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How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films by Gareth Higgins

September 15, 2015

HTMHSMSThe introduction tells us that: For Gareth, going to the cinema is often going to what George MacLeod called “a thin place—a place where the line between harsh reality and the transcendent is so subtly blurred that it is difficult to tell one from the other.”

People go to see films at the cinema for the communal experience, in the darkness, of thinking about some of life’s big questions (much as they do through soap operas). Cinemas are today’s churches because they help to get us in touch with transcendence in a way the churches no longer can since they have dumbed down their liturgies.

He talks about several films, grouped under themes like quest, war, brokenness, conspiracy, death, community, fear, God and justice.

Most chapters follow a similar pattern – they explain a theme, give three or four examples from films and then summarise in ‘The Wrap’ what these films might say to us.

I have watched most of the films about which he has written and found his observations helpful, both for my own understanding and for lesson or sermon illustrations.

However, I find it extremely irritating that there is no index of the films mentioned; indeed no index at all


Jacques Derrida and his followers would tell us, once the words are written, the painting painted, or the movie shown, that which was produced by the artist takes on a life of its own, independent of the creator. Then, we who engage these works of art are free to create the meanings they have for us.

Kierkegaard called such forms of communication the indirect method. This Danish philosopher (though he himself would disdain any such title as “philosopher”) contended that most of us reject messages that are direct. Kierkegaard tells us that if we are to really hear the Gospel, it will be because we overhear it spoken to someone else and realize indirectly that what is being said powerfully relates to us and what is going on in our own lives. To make this point, Kierkegaard noted that the Pauline Epistles were written to people in first century churches, yet, when we hear them read, we sense that what they say is about each of us—individually…. For Gareth Higgins, like Kierkegaard, church sermons are too direct, and therefore, those in the pews are able to prepare defenses against them, whereas in movies, those who make the movies do not even know who the viewer is, but indirectly communicate to him or her those messages that the viewer needs to hear.

They highlight the absence in our everyday lives of the mystical, or what the philosopher of religion, Rudolf Otto called, the mysterium tremendium. They make us aware that life, as we are living it, is not what it was meant to be. Movies give us a glimpse into the future in ways that those prophesying preachers, who claim to have figured out what the I3ible tells us about the end of the world, never could. Hence, movies may offer us an eschatology that is closer to biblical truth than those exegetical experts in scriptural hermeneutics can ever approach.

The most prominent theologian of my time (and I am an old man now) was Paul Tillich. It was Tillich who taught us that theologians are called to answer the questions posed by the philosophers of the day. He argued for what he called, “an answering theology” If Tillich were with us today, he might say that theology should be responding to the questions raised by the movies of today.

Film should be treated with the same respect as church or poison, for it can change your life. People of faith have always been at the pioneering edge of art, from Michelangelo’s Sistine masterpiece reaching up to heaven, to Bach’s attempt at honoring the creativity of God with mathematically profound sonatas, to Blake’s lyrical appreciation of the mystic world, to more recent stumbling worshipers and wounded prophets such as Van Morrison, Martin Scorsese, Joni Mitchell, and John Irving. These people understand what my friend David Dark meant when he wrote the following provocation, which could serve as an adequate summary of the message of this entire book:” There isn’t a secular molecule in the universe.” Despite this, contemporary Christianity, at least in its institutional forms, often seems reluctant to recognize, much less embrace, the wonder of human creativity on the spiritual journey.

We are fortunate to live in a time when music, film, and literature are more accessible to the general public than ever before. Thankfully some of the books, records, and movies out there have something valuable to say about spirituality The messages may not be explicit, they may even take a little bit of digging to find, but they are there if we are attentive. 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, so I want to draw this book to a close with a quotation from a great man, who understood the pain of exclusion and unforgiveness. His “education in a Northern Irish school may or may not have increased his wisdom, but nevertheless, what he says is true and worthy of reflection: “Repentance can change even the past,” Oscar Wilde said.

“Film is so wrapped up with the fabric of my life that, along with the community of friends and family with whom I’m blessed to travel, I simply cannot explain myself without it.”

“Who among us has not felt at least in microcosm the anguished courage of a William Wallace in Braveheart, or identified with the last minute redemption of a Lester Brunham in American Beauty, or suffered the torment of a Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II, on realizing that what we thought we controlled was actually controlling us? Film, in the final analysis, can do for you what all great art does — irritate and heal, challenge and affirm, inspire and sadden. It can, in the case of a film like Magnolia, truly give you more life, or as in Wings of Desire, make you believe in God, or as with The Wizard of Oz, tell you the truth about your own existence.”

Watching a movie about poverty, for instance, and then doing nothing about it is like the pre-Revolutionary French king who had biblical passages about justice read to him while the poor were dying at his gates. Movies can reveal the truth twenty-four times per second’, and I hope this journey has helped you find some tools to discern that truth. Of course, films are not always allegorical to Christian experience, but they are the most vital art form and must be taken seriously. I did not write this book to give you easy answers but to provoke you in a new way of appreciating film.

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From → Film

One Comment
  1. Movies today are never goodies and baddies, never black/white or even dead grey. They are omnidirectional, multicoloured and hyperlayered insights into the sheer rollercoaster of life.

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