More and more books about film and faith are hitting the market, but they will all have a tough time outdoing Robert K. Johnston’s Useless Beauty: Ecclesiastes through the Lens of Contemporary Film.
Just released by Baker Academic, Useless Beauty—which takes its name from an Elvis Costello song—is a specific work, by which I mean it’s not the usual generic application of film to faith.
While such treatments are needed, they’re not nearly as fun and, ironically, as meaningful as this tome about the meaningless, meaningless Old Testament book and how some contemporary filmmakers have woven its themes into their movies.
Johnston, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., has long studied Old Testament wisdom literature, and his approach to Ecclesiastes is exciting. He says again and again in 200 winning pages that he wants to put Ecclesiastes in dialogue with several films.
“Two edgy sources of wisdom—contemporary movies and Ecclesiastes—one ancient and one postmodern, will be put into conversation to explore what if any meaning can be found within life’s contradictions,” he writes.
It’s important to Johnston that readers keep these sources on equal footing—in the sense that one shouldn’t stand on Christianity’s high ground and look down at how some movie might make for a fresh sermon illustration. No, he wants to start with the thing itself—the movie—and only then bring sacred observation to bear.
Johnston singles out several directors whose work speaks to Ecclesiastes and vice-versa. The filmmakers are: Alan Ball (“American Beauty”), Paul Thomas Anderson (“Magnolia”), Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”), Marc Forster (“Monster’s Ball”), M. Night Shyamalan (“Signs”) and Alexander Payne (“About Schmidt”).
Cinephiles might note that all of the above films, with the exception of “Signs,” are rated R. Some people won’t like these movies, and they won’t even like Ecclesiastes. Johnston meets these people head-on.
“Not all of us want to look within such messiness,” he writes. “Some in the Christian community, for example, are eager to jump quickly ahead, to look to the end of the story—to the empty tomb and life in Christ. We want doxology without lament. We have, for this reason, tended to avoid these troubling movies while thinking that Ecclesiastes is a dangerous book.”
But we shouldn’t, is his conclusion. Christian scriptures didn’t whitewash the action of their characters, nor do contemporary filmmakers.
Johnston essentially devotes a chapter to each of the filmmakers listed above, as well as a chapter to existential thought and the films of Woody Allen and Akira Kurosawa.
In each chapter, Johnston interweaves film analysis with verses from Ecclesiastes in order to frame the dialogue he sees between the two. The result is not so much proof-texting (which he wants to avoid) but preponderance of evidence. It works.
At book’s end, Johnston revisits Ecclesiastes and sets forth Qoheleth’s (the writer of Ecclesiastes) observations, which include: death will come to all; life doesn’t conform to a moral order; life is messy; if we try to master life, we will waste what little time we have.
The book includes three appendices: a history of Ecclesiastes’ interpretation; a brief overview of Christian film criticism; and a very few remarks on biblical criticism. The last is the least helpful, the first the most.
In addition to endnotes and an index, Johnston lists the 87 movies he cites in the body of the work, including their directors, years of release and page numbers on which they’re discussed.
A minor criticism has to do with the book’s subtitle. For all the talk and emphasis on the dialogue between film and Ecclesiastes, it seems wrong to suggest that we’ll look at one through the other. Instead, let’s just let them uncomfortably co-exist like the pain and joy Qoheleth mentions.
My lack of theological training also prods me to wish there were a better (i.e. more elementary) discussion of the doctrine of “common grace,” which Johnston pegs as the theological basis for the book.
Those criticisms aside, there’s no doubt that this book is a treasure. Springing from a September 2000 conference at the University of Cambridge that looked at cinema and Ecclesiastes, Johnston’s book is full of fresh insight, solid application and implicit persuasion to appreciate the “fugitive energies” of life.
“We are at a propitious moment for understanding Ecclesiastes afresh,” Johnston writes, “for the paradoxes and contradictions recognized as central by postmodernity are central as well to this Old Testament book. Qoheleth’s cultural read has come full circle.”
It seems even postmodernism is nothing new under the sun.
But the book is new, and it’s a pearl. It will be useful for anyone who watches movies, reads English and is going to die.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
Also read our review of Finding God in the Movies, by Johnston and Catherine M. Barsotti.