WHEN I was no more than 11 or 12, I went with my brother to see a matinée screening of John Huston’s Moby Dick at our local cinema. The film was so popular that we couldn’t get in; so we joined the queue for the late-afternoon showing. Some hours later, happily installed in our seats, we were engrossed in the story of Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale. At some point, to our great embarrassment, a message appeared on the screen informing the whole theatre that our parents were anxious about us, and we were to go home immediately.
Well, we must have stayed, because the image of Gregory Peck going to his watery grave, trapped in a tangle of harpoon lines against the whale’s side, remains etched on my memory. Neither hours of waiting nor the prospect of parental wrath could quench our desire to see the thing through — such can be the power of a film.
Films tell stories that entertain, perhaps disturb, and often inform. Good films with compelling plots and convincing actors can, in as little as 90 minutes, transport us to new worlds, touch our hearts, make us cry — even challenge our beliefs and values. The best films reveal truth. The cinema is not always escapism: it can widen our horizons and help us to see other people and their lives differently. In short, like good literature, a good film mirrors the world we live in, casting light on the human condition.
It is even possible to meet God at the movies. Karl Barth advised us, when interpreting current affairs, to have a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other; so, surely, bringing our film-watching into conversation with the Bible may prove to be fruitful ground for developing a spirituality that sustains faith today.
QUEUING for “the pictures” is now almost a thing of the past. Although the big screen is best, virtually everybody has a small screen in their pocket — YouTube has 35 million users in the UK alone. Streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon are now very popular, giving access to the widest range of films at minimal cost.
If the Church is going to proclaim the gospel afresh in this generation, then it must learn to engage with our visual culture. It is good to see churches now using video clips in sermons and presentations, but this could be expanded, outside Sunday services, to help congregations to engage seriously with worthwhile films in a church or home group setting.
Many churches struggle to maintain small groups unless, perhaps, during Lent. I sense that this is because many today feel intimidated by the prospect of a straight Bible study — particularly if they come from homes with few books — and, sadly, many fail to see the Bible’s relevance to their lives. What is needed is an easy way into such groups through the fun of joining with others to discuss a film, rather in the way that book groups function.
Everyone can have a valid opinion about a film; no one needs to be an expert. It is important to try to see things through the eyes of the players in the story, to attempt to empathise with their joys and sorrows, the pains and puzzles of being them. If encouragement is then given to think about the film from a Christian perspective —exploring its themes, teasing out gospel truths — it can be not only a pleasurable way of engaging with the Bible, but also an inspiration to deeper faith.
Existing home groups might try this during one or more of their regular sessions. Alternatively, a new group might be started, based on one or a series of films, watched before meeting, either together or individually. There are now materials available to help groups ro bring all sorts of films into conversation with the Bible. These have usually been designed primarily for Lent, but, with a little tweaking, many can be used at other times of the year.
Films don’t need to be overtly Christian: popular examples are Hilary Brand’s Finding a Voice (inspired by the film The King’s Speech); Tim Heaton’s The Naturalist and the Christ, a challenging look at evolution through the film Creation; Rachel Mann’s Still Standing, reflecting on the life of Elton John in the film Rocketman; and Lavinia Byrne and Jane McBride’s A Place for Us, which takes on the musical West Side Story.
OBVIOUSLY, you don’t need to wait for someone to write a course before you discuss a film: the group can choose its own. It will certainly help if someone comes prepared with good starter questions to give the evening a Godward trajectory, along with a Bible passage that fits the occasion. The Bible Society’s project Reel Issues (now sadly defunct) was a great resource for any fledgling group. A simple internet search will find its helpful framework of questions for use with any film.
Groups should consider the issues that a film raises and explore them with a Christian mind.
- To begin with, is the film entertaining, informative, plausible?
- Then ask which characters attract, repel, or puzzle you.
- Do particular scenes evoke a strong emotional reaction in you?
- What resonance or dissonance does it have with your own beliefs and values?
- What does the Bible have to say on these matters?
- What do you think the film’s overall message is?
- Has it challenged you to think or act differently in the future?
FILMS based on true stories are often the best. You might start with Chariots of Fire, particularly as the Paris Olympics next year will be held on the centenary of the 1924 Paris Olympics depicted in the film. There is rich ground for discussion around the contrasting motivations of Abrahams and Liddell. Another, less well-known, choice might be Shooting for Socrates, about an international football match uniting the troubled people of Northern Ireland.
Fictional stories can be good, too: Great Expectations (1946 or 2012) can easily lead to an exploration of status, shame, ambition, faithfulness, and much more; or The Father, certainly not an easy film, but a superb immersion in what it might be like to experience dementia, the heartbreak of lost identity, and the fragility of life. The list of possibilities goes on and on. . .
We should recognise the power and the potential of the moving image to capture our attention, and even mould our society; it is for precisely this reason that movie-making and movie-watching have become multi-million-dollar industries. Films such as Moby Dick did it for me — and the thrill of going to the cinema has never left me. I only wish someone had pointed out to me much earlier the value of joining with others to discuss what I have seen. Is the Church making the most of movies?
The Revd Andy Colebrooke is a retired priest and the author of Thoughts of God: A Lent course based on “The Man Who Knew Infinity” (Circle Books, 2022).