybe we can get through all the piss and shit and lies that kill other people.” This conversation will prove to be the first step on the road to recovery from their isolated suffering.
American Beauty is the story of two suburban families full of desperately lonely and broken people. It, too, offers signs of redemption and hope as people become vulnerable with each other and begin to connect. In the middle of this film, the two lonely teenagers in these families connect through the watching of a video that one of them has taken of a plastic bag being tossed (dancing) by the autumn wind for fifteen minutes. The boy who has taken the video says he has come to realise there is a life behind things: “this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid. Ever.” The video helps him to remember. He concludes by saying: “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it … and my heart is going to break.” This scene not only demonstrates again how being open and vulnerable can connect us to others and be the beginning of true community; it also speaks to a number of theological themes and, like most of the scenes I am describing, is worthy of a long discussion.
Watching these films can give us a glimpse into the brokenness all around us and in us and show us the power of, and need for, community. We all experience loneliness but loneliness feels very different when it is experienced within a loving Christian community. “People,” writes Higgins, “may be recognizing that spirituality cannot be adequately mediated through a sermon or worship performance. At the very least, smaller groups of people seeking to take God and each other seriously can be the only hope for the future of humanity.”
Another Anabaptist theme is challenging the wider church and society from the margins, often encouraging change and transformation. Chocolat is the story of Vianne, a woman who moves into a small French village and opens up a chocolate shop during Lent. Vianne is different and encourages people to think differently. Those who dare to enter Vianne’s shop find their lives beginning to change but come under fire from the mayor, Reynaud, who sees himself as the protector of the rules and traditions of the village and is offended that Vianne is selling chocolates during Lent and does not herself go to church. On the night before Easter, Reynaud breaks into the shop to destroy the chocolates, but some of the chocolate touches his lips and soon he is gorging himself on the chocolates. The next morning he admits his narrow outlook on life as he, too, embraces change, and the village priest, for the first time, preaches his own sermon instead of one approved by Reynaud. His sermon focuses on Jesus’ kindness and tolerance and he concludes: “We can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do, by what we resist and who we exclude. I think we have to measure goodness by what we embrace, by what we create, and whom we include.” It was Vianne, the outsider, who acted like Jesus and opened up her home to the despised and oppressed, ultimately transforming the village as well as herself. Chocolat is a marvelous film about seeing ourselves for who we really are and opening ourselves up to the possibility of forgiveness and change.
This next scene somehow feels Anabaptist, though the primary theme is not unique to Anabaptist theology. The Shawshank Redemption is the story of two men serving a life sentence in Shawshank prison. One of them, Andy, is a banker who has been wrongly convicted. He befriends Red, a black man trying to get paroled. It is Red who narrates the events of the film. One day, while cleaning the prison office, Andy discovers a box of records, locks a guard in the bathroom and puts on a record from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. He turns on the prison public address system, and everywhere the men stop and listen to the haunting music. Even those unfamiliar with opera are mesmerized. As Red comments, “I have no idea to this day what them two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singin’ about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it … It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage, and made these walls dissolve away … and for the briefest of moments - every last man at Shawshank felt free.” Andy gets thrown into solitary for his action. When he gets out, he tells Red it wasn’t so bad because he had Mozart with him. Red doesn’t understand, so Andy taps his heart and head and says the music was inside him where no one could confiscate it. Andy asks Red if he has ever felt that way about music and Red replies that it makes no sense in prison. “Here is where it makes the most sense,” Andy replies. “We need it so we won’t forget.” “Forget?” asks Red. “That there are things in this world not carved out of gray stone,” says Andy. “That there’s a small place inside of us that they can never lock away, and that place is called hope.” We may not be in a literal prison, but who among us doesn’t need to have that kind of hope, sustained by the memory of all that is beautiful in the world.
The Myth of Redemptive Violence, and Nonviolence, in Film
Another important theological theme for Anabaptists is nonviolence. This is where we really collide head-on with Hollywood and I want to spend some time exploring this collision.
Most of you are familiar with the term: myth of redemptive violence. It was made famous by Walter Wink, who explored the myth in his great book: Engaging the Powers. Very briefly, it is the idea that the use of violence is eventually necessary to prevail against the forces of evil, for righteous violence can produce redemptive results. To illustrate this, Wink mentions a TV sitcom from the 60’s called Get Smart. In one episode, which I still recall vividly, the villain is tricked by an exploding cigarette and blown off a cliff to his death. Agent 99 watches in horror and then comments to Max, “You know, Max, sometimes I think we’re no better than they are, the way we murder and kill and destroy people”, to which Max retorts, “Why, 99, you know we have to murder and kill and destroy in order to preserve everything that’s good in the world.” I can still remember Max’s face as he recognizes the absurdity of what he said and I often look, in vain, for a sign of that absurdity in the faces of our politicians when they say almost the same thing. To respond to violence with more violence is to become the very evil we are trying to fight against.
If you go into your average video rental shop, you will find that the vast majority of films that contain violence support the myth of redemptive violence, usually by killing the “bad guy” or “bad guys” at the end of the movie. And I’m not just talking about action films aimed at teenage boys. Most of the great classic westerns supported the myth of redemptive violence, including High Noon, which coincidentally is the favourite film of almost every U.S. president since Eisenhower. Recent Academy Award winners like Gladiator and Unforgiven, which try hard not to glorify violence, nevertheless end with a clearly redemptive use of violence. People seem to assume that violence is the only way to save the town or the country. All they need is a hero to come in with both guns blazing to save the day. I would like to suggest that this is one of the worst uses of the film medium – that in fact, film bears a large responsibility for perpetuating this myth, making life that much harder for Anabaptists who believe that this myth is completely counter to the gospel of Jesus.
Let me give you some examples of how a great many films portray the situation that requires a hero as redeemer: 1) The film is structured so that the violent method appears to be the only real alternative open to the protagonist. 2) Other actions are rarely taken - conflict based approaches are favoured. 3) Evil is totally outside - the other - very dualistic portrayal of the world: Good v evil, known v unknown, heroes v villains, black and white, civilized v savage. 4) One side must win - not a dialogue but an either/or. 5) The other is often of different ethnicity. 6) Destruction of the other is irrelevant; they deserve it (including the ending of the whole way of life of the North American aboriginal peoples). 7) The repercussions of the protagonist’s violence are rarely shown; rather, it is ennobled. 8) It’s not a question of whether to use violence; there is no other way. 9) The public is passive, weak, and/or unwise 10) Love and legal/Christian avenues of justice are seen as ineffective, unfair, and too slow - so execute wrath on behalf of the people and God. 11) Violence is the agent of change towards the future that helps to preserve the values of the past. 12) Peace is the ideal but cannot be realized without violence, which helps us to continue to think of ourselves as a peace-loving people (despite the fact that the USA, where these films are made, has the highest levels of violence by far of industrialized countries, and the violent beginnings of that nation). 13) Males dominate, along with traditional Western male characteristics including power, rationality, competition, autonomy, patriarchy, imperialism, and the phallic symbol of the gun. 14) Pacifism is usually embodied by women or the old, who recommend patience, avoidance, etc. (Quaker wife in High Noon, the dead wife in Unforgiven, the mother in Shane) and form barriers that must be overcome so that the savior can violently redeem. 15) The civilized world of the state etc. is powerless - either hundreds of miles away, unable to stop the adversary, or corrupt - so the hero must get away from it to keep pure. 16) Fits with our natural hunger for a heroic past.
Into this background comes our hero and redeemer, often a loner and rugged individual with a licence to kill, for he follows his own moral code rather than the law. This saviour cannot forgive, he must kill either to protect, to defend, or to avenge, and thus he perpetuates the cycle of violence.
Consider the film Gladiator: Maximus is a Roman general who is sold into slavery as a gladiator after narrowly escaping an attempt on his life by his jealous rival, the new Caesar. He literally kills his way to Rome where his true identity is discovered, at which point a senator visits him to talk about how to get rid of the new Caesar. When the senator cries out that the violent way is madness, Maximus states: “The time for half-measures and talk is over.” Ultimately Maximus is given the opportunity to kill the hated Caesar himself. Gladiator is a story of a man who through violence saves a world empire for democracy and justice. What concerns me most about this film is the way it compares Maximus to Jesus. For example, he is called the saviour of Rome, who would die for Rome, and the prisoner who died at his side said he’d see him in paradise. He, himself, comes back from death to accomplish his goal, to fight “the Prince of Darkness”, to quote the film commentary. Contrast this saviour, and the saviour of all these hero films, with Jesus – who was emptied, humbled, dishonoured, mocked, dealt with unjustly by both the crowd and the system, but did not respond with violence. Instead, he showed us a new way to respond to the oppression of violence through community and dialogue, through loving our enemy, through forgiveness, through nonviolently challenging the oppressive powers around him.
In spite of this contrast, we seem to be drawn to the myth of redemptive violence in film. Violence is exciting and there is a thrill in seeing the bad guy or guys get what they deserve at the end of the movie. And because we are drawn to it, the filmmakers keep making more of it, which reinforces the myth and so the cycle continues. Not that I’m saying that all films with violence are bad. The problem isn’t the violence, the problem is that violence is seen as working, as redeeming, as the only answer. That’s what promotes violence in our cultures today. But there are many films that deal honestly and constructively with violence, that show all aspects of the situation, like: the results of the violence, the other alternatives available, the irony of defending freedom with naked power and peace with violence, the good in the other, and the evil in us.
The Mission is a film like this. It’s the story of two men in eighteenth-century South America: One is Rodrigo, a mercenary who raids and enslaves the native people living in the jungle. The other is Father Gabriel, a Jesuit who works among the native people, helping them learn to read and write. One day Rodrigo kills his brother over a woman. Unable to forgive himself, he agrees to join Father Gabriel on a trek to the isolated Guarani people. Dragging a heavy bundle in a huge net, which contains all his armour and weapons, Rodrigo struggles to climb up a steep slope to the home of the Guarani. The other Jesuits agonise over the suffering Rodrigo, saying he’s done enough penance, and one of them finally cuts the rope so that the net falls to the bottom. Instead of being relieved, Rodrigo quietly returns to the bottom and climbs back up with his bundle, finally reaching the top and the Guarani, to whom he is an enemy. But in one of the most beautiful moments of grace on film, one of the Guarani runs up to Rodrigo, holds a knife to his throat, and then cuts the rope and hurls the bundle over the edge of the cliff. Rodrigo begins to sob and Father Gabriel embraces him. What a beautiful moment of grace and what a fascinating choice for penance: Do the armour and weapons represent Rodrigo’s way of violence, and is his salvation bound up in freeing himself from this way? This is worthy of some discussion. But in the end Rodrigo once again embraces the way of violence when, after he becomes a Jesuit and joins the mission, the mission comes under attack from the Spanish and Portuguese because it is interfering with the slave trade. While Father Gabriel stands in solidarity with the nonviolent natives, Rodrigo disobeys orders and joins the natives who are willing to fight. In the end, all are massacred. This beautiful film explores the questions of violence and nonviolence in a serious way that shows there are no easy answers. Each of the two men did what he felt was right and they both died doing it. Violence was not redemptive but nonviolence in this case was also not effective. Nevertheless, the film does make a case for liberation theology, a theology that looks first to the poor and oppressed.
Another film that deals with liberation theology and nonviolence is Romero. It is the true story of Oscar Romero of El Salvador, a conservative priest who becomes Archbishop because he is expected to support the status quo. But as his colleagues begin to disappear and his friend, Father Grande, shows him the suffering of the poor in El Salvador, Romero begins to change. When Father Grande is killed, Romero becomes the champion of the poor and speaks out against the death squads and the government’s complicity in the violence. Romero is arrested and tortured, but he continues to speak out until he, himself, is assassinated in April, 1980. Shortly before his death, Romero broadcasts the following speech on the radio: “The mission of the church is to identify itself with the poor and in their struggle for justice. By so doing, the church finds its own salvation. I hope that this call of the church does not further harden the hearts of the rich and powerful, but will move them to conversion. You are the principle protagonists in this hour of change; on you depends, in great part, the end of violence. There is no clinging to our futile past, this is a new age; an age in which all God’s children may live in peace, freedom and dignity.” The film, while not particularly well-made, does a good job of showing us again how people can change if they slow down and listen and see what is happening around them. Even an Archbishop gains a new understanding of what it means for him to follow Jesus. In his case, it meant literally becoming a Christ-figure as he nonviolently challenges the oppressive and violent powers around him and is killed as a result (as he is shot, he spreads his arms wide as if he is being crucified).
Another champion of the poor who used nonviolent resistance to challenge the oppressive powers in his country was Gandhi. The film does a marvelous job of capturing Gandhi’s remarkable life, and Ben Kingsley certainly deserved his Oscar. Like Romero, Gandhi’s path of nonviolent resistance eventually led to his assassination, but not before he had changed his country forever. It is men like Martin Luther King and Gandhi who show what can be achieved without the use of violence and who can inspire us to follow Jesus’ command to love our enemy.
Besides Romero and Gandhi, there are many films that unmask the oppressive powers at work in the world the way Jesus unmasked them. Among my favourites are films like Missing, The China Syndrome, Under Fire, and The Killing Fields.
Another non-religious film that deals honestly with the problem of violence is In the Bedroom. Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson play the grief-stricken parents of a promising young man who is murdered by his girlfriend’s ex. When the courts seem to be letting the cause of justice go by, Wilkinson and his friend take the situation into their own hands and kill the murderer. This film does contain the usual elements of films that support the myth of redemptive violence - good guys, bad guy, injustice not served properly by the courts, revenge wanted, no other method of addressing the problem is seriously tried, so the protagonist attempts to overcome the evil by killing. But this time, there are key differences, like the fact that the filmmakers are not presenting the violent act as a positive thing and it is not seen to be redemptive for anyone (the ending shows that the protagonist will clearly never have peace after what he did by joining the cycle of violence). In fact, the film shows that the father, as a product of our culture, falls prey to the myth of redemptive violence and thus takes the gun into his own hands. This is a film that actually reveals the danger inherent in other films.
Most animated films fit into the redemptive violence framework, which means the myth can be implanted into our children from their earliest films, but one recent film dared to tackle the question of violence honestly. That film is The Iron Giant, the story of a boy who comes across a giant robot, becomes its friend, then tries to hide the robot from those in his town who might panic at the sight of him. Eventually the military learns of the robot and threatens to destroy the town, which is saved by an act of self-sacrifice and not by violence. The Iron Giant exposes the myth of redemptive violence by demonstrating that we should not be afraid of the “other” nor assume that the solution is to kill it. Key quotes from the film are: “Everyone wants what we have”, “We didn’t build it and that’s reason enough to destroy it”, and the interesting “It’s bad to kill. It’s not bad to die” while discussing the shooting of a deer. The robot is even, in savior-type fashion, resurrected after sacrificing himself to save the town.
There are even some westerns that expose the myth of redemptive violence, like The Ox-Bow Incident, in which a posse executes three innocent men because they don’t trust the unreliable and slow law to take care of it.
And of course there are many anti-war movies that expose the true cost of war. I’ll just mention my favourites of these: Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Paths of Glory, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Renoir’s The Grand Illusion.
It’s time to close, but I want to say a few more words about movie nights, which can happen in homes or in churches. Many of our film nights have focused on Anabaptist theological themes like community – indeed, some of my film night groups have been a real community to those who attended – and like peace and justice. Most of the best film nights happened because people were willing to be open and to share whatever they were thinking, including some very painful parts of their lives. If you are interested in facilitating a film night, your task will be to keep the conversation moving in a productive way while allowing it to flow naturally. For those who are interested, I have written down some of the questions I use on film nights. There is never time on one night to ask all the questions and some questions lend themselves better to certain kinds of films, but it’s helpful to have such a list ready in your mind. I believe that watching film, followed by a long discussion, will be one of the most important ways to communicate Anabaptist ideas to people in the future.
Which leads me to my last quote, this one from Edward McNulty, author of “Praying the Movies”: “I still look forward to the unfolding of a new film as an invitation to set forth on a journey of discovery, one that sometimes enriches the spirit as well as the imagination. I see certain films as visual parables, “earthen vessels” containing the treasure of the gospel.”
Possible Film Night Discussion Questions
1) What is your first response to the film? What struck you, touched you, spoke to you?
2) Which characters changed in the film? How and why did they change?
3) Which character was the most important for you? Why? OR Which character did you identify with the most? Why?
4) What did you learn about yourself in watching this film or through the character in the previous question (i.e. how did this film help you to better understand yourself)?
5) What did the film say to you about people, about society, about the world (i.e. how did this film help you to better understand the people around you)?
6) What kind of symbols did you see in the film?
7) Do you think the film had a particular message? If so, talk about it.
8) Did the use of colours or sets or the cinematography strike you? If so, what did these visual affects contribute to the film?
9) Comment on the acting in the film. Were any performances particularly impressive? Why?
10) Discuss the use of music in the film.
11) Do you have any comments about the directing of the film, the writing?
12) Were there any overtly religious themes in the film? If so, what did you think about them?
13) How did the film affect your thinking about God, about other theological ideas?
14) What does your understanding of God and theology have to say to the characters and narrative of the film [i.e. this is where you look for Christ-figures (don’t overdo it) and themes like redemption and grace AND ask if there is something your theology can contribute to your answer to question 5]?
15) How does your theology interact with the responses of viewers to the film?