Grant Horner is associate professor of English at The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, CA. In Meaning at the Movies, he offers “an extended meditation on why we have movies at all, why they are so powerful, and why Christians need to think deeply and theologically about film art—indeed, about all human cultural production” (p. 11). His primary concern is to describe how film works on human consciousness and the result is a series of “interconnected essays about how movies work and how they work on us” (ibid.).
In the introduction, Horner asserts that film is “the ultimate form of cultural expression in the modern world” (p. 26). Film is “a rich combination of storytelling, painting, philosophy, history, and politics all wrapped in technology” (p. 27). He presents two reasons for participating in film analysis: (1) it is a social event that further helps us engage people, (2) it is an opportunity to engage culture in a biblical-theological critique that points out truth and dismantles error. Culture, in Horner’s understanding is “what we produce in our futile attempts to understand the world,” as well as “the attempt to create a system that allows us to live in peace, in pleasure, and with a sense of meaning, a feeling of fulfillment” (p. 39). Horner sees critique as the only valid biblical approach to culture (p. 28).
Using Romans 1 as biblical justification, Horner then presents his thesis that the suppression of truth (1:18) is the origin of culture (p. 42). He concludes that, when correctly read, this passage in Romans reveals that “all aspects of creation—including human cultural creation—in the final analysis function under God’s authority and reveal a basic knowledge of God that lies within us all” (p. 43). According to Horner, cultural activity is the result of trying to suppress this truth, and in many cases, suppressing the suppression. He posits a “conservation of truth principle” (p. 46) to explain how truth about God will re-emerge in human cultural production despite the attempts to suppress.
The two major sections in this book flesh out this thesis. The first section covers practical considerations while the second covers actual film analysis. Chapter 1 presents the case for discernment, which Horner sees as a lost art among contemporary evangelicals (p. 55). In trying to navigate the “anti-art” and “anything goes” extremes, Horner proposes that the task of Christians approaching culture is to “discern the errors that surround us, thoroughly divide those errors from the truth so often entangled in it, decide how to respond practically, and then do what we have rightly decided to do” (p. 58). The main way this is applied in film studies is interpreting the film’s worldview, which Horner defines as “any collection of ideas and their attendant attitudes that attempt to explain and systematize, at some level, how the universe works” (p. 63).
Horner turns to cataloguing worldviews in chapter 2. While he admits such lists are necessarily composed with generalizations and oversimplifications, Horner sees them as “helpful for establishing the groundwork to use when attempting to discern patterns of worldview beliefs” (p. 65). In chapter 3, Horner extends this matrix of categories to include the various elements that compose a film. It is quite the whirlwind tour, but Horner does an adequate job of treating the issues given the space he has to work.
In the second part, the author demonstrates his philosophy of film analysis. In chapter 4 he presents a theological approach to comedy, rooted strongly in irony, and shows how comedians make use of the discrepancy between how the world really is and how it should be. In chapter 5 he moves to the genre of horror and argues that in these films fear is managed through storytelling (p. 130) and in horror stories it is particularly the bubbling up of the fear of God being suppressed. In chapter 6 Horner looks at what Hollywood tells us about romance in contrast to what God says about it (p. 145). He rightly concludes that romance movies image the true Divine Romance (p. 161).
In chapter 7, Horner turns to film noir, noting that it typically confronts human evil head on and as such is one of the most powerful genres. Horner notes the irony that while our culture tends to assert that all humans are good, “our most powerful art form is built upon the revelation that this is a lie” (p. 168). He goes so far as to say that “noir is as biblically accurate about human nature as Hollywood has ever gotten” (p. 190). In the final chapter, Horner analyzes several films dealing with human memory. He notes the crucial link between memory and theology (p. 194). It is this theme in particular that Horner believes “shows very powerfully that suppressed truth works its way back to the surface layers of our conscious minds and finds outward expression in our cultural production” (p. 197).
A strength of the book is its overall consistency and tracing of the suppression motif. It is well written and structured and Horner has clearly spent much time thinking about movies in a biblically and theologically constructive way. It is not without its flaws, however. The primary problem is the extent to which Horner presses his claim that suppression of truth is the origin of culture. It would be better for Horner’s overall case to state that suppression taints culture production rather than causes it. Since God commanded Adam (and later Noah, and others) to produce culture, the mere production cannot be the result of suppressing the truth. Horner’s thesis is that all cultural production stems from the suppression of truth and he states that all cultural production is “desperately incomplete and thus unsatisfying” (p.134). If this thesis is true, though, it would apply equally to Horner’s book as well as other cultural productions such as symphonies and sermons and even translations of the Bible. In a way, one may recognize that all of these cultural productions are incomplete and unsatisfying, but it seems odd to say that these are all the result of the suppression of truth. While Horner does a masterful job of showing how the truth bubbles up in the various films, it is too strong, as well as biblical unwarranted to claim that suppression of truth is the basis of all cultural production.
Two other issues are worth noting briefly. The first is the ambiguity of Horner’s end or goal in studying film. He states in several places that the purpose of discernment is to please God (p. 59) and that our primary goal in everything is “to obey God in our lives by teaching others about him with love and humility, and to obey him further by working our way through the experience of living in a fallen world – discernment being the crucial skill” (p. 67). However, when thinking back to Horner’s discern/divide/decide/do paradigm (p. 58), it is unclear what a person’s practical response should be after they have properly discerned the elements of a film. While Horner concedes that a purpose of film viewing is to engage individuals (p. 27), there is little in this book aimed at actually doing that. In reading through his approach to watching films, the reader is left wondering what, if anything, there is to do after discerning and dividing. Horner never states it, but his approach seems to imply that the goal is simply to have a biblically informed opinion about every film one might watch. His book seems to imply that there is something more to be done beyond that, but he does not explain clearly enough what that is. Although critique is important, it seems inadequate as an end in itself.
A final issue is Horner’s position on God’s presence in the movie theater. Horner states flatly early in the book that you won’t find God in the movies (p. 17). This seems to be a barb aimed at another book on film (Finding God in the Movies: 33 Films of Reel Faith, by Robert Johnston and Catherine Barsotti, [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), but it is a point that any book on film written from a Christian perspective needs to explore. Horner presents no argument to support the assertion and his own thesis seems to imply the opposite. The knowledge of God is certainly present in every film on Horner’s account, but, by this claim, he has effectively muted God’s ability to speak through film. Beyond the doctrine of omnipresence, which at least places the Spirit at work in the movie theater, it seems traditional Christian theology has a place for God speaking through what he has made, including what his creatures make.
In the end, Horner has written a book that begs for further discussion. Anyone interested in film studies, especially from a Christian perspective, ought to give it a read and wrestle with his ideas. Horner’s work definitely pushes the discussion in some interesting directions, and despite its flaws, is still a well written contribution to the ongoing discussions of Christian approaches to film studies.
This review will appear in an upcoming issue of The Criswell Theological Review, and was composed with editorial help of my professor Dr. Glenn Kreider.