Articles

Love of Neighbor, Love of Film
With Jessi Knipple on September 12, 2016

We are excited to present the sixth in our 2016 series considering how our watching, writing, and talking about cinema might contribute to God's unfolding shalom in our communities and world. If you are considering responding to our call for submissions for this series, we encourage you to do so. We still have one open spot in our series, so there is still room for your contribution. - Editor

Introduction

“But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

“I am not alone is doubting the imperative to respect cultures, as opposed to persons; and I believe we can respect persons only inasmuch as we consider them as abstract rights-holders.” - Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity

Storytelling is a key aspect of humanity. In one form or another all human beings desire to hear and tell stories. This trend is present in all pockets of human history; from Ancient Near Eastern creation mythologies to Greek tales of petty, promiscuous deities, to biblical or Talmudic parables, right up through television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. No matter the medium, storytelling, as humans, is in our blood. Across time and across cultures, stories have proved their worth not just as works of art or entertaining asides, but as agents of personal transformation. [1]

It is this last aspect of storytelling, as “transformative agent,” that is most interesting to me, especially when it is placed into conversation with the question of “otherness,” specifically, the otherness being addressed in the question “who is my neighbor” that leads to the story of The Good Samaritan. How can the question that begins this story shape how we view the characters in the films we watch? How does engaging in empathy through the viewing of otherness in films affect how we engage with people who embody that otherness in the world at large? And does the audience one watches stories of otherness with change or affect the way we encounter those stories and the empathy that is transmitted?

It is with these questions in mind that I would like to consider the unique place of cinematic storytelling as a “safer space” for encountering the otherness of our neighbors and for building empathy towards said other. Using Narrative Empathy, one will hopefully see the value of empathetic engagement with otherness in film as part of enacting the call to love one’s neighbor “as themselves.”

Who is My Neighbor?

This question is just as vital in the current cultural milieu as it was in the time of Christ. One need only to look at a newspaper headline or a social media page to see the daily tightening of current cultural and tribal boundary lines. As the digital and technological landscape expands its reach, it becomes easier and easier to isolate themselves from otherness, especially for those with means. This is especially true when otherness is embodied by the “neighbor” or one who is perceived to be “radical other.” Locked in safe-guarded communities (be they corporeal or digital), it is easy to live in a space where our understanding of the “other” easily slips into caricature, instead of seeing them as living, breathing human beings. The “neighbor,” is the one who is worthy of love and care because they are made in the image of God. John Caputo puts it this way,

To love is to respect the invisibility of the other, to keep the other safe, to surrender one’s arms to the other but without defeat, but to put the crossed swords and arrows over the name of the other. To love is to give oneself in such a way to the other that this would be giving and not taking, a gift, a way of letting the other remain other, that is be loved… The other is any other, God or someone or something else. [2]

This is where film and film viewing is a unique space in which one is offered the chance to engage with questions of “neighbor” as embodied other. “Early cinema visionaries like Eisenstein and Chaplin saw a great potential for film to change the way humans perceived and understood each other, and therefore to change the way they lived together.” [3] And while their vision isn’t always actualized in contemporary film, [4] there is still often the opportunity to encounter otherness in this medium. One of the reasons film is a good space to explore these questions is that, by nature, film allows the viewer to engage in an experience of “otherness” that is free from some of the key implications of encounter with human others. (It should be noted as well that this kind of interaction can also be problematic when film is our only experience of the other because film is still a mediated reading of otherness). In this way, film can be seen as a practice space where the viewer is able to experience otherness, while still having enough distance from actual people as to *hopefully* not cause them damage in one’s first encounter with otherness. Even as film asks its viewing audience to engage in a relational encounter with an other (as does all art), the film itself cannot be harmed, shamed, or scared by an audience’s negative reaction to it. Therefore film becomes a safe space to encounter the newness or discomfort of otherness, or, in other words, to encounter one’s neighbor.

Samaritans - the Original Other

Speaking of “neighbor,” what is the background and context for the theological concept of “loving one’s neighbor, as one’s self” and where does it come from? The primary origin of this understanding comes from the New Testament specifically Luke 10:25-37 and the story of the Good Samaritan. This parable, or narrative story used to highlight a moral or spiritual lesson [5], sits in-between conversations with 72 disciples whom Christ sends out, as well as Mary and Martha, about hospitality and what it looks like to follow Christ. In the text, there seems to be a movement away from structured, rigid modalities of religious practice that are so tightly bound they do not have space for relational care and hospitality. Rather, care and relationality are presented as central to the action and agency of God in the world. When Christ is questioned about how one might “inherit eternal life,” Christ responds by asking what is written in the Law and how his questioner reads the Law. The man responds by saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” When Christ confirms that is good, the man pushes further, asking Christ, “And who is my neighbor?” [6]

Instead of answering directly, Christ, as he typically does, responds by telling a story. The story of the Good Samaritan, 

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two adenarii3 and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” [7]

“Go and do likewise.” Simple enough, right? Except that, it isn’t that simple. This text like all text, sacred or not, is coded with specifics of the culture in which it is being told. In this time and community, the fact that the character who embodied the call of mercy and love of neighbor is a Samaritan would stand out to the listening audience. In this cultural context, the Samaritans were seen as apostates and political rivals who were, at best, contemptuously tolerated. The Samaritans held to a pre-Babylonian reading of Judaism with a central focus on the primacy of Torah alone and with worship being enacted in a different space than the post-exilic temple cult. [8] In this way, the Samaritan is the representation of the one who is completely “other” to the reader. Those who are perceived as “other” are seen by the larger culture as the known stranger of “error/nakedness” [9] (gere aroyet, those seen as connected to the transgressive relationships listed in Leviticus 18). [10] They are less than and furthest away from what is understood to be holy and pious.

In fact, the story told by Christ turns the perceptions of what holiness and piety are on their head by linking the actions of God and fulfillment of the law to the actions of the “other.” And this is not just any other, but this is the transgressive other. Jesus is saying that this Samaritan is the holy and pious agent of God rather than the priest or the Levite, the supposed pious and holy agents of God! So, according to the text, the neighbor is the one who cares for others as the law commands, loving the other as one loves oneself.

Also, it is vital to note that the Samaritan does not ask the wounded man about his belief structure or administer a litmus test to see if the wounded man is worthy of his care. The text says that the Samaritan was moved to compassion and acted. Not only that, but once he had taken the wounded man to town he, the good Samaritan, oversees and is intimately involved in the man’s care, still without any caveats or expectations on the wounded man, and when he has to go away, the Samaritan leaves the wounded man in the care of another, sparing no expense for said care. So the call to love the neighbor is not only immediate and all-inclusive, but requires nothing from the receiver. In contrast, the story also presents the cultural icons of holiness—a priest and a Levite—as those who fail to enact the central aspects of faith, because they are bound up in the precepts of the way in which the Temple cult read and interpreted the Law. The priest and the Levite have been so blinded by their commitment to their understanding of piety that they fail to be faithful to God. In light of this text, the question then must be asked in our contemporary context, “Who is my neighbor? And what does it look like to enact care, mercy, and love for them?”

Film Theory and Otherness

In a context like America where public (and some private) spheres are intersections and overlap of multiculturalism and tribalism, there is a vital need for spaces of empathetic connection and understanding across these barriers. As the authors of the book “Imag(in)ing Otherness: Filmic Visions of Living Together” address in their introduction, film is a powerful, unique, and popular medium from which to address important religious issues, while simultaneously contributing to the broader ethical discourses of otherness currently being held (not always very well) in various cultural locations. [11] Film (actually all cinematic media – television, web series, video games, etc.) is a centering experience for almost everyone in American culture. In this way, film is and is becoming a space where intersections of difference can be encountered. Through this encounter with differences film becomes a space for beginning to hear and see our “neighbors.”

For example, if one is isolated from the intersectional experience of poverty, homelessness, racism, immigration, the foster system, and queerness, then watching a documentary such as Homestretch (http://www.homestretchdoc.com/) could be one’s first personal encounter with any or all of these forms of otherness. In the process of watching this film, one might find that they are moved by compassion for the three subjects of the film, and in turn, the film then becomes a space where the viewer can empathetically engage and be able to hear a differing and personal perspective on what previously were only “issues.” Film in this way offers an entry point into the experience different from one’s own. This is called Narrative Empathy. 

Narrative Empathy is a theory that looks at “the phenomenon of one taking on and sharing the feelings and perspectives of another through encounter via reading, viewing, hearing, or imagining narratives that highlight another's situation and condition.” [12] While the terminology and theory are relatively new in the world of academics, the history of this kind of engagement with story is ancient. Narrative Empathy is what the prophet Nathan employs in 2 Samuel 12 to call King David out on his interactions with Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah. Instead of straightforward confrontation that would surely result in his death, Nathan tells David the story of a family with one little lamb and a wealthy neighbor with many lambs and sheep taking his neighbor’s one lamb to feed a guest. Through the telling of a fictional story about a man who takes what isn’t his, Nathan draws out David’s empathy and righteous indignation towards injustice only then to reveal that the neighbor of the story with whom David is so angry with, is, in fact, David. [13] In the earlier text of the parable of the Good Samaritan, narrative empathy is used by Christ to respond to the question “Who is my neighbor?” By engaging the emotional landscape of the viewer, film (or any form of storytelling) invites the audience to align themselves with the characters and their story, offering greater depth and connection to experiences outside of the viewer’s own.

Current researchers are finding over and over again these links connecting storytelling and empathy.

“We immerse ourselves in the perspective of another person,” Coan said, “And in doing that, we start to subtly accrue those perspectives into our own universe... and that’s how empathy is generated.”[14]

Based on this research, empathy is both something we have and something we can build on and learn. The more we engage in empathy, the more we grow empathy. A study conducted by Paul Zak (a neuroeconomist who studies human decision-making) and William Casebeer (a neurobiologist who studies how stories affect the human brain), showed that watching a compelling narrative can alter brain chemistry. When the study’s participants were shown a film about a father raising a son with terminal cancer, their brains responded by creating two neurochemicals: cortisol and oxytocin. Cortisol focuses attention by triggering a sense of distress while oxytocin generates empathy by triggering our sense of care. The more oxytocin gets released, the more empathy participants felt for the characters in a story. The study also found those who produced more cortisol and oxytocin while watching a movie were more likely to donate money to related charities afterward. [15]

Empathy also grows the more we use it. As a viewer continues to stretch their empathy through cinematic engagement with otherness, the more mercy and care they begin to show to those who embody that otherness in the world.

Another study, published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2014, found that watching movies and reading books can also generate empathy for people we perceive as very different from ourselves. After reading Harry Potter, participants of the study showed greater empathetic responses to people in LGBT communities, immigrants, and other definable “outgroups.” The researchers concluded that engaging with Harry Potter’s story—filled with characters working to overcome prejudices and searching for where to fit in — helped participants better understand other people’s perspectives. [16]

When the viewer is able to engage in this sort of empathetic experience, film becomes a space and path towards loving and caring for others, even those who are perceived to be the transgressive other. Yet as always, we as humans viewers have self agency and the power to engage or reject the offer of empathy presented in the narratives we encounter. It is always up to us whether to turn our backs on a story’s landscape or to step into the fresh possibilities it offers. But when we do decide to venture into an unfamiliar story, we emerge as revised, perhaps unexpected, versions of ourselves. [17]

Our final question is centered on the intersection between the empathetic experience offered in a film and the reaction to said film by those within the audience. Can the audience one view’s a film with affect how one perceives the film and otherness presented in the narrative of the film? To address this question, I would like to share two experiences from my own life and the way in which different viewing audiences affected my empathetic experience of a film.

What did you think? The Audience Effect

Over my many years of film-watching, there are a couple films and film-viewing experiences that stand out in regard to engaging with narrative empathy and otherness/loving one’s neighbor. The film Eyes Wide Shut and my changing experience of it stands out as an example of the role of audience in developing narrative empathy.

The first time I saw Stanley Kurbick’s film was the week it opened in wide release during a midnight showing at a nice, new mall in downtown Seattle. I was with a group of ten or so artists from my church, and everyone but my good friend Jesse was ten or more years older than me. This long, odd final film by Kubrick features then married stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and weaves between a real and surreal narrative centered around a couple and their possible desires for infidelity. What stands out about this first screening of the film was the initial apathy I felt when viewing it. There were sections of the story that I found compelling or interesting, and the cinematography was incredible, but overall I was pretty board with the characters and content.

The character I had the hardest time relating to was that of Bill (Tom Cruise) who I felt kept making foolish decision after foolish decision throughout the course of his narrative arc. By the end of the film, I couldn’t stand the character. Additionally, I had ended up stuck in the middle of a row, in the middle of the group, and, after imbibing a large soda during the almost three hour run of the film, I spent the last twenty minutes praying the movie would end, so I could escape to the restroom. Therefore my overall experience of the film was not pleasant or positive. That was until the post viewing conversation. As we headed out of the theatre to an all night coffee shop to debrief, I happened to ask my friend Seth, a filmmaker, what he thought of the film. It was his answer, which completely contoured and transformed my rather negative experience of the film and offered me another viewing lens when I watched it a few weeks later with my best friend.

For Seth the journey of the main character, Bill, was the experience of one seeking love (of God) and trying to understand truth.  Even as Bill step-by-step tried to push his own ethical boundaries, there was something greater throughout the narrative keeping him from getting lost in that journey and bringing him back to the truth of his marriage and love for his wife. Through offering me an empathetic reading of Bill, whom I did not like during the film, Seth offered me a new way to seeing the character and his journey.

I became aware of this shift in viewing the character and narrative a few weeks later on second viewing, I found myself asking and engaging in different questions. Instead of being frustrated by the choices the character was making, I began to wonder what might his motivation be to make said choices? This line of thinking around the character came into play in my personal life later on that year as two friends experienced unexpected pregnancies and made very different choices in regard to them. In each space, in part because of the narrative empathy I had engaged in through this film (along with others), I was able to offer care and love to each friend through their journey. Additionally, I was with only my best friend a second time around. In our post viewing conversation, we spoke about how some of the most disturbing sequences of the film and character choices, were possibly coded cinematically as dream sequences rather than as lived experiences. These two different viewings and perspectives changed my experience of Eyes Wide Shut and offered one of the first conscience experiences of cinematic narrative empathy that I remember.

Conclusion

Cinematic storytelling has the power to offer a safe space for us engage with otherness – that is, if we let it. And the audience one watches said film with also has the power to shape the way we understand and empathize with forms of otherness presented on-screen. When combined in a positive way both film and audience can offer one a space to engage with empathy towards a fictional other and in turn that practice leads to practical engagement and “love” for a real-life other. In this way film viewing offers one the chance to enhance their empathy skills, broadening their ability to see and engage with biblical love of neighbor.

Jessi Knipple is a artist who hails from the Pacific Northwest. She holds several degrees, with a focus in the intersections of art, faith, sexuality, gender and social justice. Among her other work, she is the Video Content Manager for Level Ground, an organization that seeks to create space for dialogue around art about matters of gender and sexuality.

[1] Svoboda,Elizabeth, The Power of Stories, https://aeon.co/essays/once-upon-a-time-how-stories-change-hearts-and-brains
[2] Caputo, John The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), p 49
[3] Plate, S Brent, Introductions: Images and Imagining, Imag(in)ing Otherness: Filmic Visions of Living Together, pg 6
[4]  The “Oscars So White” campaign and NPR’s focused reporting highlighting of the lack of gender and racial diversity in may areas of media being recent examples of how film can fail to tell diverse narratives, by re-enforcement of problematic notions of “normativity”.
[5] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/parable
[6] uke 10:25-29 http://biblia.com/bible/Luke10.25-37
[7] Luke 10:29-37 http://biblia.com/bible/Luke10.25-37
[8] Background on the Samaritans was found, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/13059-samaritans
[9] Translation provided by Leland Merritt, UCLA Phd Candidate in Semetics
[10] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forbidden_relationships_in_Judaism, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/13059-samaritans
[11] Plate, S Brent, Introductions: Images and Imagining, Imag(in)ing Otherness: Filmic Visions of Living Together, pg 3
[12] http://wikis.sub.uni-hamburg.de/lhn/index.php/Narrative_Empathy
[13] 2 Samuel 12, RSV
[14] Finke, Christopher Zumski “Watching Movies May Help You Build Empathy http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-10-21/watching-movies-may-help-you-build-empathy
[15] http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-10-21/watching-movies-may-help-you-build-empathy
[16] http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-10-21/watching-movies-may-help-you-build-empathy
[17] https://aeon.co/essays/once-upon-a-time-how-stories-change-hearts-and-brains

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