Originally published in The Valley Press June 2004
I confess: I love movies. My favorite evening activity is curling up on the couch with my family and a good movie. Now that summer vacation is here, I can make a healthy dent in my Netflix DVD rental queue––currently 200 titles!
Maybe my early conditioning––Brady Bunch, Partridge Family and Bewitched is responsible for my fanaticism. I tell myself I should read more novels, they seem nobler, but they take too long. I “read” most of my literature via books on tape while shuttling my kids––I’ve been slogging through the 17 tapes of the latest Harry Potter since May 21.
With a movie though, in a mere two hours I’ve digested a complete story and have something to contemplate while I brush my teeth and drift to sleep. Plus, I like to think movies serve a higher purpose––the modern day equivalent of myths, folktales, legends and sacred stories that hint at the nature of the human spirit and the essence of the divine.
Movies that take me to the pivotal time(s) in a person’s life stay with me, just like Bible stories. In the Old Testament, God used Moses, who ran and hid, and was a disaster at public speaking, to call for justice. I see God crying out for justice in the character of Norma Rae who jeopardizes her job and marriage to support a union in the factory where she works, and in Erin Brockovich who despite being unqualified and all wrong for the job, takes on PG&E because it’s the right thing to do.
There’s no denying our humanity––we’re flawed. But that hasn’t stopped God from working through us. I think of prominent Old Testament David, the shepherd who became king and rebuilt the Temple and was victorious in battle, and who also ordered Bathsheba to sleep with him and had her husband killed while he was at it. I rent Thirteen Days and Evita and am again reminded that God is at work in our flawed leaders.
Jonah ran from God when God said, “Go to Ninevah, which has gone you-know-where in a hand basket, and preach my wrath.” It took three days in the belly of whale before Jonah said okay, and even then he didn’t like the way God forgave the Ninevites and spared them so easily. I think of the three Stouffer boys’ death defying pranks that led to their PBS series chronicled in the movie Wild America; and of the inmates who find self-worth gardening in Greenfingers and I’m reminded that redemption is never beyond God’s reach.
In the New Testament, Jesus traveled with a band of ordinary people; four we know were fisherman, one a tax collector. Many people, with varying levels of understanding of “the cause,” joined him. Most of them remain anonymous to us. They weren’t scholars, they weren’t credentialed, they simply had a hunger for deeper meaning in their lives. Jesus called them to listen to the longings of their hearts and to try to understand the kingdom of God, even though they didn’t get it right most of the time.
I see this passion played out again and again on the screen. In Mr. Holland’s Opus, his great work is the impact he’s had as a teacher and not the masterpiece he set out to compose. Sally Field plays a struggling widow in Places in the Heart who opens her heart and home to strangers, forming relationships that last beyond death. The two uncles and nephew in Secondhand Lions, wary and suspicious from bitter experience, come to know unconditional love. And Billy Elliott absolutely must dance, no matter what the cost.
The website Hollywood Jesus explores the meeting of spirituality and popular culture––cinema, music, and TV––using reviews, clips and trailers. Check it out before you visit the video store. Then microwave some popcorn, settle into the recliner, grab the remote and have a video-fest. It’s good for the soul!
©2004 Cathy Warner