What if God Made Movies?
In the beginning God gave us creativity
Lynelle Ellis’ piece is one in an occasional series of articles highlighting one aspect of the divine image in humanity—that of human creativity. The series seeks to elaborate on how our own art and craft may properly express something of the genius of their Source and Giver. Contributions to the series come from some of Seventh-day Adventism’s best artists, writers, musicians, architects, and others.
In his book The Great Divorce C. S. Lewis describes a painter who, when he enters heaven, learns from God that “when you painted on earth . . . it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too.”1
Many of life’s most powerful and successful paintings are accessed today through the moving screen. It is not, of course, the screen itself that moves. But the end effect, enhanced by music and other aural stimuli, is a panorama that sweeps and leaps, and darts and dances before our eyes, as our mental powers blend individual picture frames into one continuously gratifying flow of visual perception. A perfectly legitimate conversation continues among committed Christians about the appropriateness of this modern art form objectively referred to as film, but discussed with more moral concern as “the movies.” Film is of course entirely legitimate, what with Faith for Today, It Is Written, Breath of Life, Hope Channel, and 3ABN. But movies are a rather different issue.
Going to the Movies
When I was at the impressionable and transitional age of 13, my parents announced we were “going to the movies.” What prompted my Seventh-day Adventist parents to do such an unusual thing—especially unusual in 1981? It was the suggestion by our friend and pastor that we simply “must see Chariots of Fire.” So the five of us jumped into the station wagon and headed to the cinema to receive a story. Perhaps it was the size of the screen, or the sophisticated nature of the production, but I was captivated—completely caught up in the world of British runners Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell and their quests for Olympic gold in 1924. The subtle power of this Academy award-winning film (Best Picture, 1981) was not lost on me.
I was fascinated by the complex and selfish Abrahams and the intense and devout Liddell. When Eric Liddell refused to run an Olympic heat on Sunday, because it was his Sabbath and should be kept holy, my Seventh-day Adventist heart was stirred. His resolute words to Great Britain’s prince of Wales, who had just asked him to sacrifice his beliefs for the good of his country, still ring in my head: “God made countries, God makes kings, and the rules by which they govern. And those rules say that the Sabbath is His. And I for one intend to keep it that way.”2 Seeing Chariots of Fire was a part of my “coming of age”—and a moment that fortified the importance of standing up for my beliefs, no matter what.
Watching the most meaningful films is like that—learning lessons, growing in self-understanding and moral conviction through sharing stories. “We go to the cineplex to view a movie—to receive a story. But story implies both a storyteller and an audience as it embodies a particular vision of reality . . . there is in the telling of a story an impulse toward communion.”3 Something happens when we watch a movie. The chance for life-changing, powerful communication is present.
Movies Are Different
Nevertheless, movies are different from real life. A famous director and producer once said, “Cinema is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake.”4 While I don’t know what he meant, I’d like to take a stab at interpreting it. Movies are creations. To make a movie is to create something special, like baking a cake. When we craft a cake in the kitchen, we combine flour, sugar, oil, eggs, baking powder, flavoring, etc.—and then bake it at just the right temperature for the exact amount of time needed. A cake is not simply ingredients taken separately, but rather the creative whole. Cakes are special, and we lovingly prepare them for special occasions. Movies are like that. While they may be much more, they are first of all creations. Moviemakers are engaged in a complex creative act. As Christians we understand that creativity comes from God. He is the ultimate creative power. We are all here because in the beginning God created (Gen. 1:1). Through Isaiah God Himself expresses His desire that “they may see and know, and consider and understand together, that the hand of the Lord has done this, and the Holy One of Israel has created it” (Isa. 41:20, NKJV).5
Any ability that humans have to engage in the creative process and embark on the journey of crafting something as multifaceted and aesthetically complicated as a movie is but an expression of God’s creative gifts. Whether or not His divine endowments are put to good use is another matter, but the raw ability to create a visual story comes from God.
Telling Visual Stories
It makes sense that we would feel compelled to tell stories in a visual way. God certainly does. Think of His powerful display of glory on Mount Sinai, the illustrative nature of the sanctuary and its services, or the dramatic way fire came from heaven and consumed the sacrifice on Mount Carmel in Elijah’s time. What about the angels appearing in an open field at the birth of Christ, and especially the dramatic scene of Christ’s crucifixion—accompanied by darkness, thunder, and earthquake? These are all very visual representations of God’s power and love for humankind. God uses visual storytelling to communicate with us—and beyond that to commune with us. Clearly we see God making every effort to connect with us, and storytelling (including visual storytelling) is such a powerful way to do that. “A felt connection is more likely to result from narratives than from most other kinds of discourse. Even the choice to tell a story in a communicative situation suggests intimacy, informality, and friendliness, all conditions that facilitate involvement.”6 The involvement that we experience when we watch a movie is something that the creators of those films hope for. It is the same thing, but on a much more intimate scale, that God hopes for when He communicates creatively with us.
God uses commanding visual representations to reveal His character and inform us about His laws of love. The stories that we understand from the Bible offer potent, value-laden messages. It seems that God uses His creative power both for the sheer beauty and splendor of it, and also as a way to draw us closer to His heart. We can glean moral truths from these amazing biblical visual displays. The same can be said of our creative storytelling. “The narrator invites the audience members to share the moral evaluation being offered of the narrated world. . . . As [audience members] consider the evaluative judgments of the narrator, they engage their own ethical and moral inclinations, thus providing another means of involvement in the story.”7
That’s what happened when I watched Chariots of Fire—I engaged in the message of the story. Producer David Puttnam wanted to make a film that “would put him on higher moral ground” and would show a contrast between the aloof Harold Abrahams, with his fiery personal ambition, and the zealous evangelical, Eric Liddell.8 While the story was first of all beautifully crafted, it was also value-laden—a powerful combination. Using the creativity that God has formed in us in combination with the love lessons and moral principles He has illustrated through the biblical narrative, humans can make movies that move people toward the kingdom of God. “Our (post)modern art form is the movie. Like all art, it is rooted in dialogue—not the dialogue within the movie, but that between the moviemaker and the audience. Movies address a public and invite a response. They do so, in large part, because the nature of film is story.”9
Perhaps you can think of a film that has impacted your life for the good—moved you closer to God’s kingdom. Perhaps, too, you can think of some other that has not. In the end, category distinctions about good versus unacceptable art forms may not be the most enlightened Christian approach. Ellen White’s comments on the theater hold total relevance to today’s movie industry. For there may still be “no influence in our land more powerful to poison the imagination, to destroy religious impressions, and to blunt the relish for the tranquil pleasures and sober realities of life” than the products of Hollywood and company across the world.10 The biblical record shows that moral debauchery and divine gifts of creativity have both long characterized the descendants of Adam’s rebel son Cain (Gen. 4:19-24). Whether in creative production or the search for aesthetic consumption and entertainment, the Christian’s rule will be more than mere avoidance. Proactively and creatively, she may apply the Pauline principle of Philippians 4:8: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things” (NASB).11 While the best films may be rarer than we wish, they do exist. Certainly the only reason for any achievement in inspirational filmmaking is God’s creative gift. It was the same for Lewis’ painter as it is for filmmakers today. Any success they have with their creative work is in giving others a glimpse of the character of God they have encountered themselves.
Pictures of God
Creating is a God-given pleasure and should be a joyous and expressive act. It reaches its highest potential, however, when it is informed by God’s own revelations. The chance to impact the world through the act of creating films is amazing given that “movies function as a primary source of power and meaning for people throughout the world. Along with the church, the synagogue, the mosque, and the temple, they often provide people stories through which they can understand their lives.”12 Even though we now “see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12, KJV), glimpses of heaven are open to us. God has given us the privilege of joining Him in creative expression. Dedicating our creative talents to God’s glory is a tremendous thing to do. As Eric Liddell is quoted in the movie, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”13 Movies may serve no less a purpose, and promote no less a pleasure, as Christian filmmakers challenge themselves to paint pictures of God through their creative undertaking.
- C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce: A Dream (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1973), p. 83.
- In Chariots of Fire, Columbia Pictures, 1981.
- Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), p. 149.
- Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Sonja K. Foss, Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice (Long Grove, Ill: Waveland Press, Inc., 2009), p. 308.
- Ibid., p. 309.
- Quentin J. Schultze, Communicating for Life: Christian Stewardship in Community and Media (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), p. 111.
- Johnston, p. 135.
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 4, p. 653.
- Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
- Johnston, p. 13.
- In Chariots of Fire.