Each month throughout 2016, we are proud to feature regular articles from two of the most spiritually aware and keen thinkers in the discipline of theology and film we know – Sr. Nancy Usselmann and Avril Speaks. We have commissioned both of them to write new series considering particular questions pertinent to those of us who are interested in how Christians can contribute positively to the world of cinema. In the third and fourth weeks of each month of this year, we will feature the next article in each of their series. These articles will remain on our website throughout 2016, but at the end of the year, we will remove them and publish a reworked, edited version of their series in a pair of books available thereafter for purchase.
Avril Z. Speaks is a filmmaker, scholar, and eductaor with over seventeen years experience making films and helping other filmmakers figure out which films to make. As she says in the first article in this series, "while it is good to critique films from a theological perspective, it is equally important that we think about artists who are creating the work," so we're excited to feature Avril's proposal for what filmmakers who are Christians should consider as they decide which stories to devote large portions of the time and talents to. Avril's entire series is archived here. - Editor
Growing up in the black church, testimonies were a way of life. Back in the day before praise and worship-infused laser shows and even before choirs marched down the aisle, little old ladies with big, fancy hats would stand up and give God praise for all he had done throughout the week. Most times, these women would simply express their thankfulness for their basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, health, and as they used to say, being “in their right mind” and “in the land of the living.” Every now and then there would be more drastic testimonies about God’s miracles. God had healed their bodies of a terrible disease. Or he had spared a loved one from a terrible accident. Usually the testimonies would be met with verbal and non-verbal agreement—an “Amen” or a “Hallelujah” or a simple hand wave—all testifying to their knowledge of the goodness of God. For these women, God’s presence had been made real to them through tangible events in their lives. For these women, God was found not only through sermons and scripture, but also through experience.
How much weight should we give personal experience and word of testimony when trying to understand God? Does the fact that we experienced something necessarily mean it matters beyond the moment? Many people ask these same questions when we talk about finding God’s presence in the movies. Discussions surrounding theology and film often begin with how movies make us feel, but for some, feelings, emotions, and even experience do not suffice for solid, theological teaching. Can movies really be trusted to tell us anything about God, particularly when their content is deemed questionable or “secular?” Does the fact that movies intentionally play to our emotions make them less reliable or less meaningful to our Christian living? Answers to these questions become relevant for filmmakers of faith looking to have lasting impact in their content.
Theologians have been arguing about the role that experience plays in theology for centuries. John Wesley believed that experience, tradition, and reason are all important factors in interpreting scripture and figuring out how to live the Christian life. Specifically, he believed that the crux of our faith could be revealed in scripture, illuminated by tradition, made alive through personal experience, and confirmed by reason. Wesley sought ways in which the human experience could provide confirmation of the biblical witness, in terms of rebirth and sanctification, but also in everyday life. Although other theologians may argue that experience is not to be trusted, the reality is that many of us, just like the ladies in my church growing up, rely on our experiences to draw us closer to God.
In many ways, films are testimonies themselves. Screenwriters often write from personal experiences that have lead to a sense of wonder or some sort of transformational moment. For example, Alan Ball, the screenwriter of the 1995 Academy Award-winning film American Beauty once said about the iconic scene of the plastic bag blowing in the wind: “I was walking home from brunch and a plastic bag came out of nowhere and sort of circled me about – literally about 25 times. And, you know, it was a weird unexpected profound moment and I always felt like I was in the presence of something.” Other times, it's the viewers who experience moments of transcendence when a written story illuminates the presence of something greater than themselves. Roger Ebert said in his review of The Tree of Life, “I don't know when a film has connected more immediately with my own personal experience...The film's coda provides a vision of an afterlife, a desolate landscape on which quiet people solemnly recognize and greet one another, and all is understood in the fullness of time.”
The fact that neither of these examples points to a definitive conversion or acknowledgement of God in particular does not have to be a negating factor. If scripture is made alive through experience, then it is experience itself that can draw an initial connection to and awareness of attributes of God. As believers, what we do with that experience makes all the difference. We can take that experience and create something valuable by writing or creating art, or we can closely examine not only the films that make us comfortable, but every film that surprises us, that challenges us, that angers us, that exhilarates us, and that inspires us to take action toward engaging our own humanity and those around us.
A few years ago I was invited to attend a screenwriter’s lab called Art Within for artists of faith. For two weeks, a group of writers gathered on a beach in Florida not just to write stories, but to be vulnerable and share our life experiences with the hopes of examining how we might use them to create meaningful stories. One of our exercises during that time was to list our top 10 movies that impacted our lives and talk about why they affected us. Through much conversation, I learned through some of my favorite movies such as Revolutionary Road and The Bicycle Thief, how much I value artistic independence, creative and cultural identity, and relentless pursuit of dreams. These conversations challenged me to think about where God would or should be in these stories.
For me, in Revolutionary Road, God was in John Givings, the neighbor’s son who called the Wheelers out of their complacency and challenged them about giving up on their dreams. In The Bicycle Thief, I wanted God to be the rescuer and the giver of hope for Antonio to find his bike and be able to provide for his family. With these and other films on my list, it wasn’t necessarily the film itself that had the most meaning. While those films were very well written and were well made, the films also served as testimonies to who I needed God to be in my own life. My personal need for God to be an encourager and a restorer of hope in the midst of a season of despair over unrealized dreams, allowed me to recognize those needs in the film, and as a result, it made scriptures like Psalm 121 come alive. However, such illumination only came through talking about these films with people willing to engage and share their experiences.
Many films work best as a communal event, when they are consumed as moving testimonies among willing participants ready to observe but also to feel and respond. Sometimes those testimonies become the link to seeing God. Just as the blind man in John 9 only had his experience to rely on when he declared to the Pharisees, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don't know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!" so do our movies give us permission to claim God when life doesn't make sense.
I have long been an advocate of using film and television as resources for teaching the Bible. I recently led my small group through a bible study based on the television show Breaking Bad. Although a show about a chemistry teacher turned meth dealer sounds dark, through communal sharing and careful, guided reflection on the material, we all recognized our need for God to be enough, despite our constant need for more – more money, more power, more influence, more (fill in the blank). It is not the movie that makes the difference, it is the experience and the questions the story makes us ask. It is in how we share it.
What do movies tell us about ourselves and what can they tell us about God? Women in church used to believe that standing up in front of people and sharing about God could win people over. And maybe large screens in front of a room with Dolby surround sound is just another form of shouting out testimonies and waiting for an “Amen.” Our Christian witness has no effect unless we can appropriate it and understand it for ourselves and our own sensibility, and movies help us do just that.
Avril Speaks is a filmmaker, scholar, and educator who teaches cinema courses at University of La Verne and Azusa Pacific University. She recently earned her second master's degree from Fuller Theological Seminary, and she continues to produce, write and direct film and new media. Her ultimate goal is to diversify the film market by educating and empowering aspiring artists; thereby creating a movement of media that represents the true, multi-dimensional qualities of people and speaks to the world. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, or at her website.