In our modern culture, cinematic literacy is an important skill. Particularly for the average Christian going to the movies, but even more so for pastors and teachers. According to Craig Detweiler, “The next generation of pastors, teachers, and therapists must not only learn the language of film but also develop the art of interpretation – seeing and hearing what’s happening on big (and small) screens.” (Into The Dark, 29) One way to do this effectively is to attempt to utilize a kind of “theological interpretation of cinema” which takes cues from the theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS). Because Scripture is a theologically rich text, how one interprets this text must also be theologically rich. This applies to theologically rich texts elsewhere.
Before attempting to read an individual film theologically, it is helpful to think theologically about film in general. The first step in this direction is to affirm is the genuine creative artistry of film-making. In The Liberated Imagination, Leland Ryken observes that “human creativity is rooted in divine creativity.” (65) This he says, “affirms human creativity as something good since it is an imitation of one of God’s own acts and perfections.” (67) He then concludes, “the biblical doctrine of the image of God in people is thus the theological reason why people write literature and paint pictures and compose music.” (67) If this is true for those activities, it is even more so for film. Movies are, according to Grant Horner, “a rich combination of storytelling, painting, philosophy, history, and politics wrapped in technology.” (Meaning At The Movies, 27) In this light, movies can be an avenue of evidence for the truth of the Christian worldview. Movie-making embodies an activity that one would expect given the Christian teaching about man’s nature. No other worldview provides an adequate justification for why man delights to create.
Elsewhere, Ryken summarizes the general contours of John Calvin’s thought about man’s creativity.(“Calvinism and Literature,” in Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview, 102) First, because God is creator “all the arts emanate from Him, and therefore ought to be accounted divine inventions” (Calvin’s commentary on The Last Four Books of Moses, 3:291). Second, artistic ability is a gift from God and “whatever ability is possessed by any emanates from only one source, and is conferred by God” (3:291-292). Third, artistic ability that people have is evidence of God’s image (Institutes 1.15.2). Fourth, because human beings image a creative God, they are capable of genuine creation (Institutes 2.2.14). These boundaries help us avoid deifying man’s creative ability on the one hand, and denying man has genuine creative ability on the other (Ryken, 102-103).
With this understanding of creativity in general, we can now look at movie-making in particular. Before that though, it is helpful to see John Frame’s threefold division to describe how man images God (see his SBL). Frame sees the image of God having a physical, official, and ethical dimension. By being physically present, man is able to image God’s attribute of control. By ruling and having dominion in an official aspect (as God’s vice regent) he is able to image God’s authority. By reflecting God ethically in his knowledge, righteousness, and holiness man is able to image God’s presence. One finds a similar threefold division in Calvin in a rather distinctive feature of his theology: the threefold office of Christ as prophet, king, and priest. Relating these to Frame’s parsing, Christ as prophet images God’s authority by bringing the true word of God. As priest, he imaged God’s presence by becoming the personal sacrifice for our sin and mediating God’s presence to us. As king, he images God’s control by ruling and reigning.
If Christ himself is the express image of the invisible God, then one way in which God’s created images image him may be by imitating Christ in this threefold office. As applied to filmmakers, first, they image God’s attribute of authority and Christ’s office as prophet by revealing images of the divine in their films. Additionally, they attempt to proclaim truth in their films. Second, filmmakers image God’s attribute of control and Christ’s office as king by creatively constructing a world from their imagination that they then “rule.” Sometimes the “ruling” is part of a collaborative team of people, but whether singularly or collectively, the creators of a film world are directly involved in creatively exercising control and ruling over that world. Lastly, filmmakers images God’s attribute of presence and Christ’s office of priest by both investing themselves personally into their creative efforts and trying to mediate to the people a new way to live. By incarnating images from their own imagination onto the screen, filmmakers are putting their own presence into the final product.
In this way, a film is essentially an image-bearers of God making images themselves. Man is made in God’s image and in turn, man makes things in his own image. One creative way that is done is through film-making. A film then represents a creative activity on the part of man that images his maker. Rather than just the static images of a painter, film-makers make moving pictures and thereby have the ability to tell stories through their images. That aspect also images God, but we’ll pick that up next week.
In the meantime, I think it is important to affirm the genuine creative activity of movie making as something that brings glory to God when it is done well. A well-made film, even one you don’t like, can bring God glory even if made by a non-Christian. Just because a person doesn’t believe in God doesn’t mean they cannot create culture that is good, true, and beautiful. It just means they are doing so for potentially wrong reasons. As Christians we do well to commend what we can from the start and then later move to critique. By starting with critique, we are bypassing the opportunity to affirm God’s goodness in creation and instead moving straight to the fall. We do live in a post Genesis 3 world, but we do better to understand it correctly when it is contrasted with a Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22 reality.