You Think You Know Who You Are? 
Sunday, February 12, 2006, 12:51 AM - Faith and Film
. . . You have no idea." - Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon) to his ex-partner Officer Hanson (Ryan Philippe), in the film Crash

Roger Ebert's review of Crash

Review of Crash on

Crimes and Misdemeanors 

Finding the Point of Felt Need 
Thursday, December 8, 2005, 10:18 PM - Faith and Film

Jerry Orbach and Martin Landau in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

In The Body: Being Light in Darkness (1992), Charles Colson talks about the difficulty of doing Christian evangelism in what he calls "a post-Christian culture":
The prevailing world-view denies the existence of absolute truth. The existential, not the historical, conditions the American view of life. So when the Christian message, which is essentially historical and propositional, is proclaimed, modern listeners hear what they interpret as simply one person's preference. . . . Thus, even sharing your personal testimony may not necessarily be convicting. (330)
To drive home this point, Colson described a recent dinner conversation with an acquaintance who happened also to be a prominent journalist. They had met because the acquaintance was "intrigued" by Colson's born again Christian faith and wanted to learn more about it. But Colson found that the usual evangelical approaches did not work: the man believed in neither the Bible nor eternal life, so arguments that used these as points of departure failed to move him. And as for Colson's personal testimony that a relationship with Christ had given him a sense of deep peace and fulfillment--well, the acquaintance was happy for Colson, but he had other friends who had found the same things in the New Age movement.

Colson, temporarily flummoxed, had a sudden thought. "Have you seen Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors?" he asked.

The acquaintance had indeed seen the film and they discussed it for several minutes.
Then, catching him off guard, I asked, "Are you Judah Benjamin?" [the film's central character, a well to do opthamologist who, to protect his comfortable life, commits a monstrous crime and then is wracked by guilt]

He laughed, but it was a nervous laugh.

"You may think this life is all there is," I said, "but if so, then there is still an issue at hand--how do you live with yourself while you're here? I know you have a conscience. So how do you deal with that when you know you do wrong?"

He picked at his food and told me that very issue gave him a lot of problems. Then somehow we moved into a discussion of Leo Tolstoy's novel, War and Peace, in which Pierre, the central character, cries out, Why is it that I know what is right but do what is wrong? That in turn led us to C. S. Lewis's concept of the natural law ingrained in all of us, and then to the central point of Romans 1: That we are all imbued with a conscience, run from it though we might, and that conscience itself points to questions which can only be answered outside ourselves. (331)
Colson concluded the story by saying that he thought his friend would eventually become a Christian. "But I know one thing, without Woody Allen, Leo Tolstoy, and C. S. Lewis, I wouldn't have found a common ground or language with which to discuss the spiritual realm. . . . [T]o evangelize today we must address the human condition at its point of felt need--conscience, guilt, dealing with others, finding a purpose for staying alive. Talking about the abundant life or life everlasting or Bible promises often just won't do it." (332)

Meaning at the Movies 
Wednesday, December 7, 2005, 08:53 AM - Faith and Film
In recent years a small library of books has appeared that deal with the ways in which cinema can be used as a way to illuminate issues of faith. Two lists of such books are at

Faith, Film, and Church

Spirituality & Film

One of my favorite books in this genre is Finding Meaning at the Movies, by Sara Anson Vaux. "Movies," she argues, "mirror our desires and dreams, but they also shape them, as we struggle to understand ourselves and our world. . . . [They] may offer the most compelling places today to raise questions of religion and value. They provide us with a fantasy arena where we can test situations and relationships that in ordinary life we may be too preoccupied or timid or frightened to think about; movies also provide us with safe boundaries. . . . But most critically, they stimulate us to imagine how we can translate our own beliefs and values from the protected shelter of our places of worship out into the worlds of chance and choice. Movies, when they encourage this kind of reflection, can be part of our ongoing worship life." (pp. ix, 20)

Finding Faith at the Movies is a guide for groups and individuals who want to explore the interplay between cinema and spirituality. She selects a number of themes and then discusses specific films that illuminate them; for example, alienation as portrayed in Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982) and Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997); integrity in Lone Star (dir. John Sayles, 1996) and Unforgiven (dir. Clint Eastwood, 1992); and purity of heart in Forrest Gump (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1994) and Sling Blade (dir. Billy Bob Thorton, 1996).

The list of themes and films is, of course, suggestive rather than exhaustive. I can't think of a good film that does not, willy nilly, illuminate an important spiritual theme. Even Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl's admiring documentary of the 1934 Nazi rally at Nuremberg, can be viewed as an unintended but profound exploration of the ways in which evil can convincingly cloak itself as virtue.

I became interested in faith and film a few years ago while teaching a course in relational evangelism at a church I then attended. By "relational evangelism" I mean a strategy by which Christians can share these faith with others that is based on first creating and maintaining an authentic relationship with them. Poor evangelism tries to cajole, judge, and frighten people into accepting a single, rigid answer to questions of ultimate meaning. Competent evangelism challenges, but does not dictate. It summons people to take seriously the quest for meaning and to look carefully at the answers at which they've arrived.

How then to encourage others in the search for meaning? The best way is to create conditions in which questions of ultimate values will naturally arise.The possible strategies are limited only by the imagination, but one excellent method, I decided, is the film and spirituality group. As the name states, this is a group that meets together to view a film and then discuss its spiritual implications. I tried this experiment several times and found that it always produced interesting conversations and constructive results.

A few months ago I agreed to teach a Sunday school course on Faith and Film at a local church, and come January I have to make good on the commitment. Which means that now is the time when a flyer has to go into the church bulletin announcing the course. (This is particularly important since I don't actually attend the church--or any church, for that matter--and so few of the members know me.)

An hour-long Sunday school class obviously affords nowhere near enough time to show an entire movies. So instead I've selected 5- to 10-minute film clips that illustrate the "faith and film" connection and, with any luck, offer a good point of departure for discussion. Here's a list of the films:

Crimes and Misdemeanors (dir. Woody Allen, 1989)

Cool Hand Luke (dir. Stuart Rosenberg, 1967)

The Truman Show (dir. Peter Weir, 1998)

Grand Canyon (dir. Lawrence Kasdan, 1991)

Gandhi (dir. Richard Attenborough, 1982)

Crash (dir. Peter Haggis, 2004)

Amadeus (dir. Milos Forman, 1984)

The Woodsman (dir. Nicole Kassell, 2004)

A Beautiful Mind (dir. Ron Howard, 2001)