Film – bring your own meaning…?

“God is so all over this film!”

I received this text message from my son as he and his friends left the cinema having watched Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Of course, him being a convinced Christian I would have been surprised if he hadn’t seen the film this way. Most people, whether Christian or not, are at least vaguely aware that CS Lewis was a Christian and that Narnia has some allegorical connection with the story of Jesus. But I doubt that many left the cinema that same evening having seen God so clearly in the story. Which is a shame. Especially because sometimes we hope that talking with people about a film will open up a conversation about God.

People connect with films because they connect with the issues, ideas, characters or ideals expressed. But my suggestion is that, no matter how much we hope they’ll see God, or an aspect of the gospel in a film, in general people miss any Christian perspective we might perceive because they bring their own meaning and worldview to the film and interpret it purely from that perspective.

Research into the impact that films (and a range of other media) have on the spirituality of young people found that films and TV soaps form a rich symbolic resource for young people to interpret, understand and create meaning from their actual and idealised lives. But this was limited to what is termed formative spirituality, the broad spirituality inherent in the human condition. Much as we might long that (young) people watching a film might experience a spirituality or spiritual moment that is transformative, leading them into an awareness or understanding of God (“God is so all over this film”), the reality is entirely different.

We did not find, however, that this engagement [with soap operas and films] led the young people to pursue further questions of a spiritual nature, to ask whether the ideal they periodically glimpsed or imagined through these popular arts could be indicative of a reality beyond their world, rather than being firmly limited to the worlds created by imaginative writers and technologically sophisticated special effects. In other words, we did not find our young people engaged in transformative spirituality through soap operas and films. The world view of Generation Y in this respect remains largely secular.
[Making sense of Generation Y – Savage, Collins-Mayo, Mayo, Cray]

Our experience is that young people are very happy to talk about films, the characters, issues and ideals. We love films and these kinds of discussion are a brilliant way of connecting quickly with young people. But any attempt, no matter how gently, to move the discussion into the area of transformative spirituality, the possibility of God or to draw parallels with elements of the gospel narrative, produces what may best be described as mild bewilderment. It’s as if they can’t quite understand what any of this has to do with the film, and especially with their understanding of the film. They bring their own meaning.

By way of encouragement, we’ve found that when we tell our own story of God at work in our lives, or share some part of the gospel narrative, young people are more than happy to discuss it. And, surprise surprise, many apply aspects of these stories to their own lives, often telling us that they are in some way seeking God or Christianity because they like it (their words!) The clue seems to be that people interpret any story from the perspective of their own lives, whether a film, a testimony or some part of the gospel. It’s just that the gospel, sensitively told within a trusted relationship, tells them more about the transformative spirituality of a relationship with God than any conversation about a film.

You may have come to the same conclusion or your experiences may be totally different – I’d love to hear your stories.

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12 Responses to Film – bring your own meaning…?

  1. Phil Wyman says:

    Tim,
    Thanks for a thoughtful, balanced, and intelligent post. I am not much of a movie watcher, but I have seen people discover things they are already predisposed to seeing when they tal;k about the message of a film. Your conclusion about the power of our story is where it lands for me as well.

  2. John Smulo says:

    Very interesting post. It seems to me that the connection young people have with story is impacting the forms of media being created; and the forms of media we’re seeing are having an impact on the wider culture.
    I appreciate your thoughts on the impact of our stories.

  3. John Smulo says:

    Very interesting post. It seems to me that the connection young people have with story is impacting the forms of media being created; and the forms of media we’re seeing are having an impact on the wider culture.
    I appreciate your thoughts on the impact of our stories.

  4. Tim Abbott says:

    Phil – I guess the opportunity of these film type conversations with people is that it allows us to enter into a conversation with them about the way they see things. This may not have any obvious connection with a Christian world view, but it’s certainly a good place to start a conversation. Perhaps that’s the real power of films, they let us connect with and express our own views and ideals rather than necessarily opening up a conversation about the gospel.

  5. Tim Abbott says:

    Phil – I guess the opportunity of these film type conversations with people is that it allows us to enter into a conversation with them about the way they see things. This may not have any obvious connection with a Christian world view, but it’s certainly a good place to start a conversation. Perhaps that’s the real power of films, they let us connect with and express our own views and ideals rather than necessarily opening up a conversation about the gospel.

  6. Tim Abbott says:

    John – I suppose this is the “life reflecting art reflecting life” thing with a generational twist (or shift). The way that young people interact with story does seem to be powerfully influencing films and particularly advertising.
    There seems to be a trend towards, what to an older audience seems to be, meaninglessness in films and particularly adverts where the primary purpose is to create impact leaving the viewer to create their own meaning. One person will say, “What does it mean?” or “I don’t understand?” Another, generally younger, person will be rolling around laughing saying it’s the best thing they’ve seen for ages.

  7. Jenelle says:

    Great post, Tim. I think you’re spot on about young people being so interested in hearing our own real-life God-stories. Maybe the lesson here is to just “tell our stories” even more than we take kids to the movies (so that we can generate conversations about our stories).
    Sally’s comment about reality overshadowing metaphor is uber insightful. I’ve worked with international students (aged 13-17) in Portugal and American kids (aged 11-17), and have found that the emotional intelligence/maturity of students radically affects the degree that they can relate to metaphor. (I was an English major so I love metaphors!) The int’l kids (highly mobile, super-mature) would readily relate to metaphor, while the others could not.
    This question of metaphor/reality has great impact on students processing biblical texts, I reckon.

  8. Jenelle says:

    Great post, Tim. I think you’re spot on about young people being so interested in hearing our own real-life God-stories. Maybe the lesson here is to just “tell our stories” even more than we take kids to the movies (so that we can generate conversations about our stories).
    Sally’s comment about reality overshadowing metaphor is uber insightful. I’ve worked with international students (aged 13-17) in Portugal and American kids (aged 11-17), and have found that the emotional intelligence/maturity of students radically affects the degree that they can relate to metaphor. (I was an English major so I love metaphors!) The int’l kids (highly mobile, super-mature) would readily relate to metaphor, while the others could not.
    This question of metaphor/reality has great impact on students processing biblical texts, I reckon.

  9. Tim Abbott says:

    Jenelle – thanks for your perceptive development of Sally’s point about reality and metaphor. Your experience of those two groups of young people adds some evidence to the suspicion that teens don’t quite ‘get it’ when we try to draw gospel meaning from metaphors in films.
    But what really got me thinking was your reflection about how this impacts young people’s interaction with biblical texts. Very interesting…

  10. Steve Hayes says:

    Sorry about the belated comment – Because of bandwidth problems I’m only catching up the the Synchroblog now.
    A friend of mine, in a paper on “Christian art”, said that Christian art was not necessarily any art by people that happened to be Christian, nor art that portrayed a Christian subject, but that one characteristic of Christian art (though not only Christian art) was that the art must be bigger than the artist. The artist should not say “this must mean to you what it means to me”.
    He notes that Bernard Shaw did this in his plays, specifying everything, right down to the colour of the character’s eyes.
    One film I saw long ago, “Sammy going South” was about a boy whose parents were killed in the Anglo-French bombing of Suez in 1956, and he sets off to travel across the continent to Durban where he knows an aunt lives. Various people help him on the way, and some try to exploit him, and he is a profoundly traumatised child in some ways. But before the film was released, a scene was cut, showing him being wantonly destructive. But the other scenes were left unchanged, so there were hints of this. But the newspaper reviews showed how the reviewers all saw what they wanted to see in the film. One saw the message as being that black people were good and white people were bad. And the kid himself in the film unwittingly comments on this, by reciting nursery rhymes as he trudges through the bush:
    Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?
    I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.
    Pussy cat, pussy cat, what saw you there?
    I saw a little mouse under a chair.
    We see what we want to see. What stands out is what is of most interest to us, and it may not be what interested the author, the screenwriter or the director at all.

  11. Steve Hayes says:

    Sorry about the belated comment – Because of bandwidth problems I’m only catching up the the Synchroblog now.
    A friend of mine, in a paper on “Christian art”, said that Christian art was not necessarily any art by people that happened to be Christian, nor art that portrayed a Christian subject, but that one characteristic of Christian art (though not only Christian art) was that the art must be bigger than the artist. The artist should not say “this must mean to you what it means to me”.
    He notes that Bernard Shaw did this in his plays, specifying everything, right down to the colour of the character’s eyes.
    One film I saw long ago, “Sammy going South” was about a boy whose parents were killed in the Anglo-French bombing of Suez in 1956, and he sets off to travel across the continent to Durban where he knows an aunt lives. Various people help him on the way, and some try to exploit him, and he is a profoundly traumatised child in some ways. But before the film was released, a scene was cut, showing him being wantonly destructive. But the other scenes were left unchanged, so there were hints of this. But the newspaper reviews showed how the reviewers all saw what they wanted to see in the film. One saw the message as being that black people were good and white people were bad. And the kid himself in the film unwittingly comments on this, by reciting nursery rhymes as he trudges through the bush:
    Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?
    I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.
    Pussy cat, pussy cat, what saw you there?
    I saw a little mouse under a chair.
    We see what we want to see. What stands out is what is of most interest to us, and it may not be what interested the author, the screenwriter or the director at all.

  12. Steve Hayes says:

    Sorry about the belated comment – Because of bandwidth problems I’m only catching up the the Synchroblog now.
    A friend of mine, in a paper on “Christian art”, said that Christian art was not necessarily any art by people that happened to be Christian, nor art that portrayed a Christian subject, but that one characteristic of Christian art (though not only Christian art) was that the art must be bigger than the artist. The artist should not say “this must mean to you what it means to me”.
    He notes that Bernard Shaw did this in his plays, specifying everything, right down to the colour of the character’s eyes.
    One film I saw long ago, “Sammy going South” was about a boy whose parents were killed in the Anglo-French bombing of Suez in 1956, and he sets off to travel across the continent to Durban where he knows an aunt lives. Various people help him on the way, and some try to exploit him, and he is a profoundly traumatised child in some ways. But before the film was released, a scene was cut, showing him being wantonly destructive. But the other scenes were left unchanged, so there were hints of this. But the newspaper reviews showed how the reviewers all saw what they wanted to see in the film. One saw the message as being that black people were good and white people were bad. And the kid himself in the film unwittingly comments on this, by reciting nursery rhymes as he trudges through the bush:
    Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?
    I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.
    Pussy cat, pussy cat, what saw you there?
    I saw a little mouse under a chair.
    We see what we want to see. What stands out is what is of most interest to us, and it may not be what interested the author, the screenwriter or the director at all.

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