Theology at the Theater: Watching Film as a Communal Spiritual Discipline – Part 1
I’m honored to be able to go to the Sundance Film Festival again this year. In light of that, I thought I would start this series on what it means to watch film as a communal spiritual discipline.
I remember sitting down with a Christian friend of mine recently. He had just finished his MDiv at Fuller. He was working as a teacher, active in church and engaging in meaningful fellowship. Yet he found himself in a funk in which it was hard for him to escape. As we sat at the coffee shop he told me about a film he had recently watched that awoke his spirit freshly to the Divine. He said, “I felt more connected to God during that film than any ‘sermon’ over the last six months.”
While some films are designed to be escapist entertainment, film has become one of the most powerful forms of art in our day, and has the ability to “disturb and enlighten, to make us more aware of both who we are and what our relationship with others could be. It can even usher us into the presence of the holy” (Johnston 2000:87). Good films awaken us to be more present to ourselves, to our world and to the One behind all of creation. Good films have the potential to help form us to be more fully human.
So what has Hollywood to do with Jerusalem? And what has Sundance to do with spiritual formation? In this essay I would like to suggest that watching films could help form us to become more like Jesus, if done thoughtfully. Film watching can be a profound communal spiritual discipline because the experience has the potential to reshape our desires as the Spirit “uses beauty (art) to lead us to goodness (ethics) and truth. (Detweiler 2008:161).
Here is the road map for our journey. First, we will gain an understanding of what a spiritual discipline and rhythm of life (multiple spiritual disciplines) looks like. Next we will examine what theology looks like in the theater, followed by a practical approach to film watching as a spiritual discipline. Then I will take that method and look at a couple of films that I saw at Sundance, so serve as an example of this practice. I will conclude with some encouragement on why communities of faith should engage in this practice. So what is a spiritual discipline? Find out in the next post on theology at the theater.