When we think about film we should ask, “is this a good piece of filmmaking? What is the nature of film? What makes a good film (e.g., screen writing, cinematography, directing, editing, acting etc)? These are the sorts of questions that Christian film critics ought to be asking and answering about film
I love a good film. I took three courses in film criticism as an undergraduate. They were more difficult than one might think. First, taking notes in the dark is challenging and reading them afterward is even more difficult. Second, I had to watch a lot of hard-to-watch films, which I would not recommend. Still, I got to watch a number of great films and got to learn a bit about how films are written, shot, and edited. I learned that the really great thing about Citizen Kane is not the banal script or even Orson Welles (1915–85)—the best performance in the film is Joseph Cotton’s—but the cinematography of Gregg Toland (1904–48). The opening shot amazes me still, even after CGI, etc. By the way, the best way to experience Orson Welles is to listen to him. If you enjoy podcasts go to archive.org and search for “Orson Welles old time radio.”
There is an approach to film criticism popular among evangelicals that seeks to find some aspect of a film, e.g., a theme, a story arc, or a character that somehow connects to the Christian faith. This is a mistake driven by a confusion over nature and grace. Evangelicals have long had trouble with the category of nature. For the most part they do not have that category in their intellectual toolbox. Things are thought to be valuable only insofar as they relate to grace (e.g., the new life).
When I became a Christian in the mid-70s, one of the fist things I learned informally, from other Christians, was that once a Christian has been redeemed he should no longer be interested even in the ordinary things that interested him when he was a pagan. Thus, an interest in sports must be replaced by an interest in what they called “spiritual things.” What they were saying is that Christians need to abandon nature for grace.
The Three Ways of Relating Nature and Grace
My new evangelical friends did not realize it but they were repeating an Anabaptist way of thinking about nature (creation) and grace (e.g., redemption). There are broadly three ways of relating nature and grace. The Anabaptist view is, as the Reformed complained, that “grace destroys nature.” The way I explain it to my students is to say that, in the Anabaptist view (which has greatly influenced American evangelicalism since 1800), grace obliterates (i.e., paints over) nature. They think this way because they have an over-realized eschatology, they expect too much of heaven and the future state now. This over-realized eschatology iReas a leaven throughout their theology. It leavens their theology, their ecclesiology, their view of the sacraments, their ethics, and their rejection of nature as a category of thought. In the Anabaptist/evangelical system, nature is thought mainly in terms of fallen nature and thus there is a quasi-Manichaean quality to the way they relate nature and grace.