A lot of people are talking about movies and spirituality these days, but few are able to create a resource with the clarity and insight of Finding God in the Movies: 33 Films of Reel Faith, by Catherine M. Barsotti and Robert K. Johnston.
The married authors have sifted through hundreds and hundreds of meaningful movies and here presented 33 where, they argue, God may be found.
“God is present in the movies for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear,” they write. “Theology is being portrayed in and will be retained from the movies we see each week at the cineplex.” Without a doubt, they’re right.
Johnston, a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, has a previous and upcoming book on film. Barsotti has worked in Latino ministries and has been writing movie reviews for almost a decade with Johnston.
The 33 films they’ve chosen range from R-rated pictures like “The Hurricane” to G-rated fare like “The Straight Story.” Almost all of the movies have been released in the last 10 years, and each is available on DVD or VHS.
Barsotti and Johnston don’t just throw films at the reader and hope something sticks. Rather, they begin by categorizing the films topically.
The topics are: Affirming Our Humanity; Beauty, Imagination, and Creativity; Choosing Life; Embracing Our Vocation; Reconciliation within Families; Racial Reconciliation; Forgiveness; Community and Friendship; Faith; Faith and Doubt; Living Our Faith; Images of the Savior; and Renewing the Church.
Readers can expect to find two or three films for each topic, and each film’s chapter is organized in the same, helpful way.
In addition to a movie synopsis and some theological reflection, there’s a list of relevant biblical texts, discussion questions and “bonus material” (more information about the movie’s making and reception). The authors also provide basic information about the movie, including its cast and crew, MPAA rating (as well as their own notes about potentially offensive material), and a list of themes from the movie.
Barsotti and Johnston have chosen well-known films—and some you might never have heard of. For example, to illustrate the topic of “Choosing Life,” they chose “Big Night” and “Fearless.” Chances are many mainstream moviegoers have seen neither.
But Barsotti and Johnston know that part of the search for God in cinema includes discovering new movies, as well as seeking new themes in old ones.
“An honest depiction of a creature can reveal the Creator,” they write in justification for including some edgier movies in their list. “A truthful telling of the human drama can voice the divine as well.”
Such comments are welcomed, as is their brief typology for Christian “approaches” to filmmaking. They assert that Christians have tried to crack the Hollywood nut in one of three ways: “faith-based alternatives” (like “Left Behind”), faith-friendly movies (like “Extreme Days”); or simply excellent storytelling that reflects the divine image (like “Chocolat”).
“Trying to distinguish ‘Christian’ moviemaking from quality movies is a counterproductive task,” they write. “We have chosen rather to ask, ‘Where have we found God to be present in the movies?’ And our answer? In good stories that are told with excellence.”
A by-product of searching for God in the movies is the process whereby one becomes a better moviegoer. Readers of this book, or those in groups where it’s used, will become just that: better moviegoers—or to put it another way, more engaged citizens.
The book would obviously be an excellent resource for anyone leading a group discussing spirituality and movies. Teachers could also use some of the authors’ suggestions to supplement other curriculum. For example, a class looking at vocation could be bolstered by using the book’s discussion of the films “The Rookie,” “Billy Elliot” and “The Apostle.”
Two appendices break the films down in other ways that might be helpful: One appendix lists movies by their related biblical texts, and the other lists them by numerous themes like war, promise-keeping, etc.
It’s illuminating to see which films others find spiritually meaningful and why. It’s also interesting to note which actors kept surfacing in the movies they chose. Mel Gibson and Denzel Washington each appeared in three films in the book, and Robert Duvall and Jeff Bridges each appeared in two.
Baker Books has published an excellent resource, and Barsotti and Johnston have done the difficult but worthy task of charting a course to find God in, of all places, the movies.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.