So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. Acts 17:22-23 (ESV)
Every day, thousands of Americans enter into a temple of sorts to take part in ritual and storytelling that have echoes of a religious encounter. The movie theater, in many ways, provides a similar experience to a church: an ornate building in the center of town where the community gathers for an experience that transcends their day-to-day. And in these hushed assemblies stories are told—some to inspire, others to challenge, some to make us cheer, others to frighten.
For the past century, the Church has adopted different postures with regard to the film industry. In the 1930s, the Catholic Church established the National Legion of Decency, a precursor to the MPAA rating agency, in an effort to dissuade parishioners from movies deemed godless and base. In more recent years there have been efforts made from those within the Church to produce movies with overtly Christian themes, produced by, featuring, and intended for Christians. But for some, movies provide an opportunity, not to shun or insulate, but to identify and affirm God’s love and grace through story.
When the Apostle Paul encountered the community of first-century Athens, he found a myriad of religious expression. Though many years since its glory days, Athens in Paul’s time still maintained a healthy dose of ancient Greek worship, regional cultic and mystery religion, local folklore, and vibrant philosophies. Each of these practices and beliefs told a different story. When Paul came upon the altar of “the unknown god,” he found an opportunity to tell a better story, a window where the Gospel could shine through.
Film is one of the most far-reaching media for storytelling. Each year billions of dollars are spent producing and consuming movies. Clearly there are many stories of darkness, rebellion, and outright sin so the wise viewer should always be careful and discerning. But that shouldn’t mean as people of faith we ignore the stories the world is telling. Even a marred image can reflect truth. Consider the spiritual significance of ethical choices in Crimes and Misdemeanors, sacrifice and atonement in The Shawshank Redemption, purpose and fulfillment in Groundhog Day, to name a few. In each of these films, as with countless others, there are altars to unknown gods, spaces where filmmakers and viewers alike are asking important questions. Like Paul, the Christian has an opportunity to identify and respond to these questions, to tell a better story.
As you pray today, pray for the artists and storytellers, pray for the viewers and consumers, pray for the parishioners at these cinematic temples, that they would know and be known by this unknown God:
- Pray for revival within the film industry, that the Story of God’s love and redemption would be told in creative and relevant ways.
- Pray for Christians in the industry; pray that their witness is bold and their work is excellent.
- Pray for aspiring storytellers and filmmakers on the campuses we serve, pray for fruitfulness to increase as they share God’s Story through their art.
- Pray for your own outreach as you leverage the films you and your friends watch in an effort to promote spiritual conversation.
Ministry Director, Christian Union Caritas
Selected Resources to Explore for a Cultural Revolution in Arts & Entertainment
ARTICLE: Why should we care about the arts? by Richard B. Hays
Christians should be attentive to the ways in which the character of our community is shaped by the imaginative spaces we inhabit, says the dean of Duke Divinity School.
BOOK (176 pages): Refractions by Makoto Fujimura
A collection of essays, thoughts, and prayers from award-winning artist Makoto Fujimura, Refractions brings people of all backgrounds together in conversation and meditation on culture, art, and humanity.
VIDEO (10:50): FolkPsalm
Charles Pettee and FolkPsalm perform psalms and other Old Testament Scripture set to folk and bluegrass music. In this video, Pettee talks about his spiritual journey and the creative process of presenting old texts in a new way.
BOOK (568 pages): How to Succeed in Hollywood (Without Losing Your Soul) by Ted Baehr
This practical guide shows Christian screenwriters, actors, producers, directors, and more how they can use their faith to change the culture of Hollywood and mass media entertainment by using their God-given talents to make significant creative contributions to the entertainment world.