Here are a few books relating faith and film that I recommend and why. Oh, and a note about the Amazon links: If you click one of these links and then, within the browser window or tab that pops up, buy stuff from Amazon (one of these books or other things), Amazon gives a cut of the sale that helps to support this work (but please, don’t feel obligated). After a first click, additional clicks below will open in the same browser window (or tab) as the first one did.
Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies
by Jeffrey Overstreet
Framed within his own personal journey from protected-Christian-child-forbidden-to-see-most-anything to published film critic and arthouse film connoisseur, Jeffrey Overstreet leads us on a carefully guided tour through a wide range of films that have impacted his life and advanced his appreciation for the best in cinematic craft. Early in the tour, he brings in the wonderful Mr. Demkowicz, the high school English teacher that threw him and his classmates into a new world of interaction with art as they read William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Overstreet’s film tour takes us through extended film explorations in action, adventure, comedy, romance, documentary, western, horror, and drama genres. His trail markers and warning signs show us both powerful scenes and weak scenes, insightful moments and misleading moments, our ability to catch the gift of beauty and our propensity to miss it, and the excellent way that subtle choices by filmmakers can bring to us profound insight into and great depth of passion for this life we lead.
Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue
by Robert K. Johnston
Reel Spirituality is a foundational book for study and awareness in the area of faith and film, providing a wide-ranging survey of thought, writings, and perspectives from which to relate film to Christian culture and theology. The book begins by exploring the power of film and examining the history of relations between Hollywood and the church. To structure the body of Christian thought about film, Johnston provides continuums and frameworks for understanding how people engage with film, for theological thought processes (in general and in relation to art and film), and for film criticism. After examining how film can inform our theological thinking and vice versa, the book asks whether we can take film seriously as an art form and then, in turn, describes how the elements of story, image, music, and other elements of film craft contribute to a film’s meaning and impact. Very importantly, Johnston conceives of our engaging with film as having more to do with communion than it does with communication. In other words, reducing a film down to “a message” leaves much behind in terms of a film’s full power, impact, and meaning. To complete the foundation, the book offers perspective for Christians to consider as they wrestle with ethics and purity in relation to film. In Reel Spirituality, Johnston provides a strong and extensive foundation for film’s place within the broad Christian cultural context, particularly for the value of letting the perspectives we get from film enrich and deepen our consideration of theology.
Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture
edited by Spencer Lewerenz and Barbara Nicolosi
I like this collection of essays because of the depth and breadth of perspective it provides on how Christians can mix with the culture around us and still be who we need to be. We can appreciate good things in the world around us without being sucked into the bad and without alienating those around us. We can tell stories that might change people, yet we don’t have to hit them over the head with the gospel. In particular, check out Scott Derrickson’s “A Filmmaker’s Progress” — it provides a wonderful list of different attitudes toward film.
Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture
by William D. Romanowski
In Eyes Wide Open, Romanowski chooses a tack of referring to the movies, et al, as “popular art” — a separate category from high art. This is in no way to speak of popular art as being less than high art — the book is quick to appropriately point out weaknesses in attitudes around high art — but rather to set us on a different footing for engaging with film. The book’s first two parts provide a helpful history and overview of popular art, its cultural foundations and relationships, and Christian perspectives on art. Part three contains the real meat of discussion regarding how we, as Christians, might engage with, react to, and accept or reject movie themes and content. Here, Romanowski takes up both sides, calling out individual films both for censure and for praise, typically because they either, on the one hand, embody typical American lies, or on the other, embody important realities in nuanced ways that draw us into profound life questions. As represented in the book’s closing remarks, it sums up in the end to an encouragement to build community and momentum around good films — films that find their way between sanitized Christian pablum and pandering mass audience kitsch.
Useless Beauty: Ecclesiastes through the Lens of Contemporary Film
by Robert K. Johnston
Ecclesiastes, one of the more enigmatic books of the Bible, speaks of contrasts and questions, sureties and uncertainties, comfort and discomfort. In contrast to the gospel according to some, it tells us that life is not black and white. In Useless Beauty, Johnston walks us through a number of films that embody the themes of Ecclesiastes. Johnston encourages to observe closely both film and Bible, allowing each to enlighten the other, so that we might more deeply see the complexities, nuances, contrasts, and paradoxes of this Christian life. If we do, I believe we will walk away more fully alive and more deeply in love with our God.
Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century
by Craig Detweiler
As the first leg in his foundation for Into the Dark, Detweiler uses the theological principle of general revelation to draw a connection between film and the Christian life. As the second leg, he lets the general population choose the films he discusses in the book — using as a proxy the participants in film discusssions on The Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) and IMDb members’ collective ratings of top films. In other words, Into the Dark examines the 21 century films that have most greatly touched the general public and asks how these films embody the general nature of God’s heart and ways, even if they contain no direct religious references. The result is a quite useful exploration of the insights and impact there for us to experience in the many films that Detweiler discusses. He retains the primacy of God’s special revelation (the Bible), being careful to point out that general revelation is an entry point for and a supplement to special revelation, not a replacement for it. Through his own personal journey and the journeys of others (as illustrated by quotes from IMDb’s film discussion pages), Detweiler shows how film can shine a light into our dark places. Of particular note for those interested in formal study of general revelation, the book’s conclusion provides a short history of related theology and philosophy starting with the Enlightenment, referencing the thoughts of Jurgen Moltmann, Karl Barth, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Immanuel Kant, Rene Descartes, John Wesley, Charles Wesley, and Emil Brunner.