Monday, February 26, 2007

Oscar Omission: What Would Schaeffer Think?

Recently, I have been rereading several of Francis Schaeffer's books. Schaeffer was the intellectual mentor I never met, the one who ignited my desire to speak the truth to the contemporary world without fear and with love and reason. Although North Americans throw this phrase around promiscuously, The God Who is There truly did "change my life" for the better when I read it in the fall of 1976. I went on to read all of his books within a few years.

But on the night of the Academy Awards, I find myself realizing that I am not much like Schaeffer in one respect: I ignore much of popular culture. I don't attend movies. (Of course, I don't watch television.) I have perhaps seen three movies in the past decade. They repulse me, by and large; and I have better things to do. This was not the case in the 70s and 80s. I would often attend films, try to discern their worldview, reflection on how they were shaping the culture, and try to give a Christian response--just as Schaeffer did. But in the late 1980s something radically changed. North American films became horribly garish and offensive, by and large. My wife and I stopped attending.

It is true that theater culture is diminishing. Miniaturization strikes again. We have "the home theater." Many people watch films on DVDs at home. They subscribe to NetFlicks, and so on. My wife watches very old movies she tapes off of TV. I don't. That's it.

Have I betrayed my mentor, or has culture changed so radically that abstention is better than interaction? I honestly don't know. Sometimes after rereading a Schaeffer book, I want to view a film just to analyze its worldview commitments and understand what many people are exposing themselves to on a regular basis. Then again, I remember all the unread books, the music to listen to, the bike rides to take, and so on. (The other day, I illustrated nihilism with a scene from "Annie Hall" by Woody Allen. Most of my students were not born when it came out...)

I hear there are philosophically significant foreign films and perhaps a few North American ones as well. But I am far out of the loop.

Dear Francis, what would you think of me? I am committed to the Lordship of Christ, to Reformation Theology, to outthinking the world for Christ, for showing that Christianity is true, rational, and pertinent. That will not change. But I have changed, and culture has changed.


Jeremy said...

It seems to me that movies do one of two things: (1)expose the human condition for what it really is, either in its beauty or in its most vile forms. There are both aspects to the human being, even the fallen human being. (2) Or movies anesthetize their audience to the human condition, generally from the bad.

That said, I don't think you're missing much. The human condition doesn't change; everyone is looking for the same thing. As time changes some of the options from which to choose may change, but the desire never does. There's something to be said for understanding how contemporary culture expresses such a univeral desire to fill the infinite void, but understanding that the void is there is more important.

The Gospel is relevant simpliciter. It was given specifically to ameliorate the human condition. I don't see why one must have a finger always on the pulse of pop culture, e.g., movies, MTV, etc., in order to present the universal message of the cross.

Tom said...


I think Schaeffer would be very proud to have inspired you to the work you are doing. There are only so many hours in a day, after all, and it's better to do what you do (and that's a lot!) well, than to do everything but do it sloppily.

One question: do you really think there was a sea change in American popular film in the later 80s/early 90s or might you have just got tired of seeing movies?

Becky Vartabedian said...

Film, when it meets condition (1) of Jeremy's dilemma, and other sources of popular culture (yes, even television) are valuable for a variety of reasons. When done thoughtfully, film conveys important moral themes and might serve as an entry into discussions about philosophical and religious commitments -- theistic or otherwise. I guess this is another angle at Jeremy's point (1).

Another reason film and popular culture are useful as tools in philosophy and religious conversation is that they offer common ground and a level playing field from which more theoretical discussions can emerge.

It doesn't need to be used to make the gospel relevant, but in some cases popular culture can illustrate or demonstrate gospel commitments and requirements. Many of my students watch *Heroes* and *LOST,* shows which are written intelligently (although not perfectly) and with the aim of introducing complex philosophical and religious themes into the popular conversation. This doesn't cheapen the gospel according to themes in popular culture, but it does open the door to a discussion about theological themes.

We all make choices about what is important when it comes to entertainment and where we spend our intellectual energy. It's important to me to teach my students who are interested in this kind of stuff to be discerning about their choices, to direct their interests on certain paths, and use these happy accidents of popular culture to communicate philosophy and theology (when it's appropriate).

Tom Goodman said...

It might be an interesting exercise to ask your readers what films they would recommend you see if you were to try to get back into the cultural conversation that Schaeffer advocated. I'd like to contribute to that list and see what others would suggest.

Tom said...

In response to Jeremy's interesting post and to others: why shouldn't we think that some movies are just, well, entertaining without being mind numbing? I don't see a lot of movies, but I do listen to quite a bit of folk/rock/indie/pop music and I think a lot of what I listen do doesn't strive too hard to lay bare the human condition, but neither is it anesthetizing drivel. It is just solid popular art. And the world is better for it. Am I missing something?

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

These are all good and throughtful responses. Thank you all. This post wasn't a pronouncement, it was a question, and you are helping me answer it.

I am not against entertainment per se, but take that mostly from music. I can listen to intrumental music while reading. But watching a movie takes up all one's focus. So, it has to be worth it.

Yes, I do think movies took at turn south in the late 1980s. They became more mindless, noisey, and crude.

But a foreign film from (I think) 1987 is one of my favorites of all time: "Babette's Feast."

Jeremy said...

This is a bit of an old post now, but I want to respond to Tom. I dont' want my statements about the anesthetizing effects of movies to ential my believing that they're then drivel. I agree with Becky, sometimes it is a good thing to engage in entertainment solely for the sake of entertainment (of course the kind of entertainment matters, I don't think anyone would argue that point). Also, anesthesia isn't all bad all the time. If I'm going to have an arm cut off, I want some anesthesia. The human experience is hard, and sometimes we need a break. That's okay. My real concern is that we may all end up like the quack dentist in _Little Shop of Horrors_. You know the guy who was addicted to his Nitrous Oxide.

I hate to quote Ol' Van, but "the human predicament is the humean predicament," but for different reasons than Quine thought. Remember that Hume made the comment that after having a good time with his friends, he was all the more aware of how cold and unforgiving his ideas about the world really were. We're all like that--life is hard, and we seek distraction. Distraction isn't bad, but it can be addictive.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I think your comments about the turn of film in the late eighties is correct, at least from my observations and from what I have heard from others....

Are movies more artistic these days? I would say so. Sex, vulgarity, violence, etc. are in all films, however, and there is no way to truly absorb one's self in the film and truly understand the worldview/perspective of the film without also absorbing the violence/vulgarity/sex that comes along with it. I don't think a believer can "objectively" discern the worldview of the unbeliever(s) in these films without, in some sense, becoming the unbeliever and allowing one's self to be tainted by the world for those two hours of viewing.

Some would say that in light of the above we should abstain. The price of the knowledge of good and evil is too high to pay. I can respect that. But there is always a trade-off. A believer can't claim to understand the world if they don't become the world, in some sense. They might think they understand it, theoretically, but unbelievers know better b/c experience is the best teacher.

I think the degree to which one exposes themself to the world is not an easy one to discern. One can easily lose one's way as they try to navigate through the labyrinth of "the world." But maybe God uses that, too.....