by Marc T. Newman, Ph.D.
"Nobody knows what this movie is about!" Imagine my surprise as I was driving back from UCSD, where I had been doing research for a new book, when I heard KFI radio talk show host John Ziegler exclaim over his inability to ferret out a meaning from the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie. His sentiments were echoed by reviewers such as Ethan Alter, writing for Premiere Magazine, who claims, "Still, even with all that cash at their disposal, returning director Gore Verbinski and screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio couldn't come up with a story worth telling." Carina Chocano, of the Los Angeles Times writes that the film is "unsure of what it wants." So maybe it wasn't so surprising that Bill O'Reilly's office contacted me this week to do a short segment on The O'Reilly Factor last night about the spiritual implications of Dead Man's Chest. With all the spinning going on in the mainstream press, perhaps he just wanted somebody to give it to him straight.
Note: If you didn't catch it, the interview is available on his website at http://www.foxnews.com/oreilly/ -- just click on More Video and then on Johnny Depp's pirate face.
I had a hard time telling if Mr. O'Reilly was being serious, or throwing me a softball, when he asked me to support my claim that there are religious ideas embedded in the film. But as evidence mounted during my admittedly brief interview, it became hard to deny that the main thrust of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is concerned with the various ways that people imperil their souls – some explicit, some more subtly implied – and the importance of guarding your immortal soul because, eventually, you will give account for it. A detailed analysis can be found in my article last week: In Peril of Our Souls: Theological Considerations from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.
It was certainly a pleasure to be invited on Mr. O'Reilly's program – he was very cordial to me. But the invitation, and the other reviews, point up the crucial need for Christians to enter the conversation about pop culture. First, because movies represent monologues that needs to be dialogues. Second, because all significant stories come back to the Christian story. And finally, Christians must engage because we are commanded to take every thought captive to Christ.
Nearly every film you have ever seen makes truth claims. In other words, the movies represent as true some expression of the world. Big Fish is about a man's quest to live on after death, at least in his stories. The Polar Express argues for the importance of belief. An Inconvenient Truth alleges that humans are causing catastrophic global warming. Superman Returns reveals our need for a savior. Ugly films, such as Thirteen, serve as cautionary tales warning parents to keep an eye on their vulnerable children. Even subversive films, like the American Pie series, make truth claims about what constitutes a good and satisfying life. But making truth claims is not the same thing as telling the truth – but films make their worldviews so compelling and attractive that their claims often go unquestioned. After all, we reason, "it's just a movie."
It is when people are having a good time, rhetoric professor Roderick Hart tells us, that they are most vulnerable to persuasion. In a theater, watching a film, there is no one there with whom to argue. What is on the screen might look like people, but we all know that they are merely images. (Well, most of us know that. I have been in horror films when audience members have attempted – to no avail, of course – to warn unsuspecting victims of their impending danger.) Films represent a kind of monologue that you sit through. Movies talk to you – and people rarely talk back. It is easy to underestimate the impact of watching these truth claims over and over. But to put it in perspective, advertisers spend billions of dollars each year on 15-60 second spots intending to change your behavior. Are we to assume that 90-150 minute narratives will have no effect?
When politicians make truth claims on the campaign trail, people constantly rise up to challenge them if they think they are untrue, or champion them if they agree. Movies can be enjoyed as they unfold in the theater, but once outside they can and should be open for scrutiny. The monologue of the movies needs to turn into a dialogue. And while few of us have access to the people creating those claims, all of us have access to those who are consumers of those claims. And there is good news. Discerning Christians have much to say about the most moving films, because the best contemporary stories merely echo those from the past.
Only So Many Stories
There are only so many stories to tell. Christopher Vogler's book The Writer's Journey is a textbook on creating mythic stories for the screen. All you have to do is take a look at the top-twenty grossing films of all time and there you will discover that the most popular films – these are the ones that really speak to people – are largely concerned with self-sacrifice, redemption, and the battle of good against evil.
Titanic would have been just a disaster flick were it not for Jack's self-sacrifice. Some have found Christian symbolism in the Star Wars films (I find Manichianism there, but this also represents a spiritual truth claim). Some scholars find in E.T: The Extraterrestrial a form of Christ-myth. The Lord of the Rings is probably the best example of the power of love and friendship to make victorious the weak over a dominant force of evil. Finding Nemo is an amalgam of the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Lost Sheep. And number ten at the box office, The Passion of the Christ needs no explanation.
Christians should explore these films in light of the truth or error that they represent. The stories of pagan antiquity were filled with the seeds of the gospel. If we will put into practice the belief that All Truth is God's Truth we can explore the claims of the films that we see, commending what is good and challenging what is false. In Acts 17 the Apostle Paul looked to an artifact of the Greeks, an altar to an unknown god, and used what he knew about God to explain it to them. Like the ancient Greeks, there are many artifacts that people today "worship" and when we find similarities between Hollywood mythologies and the Christian faith, we need to declare with Paul that "what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you." We cannot expect the response to our dialogue to be uniformly positive. Instead we should anticipate the same results that attended Paul's declaration: "some began to sneer, but others said, 'We shall hear you again concerning this.' So Paul went out of their midst. But some men joined him and believed..."(Acts 17:32-340.
Taking Every Thought Captive
When a film is made particularly well, some say it is captivating. The movie draws you in and holds you spellbound. Christians need to remember that they are in the middle of a war. It is not the culture war we hear so much about, but a spiritual war. The weapons we have been granted are the Word of God, prayer, and gentle persuasion. We are to speak graciously, but we are still to speak. Paul says that we are to "take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ." That command does not end at the ticket booth.
When people leave a theater together many of the conversations follow the thinking of popular movie critics. People talk about the action, or the cinematography, the acting, or the costumes. They want to be able to apply their own "thumbs up or thumbs down" to the movie they have seen. While aesthetic criticism is fine, it does not go far enough. As Captain Jack Sparrow learns in Dead Man's Chest, the soul is a serious subject, demanding examination. Films are filled with moral and spiritual truth claims. With a little effort they can be discerned. MovieMinistry regularly makes discussion cards and film guides available to help you turn after-film conversations into talk about eternal topics. But one of the most important ways to be able to recognize the nature of the truth claims you find in film is to be familiar with your own. In other words, read your Bible.
Concerning the first Pirates film, Bill O'Reilly asked, "I didn't see a lot of churchgoing in there or praying as Johnny Depp cut people to ribbons, maybe I missed it – so what's going on in this one?" Whether he was honestly asking or just giving me a chance to voice what he already thought, hoping to tweak secularists, I will never know. But when people equate spiritual content in films only with symbols of exterior piety or overt worship, they are missing a lot that Christians can reveal. Most of the parables of Christ had little overt religious content. Spiritual understanding needed to be supplied by the explanation. By not allowing films to monologue, and instead creating dialogue, Christians can open up stories and tie the most moving of them back to their spiritual, transcendent roots. If Christians can help people to understand why some kinds of movies resonate so strongly, perhaps viewers can eventually make the leap from desiring the fiction in films to embracing the facts of faith so that the fleeting joys they sometimes experience in the cinema can be theirs for eternity.
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