Jesus’s stories invited his listeners to ponder “the truly good life.” In the stories, his listeners recognized familiar character types and everyday situations. Exaggerations brought laughter. People wondered at characters who subverted social expectations in their actions. The stories started conversations that seasoned life’s mundaneness with salt and brightened the dark aspects with light. We can imagine that the more people thought about the stories, the more questions they thought of—and now, thousands of years later, we continue to ponder the good life through the taut, streamlined stories Jesus told.
At their best, our culture’s artists tell stories that raise the same kinds of questions. These questions, with a cultural twist, often show up in independent films and initiate conversations about what matters in life. When our senses are attuned to this potential, we may find ways to share our faith and its perspectives on life.
Jesus lived and taught in a primarily oral culture that valued wisdom gleaned from storytelling, conversation, and debate. In our day, movies invite us to spend a couple of hours in a story—and many of us accept that invitation. In the US and Canada, the film industry employs more than 450,000 people and generates over nine billion dollars of annual box office revenue. But some avid moviegoers regard movies as nothing more than entertainment. “When I watch a movie, I just want to turn my brain off and relax,” people sometimes say. That attitude ignores the opportunity to look beneath the surface and consider what the movie is saying about the good life and the struggles we share. When we watch movies with a different perspective, a movie becomes a way to bring theological perspectives into our conversations, introducing salt and light to the contemporary ideas of what constitutes a good life.
Every year, Dallas Theological Seminary joins other Christian colleges and seminaries for the Windrider Summit that takes place during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The mission of Windrider is to cultivate a deeper focus on the craft of storytelling through film and the conversations about truth that films can inspire. During the week of the film festival, Windrider participants gather in the mornings, praying and worshiping as they hone their focus on the documentary and narrative films they’ll see at the festival. Filmmakers visit Windrider to share their stories, talk about their craft, and discuss the life issues their films raise. From these sessions, participants learn to “read” films more deeply and make connections between their Christian faith and interactions with the culture. Windrider participants learn to be salt and light among filmmakers and fellow moviegoers. Students bring deeper focus to their engagement with storytelling through film in the following four areas.
Get to know the storyteller. To understand Jesus’s parables, we have to know Jesus. And seeing more deeply into a film demands a familiarity with the filmmakers. In completing a film, filmmakers have demonstrated persistence in the face of setbacks and failures along the way. Director Robert Bresson encouraged filmmakers to “make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.”1 Before we form an opinion about a film, then, we understand that the film is the unique voice of someone who has overcome challenges to tell us a story.
Ask questions about the film’s genre and context. In the context of complex theological discussions, Jesus told stories specific to his listeners. He applied the craft of storytelling to elicit certain kinds of discussion, contemplation, and response. Similarly, a filmmaker draws on the techniques of film to generate certain kinds of reflection and discussion. In engaging with a film, we ask about the technical aspects of its production. How do all the elements of film come together for one purpose? We also consider its intended context.
Identify the questions the film leaves unanswered. Jesus’s parables often end with some ambiguity. Who was the “good guy”? Does one of the characters represent God? Who am I in this story? How should we respond to what we’ve just heard? Films often work the same way. They don’t give us all the answers, and the end of a film may leave certain issues unresolved. Before forming an overall opinion, reflect on the film’s questions and on the wise or unwise choices the characters made. Also consider that the characters and story may continue beyond where the film leaves them.
Discuss what the film says about the good life, the ways we either triumph or fall short, and the tensions we often feel in pursuing truth. Some films present a happy ending, affirming that “this is the kind of conclusion we all yearn for.” Other films bring us insight into ways the world has gone wrong; we see the problem that needs to be addressed, but the film doesn’t fix it. And some films show us a slice of life, without clearly approving or criticizing what takes place. In conversations with fellow moviegoers, this is where we can bring our theology into dialogue with the story. The filmmaker has introduced us to a different way of looking at the world that can open up an avenue for fruitful discussion about life. Should I now see the world around me differently, and what changes might I make in my everyday decisions? Does the film invite us into a meaningful conversation? These reflective skills are beneficial for all of us.
People we encounter every day want to know what it means to live a truly good life. Learning to focus more deeply while at the movies can bring salt and light to our contemplations and conversations with filmmakers and filmgoers.
i Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematograph, trans. Jonathan Griffin (New York: NYRB Classics, 2016), 50.
About the Contributors
Dr. Bock has earned recognition as a Humboldt Scholar (Tübingen University in Germany), is the author of over 40 books, including well-regarded commentaries on Luke and Acts and studies of the historical Jesus, and work in cultural engagement as host of the seminary’s Table Podcasts. He was president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) from 2000–2001, served as a consulting editor for Christianity Today, and serves on the boards of Wheaton College and Chosen People Ministries. His articles appear in leading publications. He is often an expert for the media on NT issues. Dr. Bock has been a New York Times best-selling author in nonfiction and is elder emeritus at Trinity Fellowship Church in Dallas. When traveling overseas, he will tune into the current game involving his favorite teams from Houston—live—even in the wee hours of the morning. Married for over 40 years to Sally, he is a proud father of two daughters and a son and is also a grandfather.
Neil R. Coulter served as an ethnomusicology and arts consultant for twelve years in Papua New Guinea, with Wycliffe Bible Translators. He is now senior writer and editor at DTS. He and his wife, Joyce, have three sons.