From Volume1, Issue 2, 2017
In this article Craig Detweiler discusses how we learn about the nature of God from a most unexpected source … Hollywood. Read on to find out about what this Communication scholar has to say about God and movies in the 21st century.
EOF: Craig, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us.
DETWEILER: Absolutely, glad to be here.
The book title that we are discussing is Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century. Maybe you could just start off by telling us a little bit about Into the Dark.
The book began out of my own love for films and how significant they’ve been in my life as touchstones; both when I was a kid and in high school on up into adulthood. I found that I’d experience what I would call “sacred moments” in cinema where I found myself challenged or confronted or seeing a side of myself, having what I would consider somewhat divine revelations about the nature of God, the nature of grace, the nature of humanity, my own brokenness. The book is trying to come up with theological categories to explain a lot of people’s experience of cinema.
When I first started reading your book (and you get into a lot about the general revelation coming from cinema), I thought: “I don’t know about all this…” But the more I read it, the more I got into the book. It is a provocative subject. The more I got your point, it seemed that you have to bring your biblical worldview with you while you are watching it. Maybe you could go into some specifics on that idea about God using movies to provide general revelation
Sure. Well, obviously the special revelation of Scripture continues to be the norming-norm by which we guide our life. If you look into Scripture, you’ll find plenty of instances where God was speaking through unlikely means. God communicated to people through dreams, through talking donkeys. Why would God not communicate through a talking donkey like Jim Carey in a film like Bruce Almighty? It also says in Scriptures that if we are not necessarily doing our job, the stones will cry out. What are some of the most unlikely “stones” in contemporary culture? I suggest that may be Hollywood. Nobody is looking to Hollywood for spiritual wisdom, but nobody was necessarily looking to King Nebuchadnezzar to be an agent of God’s teaching, training, correction back with Israel and ancient Babylon. I always understood in reviewing Scripture that God has always used unlikely people, and sometimes very unlikely means, to communicate with a sometimes hardheaded people. I have found God sneaking up on me in cinema while I am laughing maybe at Bruce Almighty. I suddenly am thinking about the ways in which I am trying to play God in my own life. The ways in which I try to make myself the center of my universe and how my life goes off the rails similar to how Jim Carrey’s life goes off the rails in Bruce Almighty.
There were a lot of movies that you used as examples in the book. Quite a few that I never actually heard of. The book was published in 2008; what movies, if any, would you have added to your examples in the book if you wrote it today?
Because one of the principles of the book is God speaking through anyone, anywhere, at any time, I wanted to take a democratic approach to the films that I chose. I could have looked at Oscar winners, I could have looked at critics’ lists of the ten best of any given year. I decided to turn to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), where film fans from all over the world can come online, talk about the films they love, and actually rank them. The films that I worked on and studied were the top-ranked films of the 21st century on the International Movie Database. When I began the study, I think there were about 48O in that list, so those are the films that I looked at. I looked at the broad themes of what I saw. If I went and did a new version of the book, I’d go right back to the Internet Movie Database. What I like about it is that the box office is one way that we vote with feet, but that is a way we vote with our feet before we see the film. The most profitable films aren’t necessarily the most impactful. With the Internet Movie Database you have fans saying: “This movie resonated with me in profound ways.” “This movie stuck with me” “This movie was a truly moving picture.” That is why I went to that list.
One of the directors I talk about a lot in the book is Christopher Nolan who in his early career made films like Momento and The Prestige. Since then he has had huge success with the Dark Knight trilogy and films like Inception and Interstellar. What I find is that he is always dealing with the human condition. He is always dealing with our double-mindedness, our tendency towards self-deception. I think what makes the Dark Knight series resonate is that it is a chance to recognize the killer within us. The shadow-side or the dark-side of ourselves. One of the themes that I found throughout the 21st century films that I have watched is the willingness to address the reality of sin and the fallenness of humanity. There are dark places and the dark spaces that reside even within a dark knight, who seeks to do good and yet is not that far away from someone like the Joker in his ability to slip into vengeance rather than something more high-minded.
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