I recently taught a group of high school students about discerning the movies that we watch. It sounded like a fun opportunity and a daunting task all at the same time. I know that many students, and many adults as well, tend to watch lots of movies, and I know that the messages that we get from those movies can be varied. Messages from movies and other forms of culture can seep into our brains without us even knowing that they are there. Pretty soon we find ourselves talking like our favorite movie characters and using their phrases and words without even thinking. If we aren’t careful we can mindlessly assimilate bad messages and bad behaviors from movies that lead us down paths we may not even know we are walking.
Proverbs 4 warns us about what we fill our minds with. It tells us to guard our hearts and watch what flows from our mouths and which way our eyes look and our feet walk. We could take this to the extreme and say that all movies are bad and we shouldn’t watch any of them, but that is too drastic. After all, while there are definitely bad messages that we get from movies, there are also good ones that can help us grow closer to God and the people around us. They can teach us things about the world and about how we treat each other. Popular culture, movies included, give us a window into how the world acts, and can even teach us spiritual lessons. Jesus used farms and farmers, sheep and grape vines--all important parts of his culture--as examples in his teaching. Even the apostle Paul, as he was teaching in the city of Athens, used an idol that he had seen in the city as a way to point his listeners to God.
In Acts 17:22-23 we hear Paul say, “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”
Paul used the culture of the city of Athens to teach about God. We can do the same thing with the culture of our day. It can point us and others to God and it can teach our children lessons about God if we know how to engage culture and aren’t afraid to ask our children some questions about what they are watching. This may sound like a difficult task, but three levels of engagement can help us as we talk to our children about movies.
The first thing I ask after watching a movie is, “What stuck out to you?” These are the surface level things that we notice and give us a first impression. They are the easy things to recall that open up conversation. Usually they include the funny scenes that made us laugh the most. Or the explosion that had us cheering for our hero or worrying about their safety. Or the scary scene that had us hiding our eyes. Maybe it is a moving scene that brought us to tears that we first remember. The thing that sticks out to us the most isn’t always good though. It could be an incredibly violent scene that was just gratuitous. Or something that didn’t make sense and confused us. I watched a movie with a group of people a while back that had a scene that was so incredibly unrealistic that it still bothers me today. I’m good with unrealistic things in science fiction or fantasy movies, but when a movie that is supposed to be real life hinges on the missteps of a blundering ‘professional’ while an unskilled ‘amateur’ finds all sorts of hidden abilities, I get frustrated!
These scenes are our initial impressions. While they may not teach us a lot and they may not contain any real deep themes, they often stay with us for a long time. In fact, this is the place that discernment often ends. We say, “That was a good movie because it made me laugh or cry or something big blew up real good,” and we stop there. Real discernment begins as we look to the next level.
This second level is where we begin to identify the deeper themes that might have taken place throughout the movie. Are there themes of faith? Themes of forgiveness, anger, resentment, or loss? What hurdles did the characters in the movie have to go through? How did they grow or regress? Identify some of those themes and talk about how they developed throughout the movie. This is also a level where we can bring scripture into the discussion. We watched a movie in the class I taught that had a central theme of helping the less fortunate. We went back and read Jesus words from Matthew 25:40, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” While the movie didn’t use Jesus words exactly, the theme was identical.
Again, not all themes are good. Some can be downright evil while some may need to be talked about some more. Many movies are about reaching for your dreams. While that is a good message to share with your children, some movies take the idea a bit too far. Reaching for your dreams is great, but when it costs you family and friends and your moral compass, as it often does in movies, it is a message that can be perverted. It is important to point that out when it happens. Every movie has an underlying premise about good and evil. Look for the nature of evil in the film and consider how conflict was resolved. Explore how the author’s view aligns or differs from scripture.
Pulling lessons out of movies can be more difficult that just seeing the surface level of things and stopping there. But this is where some of the real conversation happens and where we begin to see what we take away from movies. In fact, these are often what the filmmakers want us to take away whether we know it or not. But how we apply these lessons to our life is still a further step.
This final level of discernment is where we talk about what we will take away from the movie and bring with us into our every day lives. I often joke at this level and say, “how has this movie changed your life?” Admittedly, not every movie changes our lives, but in all seriousness there are usually things that we can take away that can at least make us pause and consider some aspect of how we are living, either in a positive way or a negative one. Conversations at this level usually flow around the themes identified in the previous level, but now become more personal. If the theme of the movie is forgiveness then that theme may cause us to wonder about forgiveness in our own lives. If the theme of the movie is about treating others with respect despite differences, then that theme may cause us to think about how we treat others in our lives.
This level is often where I bring up key ideas like identity, purpose, and belonging. These are major themes in all of our lives and every movie I’ve ever watched deals with one or more of these themes in some way. Movie characters often struggle to find identity, purpose, or belonging, and in their struggles we often see our own struggles for one or more of those things as well. Again, this is a perfect time to bring scripture back into the conversation and talk about identity, purpose, or belonging from God’s perspective as well.
When I think about all of the lessons that our culture is throwing at my children, I can sometimes be frightened. I know that for my family, keeping my kids away from all outside cultural influences isn’t possible. So instead of being afraid of what they are watching, we watch things together and engage the messages together through conversation and learning. The goal is to equip them to understand the lessons they are seeing. We still draw boundaries around what they can watch, but I feel better knowing that we are equipping them with some of the skills they will need to be able to engage culture on their own when they are old enough to make their own choices. Kids of almost any age are able to answer questions about themes that they see in movies and what they are learning. I encourage you to watch movies with your children and talk to them about what they are seeing. Teach them to discern what they put into their minds, eyes, and ears and what lessons they are living out in their everyday lives.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Rev. Deb Koster