Questions. We learn to ask them almost as soon as we can speak. I remember taking one of my boys to an art gallery when he was two and wandering from room to room trailed by a little piping voice that kept asking, “What dat daddy?” It was cute right up until we arrived at that naked statue…
But questions are how we learn. In fact there’s an entire learning style based on questions that’s called the Socratic method. The Greek philosopher Socrates maintained that, “Life without examination is not worth living,” and habitually used questions as a means of testing the validity of his friends’ and opponents’ beliefs. The right question often revealed the inconsistencies in their philosophies. The same can be said for the worldviews proposed by film and television productions.
Back to that two year old. I’d been writing popular culture reviews for about five years by the time he came along. As a journalist, I’d been helping my audiences understand the messages behind the movies they watched; as a parent I wanted to do the same thing. If I couldn’t help my kids understand a film, I reasoned, what chance did I have helping an adult? Once they’d gotten old enough to take to the pictures I set my plan in motion. Initially I began by strapping them into their car seats and launching into a two-syllable version of what I thought of Finding Nemo, Kung Fu Panda or Cars. The results were mixed. By which I mean that sometimes they stayed awake and sometimes they didn’t. But one day I struck gold.
I’d been struggling to get my three boys to stop asking, “When are we going home?” long enough to hear my wisdom about How To Train Your Dragon. In frustration, I asked the first thing that came to mind – “Who did you like the most?” The floodgates opened. Honestly, I couldn’t get a word in edge-wise for fifteen minutes. But when I finally did, I asked the next easiest question – “Why?” Before I knew it we were having a conversation about that film’s values, kiddy style. I’ve built on it over the years, teasing out what touched them the most and why, affirming and challenging where appropriate. I don’t aim for much, just the first five minutes on the drive home. But now the same boy who wanted to ask embarrassing questions about naked art has his own favourite question after every show:
“Daddy, what do you think that film was about?”
Of course, whether it’s answering that one or simply guiding the conversation to somewhere positive, it won’t be long before a parent realises they need to do some deeper thinking before they can help their kids do the same. But one of the intrinsic problems is that big and small screen stories tend to naturally evade questions.
Film and TV productions are designed, at least on one level, to put your conscious thought processes to sleep. There is a certain detachment necessary to enjoy a good story, a surrendering of our present world so the characters can step off the screen. But over and above this, film and TV promote something like hypnosis. I’m not the first to note the contemplative state human beings associate with staring into light sources – stars, sunsets, campfires – and, in a darkened room, it’s that much easier to find ourselves slipping into that comfortable suspension of reality where this month Tarzan, James Brown and the Ninja Turtles will come to life.
So how do we stay aware enough to decide whether what we’re hearing is worth valuing? Be prepared to ask yourself some questions after you’ve finished watching. Here are a few helpful ones I’ve collected over the years:
Adrian Drayton: “What about this film moves me?”
Adrian is a Christian writer who had already been reflecting on popular culture for more than a decade by the time I wrote my first review. He’s a past master at considering the real effects fiction can have. Adrian calls it ‘the phenomenological response’ – the laughter, the tears, the goose bumps. “Filmmaking technique can manipulate a message through intercutting, editing, attaching an evocative soundtrack,” he says. According to Adrian if we don’t consider what a film is asking us to feel strongly about, and whether we agree as Christians, we’re more likely to just passively consume a culture rather than speak into it.
John Piper: “Does it express or advance my holiness?”
Recently American pastor John Piper expressed his thoughts on Christians watching the MA15+ HBO series Game Of Thrones. “In the Bible, from beginning to end, there is a radical call for holiness – holiness of mind and heart and life. ‘As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.’” There’s more at stake than just understanding how much a production agrees with or contradicts the Bible. Has the production helped or harmed you spiritually? It can only do one or the other.
Greg Clarke: “What does this production tell me about God – humanity – right and wrong?”
Long before Greg became the august CEO of Bible Society Australia he was a valued colleague for picking apart popular culture. His is the first question I take into every review and the last one that’s on my mind as I write my response. What picture of the world is the production offering? One with God or without – and how is He presented? Is there anything in the film that needs correcting, or defending? The world’s best performances and special effects fade away in the face of the answers.
Myself: “Are there bits of broken treasure?”
Our Christian culture is often at odds with this world and so, just as often, I find myself exiting a screening with a mounting list of things I don’t agree with. But I need to remind myself that, as James puts it, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights…” Healthy father-son relationships? A strong desire for justice? The conviction truth will win out in the end? The Devil didn’t create any of these; everything worth celebrating is from God’s hand. Sin might obscure His masterpiece but I do my readers a favour by pointing out where the Creator’s handiwork shines through. By doing so I can slip under the guard of His creatures, who were designed to agree. And by pointing out where it comes from, I can challenge their worldview as well as prepare my Christian friends to tell the next generation about Jesus.