Can watching movies help you live out Christ’s command to love your neighbor? We welcome Drew Trotter, Executive Director of the Consortium of Christian Study Centers, to the ESN blog for a series on the 2020 Best Picture Oscar nominees. If you missed any of them this year, we invite you to watch along as Drew unpacks how they can be springboards to conversation with colleagues, students, and other neighbors in our lives.
Christians go to the movies for a number of different reasons. Most, if not all, of us go, like everybody else, to be entertained. We want to escape the drudgery or the sameness (or both) of our lives into worlds we don’t normally inhabit, worlds of superheroes or space travel, of cowboys or battlefields, of pageantry or plainness, but worlds that are filled with characters and stories we don’t know or experience in our own daily lives. Sometimes we go to be surprised. We don’t know anything about a film, and a friend invites us, and we go. Sometimes we go, expecting to be challenged by the sadness of a story, or by its hilarity, or by its social or political message.
I’d like to use this space to challenge us to go to the movies, which I’m going to discuss, for any or all of these reasons, and for one more: to learn how to love our neighbor better.
Over the next nine blog postings, I’m going to look briefly at the nine nominees for Best Picture of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Awards, the category won in a surprise by the South Korean film, Parasite. These pictures form what one of the most powerful, creative, and far-reaching artist communities—often known by the short-hand of its most well-known location, “Hollywood”—believes to be the nine most worthy films of the past year. There is no elaboration of what “Best” means in this vote; the award is simply described by the Academy’s website as for “the best motion picture of the year.”
But just because the Academy doesn’t tell us why they vote for one picture or another, doesn’t mean there aren’t some guidelines for their voting that are discernible. Indications are that the award is bestowed because of a complex mix of technical excellence of production, story-telling power, and superb performances by the director, writers, and actors of the film. Often, for instance, the Best Picture and Best Director are shared by the same film, as they were this year by Bong Joon Ho. Perhaps even more often, one or more of the actors of the winning film wins an acting Oscar. In short, the quality of the Best Picture is recognized as being both technical and artistic. Interestingly, this rarely has much to do with Box Office performance. The Best Picture is the result of an artistic community recognizing which film they, as professionals in the industry, think to be the best. It is usually not a popularity contest.
What does this have to do with loving our neighbor better by going to the movies? The answer to that question has to do with how much we believe art affects the society in which it is produced. Abigail Adams is credited with saying, “The theater has been called the pulse of the people,” and you may be surprised to find that Leonardo DiCaprio agrees with her, though he is of course talking about the movies, not the live theater. When he won the Golden Globe a few years back for his portrayal of Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, in his acceptance speech, he said this about Martin Scorsese, the film’s director: “You’re not only an incredible visionary, but you put the very fabric of our culture up on screen.”
You may or may not cringe at the thought of Martin Scorsese’s vision of the world being the way the world actually is, but like it or not, it is hard to argue with the numbers of people being influenced in their thinking by Hollywood. In 2019, Box Office receipts alone were $11,319,833,245 on sales of 1,236,899,638 tickets. Though the dollar figure is quite high, the important number is the 1¼ billion tickets sold last year. People in America are still going to the movies in droves and this does not even count the presumably even greater number of people watching Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO, and any number of other streaming sources for movies. Admittedly, the number of tickets sold last year is slightly lower than 2018’s 1,321,858,931 but the difference is not appreciable, and with often higher ticket prices, it is remarkable that the numbers have increased both in ticket sales and in box office dollars in three of the last five years, year over year.
What this means is simply this: American movies are having an enormous impact on the lives and thought processes of a significant portion, perhaps the majority, of our nation’s populace.
But are the nominees for Best Picture the largest Box Office grossers of the year? No, not by a long shot. This year’s movies, however, did have a significant box office draw on the whole. Five of the seven traditional releases (i.e. not the two Netflix movies) are in the top thirty-five box office movies of the year, and the lowest box office draw, Parasite, is by far the highest grossing foreign film of the year. This showing at the box office by the nominees was so extraordinary that The Hollywood Reporter called it the best showing by best picture nominees “in recent memory” (except for last year, which was buoyed by Black Panther’s huge box office numbers).
Let me bring us back to loving our neighbors by going to the movies, specifically viewing the nine Best Picture nominees for the Academy Award. The numbers show that your neighbors are going to the movies, and this year these particular movies. These are the movies that members of one of the most powerful and influential communities of artists are putting forward as their “best” product. These two reasons provide argument enough for our premise that movies are both a barometer, and a medium of instruction, of our society, but there is a third reason.
Often we seek a way to talk with our neighbors about spiritual matters. This year’s movies address the following issues, any one of which can lead the thoughtful, caring person into dialogue over the deepest hurts, fears, angers that humans exhibit: winning and losing with the deck stacked against you by corporate greed and power (Ford v. Ferrari); loyalty, decision-making, making a slight turn in the wrong direction and eventually paying an enormous price (The Irishman); how childish, unthinking fantasy can lead one to support unthinkable atrocity (JoJo Rabbit); how evil one can become if one embraces evil choices(Joker); what it means to grow up, learn to live life on your own terms, yet retain your ties to the ones who have loved you the most in childhood (Little Women); marriage and how two people who love each other can destroy it (Marriage Story); what brotherhood, commitment, and duty mean in the test of war (1917); entertainment and its role in American society (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood); and family, wealth, class, and their effects in the modern world (Parasite). What better way to begin a serious conversation with a neighbor than to take them to one of these movies, or by now, to invite them over to watch them on your streaming service?
I look forward to thinking through these nine films with you, and I hope you will see each of them …because you love your neighbor.
About the author:
Drew Trotter is the Executive Director of the Consortium of Christian Study Centers. He was for twenty-two years the Executive Director and President of the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville, VA. Drew has written on film and popular culture for over thirty years in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today and Critique, and in the field of Biblical studies published Interpreting the Epistle to the Hebrews (Baker, 1997). For over twenty years, he has presented a seminar entitled Show and Tell: How to View a Movie Responsibly, helping laypeople and students in churches, Christian college and secular university environments understand this powerful medium and how to think about its influence both on the individual and the society. He has taught seminars on popular culture, university education in America today, a Biblical model of discipleship and how to interpret the Scriptures. Also a well-respected Bible teacher, Drew has lectured and preached at seminaries, churches and colleges throughout the United States and Canada on a wide variety of topics including prayer, discipleship, and Christian cultural awareness. Drew has three sons, two daughters-in-law and six grandchildren and lives with his wife of forty-seven years, Marie, in Charlottesville, VA. You can view the Consortium of Christian Study Centers website here: https://studycentersonline.org/
I could not disagree more. Watching violence, gore, and sexual sin on the screen is not a way to love your neighbor. It is not necessary to watch “someone stabbed in the head and neck with a pair of scissors, then have his head slammed repeatedly and bloodily against a wall,” or to see “several people shot and killed before and during violent demonstrations” that are “pretty jarring and graphic.” (Movie: The Joker; Source: Plugged In). I don’t need to listen to the “f-word and more than 25 s-words joined with multiple uses each of “d–n,” “b–ch,” b–tard” “h—” and “a–hole” or “God’s name paired with “d–n” seven times” or uses of the words “pr-ck” and “whore.” (Movie: Ford vs. Ferrari; Source: Plugged In) in order to evangelize my neighbor. I don’t need to see a character ask for oral sex or a party at the Playboy Mansion (Movie: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; Source: Plugged In) to have a meaningful discussion about cultural issues with my unbelieving friends. We are called to be holy as He is holy, to flee from sexual immorality. Willingly submitting yourself to images of sexual immorality is running toward it, not away. Jesus said if you look at woman with lust in your heart you’ve committed adultery. Can you, as a man, watch a naked or near-naked woman on the screen and not have a trace of lust in your heart? Can you really watch two unmarried, unclothed people acting out sexual intercourse and think, “I am looking at this because I’m trying to love my neighbor”?
Tim Challies wrote about “Stranger Things,” a show that has many Christian fans: “To create Stranger Things a group of people filmed an actual eighteen-year-old girl actually taking off her shirt and actually simulating losing her virginity to an actual teenaged boy. They did that for our pleasure, for our entertainment, so we could see it. What on this side of hell could justify me, a nearly forty-year-old man, watching a production that involves an eighteen-year-old girl—someone’s daughter, someone’s future wife—disrobing and writhing her way through simulated sex with a manipulative, hormone-driven boyfriend?” Why do Christians take a stand on the sanctity of marriage but are willing to watch people undress and have intercourse on the screen in the name of entertainment? Why do we agree with Scripture in its calls for love, peace, and gentleness but are willing to watch gratuitous portrayals of murder and rape? Why are my Christian friends eagerly consuming episodes of Game of Thrones, known for its near-pornographic images of sexual violence? Why has this become okay?
According to Plugged In, this scene occurs in Parasite, a movie you recommend: “Mr. and Mrs. Park have sex on a couch. Frontal nudity is barely avoided in this explicit scene, but it’s very clear what’s going on. The couple moans and enters into pretty frank dialogue.” Can a Christian watch this and still claim they are faithfully adhering to Phil 4:8? “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Or Psalm 101:3, “I will set no worthless thing before my eyes”?
I have heard countless Christians dismissing smutty movies and television as “mere entertainment”–a dangerous justification–but never have I heard a Christian say we should watch the Oscar-winning movies in order to evangelize. I know I can’t convince you of my viewpoint because I see that you teach an entire seminar on movie viewing; nevertheless, I want you to know I am grieved.