Receiving the Divine on Friday Nights at the Movies

Recently, a favorite author of mine wrote (somewhere I can’t now seem to recall or find) about a man who “has had a greater impact on [his] life” than anyone he’s ever known. He bragged that this friend, among other things, hadn’t watched a film since “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” was in theatres (1988, in case you were wondering). “He’s too busy living his adventurous life” is how I remember him putting it. 

Which left me feeling rather self-conscious.

Watching a good film is one of my great joys. Growing up, gathering in the living room on Friday nights with pizza and popcorn for family movie nights was one of our few hallowed traditions. To this day, one of my favorite ways to end the week is by relaxing at home with loved ones and a movie. 

But this line from one of my favorite authors has stayed with me. It’s gotten under my skin and left me wondering, Why do I make time to watch film? (Especially when I have that book proposal to write, the article that’s overdue, or this blog post to get to.) Is it merely to relax? Is film, for me, nothing more than passive entertainment? Or, is it something more?

We watch film for many reasons, of course, but one of the reasons I so appreciate and make regular time for film is because it inspires and shapes my imagination and my desires in ways I need.

The Calvin College philosopher James K. A. Smith has written at length about the power of liturgies, those “rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for” (You Are What You Love, 46). These rituals happen not only in church, Smith points out, but outside of church, as well: in shopping malls, in our relationship with our cell phones, and, of course, in the films we watch. Films are one of those liturgies with the power to shape our understanding of who we are, what we’re created for, and what will lead to our flourishing.

Similarly, the late French philosopher René Girard points out that our desires are learned, rather than innate. And what we desire is learned, he suggests, by observation. Our desires are an imitation of what we see others pursuing and enjoying, which Girard calls “mimetic desire.” (Girard’s work was, by the way, highly influential for Facebook’s development—worth pondering.) The work of Smith, Girard, and others show that film and its portrayal of characters become an important way in which my desires and my imagination are shaped and directed.

Victor Hugo’s story of Les Miserables—dramatically, beautifully told in the 2012 film directed by Tom Hooper [and to be shown on August 2nd at the Summer Film Series]—shows me not only that redemption is possible, but that human beings are those for whom redemption is possible. In our increasingly divided, hostile, and cynical days, I need to be reminded that mercy and grace truly are transformative, when I begin to doubt the veracity of real, flesh-on-bone transformation.

The director’s gaze of Terrence Malick (two of whose works I’ve presented at past New College Berkeley/First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley Faith & Film Series) pulls me down to earth, seeing all of those things that I miss when I’m caught up in the contagious, hurried pace of Bay Area life—a sunset stretching through the slats of a picket fence, a river patiently carving its way through sand and earth, a nun faithfully washing dishes, a guilt-ridden woman bathing her face in sunlight, a strident father holding the finger of his firstborn child in awe, and so much more. And, what’s more, this same gaze reminds me that these quotidian realities are brimming with the life and character of the Divine—so easy to miss without the help of a patient camera (and, perhaps, many viewings).

I watch films like October Sky (1999) and Hidden Figures (2016) because they remind me that those on the margins—be they from remote, rural towns or racial and gendered minority groups—are capable of seismic impact. 

I return to Meet Joe Black (1998)—too slow for many, too sentimental for most, but still a favorite of mine—because it invites me to consider, if I had everything, everything I could want, and if I came face to face with my own death, how would I spend my remaining time? (And, the subsequent question, of course: How can I live like that now?)

 And I watch films like Won’t You Be My Neighbor (2018), which I’ll be presenting for this year’s Faith & Film Series, because its depiction of the life and vocation of Fred Rogers, known to most as “Mr. Rogers,” reminds me that living in such a way as to show how attractive goodness is remains a worthy goal, now as much as ever; that we can approach complex topics such as border security, war, and racial divisions without name-calling, minimizing, or gaslighting; that even our most revered saints wrestle with deep self-doubt; and that responsible hope remains, even amidst so much discouragement.

“All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well,” Madeleine L’Engle writes, quoting Julian of Norwich. “No matter what. That, I think is the affirmation behind all art which can be called Christian” (Walking on Water, 150). Good films remind me of that truth, when I am tempted to forget.

Could I be doing more with my Friday nights? Of course. The altar of productivity is never satisfied. But all of us, called to create in our own way, need inspiration, need positive, healthy formation for our imagination and for our desires. A liturgy of sorts, film shapes us, for good or ill. There is a glut of film that encourages a deeply dissonant understanding of who we are, what we’re created for, and what will lead to our flourishing other than what God teaches us in Scripture. But good film has the power to open up a deeper receptivity for the Divine, has the power to shape us to believe, to persist, to create better work, wherever we are. And that remains worthy of my time.

Ryan Pemberton (MTS) is the Minister of University Engagement at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, the author of Called: My Journey to C. S. Lewis’s House and Back Again, and a regular facilitator at the Summer Faith & Film Series.