Into the Dark by Craig Detweiler – A Book Review
We walk into the Cinema, the lights are dim, and then it gets dark. The screen lights up with a dark film, a romantic comedy, a drama or fantasy where the Divine can shed light on our communities, our deepest longings, and us. Craig Detweiler in Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century seeks to revitalize our faith by demonstrating how a reverse hermeneutic, the emerging canon of film (general revelation) can shed light on our lives and the canon of scripture (special revelation). He takes us into the dark confident that “the Spirit will guide us from art (beauty) to ethics (goodness) to theology (truth)” (31).
Detweiler follows the path of Hans Urs von Balthasar by reversing the common approach to hermeneutics. Instead of starting with theology and special revelation, he starts with the creative (film) and general revelation and then moves toward special revelation. Balthasar’s theological approach moves from Theo-phany (Aesthetics), to Theo-praxy (Dramatic Theory) to Theo-logy (Logic), for he sees that “God [first] acts in creation (Genesis), [then] in history (Exodus), [and finally] in Christ (the Gospels)” (40). In the same way, for Detweiler, “Theology and doctrine are the logical results of trying to explain and organize glorious, artistic realities” (40). Detweiler takes the emerging canon of films – the 45 top films of the 21st Century, as discerned through the IMDb community – and lets the films drive the discussion, allowing the theological applications to arise from the movies themselves.
In Part I, Detweiler looks at issues of identity. He examines a number of films which “challenge the myth of the ahistorical, autonomous individual” (49), giving much space to Christopher Nolan’s Memento and Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. While Memento raises “core questions of epistemology” (80), and “forces us to examine our receptors, our mirror, lenses and recording devices” (80), Eternal Sunshine seeks to deconstruct the typical romantic comedy and show us that relationships are complex and take commitment. Detweiler helps us to see how a good read on the themes of Eternal Sunshine wakes us up to a fresh understanding of two of the most “dangerous” Hebrew books – Song of Solomon and the book of Ecclesiastes.
In Part II, Detweiler looks at the drama of community, and how a number of movies remind us that we are not alone. Yet community has its challenges, whether it is family (Little Miss Sunshine), different races (Crash), different tribes (Hotel Rwanda) or different ideologies (United 93). We need to learn how to love “the other” as we love ourselves. We can do this as we are enveloped in rich community of the Father, Son and the Spirit, after all community is the deepest and most foundational reality that exists. Detweiler also shows us how films like Million Dollar Baby and Talk to Her help us “process life’s most vexing moral quandaries” (161), as we seek to live in community with each other.
In Part III, Detweiler takes a look at history. He first looks at some of the historical epic films like Gladiator, The Pianist and Letters from Iwo Jima and asks, “What might God be revealing about our present circumstances through films focused on the past” (189)? He concludes by looking at a fantasy films like Spirited Away, which in their own magical way help “restore our imagination” (254) so that we might embrace the future.
He concludes masterfully by looking at how the Lord of the Rings sums up what films have to offer us, in that the “most timely, relevant, and haunting films resonate with the shaping story of scripture: from the beauty of creation, through the tragedy of self-destruction, to the wonder of restoration” (257), and that general and special revelation “are complementary gifts for navigating the complexities of life, for fueling our dreams, and for enduring our disappointments” (263).
Detweiler took us through forty-five films in the emerging canon of movies and richly demonstrated how God can use the art of cinema as general revelation to deepen our understanding of Scripture. He successfully helped us understand the enigmatic phrase from the pen of Dostoyevsky, that “Beauty will save the world.” For at the gut level, we don’t exist simply because we think, at heart, we are creatures who love and desire. Thus we need liturgies, rituals and routines (masses) that reshape our desires. Good films do just that. They help us understand that we are broken eikons, in need of repair. That we need to learn to live together, learning from our past and allowing the imaginative future to shape our present actions, for as Einstein has said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
With the guidance of Belthasar, Detweiler helped us understand how “beauty can lead us to goodness and truth” (161). With the aid of Moltmann, he helps us recognize that the immanence and transcendence of God work together, and that the same Spirit that hovered over creation also “animates our art, our imagination and our dreams” (36). Finally, through digging deep into this emerging canon of movies, he demonstrated that just as God speaks through the stars in the sky, he also communicates through the stars in Hollywood.
As we allow the Spirit of God to reshape our desires through art (film) and scripture, there is a greater chance that we will live faithfully in God’s drama.