I recently finished reading Grant Horner’s Meaning at the Movies. I was first led to this book by an excerpt I read online (and blogged on here). That snippet was enough to make me want to read the whole book. I am not sorry I did so. This is an excellent book and I think every Christian who has ever watched a movie or ever plans to do so should read it. I would like to see non-Christians read it as well though I don’t know how they would take it. I hope that it would at least make them think about the ideas in the movies they watch even if they do not agree with Mr. Horner himself.
Mr. Horner is an unabashedly Christian film professor. Meaning at the Movies gives us his views of the function of movies, how they affect us, what ideas they convey and how we should view them. Along the way this surprisingly slim volume manages to answer questions on a host of peripheral topics including: What is humor? How does modern romantic love fit with the Biblical view of love? How are we to account for the evil we see in others and ourselves? and many more besides.
Horner operates with a number of presuppositions which he is frank about stating. As I have said, he is unabashedly Christian. He does not disguise that he is looking at movies through a biblical lens. He does not equivocate when he says things like “Yet we are faced every moment with the visible reality of human failure, selfishness, and outright evil” (p. 167). Though he does not spend time delineating his personal theology, it comes through pretty clearly in the book and I am happy to say that he seems to be quite Reformed. At least I can say that he clearly believes in total depravity and our inability to save ourselves.
Beyond what Mr. Horner himself believes theologically, this book is also built upon the assumption that what we believe matters. He spends some time in the first section summing up the various theological or philosophical positions one can take in life and showing how these play out. What we believe matters. While we may often think of the ideas present in books and their power, Horner shows us that they are no less important in movies. The questions he asks, the two most important of which are “who believes what and why?” (p. 61) and “what is the nature of humanity?” (p. 82), are not so very different from the ones I asked when I looked at the different approaches to education.
Another major assumption of his book is that movies have great power in our culture and, more than that, are culture for modern people. The power of visual images is hard to deny. Most of us know what it is like to see a movie before you read the book — it ruins the book because you can’t get the movie’s view of the characters out of your head. Horner goes much further than this. His aim is to show “how movies work and how they work on us” (p. 11; emphasis his). “Film,” he says, “is the modern day equivalent of philosophy. It is an artistic representation of what we believe, what we dream of, what we hope for — indeed, of what we are in the core of our being” (p. 30). This is a pretty bold statement, in my opinion, and I am not sure I would go so far as he does. I will not deny though that movies have a lot of power. I could see that for some people who watch a lot of movies, who always see the latest thing, and especially for those who make movies, that they could be so powerful. They do, as Horner says, encourage one to surrender to them:
“. . . while you are watching a well-made movie, you forget that this is what you are doing.” (p. 32)
“In a sense, disbelief is suspended willingly, and the viewer surrenders to the world of the film, which replaces, to a large extent, the world of reality in which a viewer is simply staring at images on a screen.” (p. 33)
Horner goes so far in the case he makes for the power of movies that I find myself wondeting if we should watch them at all. I will admit that I like the fact that one can lose oneself in a good movie. That is an enjoyable experience. But I could also see that it could easily become addictive. But that just makes me think that it is probably not a wise thing for Christians to do, or at least to do indiscriminately. Horner does have a lot to say about how Christians should view movies, so much in fact that I will leave that discussion for another post. Suffice it to say for now that movies can suck us in. While I personally do not find that they shape my thinking to any extent, I tend to watch very few of them. Others no doubt have different experiences.
A major tenet of Horner’s book has to do with our connection to our Creator:
“The grounding premise of this book is that fallen humans suppress certain basic truths about God and his universe.” (p. 126)
This belief is founded upon Romans 1 which says that all people have an inborn knowledge of God which they deny. This suppressed knowledge then comes out in other forms. There are many aspects of this, but the key seems to be that we are created to know God and to have a relationship with Him. When we refuse to do so, we are driven to fill that gap in other ways (pp. 39-40). The truths that we suppress come back in other forms. Horner calls this “the ‘conservation of truth principle'” (p. 46).
Starting with these assumptions, Horner builds his case, genre by genre, with lots of references to specific movies. I will not go into the specifics; for those you should get the book and read it yourself. His book is very well written and has lots of thought-provoking material in it (some of which I will get into in future posts). Most of it I agreed with. At times he made me think of things in a new way which was truly enlightening. Meaning at the Movies is definitely in my “highly recommended” category.