Meaning at the Movies by Grant Horner is not designed as a set of glorified cliff-notes for Christian movie buffs. Rather, it is as the author notes, “An extended meditation on why we have movies at all, why they are so powerful, and why Christians need to think deeply and theologically about film art – indeed, about all human cultural production.” These words alone were enough to draw me in.
Horner endeavors to explain the curse as a two-fold problem, namely, the search for meaning and death. He holds, “Culture is what we produce in our futile attempts to understand the world. It is what we believe and what we do to deal with the twin problems of meaninglessness and death.” This is where movies emerge, which are in the eyes of the author, “the modern-day equivalent of philosophy,” or “the absolute center of modern culture.”
The author builds a strong case for developing Christian discernment (a discipline that seems to grow weaker by the day among Evangelicals). He argues that when we walk away from movies we should be “stronger for having been exposed to error, and exposing it as error.”
Horner proposes a simplified definition of worldview I rather like: “Who believes what about what and why?” The five elements that emerge in this definition may be directly applied to movies and promote Christian discernment. He builds on his initial definition by adding the following: “A worldview is any collection of ideas and their attendant attitudes that attempt to explain and systematize, at some level, how the universe works.”
Horner rightly maintains that ideas never occur in a vacuum. “Ideas are related to other ideas … Most ideas that claim to be new are merely rehashed versions of old ideas” (think, New Age movement and recall the original lie in the garden, for instance). Accordingly, he sets out to briefly explain the dominant worldviews that are entrenched in culture including theism, deism, naturalism, nihilism, and pantheistic monism.
Discernment is crucial. The author notes, “If you watch a film with the powerhouse combination of a mind saturated with Scripture and a working understanding of the major worldview systems, you will in many cases be able, even with a single viewing, to analyze a film with a high degree of discernment.”
The author continues to sharpen the discerning skills of the reader in a chapter entitled, “How to Interrogate a Movie.” Thoughtful questions are encouraged, including:
1. What view of anthropology is presented?
2. What metaphysical view is presented, i.e. ultimate reality?
3. What is the view of destiny, i.e. random or determined?
4. Is the universe progressing or decaying?
5. What ethical framework is presented, i.e. moral absolutism, relativism, or pragmatism?
6. Is the film in the modern or postmodern stream?
Horner adds, “The next time you watch a movie and don’t think biblically, you’ll be disobeying God.” This sharp and necessary admonition catapults the reader immediately into section two.
The second half of the book is devoted to exploring various aspects of film including comedy, “the invention of fear for pleasure,” romance, and dark themes that emerge in contemporary movies.
Horner’s discussion on fear is worth the price of the book. He writes with great insight here: “Because we are wired to gain pleasure from the fear of God, yet as a race we do not fear him, we find ourselves in the rather perverse position of experiencing certain pleasures coming to us in the form of highly manufactured and densely controlled fears packaged as entertainment. I believe this is why ‘fear for pleasure’ has become such a profitable sector of the film industry.” He argues that people in general want control over the things they fear. They want to “limit that fear within prescribed boundaries, which [they] can never do in the case of the ‘fear of the Lord.'”
Meaning at the Movies is a good resource to turn for thoughtful Christians who are concerned with the content that is being propagated on the silver screen. Horner’s analysis is biblical and balanced. And he demonstrates a good working knowledge of movies and the worldviews that lurks behind the storyline.