Spiritual Evaluation of Movies

"Movies are one of the bad habits that have corrupted our century. They have slipped into the American mind more misinformation in one evening than the Dark Ages could in one decade."
—Ben Hecht

We rely on a culturally determined collection of myths to help guide the responses of individuals within our society. Historically we have progressed through oral tradition, scribe-written documents, and mass-produced literature as the mechanisms for transmission of these myths. Today movies are a major force in the creation of our contemporary myths. At Reading (Pa.) Meeting we have developed a set of queries to help evaluate the spiritual implications of movies.

We make a conscious decision to go to a movie. Upon entering a theater we willingly suspend our personal distance and a certain amount of our beliefs. Although we usually see a movie with someone else, essentially we are alone in the dark theater, focused on the action on the screen. After the movie we usually do not discuss the film in any detail and do not examine the underpinnings of belief depicted.

The ability to tell a riveting story supplemented by auditory amplification, special effects to immerse the audience in the immediacy of the scene, careful control of the situations presented, and background musical emphasis combine to present a compelling and overwhelming experience. This provides absorbing entertainment and has become an art form. A wide variety of symbols are woven into the fabric of movies to communicate subliminally the messages important to the director. The camera closely restricts our vision and therefore our viewpoint. The dialogue focuses our hearing on the story line. Background music sets a specific emotional pitch to the scene and the entire story.

These potent presentations usually center around a conflict. The characters’ efforts to resolve these conflicts provide the motif of dramatic development. So real are these movies that an aesthetic distance is difficult to achieve. Depending upon the outcome depicted in the movie, the actions are incorporated either positively or negatively into the viewer’s own myth structure without critical review.

Since movies are relatively permanent records presented in sound, speech, color, music, and visual action, they lend themselves well to critical analysis and group scrutiny. Each film has a specific story. Concrete details in the selection of scenes, scenery, music, and spoken dialogue reflect the outlook that the filmmaker intended. How does this outlook relate to our experiences, spiritual goals, and community?

For the past six years, Reading Meeting has been watching films monthly as a spiritual exercise. We have devised queries to help us discern the spiritual background and messages in the movies we watch. With a long film we get together early and share a potluck dinner. After the movie is shown we gather over coffee and refreshments to discuss it.

We first discuss the outline plot and delineate the relationships depicted. Then we analyze the techniques used to convey the meanings shown. We especially look for colors, symbols, settings, and music. Finally we look for evidence of continuing revelation and interconnectedness of characters with each other, their universe, and with the divine.

The queries we pose to guide us are:

  1. What is the main story?
  2. What symbols (objects, actions, situations, colors) repeat themselves? What is the significance of this repetition?
  3. What conflicts, in the dramatic sense, arise?
  4. Do you identify a persuasion toward a particular attitude?
  5. What percentage of time is devoted to any particular theme?
  6. How are the conflicts resolved?
  7. How does the movie relate to your experience? What scenes help you to understand the problems presented? Does the movie shed light on concerns in your life?
  8. As the plot unfolds, what lifts you up and what lets you down?
  9. How does the visual and auditory design impact you?
  10. Are there any examples of divine intervention?
  11. Do you have any problems with this movie?
  12. As the film ends, how do you feel about life?

The discussions have been lively and thought-provoking. The linear plot question helps to clarify the story line and to review the film mentally. Discussion of the symbols helps underline the premises of the filmmakers. The after-movie sharing helps put a perspective on the emotional pitch of the movie and examines the proposed myths presented. In most movies the basic conflict is between good and evil, and in the discussion a new perspective on these elements emerges.

The almost universal use of conflict—personal, societal, interpersonal, environmental, and historical—as plot motifs involve the audience in the film. How the conflicts are presented evokes the prejudices of the audience members. Discussion helps to provide a more holistic view and individualizes the specifics, enabling viewers to look for that of God in every one, including the villain.

How the conflict is handled dramatically is the central element in understanding the myths underlying the filmmaker’s basic outlook. The use of symbols in the visual and oral dialogue helps to clarify what information is being transmitted and what is being perceived by the audience.

Relating the events and human techniques to our own lives provides a focus to explore analogous situations we might encounter and aids in discerning what paths are available to follow. A movie offers a framework of our universe with subjects that can help us explore what the effects of various actions may be. This in turn can help us discern what is changeable, and how to effect this change.

Divine intervention in our daily life is commonly overlooked. When this intervention appears as part of a movie it is usually presented in an oblique fashion. Apollo 13 is an example of a recent movie strongly implying the power of prayer and divine guidance.

Reflecting on what elements in the production make us uneasy—either spiritually, personally, or politically—brings forth a variety of perceptions. The queries centering on personal, social, and political outlooks help us to evaluate our personal and group worldview at this time. Recognizing ourselves in the movie can help us expand our horizon by identifying assumed limits. The movie The Day the Earth Stood Still ends with the implied solution to world conflicts being the imposition of force from an advanced civilization to coerce the world into stopping all conflict. It did not define what conflict is forbidden. The total reliance on force to achieve a desirable goal invites this kind of scrutiny.

Ending with a discussion of the personal, emotional relationship between the film and the discussion group audience rounds out the evening.

For Reading Meeting these movie sessions have been a form of inreach and some outreach. It is also building community—helping bond members together and deepen spiritual sensitivity. Often the movie evening has led to messages in subsequent meetings for worship.