InterVarsity Store Search the Site Contact Us All InterVarsity Ministries
About MDL
Audio Interviews
Bible Studies
Case Studies
Complete Book of Everyday Christianity
God's Week
Word in Life Study Bible


Complete Book of Everyday Christianity

An A-Z guide to following Christ in every aspect of Life. Here in one book, is the complete guide you need for every part of your life—family, money, relationships, job, church, entertainment and more. The editors, Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens, combine decades of ministry, scholarship, church leadership, parenting, and other sorts of practical wisdom.


Movies are a form of mass media that can also be called an art form. They can inform and enlighten as well as entertain. The majority of Americans go to movies, and the international audience for movies continues to grow. Moving pictures have undeniably had a great impact on Western culture. But has that influence been good or bad? Is movie viewing a good or bad thing for Christians? There are many ways to evaluate these questions.

Movies as a Way to Read the Culture

In a culture that is fast becoming postliterate as well as post-Christian, movies are primary definers of American culture-both shaping and reflecting current values. In fact, movies may express the dominant American belief system more accurately than any organized religion. Going to the movies can become a quasi-religious ritual. Theologian John Wiley Nelson comments: “The set of beliefs and values offered by American culture are not beliefs and values to which we are converted. We grow up believing that they are true.”

For Nelson, the cinematic paradigm is the Western, which he calls the “classic ritual form, the `High Mass’ of the predominant American belief system.” Although the classic Western is not as much in favor now as it was in the seventies when Nelson came up with this thesis, he broadly defines the Western form to include gangster and detective movies.

Nelson’s description of the classic Western formula as one in which no character participates in both good and evil and which inevitably ends with a violent resolution applies to many recent “action” films. It also applies to the mythic, immensely popular Star Wars series.

To theologian Robert Jewett, Star Wars, a film that some people saw dozens of times, involves a “ritualistic reenactment of a story of salvation comparable to the function of religious rituals studied by anthropologists and theologians.” Star Wars provides a good case study on different ways a movie can be reviewed. Many (probably most) saw it simply as fast-paced entertainment or, as director George Lucas put it, as a modern fairy tale. Some Christians, disturbed by the magic and references to “the force” in a context that was not specifically Christian, worried that the movie had a New Age slant and viewed it very negatively. Others (like myself) saw in Star Wars a mythology about the cosmic struggle between the powers of good and evil (with good ultimately triumphing), which, although not specifically Christian, contained resonances of truth about the human condition.

Jewett argues that Star Wars contains an alternative gospel. He describes “the force” in Star Wars, given only to an elite few, as tending toward “fascism” and compares it unfavorably to the power of the gospel, which is described by Paul as available to all who believe. Through the dialogue he sets up between Paul and a variety of current movies, Jewett not only compares the gospel of modern culture to the gospel of Jesus Christ but also exegetes Paul for our age.

Moral Criteria for Viewing Movies

Traditionally the two main areas of moral concern about movies have centered on the issues of sex and violence. These are appropriate areas for concern.

Evidence indicates that violence in the media does lead to violence in our society. Overexposure to media violence can also desensitize people to the pain and suffering of others, making them less likely to respond to need. In movies sexual acts can be much more explicit than on network TV. (Explicit sex was one way movie studios fought back against TV.) But even when explicit sexuality is not portrayed, attitudes and values are being conveyed. Studies have shown that most sex portrayed (or alluded to) in movies or on TV is between unmarried partners.

As we know, sex and violence are part of the human condition and are dealt with in the Bible and in other great literature (see Sexuality). So we need to evaluate the way these issues are handled. Is the sex gratuitous? (One leading American filmmaker says that the studio made him add an explicit sex scene to his first feature film before they would distribute it.) Is the violence real? Does it convey the pain and horror of taking a life? Or is it fake-are bodies flying around with no sense of loss or of the value of the lives taken?

The areas of sex and violence are of general concern; this is how movies are given ratings. But there are other issues.

Goodness, Truth and Beauty

Biblically we are called to think about things that are “true, just, pure, lovely and good” (Phil. 4:8). For some those criteria will cut down drastically on the number of movies viewed. Others may feel that movies are a barometer of current values and concerns, helping them learn how to be “salt” in their culture. They may want to understand the wider culture, even if it involves viewing movies that are expressions of despair and alienation.

One way of evaluating a film is to ask, “Is it true?” Yet almost all movies made today have a lie at their core; they have created a world where God does not exist. Even inoffensive Disney movies usually portray a universe where there is no sense of transcendence and there are no believers. This does not mean that none of these films have value, but it makes films that at least wrestle with the question of God’s existence (whether or not they come to a conclusion) all the more noteworthy. A related lie is that Christians, if they do appear, are portrayed as ridiculous or psychotic. Commercially produced films rarely treat believers seriously-as normal human beings.

This is not to say that films should be evaluated only in terms of their messages. A film may be of value because of the beauty of its cinematography, musical score or the power of a performance. However, artistic beauty is not always linked with truth or goodness. There is no disputing the genius of Leni Riefensthal’s work, but she put her film-making abilities at the service of the Third Reich, so that her beautiful images manipulate you toward sympathy with an ugly philosophy.

Explicit and Implicit Values

Some films are intentionally didactic. For example, the film Gandhi educated filmgoers about the Indian independence movement and may have caused some viewers to think seriously about nonviolent conflict resolution. The film The Last Emperor examined an interesting and, for many Westerners, obscure period of Chinese history. These films taught us something about history, deliberately.

Other movies may not be about history, but they have become part of an archive that unintentionally reveals something about our changing social mores. For example, the changing roles of women in movies from the 1920s to the 1990s tell us a lot about our social history. War movies, and the ways our enemies are portrayed, also tell volumes about the national mood at certain points in history. During World War II movies overtly extolled values such as patriotism and heroism. But movies may also convey values unintentionally. Director Federico Fellini has described how much his attitudes as a boy were influenced by American movies. Growing up under the constrictions of Fascist Italy, Fellini greatly admired the openness and freedom portrayed in American films.

Unfortunately, movies can also represent American values at their worst. Violent action films like the Rambo series have been some of our most popular international exports. So many movies portray glamorous, affluent lifestyles that people for whom those lifestyles are not even remotely obtainable can feel that they are missing out on the good things in life. (In contrast, the biblical message is that the really good things in life are not those that we can buy with a credit card.)

Movies can also make it possible for us to gain insight into worlds very different from our own. A movie like Vittorio De Sica’s classic The Bicycle Thief, for example, can lead to a more sympathetic understanding of what it is like to be poor, teaching us gratitude for what we may otherwise take for granted. Some movies, like The Gods Must Be Crazy, deal directly with the clash of values between cultures and help us examine some of our basic assumptions.

Can Movies Be Used Redemptively?

According to the social critic Jacques Ellul, “No image is able to convey any truth at all. This explains in part why all `spiritual’ films are failures.” Malcolm Muggeridge argued that any image is a “graven image” and should be avoided. (At the same time Muggeridge himself made an excellent series of documentary films about heroes of the faith called A Third Testament.) It is true that many films made by Christian film companies are well-intentioned examples of badly made, simplistic propaganda. But there are exceptions. The Billy Graham film The Hiding Place, which tells the story of a Christian who hid Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, is a powerful witness, as is the film Romero, which tells the story of the martyred Salvadoran archbishop. One reason these films are so good is that in telling the stories of real people the Christian message is not overly simplified.

Another biographical film, Chariots of Fire, also offers a positive witness, even though the film was not made by Christians. It tells the story of the Olympic runner Eric Liddell and shows Liddell as a complex person of integrity.

But the concerns of commentators like Muggeridge and Ellul go beyond content. They raise questions about the inherent nature of the media that needs to be considered.

Movies on the Big and Small Screen

Movies can have a powerful impact. The large screen, complete darkness and lack of commercial distractions can create a dreamlike sensation, making the movie’s message more seductive. It is interesting that movie palaces came into their prime in Western culture at the same time, in the 1920s and 1930s, that church attendance began to fall. Movie theaters might be seen as temples to secular popular culture. Television generally, including movies on TV, produces less of a sense of awe, is less of a communal experience and has less visceral impact.

As a medium, videos inhabit a middle ground. There is more control of what is watched and when it is watched than with either TV or theatergoing. Parents find that allowing children access to an approved video library as an alternative to TV allows them much more control. With video it is possible to approach film-viewing much more purposefully; viewers can browse through a director’s entire body of work, as they would the work of a favorite author. Commentators have written about VCRs’ contribution to “cocooning.” It will be interesting to see what kind of long-range cultural effect videos will have.

The Dream World Versus Reality

Marshal McLuhan has said that the filmmaker transfers the viewer from one world to another created by film. “That is so obvious and happens so completely, that those undergoing the experience accept it subliminally and without critical awareness.”

We are now encountering a generation of younger filmmakers who make films that are not inspired by their own life experiences or events in history but by movies they viewed while growing up; this is what shaped them. Steven Spielberg has said that his Indiana Jones series was inspired by Saturday matinees he watched as a boy. Director Quentin Tarantino’s filmmaking is also largely based on old movies and television shows. It is usual for one generation of artists to pay homage to a previous one. But this is different; it is a substitution of realities.

We may be moving away from an art form based on real experience and deeper into what McLuhan refers to as our collective unconscious dream. Entering into a director’s dream world is not necessarily bad (some directors, like Fellini, create delightful worlds), but we do not want to be robbed of our own dreams and imaginations.

Resisting Seduction: Thinking Critically

To resist the kind of passivity media consumption can produce, we need to maintain an alert and critical attitude. Reading books is a good antidote, as they engage our intellect rather than our senses. Critic Nicola Chiaromonte says: “The cinema derives its power from its ability to arouse an emotional reaction that is both immediate and certain. Whereas a poem or a novel cannot come alive without the reader’s elaboration.” This raises the question of what movie watching does to the development of a healthy imagination.

It might be helpful to reflect on how a film has affected you. How do you feel as you leave the theater? Are you demoralized, angry and depressed? Or has the film given you some insight into life or human nature? Has it left you feeling more attuned to the feelings and needs of the people around you, or less so? What do you know about the worldview of the writer or director?

Discussing the values and intent of a film with friends can help; discussing them with Christian friends can help define mutual values that counter those of the popular culture. Writing about a film in your journal may help you express clearly what may have only been a sense of vague unease while you were watching it. Reading several reviews from different perspectives can also help.

For those of us who are Christians and love movies, developing a critical perspective is imperative. As Marshall McLuhan has warned, “Without the mirror of the mind, nobody can live a human life in the face of our present mechanized dream.”

References and Resources

J. Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985); L. Jacobs, ed., The Movies as Medium (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970); R. Jewett, Saint Paul at the Movies: The Apostle’s Dialogue with American Culture (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993); A. MacDonald, Movies in Close-Up: Getting the Most from Film and Video (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1992); M. McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: Signet, 1964); M. Muggeridge, Christ and the Media (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977); J. W. Nelson, Your God Is Alive and Well and Appearing in Popular Culture (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976).

-Sharon Gallagher

See all topics from the book.

Originally published in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity by Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens. ©1997 by Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA.