The other day in a literature class I mentioned Clint Eastwood’s boxing picture “Million Dollar Baby.” One student said, with some passion, that she had seen the film and hated it.
“Why?” I asked, with more than a bit of curiosity. She said she couldn’t get the film out of her head. The story was sad, perplexing, and, worse still, downright haunting. “You mean,” I said, “it’s a great film.” I should have added, “You’re a wonderful viewer of movies. After all, you got it—heart and soul.”
A good part of the problem Christians have in viewing movies lies in what they expect from them. What are movies for, anyway? Often they give us exactly what we need: a few pleasant hours in an imaginary world that is far from the troubles of an actual real world. However, the unfortunate truth is that unboring escapism and nothing more is all most moviegoers want. In large part, what we get from movies (particularly mainstream Hollywood) depends on what we expect. And most of the time, we expect very little.
What good movies do best is educate the soul—that instrument of feeling and thought with which Christians attempt to understand and care about God’s world. Good films tell stories that show what it’s like to be alive, what good and bad life holds, and even, on rare occasions, how God shows up.
Some films sadden; others elate and inspire. Mostly, though, they school audiences in that thing Christians claim to be their special talent—empathy—so we might all, in Shakespeare’s words from King Lear, “feel what wretches feel.” After all, we all are those very wretches, alone and lost and searching for the shelter of God.
Ultimately good films, and good art of any kind, melt “the sea frozen inside us” (Franz Kafka) so we might see, in pity and in joy, the world as God sees and cares for it. n
Fiction for Adults
A Thread of Grace
by Mary Doria Russell
reviewed by Sonya VanderVeen Feddema
(Random House) In 1943 thousands of Jews traveled hazardous paths over the Alps, seeking refuge in Italy after it severed bonds with Germany and made peace with the Allies. Instead of peace, conflict escalated as Italy was torn between warring factions—resistance fighters, the Nazis, the Allies, Jews, and Italian citizens. Mary Doria Russell’s novel—based on these true events, which she researched for five years—movingly manifests the truth of a Hebrew saying: “No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there’s always a thread of grace.” Thrown together, a motley crew of Catholics and Jews, a disillusioned German doctor, a versatile resistance leader, brutalized young women, and daring old women save the lives of 43,000 Jews. Throughout the book (especially in one scene with a German doctor and a dying priest) the author vividly portrays how God’s amazing grace sets people free.
Nonfiction for Adults
Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies
by Roy Anker
reviewed by Nathan Bierma
(Eerdmans) In 13 essays, Roy Anker illuminates the spiritual narratives of some of the most memorable films of the modern era, from The Godfather trilogy to the stories of Steven Spielberg. Anker sheds light on how these modern-day mythologies function as “parables of hope,” captivating us not just with their images and special effects but with their truly theological themes. Anker’s vivid writing is anything but preachy; he embeds keen observation in splendid sentences. There are many good movie reviewers out there but few good essayists about movies. Anker is one of the best.
reviewed by Ron VandenBurg
Gathering the names and life stories of all the Jews who perished in the Holocaust is the mission of the “Names Database,” an international undertaking led by an organization called Yad Vashem. To date, the database contains some 3 million names, along with photographs, documents, letters, and diaries. Visitors to the site will find that the voices and faces of the victims become clearly etched in their minds. I recommend perusing the educational resources as well as the Holocaust remembrance ceremony.
by Neal Morse
reviewed by Robert Keeley
(Metal Blade Records) Fans of Yes, ELP, or early Genesis will find much to like in this album, which shows that the progressive rock genre of the 1970s still has life left in it. Neal Morse left the band Spock’s Beard after he came to believe that his newfound Christian faith was at odds with the band’s direction. This keyboard and guitar virtuoso has since released two solo CDs that speak to his faith journey in a way that is both sweeping and personal. One’s memorable musical and lyrical themes keep coming back in new forms in this 80-minute album.
Shall We Dance?
reviewed by Ron VandenBurg
(Miramax) Starring the attractive trio of Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, and Jennifer Lopez, this film could have slipped into the tired Hollywood template of broken marriage and midlife crisis. Instead, it evolves into a comic ensemble piece that explores unexpected themes. John Clark (Gere) steps into a dance studio looking for a happiness that he feels guilty to seek. Instead, he meets other seekers with secrets. As the characters’ relationships develop through dance, Clark finds himself obsessed—not with a newfound love, but with the exhilaration of ballroom dancing. (Rated PG-13 for some sexual references and offensive language.)
by Steve Jenkins
reviewed by Sandy Swartzentruber
(Houghton Mifflin) “Wwwwow! Cool! Whoa!” That was my 7-year-old son’s reaction to this fun and fascinating picture book. Steve Jenkins presents colorful cut- and torn-paper collages of actual-size animals—or whatever portion of them fits on the page. From the 1/3-inch dwarf goby fish to the entire head of an Alaskan brown bear to the 12-inch eye of a giant squid, Jenkins’s unique treatment brings kids a lot closer to these animals than nervous parents would allow in real life.