As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
Is it permissible to watch movies as worship?
I haven’t been regularly watching my church’s recorded services. They don't feel like worship. They feel empty. They feel like consuming Netflix.
God can, however, speak through Netflix. I’ve had profound experiences of God’s presence while consuming entertainment. I remember the whale coming over the audience like a ponderous cloud in the Sight & Sound Theater in Branson, Mo.
In the show, Jonah, the whale comes over the audience. And, if you are looking for them, you can see the dancers dressed in dark clothing who support the enormous, mammalian prop on slender, upright poles. The dancers pad softly down the aisle toward the stage, sailing the whale over a breathless audience. They are reminiscent of pallbearers.
I wept during that part of the show, silent aching grief that shivered over me like waves. I cried for a loved one who had recently passed away. But I was also overwhelmed.
I feel uniquely close to God in that kind of gasping-for-breath, can’t-open-my-eyes-wide-enough awe.
Once, for example, I was with my aunt to her megachurch for Easter. The series of modest congregations that met in homes and school gyms in which I was raised did not prepare me for the megachurch. Slides featured kaleidoscope patterns that pulsed to the beat of the music. Smoke machines amplified bright lights that ricocheted around a full band. In place of a sermon, we watched professionally filmed dance sequences, testimonies, and short narrative videos. At the end of it all, the pastor called us to receive communion. The elements were champagne and birthday cake. “We are looking forward,” explained the pastor, “to the wedding feast of the Lamb.”
I related the experience to several friends who'd also come from traditional church backgrounds. “I think there is something beautiful about experiencing worship as absolutely, wildly enormous—overwhelming. It reminds us we can’t dissect or define God,” I concluded.
My friends were still skeptical, perhaps questioning the appropriateness of smoke machines and dance sequences as much as champagne for communion.
Christianity and the Arts
Art, entertainment, and spectacle in the practice of Christianity have been much debated throughout history—Byzantine iconoclasm, the Reformation, various denominations’ prohibitions against dance. Art is often at the crux of defining correct worship.
Few things can provoke as much heat from Christians as a Bible movie. Inevitably, the filmmakers take liberties with the story. Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014), full of family drama, visual effects, and Russel Crowe, is a prime example. The film features rock monsters, magical objects, and Methuselah wielding a flaming sword. It sounds more like a fantasy blockbuster than a biblical story. And Christian reviewers said as much, drawing comparisons to Lord of the Rings (The Banner, PluggedIn). But others justified the additions and changes as artistic license. The defense of biblical movies usually takes one of two tracks. Bible stories are vague, old, and often short, and translation to film necessarily fleshes them out a bit. Or Bible stories are vague, short, and old and must be made accessible and relevant to a modern audience.
This concern that Bible stories be made palatable or comfortable seems hazardous—at what point does Christ’s call to “pick up our cross” express any concern for our comfort?—but it also makes sense. After all, most of us read the Bible in translation. Jesus explained the kingdom of God in parables. If entertainment, particularly film, is an accessible language of our world, why shouldn’t we translate God’s word into that language? Isn’t the Incarnation a translation? To paraphrase 1 John 3:16, Christ taught us the definition and meaning of love in laying down his life.
Christians are also called to “be in the world, but not of it”—a difficult position. As humans, we manage complexity by creating neat boundaries. I wonder if this is a function of our God-given role as Namer of Creation. We label. We define. We organize. And in the fallen twisting of humans and the world in which we live, that practice of compartmentalizing can lead us to parse church from “The World”. Entertainment is physical, bodily, experiential; and it is the consuming interest of the world. Perhaps it is only natural that Christians—our identity, rooted as it is in resurrection beyond physical death and faith beyond what we can see —should react by defining ourselves as the opposite of the body-obsessed, pleasure-fixated, consuming world.
But emphasizing the mental or spiritual aspects of faith does not free us of consumption. Church can easily become a mental exercise, an opportunity to parse, analyze, and digest Scripture. Or it can become training for theological debate. I wonder if we sometimes seek to understand God more than we seek to experience relationship with God.
So I worry about reducing church to consuming a sermon from my couch. I have a tendency, rather than listening as God works on me, to work on God’s Word, as I might Shakespeare or Austen. I collect little bits of information to prove a point in an essay later. I absorb, possess, and use it the way I might a bit of historical trivia or a mathematical theorem. In this way, I try to master some little piece of God. It’s wrong.
That’s why the Biblical movies that seem to aim at apologetics or argument are worthy of the same scrutiny as those that aim for epic entertainment through generous artistic license. Risen (2016), with Tom Felton, is such a movie. Risen is a kind of CSI New Testament, in which Roman officials investigate rumors surrounding the crucified Jesus. The aim of the film is clearly for some fine actors to argue the validity of the Resurrection. But I imagine few skeptics watched Risen. It’s a decent film, but is it any better than Noah? A film does not become less like consumption or less problematic by becoming more informative or argumentative. Faith is relationship, not recitation.
The Prince Of Egypt, perhaps the most underrated movie of all time, and certainly the most underrated biblical adaptation, is a movie about relationship with God, structured around the story of Moses.
The first song, “Deliver Us,” calls out to God as “Elohim.” This is the name for God used in Genesis before Moses receives God’s name at the burning bush. Elohim evokes authority and is sometimes used to describe other gods or even human rulers.
“Elohim, God on high, do you hear your people cry?” the song asks. The God the Israelites know at the beginning of the story is a distant but powerful Lord.
Almost every lyrical song in the film makes some mention of the incomprehensible plans of God. “Through Heaven’s Eyes” is particularly catchy. But the most powerful song is “The Plagues,” which is audacious. It is sung from God’s perspective, promising wrath until Pharaoh “breaks” and “yields.” But the voice of Moses also calls for Pharaoh, who he knew as a brother, to repent. Moses’ cry that Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” is overlaid with a choral chant of, “Thus sayeth the Lord.” Moses, as the voice of God, is pleading with someone he loves.
The lifeless body of Pharaoh’s first-born son, a child taken by God’s Angel of Death, is shown in the next scene, juxtaposed to God’s love for Pharaoh expressed through Moses’ call to repentance.
It’s amazing that a children’s movie could express so well and powerfully the protective, jealous wrath of God that surges to defend his children. God will not be mocked. God will not be tested. God will not be robbed. God will harden hearts, ordain death, and also save Moses, the murderer, many times over. And God will empty disaster from his storehouses to break a hardened heart.
It is beautiful, uncomfortable, even terrifying.
In the end, as the armies of Egypt race toward God’s children, the sea fractures and soars up on either side. A path appears. What if we could, in a church service, even for just a minute, create an echo of the awe-striking experience of a sea torn like a veil, or the holy fire that does not destroy the bush in which it dwells, or the salvific whale that swallows rebels whole into resurrection? What if instead of digestible doctrinal pieces, comfortably familiar stories, or epic spectacles of human creativity, we sought the uncomfortable, overwhelming, shoes-off encounter with God?
Entertainment and its technologies and tricks might help us do that. There might be room here for a smoke machine or a strobe light, maybe even a blockbuster. Especially now. Especially when there is so much we do not understand. Especially when we feel alone.
We need to experience being loved like children, with a fierce, protective, overwhelming passion. We cannot possibly understand this love. Yet love draws near and tells our definition-hungry brains that the name of love is the huge and overwhelming “I AM.” God will not be consumed by us, but in faith and worship, God invites us to be consumed by him.