Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Film as Worship: Heaven's Gate?, Part III of III.


Peterson cautions: “It would be simplistic to argue that what was done in the earliest churches is automatically a norm for us today.”[1] Given that we who are created in God’s image are designed to be creative, and moreover, because the New Testament provides for flexibility and innovation in worshiping God,[2] one cannot exclude or dismiss out-of-hand the use of film as a potential means to worship God simply because it is (obviously) not part of the ancient Church.

Once surmounting this preliminary hurdle, it is appropriate then to examine whether films link up with the characteristics of New Testament worship as outlined above.

A. Film Viewing Is Primarily a Corporate Activity, Lending Itself To Fellowship

Films are probably best experienced in gatherings. There is nothing like the experience of going to a movie theater and enjoying a film in the company of others. Communally laughing at the same lines or gasping at other scenes is a satisfying part of the movie-going experience. “Large numbers of cinema-goers (most?) go with friends. [foot note omitted.] However, whether people arrive in groups or individually, watching a film in a cinema is a shared experience. Cinema-going is therefore religion-like in being an experience enjoyed in the company of others….As Martin Scorsese has commented: ‘… I can … see great similarities between a church and a movie-house. Both are places for people to come together and share a common experience.’”[3]

Likewise, the community or corporate aspect of film-viewing can be experienced in the discussion that inevitably follows going to the movie theater with others. Bonds can be formed through the shared experience as well as the exchange of ideas as each interacts with the film on his or her own terms. This social interaction can exist whether or not the movie is seen together. “When one goes to a party and must make conversation with new people, is it not a recent movie that provides the smile of recognition and the conversation starter?”[4]

B. Because Films Engage Viewers on an Emotional Level, They Engage the Heart

Virtually all films contain music or songs. This is just one of the tools in the film-makers’ box to engage viewers on an emotional level. Films often engage viewers vicariously and viscerally, such as evoking an emotional connection or response.[5] In this regard, film can break down the barriers to feeling that are often erected in the day-to-day grind of life. The emotional reaction does not exist for its sake, however. Clive Marsh correctly argues that theology can interact with a film’s emotion and sentimentality in a theological framework.[6] Marsh observes: “Theology is one important conversation partner in the task of structuring emotional responses by viewers to film.”[7]

Moreover, an emotional tug can open the door to action to assist those who are needy. It worked for Jesus who felt compassion for the distressed and downcast and healed “every kind of sickness.”[8]

C. Films Engage the Mind

Like scripture reading and teaching, films come at viewers with material to engage the mind. Mostly, this comes in the form of story, which is also how much of Scripture is constructed. “Christians have recognized the power of story ever since the ministry of Jesus himself. The Scriptures Jesus used (the Old Testament) are overwhelmingly narrative—well over 75 percent. The gospel is at its core a story—God acting in history to reveal his love by saving humans. Jesus consistently used parables to communicate truth. Abstract proposition was not his trade. Rather, compelling stories triggered the reason, imagination and emotion of his listeners as they were invited to deepen their faith and understanding.”[9]

Dr. Johnston echoes this theme in another book he authored on theology and film, Reel Spirituality, as follows: “Christianity is, at core, not an abstract philosophy, but a story; not pure factual reportage, but a recounting of one life in order that other lives might be transformed.”[10] In this regard, films and Scriptures operate similarly.

However, it is not enough that films engage viewers’ minds. “A good story, thought [C.S.] Lewis, should do more than offer an engaging plot or produce excitement. In a good story, plot is important, but as a ‘net’ to catch something else. The story should mediate something more, or other, than what we are conscious of in our day-to-day existence.”[11] In other words, stories should be told with a larger purpose—namely to point to God and His truth. The next point fills in this gap.

D. Films Express and Expose Truth

Dr. Robert Johnston ably summarizes how movies can reveal truth, even without an overtly Christian message or theme. “Movies can provide their viewers both experiences of life and greater understanding of their culture. But what do these have to do with theology? Until a Christian is convinced theologically that movies are an important resource for faith and life, there is little point in proceeding further with our discussion. Let me suggest six responses to this question, six theological reasons why a Christian should enter into a dialogue with film. We need to explore these in some depth if we hope to interest the Christian in serious and ongoing dialogue with film. (1) God’s common grace is present throughout human culture. (2) Theology should be concerned with the Spirit’s presence and work in the world. (3) God is active within the wider culture and speaks to us through all of life. (4) Image as well as word can help us to encounter God. (5) Theology’s narrative shape makes it particularly open to interaction with other stories. And (6) the nature of constructive theology is a dialogue between God’s story (Christian tradition, and a particular worshiping community) and our stories (the surrounding culture and life experiences).”[12]

Thus, under Johnston’s reasoning and the doctrine of “common grace” even films made by nonChristians can illuminate truth for believers.[13] “The power of film can change lives and communicate truth; it can reveal and redeem.”[14] In turn, believers can even encounter God through the process of watching and dialoguing with movies.[15] “Stories are metaphorai—mass transit vehicles…Not only do they allow us to enter another’s life in order to learn something about our own, but they also use the ordinary experiences of living to usher us into the realm of the spirit. It is not just, or even primarily, the stories of angels and demons that are rightly labeled ‘spiritual’. Rather, God is more typically encountered in the everyday, in the stuff of life. When we truly experience forgiveness, reconciliation, alienation, or friendship at the movies, that is a spiritual experience.”[16]

These types of responses to God—to His nature and to His revealed truths--are clearly a form of worship under the broad definition set forth above.

However, it is necessary to distinguish encountering God through the story and revealed truth in film from worshiping the film or its images. The later would implicate the Second Commandment’s prohibition on “graven images”. Even The Passion of the Christ, a film overtly about Jesus, does not cross this line, as Dr. Mark Roberts has explained: “The second commandment prohibits the making of any image that is to be an object of worship. In a word, it forbids idolatry. So then, if Mel Gibson intended for the character of Christ in The Passion of the Christ to be worshipped, then he violated the second commandment. I think it’s clear, from the movie itself and from everything Mel Gibson has said, that he never intended his visual depiction of Christ to be an object of worship. On the contrary, he hopes that people will be inspired by his art to offer worship to the true, triune God. Therefore I do not believe that The Passion of the Christ does in fact contradict the second commandment.”[17]

Some have historically been suspicious of images in films or otherwise. “The Protestant suspicion of image, its reverence for the rational word and its concentration on redemption theology to the sometimes exclusion of creation theology have all combined to have a major dampening effect on this church’s engagement with Hollywood. If a full-orbed conversation between theology and film is to go forward, it will be necessary for the Protestant church to recover a more adequate theology of image, one rooted in experience and grounded in creation itself. As David Harned colorfully expressed it, we must ‘prevent the reduction of the Genesis account to a sort of dubious archeological appendage to Christian faith.’”[end note omitted.][18]

Thus, although films traffic in images, this fact does not necessarily translate into a violation of the Second Commandment. In fact, the very emphasis on images can be movies’ strength. These filmic images, if skillfully done, can cause viewers to see truth they otherwise would have been blind to see or deaf to hear.

E. Because Films are Integrated into Modern Life, Worship Is Not Dependent on a Sunday Experience in a Church Building

As discussed above, worship is to be an all-encompassing experience of life.[19] It is to be routinely part of our lives. It is not to be segregated to only Sundays or in church buildings. Film offers this type of accessibility. Films are generally available to be viewed at any time and in many contexts—not just the movie theater. This availability therefore broadens the horizon of potential worship experiences.


This final section will provide some concluding comments about how best films may be used within worship or for worship. Clive Marsh offers three examples of the use of film within worship. “The first and most obvious use is film as text. A film-clip is here used in the same way as a reading may be used in a sermon.”[20] (Emphasis in original.)

Second, film is used in worship for “liturgical enhancement.”[21] (Emphasis in original.) Marsh explicates that example includes “the use of film-clips at appropriate points within a structured service which amplify what is going on at that particular time.”[22]

Third, Marsh offers another use of film, which he calls the most controversial: “mood setting.”[23] (Emphasis in original.) “It could equally be called ‘preparation for worship’, although mood-setting is not confined to what happens prior to worship. The mood of worship can be set at various points throughout the service.”[24]

As to all of these examples, however, Marsh concedes that the use of film-clips implicates the charge that the “full power of film depends on good quality screen images, high quality sound, a context in which viewers can be attentive and, above all, a setting in which the whole of a film can be watched. Film-clips by definition limit film’s power, especially if shown in contexts not conducive to appropriate attentiveness.”[25] (Emphasis added.)

Nevertheless, Marsh ultimately rejects this criticism because, in formal terms, the use of a clip is like using a lectionary passage from the Bible—a small part is used without its broader context, and because the film-clip is not intended to stand in place of the whole.[26]

Using film-clips in sermons to illustrate points duly recognizes the pervasiveness and power of film to communicate a truth that straight prose might not fully convey. However, it should also be recognized the viewing of film—in its entirety—can also constitute worship because it can evoke a response to God on His terms. It can allow the worshiper to grasp truth—God’s truth—and integrate it deeply into his or her life.

[1] Peterson, 160.
[2] Roberts, 3.
[3] Marsh, 2.
[4] Johnston, 24.
[5] Boorstin, 136.
[6] Marsh, 71-72.
[7] Marsh, 94.
[8] Matt. 9:35-36; NASB.
[9] Barsotti and Johnston, 16.
[10] Johnston, 78-79.
[11] Johnston, 81.
[12] Johnston, 64.
[13] Johnston, 70.
[14] Johnston, 24.
[15] Johnston, 57.
[16] Barsotti and Johnston, 17.
[17] Roberts, Visual Arts, 3.
[18] Johnston, 76-77.
[19] Peterson, 18.
[20] Marsh, 24.
[21] Marsh, 25.
[22] Marsh, 25.
[23] Marsh, 26.
[24] Marsh, 26.
[25] Marsh, 27.
[26] Marsh, 27.
Works Cited

Barsotti, Catherine and Roberts Johnston. Finding God in the Movies. BakerBooks, 2004.

Boorstin, Jon. Making Movies Work: Thinking Like a Filmmaker. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1995.

Johnston, Robert. Reel Spirituality. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2000.

Marsh, Clive. Cinema and Sentiment: Film’s Challenge to Theology. Milton Keynes/United Kingdom: Paternoster Press, 2004.

Peterson, David. Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship. Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Roberts, Mark. “The Soul of Worship”, published at

Roberts, Mark. “Visual Arts in Faith and Worship”, published at