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Review: Meaning at the Movies, Part 2

Meaning at the Movies
Meaning at the Movies: Becoming a Discerning Viewer

In last week’s post, I began reviewing Grant Horner’s Meaning at the Movies, which proposes to train Christian minds towards the development of discernment, and which seeks to do so specifically in light of cinema.  In today’s review, I will address Horner’s “Practical Considerations.”  He opens this section succinctly:

Discernment means thinking as God thinks….It may be the thing most lacking among contemporary evangelicals. (p. 55)

The question, then, is how does one develop discernment?  How does one practice discernment?  Horner seems to be arguing that movies are a necessary and helpful arena in which to do just this.  But how can we practice discernment when the movies are themselves so lacking in discernment?  How can we grow in the ability to think as God thinks if we watch movies that present world views completely contrary to that of Scripture?

At the beginning of June, I taught through Mark 6:53-7:23 for the folks at MCC.  This is the longest conflict dialogue in Mark, and as such, it represents one of the core themes of interest to the author.

In this unit, Jesus is in the marketplace, healing and interacting with a number of sick and diseased folks, and the Pharisees confront him about the fact that his disciples don’t wash their hands.  Now, the Pharisees bathed after going to market because they lived under the conviction that if they were to come into contact with someone who was sick or unclean, that they would be morally stained by this contact.  Christ rebukes them, and then he tells the crowd that simply coming into contact with something which is stained will not stain you.  Instead, it’s the raw unholiness of our own hearts that will stain us.  Disciples must pursue inward holiness while walking in an unholy world.

This, I believe, is a good description of the practice of discernment.  Practicing discernment is pursuing inner holiness while walking in an unholy world.  So, I think that a person cannot practice “thinking like God thinks” unless he or she pursues this holiness.  But I also think that a person cannot grow in discernment unless one also walks in an unholy world.

Horner assumes that this is the case, and he argues that the call to “separate” is a good call, but we must:

“Separate” while in the world.  We are to separate, to discern truth from error, right from wrong, and then make right choices leading to God-honoring responses.  Our actions must be characterized more by internal separation of truth from error than by external separation from the elements of the world that are clearly sinful.  Standing next to an immoral woman will not ruin your moral condition. (pp. 57-58)

Night of the Living Dead
Night of the Living Dead (Wikipedia; Public Domain)

In essence, we can’t live the Christian life as though we are in a zombie flick.  We can’t bar the doors and huddle in fear, hoping the pastor will shoot anything that looks like the world.  We must go out and imitate Christ by being holy and being in an unholy world.  On this basis alone, I’m fairly satisfied with Horner’s book.

In the remaining portion of the “Practical Considerations,” Horner goes on to provide some basis for evaluating films.  Primarily, he offers a helpful series of questions to ask of a film, and then he provides a layperson’s review of the major worldviews.  He briefly runs down the main aspects of Christian Theism, Deism, Naturalistic Materialism, Nihilism, Existentialism, and Eastern Pantheistic Monism.

In light of these world views, the reader is encouraged to “Interrogate a Movie.”  The Christian viewer should be asking things like the following:

  • What does this movie say about human nature, reality, or behavior?  Are humans good, bad or merely war-crazed animals?
  • Does this movie presuppose that all things can be summarized under the same meta-narrative, or that they cannot?  (Meta-narratives are those frameworks that attempt to systematize all of life.  A good example is found in the attempts by Freudian psycho-analysts to capture all relationships within their system.)
  • What does the tone say about the content?  For instance, does it show mistreatment of women as humorous or devastating?

In essence, through this sort of careful exploration, we might find that a movie which is all about adultery is in fact a very good, very truthful movie and at the same time discover that a children’s movie is mostly evil and dishonest.  For instance, if a movie centers on the decision by a husband to be unfaithful to his wife, and it proceeds to show that decision to be life-destroying and harmful, then this is truthful and good.  (At the same time, the way that the act of adultery is presented affects the overall message of this film.  If it is eroticized, the film can hardly be said to be critical of adultery.)  On the other hand, if a children’s movie portrays humans as a cancer on the planet rather than as the pinnacle of creation, then this is dishonest and evil.  Again, this review of categories to investigate is quite helpful and another good reason to recommend this book.

So, how does a Christian pursue holiness while dealing with unholy movies?  I believe it is as simple as Horner makes it out to be.  We watch them not for entertainment, but with an eye of discernment.  We seek to view them as God would view them–identifying truth where it exists, and identifying falsehood as it crops up.  Horner writes:

If you watch a film with the powerhouse combination of a mind saturated with Scripture and a working understanding of the major worldview systems, you will in many cases be able, even with a single viewing, to analyze a film with a high degree of discernment.  (p. 76)

Given the widespread saturation of screen-based information and entertainment in our society, avoiding film today would be much like avoiding the marketplace of Christ’s time.  Instead of separation and avoidance, we must accept engagement, and we must do so with the goal of discernment.

In the final review, I’ll be discussing Horner’s approach to the various genres of film, but if you are interested in reading some of his work for yourself, the first chapter is available from Crossway here.  Additionally (and surprisingly) you can also browse the full text at Crossway’s website here.  (Look about a quarter of the way down the page.)  Between now and then, I’ll be watching some movies.

Grace & Peace,
Dan J.

Published inBook Reviews


  1. I’m appreciating this review…I was curious about the book and I’m finding this helpful and increasing my desire to read it myself. Thanks :)

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