At the Movies

I grew up in the San Fernando Valley with the Hollywood Hills as a backdrop. So the terrain in Westerns always looked familiar—whatever the plot, whoever the stars.

My Christian parents were against “going to the movies.” This seemed “worldly” to them. But I did watch movies on TV. Classics like The Thin Man, Casablanca, and Gone with the Wind were rich fare for the imagination.

Years later, a stay at the L’Abri study center in Switzerland fostered a view that was less “Christ against Culture” and was more “Let’s engage and analyze the culture and form our own Christian response.” 

Over the years many films have challenged my faith, opening my eyes to a wider view. The Mission showed the clash in cultures between native people and those westerners who wanted to enslave them, raising questions about the differences between missionary work and exploitive colonization of native people. The film made the soul-wrenching struggles and costly decisions made by missionaries visible. Scenes have stayed with me. Even now, years after seeing the movie, the image of a Jesuit priest going over the waterfall, tied to a cross, is vivid. 

The great director Ingmar Bergman explored the meaning of faith from the view of a Swedish artist living in a post-Christian culture. In one of his films, he returned to the small church his father pastored and the camera scanned the biblical paintings on the wall. At the time they were painted those images helped illiterate congregation members understand biblical stories. Returning to the small chapel, Bergman’s camera now asked if any of these images are still relevant. After viewing the movie, the questions remain. How relevant are the biblical stories to the way we live our lives?

We are now looking forward to the annual New College Berkeley/First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley summer film series. Each Friday night in August we’ll view and discuss a movie. This year’s theme is “Faith through the Lens of Culture.”  Each film is set in a different country and invites us to view our Christian faith through the eyes of global believers. After screenings we’ll have lively discussions. You’re invited to join us!

Sharon Gallagher, the editor of Radix Magazine, is professor of Christianity and the Media at New College Berkeley, and the author of Finding Faith.