What has Hollywood to do with Jerusalem? (Theology at the Theater, part 1)

I remember sitting down with a Christian friend of mine recently. He had just finished his MDiv at Fuller. He was working as a teacher, active in church and engaging in meaningful fellowship. Yet he found himself in a funk in which it was hard for him to escape.

As we sat at the coffee shop he told me about a film he had recently watched that awoke his spirit freshly to the Divine. He said, “I felt more connected to God during that film than any ‘sermon’ over the last six months.”

While some films are designed to be escapist entertainment, film has become one of the most powerful forms of art in our day, and has the ability to “disturb and enlighten, to make us more aware of both who we are and what our relationship with others could be. It can even usher us into the presence of the holy” (Johnston, Reel Spirituality).

Good films awaken us to be more present to ourselves, to our world and to the One behind all of creation. Good films have the potential to help form us to be more fully human.

What has Hollywood to Do with Jerusalem?

So what has Hollywood to do with Jerusalem? And what has Sundance to do with spiritual formation? In this essay I would like to suggest that watching films could help form us to become more like Jesus, if done thoughtfully. Film watching can be a profound communal spiritual discipline because the experience has the potential to reshape our desires as the Spirit “uses beauty (art) to lead us to goodness (ethics) and truth (Detweiler). In light of the academy awards just around the corner, I thought this essay might be a timely post.

Here is the road map for our journey. First, we will gain an understanding of what a spiritual discipline and rhythm of life (multiple spiritual disciplines) looks like. Next we will examine what theology looks like in the theater, followed by a practical approach to film watching as a spiritual discipline. Then I will take that method and look at a couple of films that I saw at Sundance a few years ago, to serve as an example of this practice. I will conclude with some encouragement on why communities of faith should engage in this practice.

What is a Spiritual Discipline?

One of the most exciting things about our future is what kind of people we will meet and what type of people we will become. We were made in the image of God, but through the fall that image has been shattered. We all need to experience restoration in our life in order to more fully share in God’s image, and be capable of a greater sense of love, joy, peace and wisdom. At the end of the day, we need much help if we are to become who God originally created us to be – fully human. To be fully human is to be more like Jesus.

Phillip Kenneson gives a great picture of what it means to be a fully mature human being. He uses the fruit of the Spirit that Paul mentions in Galatians to give us this picture. He describes a mature person like this: Someone who cultivates a lifestyle of love in the midst of market-style exchanges; someone who cultivates a lifestyle of joy in the midst of manufactured desire; someone who cultivates peace in the midst of fragmentation; patience in the midst of productivity, kindness in the midst of self-sufficiency; goodness in the midst of self-help; faithfulness in the midst of impermanence; gentleness in the midst of aggression; and self-control in the midst of addiction (Kenneson, Life on the Vine).

Jacob Needleman in Lost Christianity makes this keen observation,

“The lost element in Christianity is the specific methods and ideas that can first show us the subhuman level at which we actually exist, and second, lead us towards the level at which the teachings of Christ can be followed in fact, rather than in imagination”

Needleman, Lost Christianity: A Journey of Rediscovery

If we have any hope of being more like Jesus, it is not going to come through a self-help program or by trying harder. It will happen as we embrace the work of the Spirit in our lives. Becoming more like Jesus is not a matter a trying, but yielding, setting the sails of our lives to catch the wind of God’s Spirit. So how do we do this?

By developing a rhythm of life where we engage in spiritual disciplines, which enable us to live more like Jesus. Dallas Willard defines spiritual disciplines as, “activities in our power that we engage in to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort alone” (Willard, The Great Omission).

Unforced Rhythms of Grace

People throughout the ages have engaged in the spiritual disciplines. If we want to experience transformation, we need to develop a number of spiritual disciplines or a rule/rhythm of life that allow us to catch the wind of the Spirit, a rhythm of life whereby we learn the “unforced rhythms of grace”.

I love how Eugene Peterson puts Jesus’ words in The Message,

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

Matthew 11:28-30

Ultimately, the spiritual disciplines enable us to experience transformation. Marjorie Thompson puts it this way:

The caterpillar must yield up the life it knows and submit to the mystery of interior transformation. It emerges from the process transfigured, with wings that give it freedom to fly. A rule of life gives us a way to enter into the life-long process of personal transformation. Its disciplines help us to shed the familiar but constricting old self and allow our new self in Christ to be formed – the true self that is naturally attracted to the light of God.

Thompson Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life

So why is the theater a good place to do theology? Can everyone do theology in the theater, or does one need formal training to do so? What does film watching as a spiritual discipline look like? We will tackle that in my next post.

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JR Woodward
JR Woodward is a church planter, activist, missiologist and author of Creating a Missional Culture (IVP, 2012). He co-founded the Ecclesia Network and Missio Alliance. He currently serves as the National Director for the V3 Church Planting Movement and is pursuing a PhD at the University of Manchester (UK).
JR Woodward

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