How to find God in any film

The Eternity team recently had an opportunity to chat with author and film reviewer Russ Matthews. In his recently published book, The Word Becomes Film, and through his work with Reel Dialogue, Matthews argues that in a post-Christian world, movies can provide a new approach to sharing Jesus. And to that end, Matthews also believes he can find God in any film.

Explain why you believe movies are a key influencer in our culture.

Every day provides multiple examples. A professor at a university cites a key scene from Star Wars during his lecture or a CEO uses a movie clip to emphasise a point in his motivational talk. You might read a line in your news feed used by a columnist to support a weekly article, or the local minister uses an image from a classic film to help Sunday’s message. Film is part of our culture regardless of what you think about its influence. Our day-to-day existence has many points where movies touch on the very thing we are talking about with a friend or remind us of memories from our past.

These visual narratives can shape even our spiritual lives. Throughout cinematic history, countless examples of films reference the Bible, God and Jesus. The obvious questions are, does the Bible influence the makers of these films and do the films impact audiences’ perceptions of these Bible stories? Well, maybe both.

People have different moral views, aesthetic preferences and artistic positions regarding film. Still, there needs to be consideration of how films shape the world we live in and we need to be part of the conversation. Motion pictures have been interwoven into our visually-driven society since the medium’s inception. Movies have been a powerful way to convey a message in a short period to a large group of people.

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Films are more than amusing diversions.

Regardless of quality, the standard two hours of a screenplay can communicate ideas about money, love, relationships and even God. Many people could dismiss these stories as mere entertainment. At the same time, it needs to be said that films are more than amusing diversions. Not to be misinterpreted, audiences do not need to enter cinemas with paper and pen in hand for some academic rigour. Neither should people advocate taking away the emotional component of watching a film of any genre. Movies do provide an escape and they do entertain. Still, I hope to challenge people to think about what they are watching instead of merely being consumers. Consider how these visual narratives influence our thought processes, decision-making and spiritual lives.

Movies are such a profoundly influential part of our culture – shouldn’t we consider engaging with these stories as a means of reaching this world for Christ?

Can you really find God in any film?

Each film is what we would call a micro-story. These stories all pull from the meta-story of God’s storyboard. This concept reimagines the term introduced by Jean-François Lyotard. A meta-narrative refers to a storyline that depicts various historical events, experiences and cultural phenomena that rely on an appeal to universal truth or values. For Christians, this is the expression of God’s story. Every other story pulls from and is impacted by the Bible’s overarching narrative. This allows each viewer to point to elements in a film that express the more significant ideas of life. Love, redemption, salvation, relationships and more find themselves in every movie and provide fantastic opportunities to direct others to the story of God. This is the point where the ‘Reel Dialogue’ begins.

Are movies any different than other forms of storytelling?

Where books rely on the reader to imagine what is happening within their mind’s eye, movies give them the visuals to complement the storyline. The desire to hear a good story is not a recent phenomenon. Throughout human history, humanity has been drawn to a good story. Stories have been part of the human experience since the era of the oral tradition. They have been the driving force behind the invention of the printing press and still captivate us in this visual age of the Internet. In this era, anyone can be a storyteller, a writer and a potential film producer through social media and YouTube. Story has been and continues to be the driving force of the human experience. Film is just another means of communicating stories, some good and some bad, but ultimately a method of getting people to experience stories. ‘Movies are part of the toolbox that most people use as they respond to and give shape to their lives.’ (1)

Word pictures help people learn the point of a message, plant the seeds of ideas and give them the fuel to grow in their hearts and minds.

Jesus used stories to drive his message and communicate to the world. Suppose you have taken the time to read Jesus’ teachings. In that case, you will find that many of his documented words were in parabolic style. The parables of Jesus are known in and outside of the church context. Word pictures help people learn the point of a message, plant the seeds of ideas and give them the fuel to grow in their hearts and minds. Also, Paul was known for utilising cultural references to draw his audience into the storyline from the Scriptures. The talk from the floor of the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) had its roots soundly grounded in the Bible. Still, he interspersed cultural references to help the audience engage with what he had to say. The use of stories and cultural references is not limited to Christian teachings.

How does your new book help to use film as a means of evangelism?

Since most Christians want to tell their friends about Jesus, my book The Word Becomes Film aims to equip Christians with an effective way of telling people about Jesus. It’s the story of two blokes – Dillan Quade and Finn Rowan – who bond over the deeper things found on the screen. But the story also helps readers to see the power of movies in leading people to ask the big existential questions of life and demonstrates how to use movies to tell friends about Jesus naturally. These conversations will lead them to the most extraordinary story ever told, the Bible.

You can find more information at reeldialogue.com.The Word Becomes Film is available here and from Koorong

(1) Reel Spirituality – Theology and Film Dialogue; Robert K Johnston; Baker Academic 2006; Pg89.