Have you ever finished a movie and asked yourself if it was worth your time? Is there really any redeeming quality to this, or am I just wasting my life on mindless entertainment? While certainly too much time can be wasted on our screens, I think there are positives we don’t always consider. I obviously mean reasons that aren’t simply that I’m already hooked and don’t want to put it down.
You may have seen my article on applying the worldview of Thanos from Avengers: Infinity War. That was the first in what I hope to be an on-going series I like to call, “Lessons from the Big Screen.” It might not always be specifically movies, but if I find something to share in a piece of media, it will be under that name. These are not lessons to teach us better theology or how reality is. But these stories can give us valuable insights into the world we live in, as well as tools to interact with its people. Here are three things that can be gained from analyzing media.
1. Understanding Culture
We as Christians can often be accused of being out of touch. We hide in our own communities, and don’t always understand the ever-changing world around us. If we are going to reach the people in this world, especially younger generations, we need to understand our current cultural moment. Some try and do that by reading books and studies on the younger generations. But sometimes the best way to understand a culture is to engage with their media. What are they saying through movies, TV shows, music, video games, advertisements, and so on? These things tend to reflect the culture they are made in, and that can give us valuable insights.
Why were so many gripped by magical fantasies like Harry Potter in the early 2000s? What led to them dropping that for gritty dystopias like The Hunger Games not long after? How did our fantasy epics turn from the black and white morality of the Lord of the Rings to gray and grayer morality of Game of Thrones in a decade? These kinds of questions help us know who we are talking to, and what kind of ideas they are consuming every day. If we plan to spread the Gospel, you need to know who you are spreading it to.
2. Stories are Powerful
It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.”
― Samwise Gamgee
Think of the last sermon or lecture you heard. Chances are good you don’t remember most of the content and data. But I bet you remember the stories they told. Few things engage us like a good story. We are gripped by tales of heroes, good and evil, falls from grace and redemption. These are themes we can universally latch onto as people. Some of the art and media that has affected me the most is not made with any explicitly Christian message. But they have these characteristics of the world God made with these traits built in.
I think the power in story is part of why there has been such a push to use testimony in evangelism. While I don’t think you want to rely on it, a telling your own story can be a powerful way to make a point and connection. And most importantly it can point us to the greatest story of all. Part of the beauty of Christianity is that it makes sense of the world in a familiar narrative. I could give you 8 arguments for the existence of God, or I could tell you about how God created man, how we rebelled and fell from grace, how God gave the greatest sacrifice of all that we might be redeemed, and ultimately so that we can know him and spend eternity with him in paradise. Better yet, do both.
3. Tools for Conversation
Perhaps the most obvious reason to engage with media, is it works wonders for starting conversations. We tend to be afraid to ask someone about their beliefs in God or an afterlife. But I’ll ask a coworker what they thought of the new Star Wars movie at the drop of a hat. Chances are good that they have an opinion on it. That not only forms a connection that can lead to future conversations, but often can have direct links to theological questions. It doesn’t take a lot of digging to find questions about humanity, purpose, or evil in these stories. This is very similar to the approach the apostle Paul took in his famous sermon at Mars Hill in Athens. He takes the ideas and religions he sees in that context, analyzes them, shows where they fail, and brings it back to the truth of Christianity.
It should be said though, this should not be used as an excuse. Maybe you’re hooked on a show that you enjoy, but know there is a lot of objectionable content. Whether you want to engage with that I think is a matter of conscience and self-control. But don’t say you’re watching something just so you can talk about it at the water cooler. As some have said, maybe you would make a stronger example by explaining why you don’t watch that show.
Those are three things ways we can benefit from “The Big Screen.” Ultimately it is still entertainment, which we consume because we enjoy it. Like anything we enjoy, too much of it leads to problems. But there is joy to be found in great stories, and lessons to be learned even from poor stories.
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