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Review: Meaning at the Movies, Part 1

Roundhay Garden Scene
Roundhay Garden Scene directed by one of the world’s first filmmakers, Louis Le Prince, in 1888. (Wikipedia; Public Domain)

I recently mentioned Grant Horner’s new book, Meaning at the Movies, and I mentioned that I was looking forward to reading & reviewing it for this site.  This is the first of three planned reviews.  In this review, I will very briefly discuss his preface and introduction, in which he lays out his plan and his assumptions, and I will focus on what I consider to be an unnecessary restriction of thought on his part.  I feel that Horner manages to capture and explain one critical aspect of the value of film, but that he leaves another on the table.

A few months back, I referenced the disagreement I have with John Piper’s position: he avoids movies, I enjoy movies.  He sees them as something simply to “watch,” and I see them as something to interact with.  It seems that Horner leans in my direction, so of course, I’m going to like that.  In fact, I like much of what Horner has to write.  He writes with clarity and with a refreshing honesty.  He refuses to “recommend” films as “nonoffensive” simply because he believes–correctly–that a “nonoffensive” film cannot be made.  (If you doubt this, try sitting through the trailers for the most recent children’s films.  The philosophical messages and underpinnings are radically offensive.)

So, suffice it to say, that I find Horner’s work delightful and engaging.  But at the outset, he makes a strange comment:

I do not take the position that believers should watch movies in order to “engage culture” or “be relevant”: both of these ideas are wildly popular in Christian circles at the moment, but whenever I ask someone exactly what they mean by the terms, I inevitably meet with awkward silence. (p. 11)

Well, hopefully I can answer that question.

  • By “watching movies to engage culture,” we simply mean that we must view movies intentionally and carefully (rather than haphazardly and without thought), in order to better understand the current beliefs and philosophies of the world, and in order to better comprehend the streams of thought that are shaping the future of our culture.
  • By “watching movies to be relevant,” we simply mean that in viewing movies intentionally and carefully, we gain new insight and tools to help us present the Gospel in a contextually clear manner, addressing the concerns and unspoken philosophical commitments of our neighbors.

Or at least something along these lines.

In watching movies to “engage culture” and to “be relevant”, we’re recognizing what people say about who people are, what the world is all about, and where value and meaning can be found.  But it doesn’t stop with simply recognition of truth, it includes the proclamation of truth in a way that makes sense to the target audience.

Now, before I run roughshod over Horner, I should point out that in spite of this strange comment, he goes on to give his two primary reasons for Christians to watch film:

  1. “Film watching helps us to engage individuals.” (p. 27)
  2. “Film watching helps us engage culture.” (p. 28)

Granted, he states that this is not a reversal of his previous comments–that we are called to transform people and not cultures (and presumably also his treatment of “engaging culture” as a vacuous or unworkable pursuit)–but rather the logical conclusion of the need for us to engage individuals.  For Horner, “to engage culture” is similar to my explanation above:

I believe there is only one biblically valid model, and that is to critique culture theologically, bringing Scripture to bear as an object of critical inquiry that dismantles error while also pointing out truth in human cultural production. (p. 28)

Essentially, we watch movies to identify truth and falsehood.  I agree with this, but this is my complaint with his project; I believe it is unnecessarily limited.  Horner goes on to write that the biblical impetus for studying or engaging culture is “in order to learn and to recognize” a series of things, ranging from the reality of general revelation through the reality of evil in mankind’s heart.  He points to Moses in Egypt, Daniel in Babylon, and Paul in the Areopagus as examples of those who “engaged culture” in order to identify what was true and what was false.  I would add that they also proceeded to proclaim truth in culturally relevant and recognizable forms.

A Community Engaged in Culture Building (Wikipedia; Public Domain)
A Community Engaged in Culture Building (Wikipedia; Public Domain)

A common sermon illustration is the story of bank tellers who are receiving special training in recognizing counterfeit currency.  They are sent to a room and spend two weeks handling real bills, and never touching a face bill.  By the end of the training, they are so familiar with the touch, texture, size, smell, and shape of the real thing, they have no problem spotting a fake from a mile away.  This illustration is often used in sermons where the pastor hopes to encourage folks to read their Bibles more frequently.  I’ve probably used it myself, and I’ll probably use it again.  It’s great for encouraging folks to learn how to recognize falsehood, but it fails to encourage them to proclaim truth.

I have been hammering on this point (that Horner fails to address the need for Christians to present the Gospel clearly), so I’ll leave it alone for a bit.  In fact, I will not refer to this point of contention during the remaining two reviews.  Horner has a clear goal in mind: to encourage and instruct believers towards growth in discernment.  This is, obviously, the first step for many, and as the author of Hebrews so delicately puts it, many Christians “need milk, not solid food” because they have not yet grown in discernment.  (See Hebrews 5:12-14)

I’m glad for Horner’s goal, and for the remaining reviews I will focus primarily on how he manages to accomplish this–how will this work prompt believers towards the development of discernment.  Given his goal, I think he does a marvelous job of pointing out how critical it is for Christians to take advantage of film in the pursuit of discernment.

Given my previous post on the need to study movies, I am thrilled to read as he writes:

Many Christians tend to view film as “mere entertainment.” But really there is no such thing for the believer. Everything has meaning and relevance, because God rightly claims sovereignty over all aspects of our lives, no matter how minor they may appear.  Every decision we make about everything we experience has real value to God.  Film is not just mass media art or pop culture either. Film is the modern-day equivalent of philosophy. (p. 30)

I wholeheartedly agree with him here, and I look forward to the remainder of the work as he dissects and evaluates the various genres of film, and as he lays out his approach to viewing and interrogating a movie.  In the meantime, go rent a movie!

Grace & Peace,
Dan J.

PS – If you are interested in viewing the movies with which Horner deals directly, this post at Justin Taylor’s blog gives the details.

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