IN PRISM'S BOOK BAG: GOD – Coming soon to a theater near you, Rick Bonn reviews three recent books about film and faith
FINDING GOD IN THE MOVIES by Catherine M. Barsotti & Robert K. Johnston (Baker Books)
FINDING FAITH AT THE MOVIES by Barbara Marz (Morehouse Publishing)
USELESS BEAUTY by Robert K. Johnston (Baker Academic)
As the theological discussion of film increases in classrooms and churches nationwide, two recently published books offer guidelines and examples for group leaders, while a third opens a window into the spiritual wisdom of a new generation of postmodern filmmakers.
FINDING FAITH AT THE MOVIES by Barbara Marz and FINDING GOD IN THE MOVIES by Catherine M. Barsotti and Robert K. Johnston are heavily stacked toward the practical. They each examine a variety of films, offering Bible verses related to each, questions to pose to small groups, recommended clips, and related thoughts. Chapters include extras such as background information gleaned from DVD commentaries or other sources that help tease out the films' meanings.
After offering a helpful review of theological approaches to film, FINDING GOD examines 33 films that exemplify "excellence in storytelling." These films, according to Barsotti and Johnston, are not overt expressions of faith or faith-based alternatives but films that "allow us to see humanity with fresh eyes, [and] provide the possibility of encounters with God and his creation." And, they note, they're often made by non-Christians.
In FINDING FAITH, Marz interacts with 12 films so personally and devotionally that she stirs in the reader a new desire to see them. And, in titling chapters with a question, such as "AMERICAN BEAUTY – Gratitude: How is Beauty a Gateway to Thankfulness?" she suggests an immediate approach to each film. She also provides ideas to spur more vulnerability and interaction in group sharing.
While both books provide a welcome resource for class and church, Johnston's USELESS BEAUTY is the real treasure for film lovers. Coming on the heels of his successful book REEL SPIRITUALITY and out of his courses at Fuller Theological Seminary, USELESS BEAUTY is a collection of essays putting a remarkable run of recent films: AMERICAN BEAUTY, MAGNOLIA, RUN LOLA RUN, MONSTER'S BALL, SIGNS, and ABOUT SCHMIDT – into conversation with Ecclesiastes. It's a rich work that yields new insights into the spiritual dimensions of each film and greater appreciation for the wisdom of this rewarding book.
Johnston plunges into the metaphysical soul of these films, weighing them with the fullness of his faith, humanity, and modernist mind. Few writers on film today are as incisive as Johnston, whose cinematic autopsies penetrate the surface of each, laying structure and symbol bare.
While acknowledging and appreciating the artistry of Kurosawa and the existentialism of Woody Allen, Johnston finds a fuller, more paradoxical examination of life's meaning in this recent batch of brash, independent-minded films. He's one of the first critics to unearth the spiritual dialogue and questing that so intensely rage in the vision of postmodern, Gen-X filmmaking. While his writing is clinical, rooted more in logic and labels than heart and gut, this book is an important addition to the religious critique of film and a must-buy for any film lover.
Formerly a development director for Reel Spirituality at Fuller Seminary and national marketing director for Art Within, Rick is currently a freelancer writing about the intersection of faith and art.