I have noticed a recent trend of sermon series based on movies. My own pastor preached a series last year titled "God On Film." I've noticed sermon series at other churches like "God at the Movies" or similar titles. These sermons take popular movies, show some clips, and draw lessons from them, hopefully with a dose of scripture to back up the lesson. Tim Cawkwell's book The New Filmgoer's Guide to God is not one of those sermon series.
The basic idea is similar to those well-meaning, seeker-friendly sermons. But Cawkwell's approach is a bit more esoteric. The first hint is in the title: it's a guide for "filmgoers" not "moviegoers." He covers a few movies that achieved some level of popularity, but most of the them are art house and/or foreign films that have reached a very limited audience and that probably did not make it to the local multiplex.
The New Filmgoer's Guide to God is for the filmgoer, and the reader, who wants more from a movie that a couple hours of escapist entertainment. Cawkwell encourages careful thinking and deep reflection on the movies he introduces. He unpacks the symbolism, analyzes the style, and probes the theology of a wide array of films. Whether it's his personal taste or simply the nature of the genre, most of the films he writes about tend toward the dark and brooding. I had to laugh at his description of one of the films, that I think applies to a great many of the films covered in the book: "If we allow ourselves not to be bored, we are fascinated." He calls slow scenes with little action and no dialogue "an appeal to us to take time to relish the image, and to ask ourselves what is going to happen." An extreme example is "a meditative documentary--so meditative it is over five hours long. . . ." Don't count on finding that one at Redbox.
Although I enjoy the latest superhero summer blockbuster movie as much as the next guy, I have to agree that for the most part in Hollywood "an addiction to speed and 'one d---ed thing after another' has produced a surfeit of violent action and violent explosions, alongside wordy romantic comedies . . . and other kinds of genre cinema." It doesn't necessarily take a lot of theological skill or depth to find a spiritual lesson in a Superman movie or Transformers, but for Cawkwell the bar is a bit higher. "To qualify for the description 'religious cinema,' we need some active ingredients: salvation, atonement, faith rewarded, trust in God, the operation of Grace, the healing operation of compassion." He doesn't bother with Billy Graham films, or the new crop of Christian movies like Facing the Giants. The movies he discusses arguably take on theological questions with much more depth, not to mention with more cinematic skill.
So Mr. Mega-Church seeker-friendly pastor, you probably won't pick up Cawkwell's book as you prepare for your next "At the Movies" sermon series. But Christians who want to explore some lesser-known movies that will challenge them to think about their faith will enjoy the book and will be heading to the special order department of the video store to find some of these films.
(One minor note: I would love for Cawkwell to have included an index of movies covered in the text.)
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!