This week my guest is Jeffrey Overstreet, author of the new book Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies. Jeffrey calls upon a decade of experience as a film reviewer and columnist for his popular website, www.lookingcloser.org. He is a weekly columnist and critic at Christianity Today’s movie website, and his perspectives are regularly published in Risen and Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine. His work has also appeared Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion and Paste, and he frequently speaks about the arts at Seattle Pacific, in churches and on radio talk shows around the U. S. His film reviews were celebrated in a front-page feature of The Seattle Times’ Sunday magazine (Pacific Northwest), and his work has been noted in Time Magazine. He and his wife, Anne, a poet, can be found writing in the coffee shops of Shoreline, Washington.
LeAnne: You have said that you feel compelled to “sit down between Christian culture and secular society, trying to help them understand each other—and ultimately, God—better through a shared experience of art.” (I applaud you, by the way.) Why do you have this compulsion?
Jeffrey: It’s a passion that developed after a lot of frustrating experiences within various Christian communities. As I grew up, I found that most of the Christians I encountered had harsh, judgmental attitudes about the movies, and had a very low opinion about the people who make them. The stuff coming out of Hollywood was to be avoided at all costs.
This prevailing attitude had a damaging influence on me. It taught me to believe that movies were almost all corrupt, evil, “unclean” entertainment that I should avoid. But my love of great storytelling contradicted this. My curiosity about the stories being told by filmmakers overcame my fears. As I began seeing more and more movies, discovering more and more meaningful stories in theaters, I felt embarrassed of how I had been led into a spirit of condemnation, suspicion, and fear by my own brothers and sisters in Christ. And I felt guilty for the way I had contributed to that condemnation. I wanted other believers to discover the wonder of the big screen, to learn from all kinds of movies — whether uplifting or troubling.
At the same time, I have encountered the same kind of suspicion, fear, and condemnation among many unbelievers whenever they talk about Christians. I know that there are many irresponsible, hard-hearted Christians out there — I have to struggle to avoid fulfilling that negative stereotype myself. But I also know that many Christians are humble, selfless, loving people. And I am convinced that true Christian faith will not be shaken by the misbehavior of foolish churchgoers. When our neighbors attack Christian misbehavior, they often use that as an excuse to reject God. But that’s just an excuse. Christian misbehavior does not tarnish God himself — it just makes the church seem like a false and unpleasant place to be.
I think that the movies… and all kinds of art… give us the opportunity to humble ourselves, learn from each others’ experiences and perspectives, and move past those rash judgments into greater understanding. Movies like Saved! and Deliver Us from Evil can humble Christians and cause them to remember their own fallibility. But movies like Dead Man Walking and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days and Chariots of Fire and A Man for All Seasons show us the powerful influence of devoted believers. I talk about this in great detail in Through a Screen Darkly, because there are so many powerful films about faith and the behavior of believers.
LM: I’m sure that as a movie reviewer for Christianity Today’s movie website as well as your own website, you get a lot of feedback from readers. What do you say to people who question the idea that God can use movies for His kingdom?
JO: I remind them of several things.
First, that Christ loved to teach through powerful storytelling. He did not explain “the moral of the story” afterward — he told powerful, controversial, even subversive stories, and then let the listeners ponder them. There are a lot of flimsy, forgettable stories on the big screen, but there are powerful, truthful stories as well. When we reject movies because they might have some potentially offensive material, we often miss out on amazing stories.
Second, I remind them that the Bible itself is full of colorful stories about sin and consequences. Alongside the inspiring Bible stories we read to our children, we find dark, troubling, violent stories that are more appropriate for an adult audience. Stories about gross sexual misbehavior. Stories about unimaginable wickedness. What’s important is that we learn to be discerning readers, to consider the context, the choices and the consequences of the characters.
Likewise, the movie theater offers all kinds of stories. Some are lurid and full of lies, and we should definitely learn to avoid such garbage. But others are true and beautiful. Some of the best movies will make us uncomfortable with vivid depictions of evil, and yet the truth of those depictions can be redemptive.
Third, movies made all over the world help us see the world through the eyes, and through the imaginations, of the neighbors that Christ exhorts us to love. By learning to understand how they see the world, and listening to their experiences of life, we learn how to understand them, and hopefully how to love them better. If we can’t listen to our neighbors’ stories, how will we ever engage them in a meaningful way?
Finally, I believe the Bible’s claim that “eternity is written in our hearts.” If God made all of us in his image, then his truth will shine through, even in the movies made by people who don’t believe in him. The longing for healing, the desire for beauty and truth, and conflict of good versus evil… if we pay close attention, we’ll find echoes of glory in many of these “worldly” stories. And if we’re humble, we may find that Christians themselves have a lot to learn from their neighbors…as much as our neighbors have to learn from us.
On Thursday, Jeffrey will discuss several movies and talk about two Christians in Hollywood to watch.