Film as a Form of Mass (Theology at the Theater, Part 2)

Philosopher and theologian, James K.A. Smith, in his book Desiring the Kingdom, helps us understand that at a gut level, we are creatures who love and desire.  Thus we need liturgies, rituals and routines that reshape our desires.
While Smith focuses on how worship gatherings could be better designed to shape our desires toward the kingdom, Craig Detweiler, in Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century, makes the case that our faith can be revitalized by going to movies.  He talks about film as a form of mass, a common grace in which God can speak to us.
Detweiler follows the path of Hans Urs von Balthasar by reversing the common approach to hermeneutics.  Instead of starting with theology and special revelation, he starts with the creative (film), general revelation, and then moves toward special revelation.  He is confident that the Spirit is able to “guide us from art (beauty) to ethics (goodness) and then to theology (truth)” since God first acts in creation, then in history (the Exodus) and finally in Christ, the living word (Detweiler, Into the Dark).
In the same vein, Walter Brueggemann in his book The Prophetic Imagination quotes Asal’s book about Flannery O’Conner, reminding us of the power of the imagination:

The imagination, O’Conner discovered, might accomplish much more; it might become the channel of visionary awareness…. For O’Conner, as for Aquinas, it is the imagination, with its roots deep in the human unconscious, that is the link between the depths of the self and the unseen reaches of the universe, that can reveal to finite man his apocalyptic destiny… the imagination for her is as dangerous a force as any named by Freud, for what it opens up to, in those shattering climaxes when it achieves release, are the unwanted visions that ravage the lives of her protagonist.
Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination

Since the average American sees just over 40 films a year, and our desires are shaped deeply by our imaginations, it seems wise to do theology in the theater.
[Tweet “Since the average American sees just over 40 films a year, and our desires are shaped deeply by our imaginations, it seems wise to do theology in the theater.”] The fact of the matter is everyone is a theologian, and according to Moltmann, we can do theology wherever we happen to be.  For Moltmann, “theology comes into being wherever men and women come to the knowledge of God and, in the praxis of their lives, their happiness and there suffering, perceive God’s presence with all their senses” (Moltmann Experiences in Theology).
He also reminds us that theology is not just an inner-church activity, but a public one, to be done in light of the horizon of God’s coming kingdom.  So what does film-watching as a spiritual discipline look like?

Cinematographeum Divina

Obviously, there is no set way that one needs to go about this.  Here is one possible approach.
Having been involved in an Ignatius group over the last six months, I have become familiar with the practice of lectio divina.  And because God not only speaks through the stars in the sky, but also communicates through the stars in Hollywood, one way to approach film watching as a spiritual discipline is to engage in what I call cinematographeum divina – finding the sacred in film.
Just as there are six basic movements with lectio divina, so it is with cinematographeum divina.  While one could practice this spiritual discipline alone, the experience will be much richer if done with a group of people.
As Moltmann said, “Theology is like a network of rivers, with reciprocal influences and mutual challenges.  It is certainly not a desert in which every individual is alone with himself or herself, and with his or her God.  For me, theological access to the truth of the triune God is through dialogue. It is communitarian and co-operative” (Moltmann, Experiences in Theology).

6 Movements of Cinematographeum Divina

Step One: Silencio (Preparation)

Take a moment of silence in order to be fully present at the film, receiving the film on its own ground with a critical openness.

Step Two: Specto (Watch)

When watching the film it is important to pay attention to where you have meaningful connection with the film, be it with the plot, a particular character, a dialogue, a music score, a song or an image.  What stands out to you?

Step Three: Meditatio (Reflect)

Now take some time to focus in on what struck you.  If it was the plot, what was it about the plot that caught your attention?  If a theme, what was it about the theme that resonated with you or that shocked you? If it was a character, in what way did you identify or not identify with the character?  If it was a song or a symbol, what was it about the song that caused it to stand out to you?

Step Four: Oratio (Respond)

What is God saying to you through this?  Perhaps you were touched in a place of pain, frustration or anger.  This is a time to pour out these feelings to God.  Perhaps there is a flash of self-knowledge and you were convicted of a sin.  Take a moment to confess it. Maybe God is calling you to a new adventure.  This is a time to respond to what God is doing.

Step Five: Contemplatio (Rest)

After giving your response its full expression, take a moment to release and return to a place of rest in God.

Step Six: Incarnatio (Resolve)

As you emerge from this place of encounter, take time to contemplate how God has used this film to touch you and ask him how he might want you to enflesh this word in the concrete spaces of your life. Resolve to take what God has shown you and live it out in the context of your daily life.
[Tweet “Resolve to take what God has shown you and live it out in the context of your daily life.”] The way this would happen with a group, is you give each person a copy of these six movements prior to going to the theater or watching a film at your home.  Then before watching the film, take some time to quiet yourself so that you might be fully present to the film.  After watching the film, someone could lead people through the rest of the steps.
After step three, depending on the size of the group (if it is large group, you may want to break it up into small groups for more vibrant discussion), you could have each person share what stood out to them.  There could also be a time for discussion after steps four and six.
The beauty of art is that it has the power to reshape our desires and our imaginations.  Films are stories which shape us.  As Detweiler says, the “most timely, relevant, and haunting films resonate with the shaping story of scripture: from beauty of creation, through the tragedy of self-destruction, to the wonder of restoration,” and both general and special revelation “are complementary gifts for navigating the complexities of life, for fueling our dreams, and for enduring our disappointments” (Into the Dark).

About the Author
JR Woodward

JR Woodward


JR Woodward has been passionately planting churches on the East and West Coast that value tight-knit community, life-forming discipleship, locally-rooted presence and boundary-crossing mission for over 25 years. He is the author of Creating a Missional Culture (IVP, 2012) and co-author of The Church as Movement (IVP, 2016). He co-founded the Missio Alliance and currently serves as the National Director for the V3 Church Planting Movement. He is the co-founder of the Praxis Gathering and writes for numerous websites and journals. He has a Masters of Arts in Global Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary and is working on his PhD at the University of Manchester (UK). He loves to surf, travel, read, skateboard and meet new people. He enjoys photography and film and tries to attend the Sundance Film Festival whenever he can.

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