An ad for the recently released movie “12 Years a Slave” promoted it as a “game changer” in understanding the slavery experience.
I take that to mean it will be one of those landmark expressions that will have a significant impact on our collective consciousness of this feature of our history and its lasting legacy. Time will tell if this is the case.
The ad and its use of the “game changer” label prompted some reflection about other game-changing movies that have nudged public consciousness on various issues.
We might recall “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “In the Heat of the Night” (both released in 1967) and their portrayal of the dynamics of race relations during that era.
We might think of “Philadelphia” (1993) and its impact on the public’s thinking at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis; the effect of the movie version of Sister Helen Prejean’s “Dead Man Walking” (1995) on our collective thinking about the death penalty; or “Milk” (2008) and its place in the turn of consciousness on gay rights.
There are other, perhaps even better, examples that could be mentioned, but these are a few I recall that seem to coincide with the evolution of public thinking on these issues.
What strikes me as I have reflected on this is that there are significant “game changers” all along the way of our personal and collective pilgrimages.
There are portrayals of human experience – some directly factual and some fictional – that prompt us to examine and move our thinking in directions that we see as oriented a little (and sometimes a lot) more toward truth.
We could make our own list of movies, books, TV shows and other artistic expressions that have been game changers in areas that have affected our lives.
It would be an interesting and educational experience to identify them and explain their impact in the company of others who have shared a similar history.
This reflection took me back to a film from the late ’70s that was a creative presentation of theological themes.
These themes were rather controversial at the time but have been increasingly present in more recent theological conversation.
Billed as a comedy (and it was funny on a number of levels), the movie was “Oh, God!” featuring George Burns as God and John Denver as his reluctant, misunderstood messenger, Jerry Landers.
I remember that its release was accompanied by a rather strong negative reaction in some religious quarters. Prominent pastors advised their congregants not to see the movie, feeling that it was both sacrilegious and disrespectful.
It reflected ideas that challenged some of the beliefs of a rising wave of neo-fundamentalism, and its portrayal of sacred images in ordinary form was beyond the comfort zone of some.
A closer look reveals that behind the caricatured responses of the people in Jerry’s life lies the framework of the biblical narrative – from Moses and the burning bush, through the call, response and message of the prophets, to the counter-cultural witness of the early disciples to the Kingdom of God.
The theological nuances in the story are subtle and usually embedded in the dry wit of “God’s” responses to Jerry’s questions and uncertainties.
I invite you to watch this film (again, if you saw it around the time of its release) and notice the themes that are gaining attention in today’s discussions on the nature of faith; the need for a revitalized, incarnational theism; human freedom and responsibility; religious diversity; and, to use Martin Luther’s title, the “Babylonian captivity of the church.”
I don’t think I realized it at the time, but after using this film over the years with students in the study of religion, I’ve now come to see it as a game changer, and, at least for me, a helpful one.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).