The 2012 Princeton Lectures on
Youth, Church, and Culture



Today’s young people are awash in a sea of brand logos, movies, advertisements, and pop-culture icons. These forces shape them to be consumers. In the midst of the noise, the Church is called to immerse young people in the waters of their baptism, unleashing the creative power of the Holy Spirit who has called them by name and commissioned them to “go into all the world.” Christ calls young people (all people, really) to share the Gospel with their God given creative abilities.

The theme for the 2012 Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture is “Create.” The lecturers include an artist, New Testament scholar, professor of communications, theologian, and film studies expert. Each lecturer contributes their expertise to a conversation about the Creator, creation, creativity and the creative potential of young people as builders of the Kingdom of God. They tackle questions such as, “What does it mean to understand God as Creator, and what does it mean to be made in God’s image?” “How does the increasing influence of the entertainment industry communicate values to young people, and how should we respond?” “How might aesthetics and artistic expression grow and deepen ministry with youth?” We hope the insights offered in each lecture will fuel your own creativity and strengthen you for ministry.

Faithfully Yours,
Dayle Gillespie Rounds
Director, Institute for Youth Ministry
Princeton Theological Seminary

2012 Lectures

  • Cecilia González-Andrieu
    Taking Back the Aesthetic
  • Makoto Fujimura
  • Marianne Meye Thompson
    Made and Making in God’s Image: Biblical Reflections on the Creator, Creation, and Creating
  • William D. Romanowski
    Gotta Cut Loose: Youth Culture and Entertainment Media
    Off to See the Wizard: Cinema and Salvation, American Style
  • Rebecca Ver Straten-McSparran
    Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: The Dark Side of Beauty
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Off to See the Wizard:
Cinema and Salvation, American Style

William D. Romanowski is professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College, where he teaches courses in film studies. He has authored or collaborated on a number of books and received a Communicator Award of Distinction in 2002. His research interests include the intersection of American Christianity, popular art and culture, film history, and Christianity and film.

I imagine a good number of you have seen the Academy Award-winning film Gladiator (2000). My friend Paul, who loves action-adventure films, arranged for “the boys” to go to a late night showing. During the trailers, however, several teenage girls sat right behind us. Their whispering and giggling was too much for Paul, so he moved several rows in front of us to watch the movie. He was really absorbed in the film. At the end he raised his hand when the hero Maximus died in the dust of the arena and the Roman senator asks, “Who will carry this soldier?” The next night he called me and wanted to go back again to “that world” of the Roman Coliseum. The movie ends, the credits roll, and you just sit there not wanting to leave that world of the film. Has that ever happened to you? 1

Watching a movie involves what Samuel Taylor Coleridge is attributed with describing as a “willing suspension of disbelief.” We put aside for a time the fact that we are sitting in seats with popcorn and a drink staring at images projected on a screen; we allow those projections to take us to another world. And we can have a range of physiological responses. Our palms sweat during a suspenseful scene. We cover our eyes when things get scary. We cheer wildly when the heroine prevails. We laugh out loud, cry, or jolt when we’re frightened, all while reminding ourselves, “It’s only a movie.” By engaging our thoughts and emotions, movies actively involve us with the world the filmmaker has created.

One film theorist describes the screen on which the world of a film is projected as a kind of barrier. 2 The screen separates us from the world the film portrays, making us invisible in that world; characters don’t seem to be aware that we’re watching their every move closely. The screen also screens the filmic world from the audience. We might find ourselves in the middle of an intergalactic battle to the finish with the Death Star, but we never have to worry about being hit by a blaster, or that the evil Darth Vader might turn and come after us.

But in another sense, the screen is not so much a surface as a “space;” the cinema transports its audience elsewhere. Movies can take us shark hunting or exploring the globe. We’re made privy to the prayers of a conflicted Pentecostal preacher (The Apostle, 1997) or the quiet conversation of illicit lovers (The Graduate, 1967). We can sit cinematic ringside during a bout for the heavyweight championship of the world (Rocky, 1976), or witness the bloody battle at Omaha Beach during World War II (Saving Private Ryan, 1998). Shrek and Donkey take viewers on a “whirlwind adventure” that parodies fairytales and gender expectations page 2 (Shrek, 2001). The Matrix (1999), a film described as “a high-octane blend of comic book action and lofty metaphysics,” invites us into a futuristic world where people are computer simulated clones unaware that they are managed by super-intelligent humanoid machines. It is not hard to see why movies are talked about as being magical and even dream-like.

While The Passion of the Christ (2004) was playing in theaters, I was lecturing in Canada and followed a discussion thread in the newspaper over the course of several days. Responding to an earlier letter to the editor, one reader named Ian Coleman wrote:
Among Gèrald Caron’s complaints with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is that it is historically dubious. But how could any movie about any portion of the life of Jesus be anything but historically dubious when all the Christian Gospels contain descriptions of events that could never have happened?
One example of many: In the Gospel according to John, Jesus turns water into wine. Wine contains carbon atoms, and water does not. To produce carbon atoms from the oxygen atoms in water, Jesus would have had to split two protons from each oxygen atom. Doing this to the oxygen atoms in a gallon of water could have caused an atomic explosion that would have destroyed most of Roman-held Judea.
The following day another reader entered the fray:
I fail to see why Ian Coleman is so dubious about Christ’s ability to change water into wine. That has always been one of my favorite miracles and recalling it is especially useful when confronting teetotalling fundamentalists.
I also routinely transform fine wines into unpotable water. Occasionally, I concede, I have some regrets about doing so, the morning after, but I have yet to precipitate an atomic explosion. 3

The Passion drew Hollywood’s attention to those consumers who were already spending hundreds of millions of dollars on religious books and music. Moviemakers wanted a piece of the action. Twentieth Century Fox formed a new division, called FoxFaith, to go after the “Passion dollar,” a new industry trade term used to refer to those moviegoers credited with the success of films like The Passion and The Chronicles of Narnia (2005). 4

To better target church groups, a leading Hollywood marketing firm conducted research and curiously found religious and nonreligious people indistinguishable when it came to watching movies. In fact, the religious folks seem to have a penchant for the sentimental, the melodramatic, and the violent, which puts them pretty much in the mainstream of American taste in entertainment.

Not surprisingly, film producers assumed the audience that fueled the box office for The Passion would simply turn out for standard Hollywood fare. All they needed was to clean their movies up a bit by “sanding the edges off dialogue that might offend churchgoers,” as The New York Times put it. Film studios hired religious marketing consultants “to scan their family-friendly scripts for objectionable content and to devise marketing plans to reach the Christian audience.” I think film critic, Richard Corliss, got it right. “Hollywood doesn’t necessarily want to make Christian movies,” he wrote. “It wants to make movies Christians think are Christian.” 5

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In conjunction with the 2006 Academy Awards, USA Today invited me to write an op-ed piece on Hollywood and evangelical Christians. A reader from Dallas, Texas, was not pleased with my take on the subject and afterwards submitted a letter to the editor. She wrote: Romanowski seems to turn a blind eye to movies that mock religion or are simply propaganda for the political left. This past year, I was only able to recommend three movies to anyone: Walk the Line, Pride and Prejudice, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The latter I saw twice. Not since Titanic have I done that. Evangelicals are well aware that we are a major share of the movie market. After all, we helped make The Lord of the Rings franchise and The Passion of the Christ some of the highest grossing movies ever. Don’t expect us to buy the garbage that Hollywood produces on a daily basis and find our own religious meaning in it just because you did. 6

In light of Corliss’s remark about “movies Christians think are Christian,” let me make two observations about this woman’s comments. First is her inclusion of Titanic (1997) among the movies she considers acceptable. Second, where I found “religious meaning” in certain movies, she found only “garbage.”

I don’t want to construe too much from her remarks. With that qualification, I find this Dallas reader’s comments illustrative of widespread attitudes and for that reason a useful avenue into my topic. I want to offer an understanding of film as popular art that plays a role in helping people navigate within a culture to interpret movies. This raises the question of how to reflect on movies in terms of a faith-based approach and gets us thinking about the dominant and perennial themes in the American cinema.

Media Effects

Much of the controversy over movies stems from a constant debate over whether movies reflect or shape society. Here is my take on it. Movies are a reflection of society insofar as they address contemporary issues and treat them in ways consistent with current perspectives. But the cinema is never merely a reflection. By portraying our lives and culture, films popularize and glamorize ideals, values, attitudes, and beliefs that exist. In this way, movies contribute to the power of culture to shape our lives. Movies reflect a culture they help to create.

In that regard, and to some extent a requirement for popularity (translated commercial success), movies are more likely to affirm people’s beliefs than to introduce new ones. In short, people want to be entertained while also affirmed in what they already believe. Despite a highly publicized nationwide grassroots campaign in the United States and all the evangelistic hype for The Passion, a survey by the Barna Research Group showed that less than one-tenth of one percent of those who saw the movie accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior as a result of seeing the film. According to another Barna Group survey, only five percent of Da Vinci Code readers altered their “beliefs or religious perspectives” as a result of reading the novel. Of course we don’t know from the survey results what kind of changes actually occurred, whether increased skepticism or a renewed interest in one’s faith. 7

The film philosopher Nöel Carroll has argued persuasively that rather than teaching new beliefs, “most of the beliefs that we might be said to acquire from art are things we already know and which, in fact, we must bring to the text in order to understand it.” 8 And in order to be accessible to audiences across cultures, producers generally subscribe to a widely shared moral/cultural understanding. Even before the film begins, page 4 for example, most of us root for Indiana Jones because we arrive at the theater already believing the Nazis are despicable.

Our reaction to movies then, is less a matter of acquisition of new knowledge than a deepening of our understanding of our values, emotions, and the issues of life. Movies manage to do this by encouraging us to apply our life perspective to the specific situations a film might represent. Most patrons of the movie Crash (2005), for example, went to the theater knowing that racism is bad. Seeing the harmful and destructive experiences the characters had as a result of racist attitudes and behavior only reinforced this belief.

Studies also show, first, that whatever impact the movies have is not universal, but specific to individuals and, in some sense, communities, and is mediated by a host of variables. We might have very different reactions to movies based on age, personal temperament, viewing skills, gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, family and neighborhood, education, community standards, political perspective, or social and economic status. As this suggests, the production and reception of movies is a complex process.

Second, under normal circumstances, it is not an isolated film that has an effect on viewers, but the cumulative effect of viewing the world portrayed in movies that has the power to persuade over time. For these reasons, I wrote in that op-ed piece in USA Today that all people of good will ought to be concerned with the cumulative impact of a steady diet of American movies; they often exalt self-interest as the supreme human value, glorify violent resolutions to problems, make finding the perfect mate one’s primary vocation and highest destiny, and offer material prosperity as the most reliable source of meaning and satisfaction in this life. In contrast to this cultural paradigm, the Judeo-Christian tradition emphasizes human dignity and inadequacy, justice and love of neighbor, and the necessity of centering all of life on the goal of glorifying God.

Maps of Reality

I find it helpful to think about movies as metaphoric “maps of reality.” We all know that a map is not the reality it depicts, but a representation of geographical space. So by way of analogy, a film can be understood as mapping a cultural space, or the term I like to use is a “cultural landscape.” Cultural ideals and values, attitudes and assumptions, behavioral norms, social and gender roles are represented by theme and story, character traits and actions, symbols, images and so forth.

Filmmakers draw on their cultural system in interpreting reality and then invite audiences to share their vision of life, to see and respond to things the way they do. And so, movies are designed to elicit emotional responses and deeply felt value judgments. This occurs by guiding a spectator’s pattern of responses, depicting ideals, values and attitudes and suggesting approval and disapproval, directing point of view, creating an allegiance with a particular character and so forth. Stories present events in ways that invite us to think about why they occur, how they affect characters, or how we might respond in a comparable situation. It is important to understand that the best movies communicate not by saying so much as displaying, not by telling so much as showing. Cultural meanings are woven right into characterizations and storylines.

Redemption American Style

A number of years ago, I was at speaking at a conference in the Netherlands, and there I met a French woman who did not particularly like Americans. But she loved Hollywood films. Why? “The dream,” she said, referring to a mythic America as a place of limitless horizons where anything is possible. The American myth “exhorts us to shake free of the limiting past in a struggling ascent toward the realization page 5 of promise in a gracious future.” 9 This myth has been rendered a three-act narrative featured in countless Hollywood films depicting a determined individual hero who overcomes obstacles and trials in life to achieve a measure of success, i.e., rises from “rags to riches.” We can understand these movies as part of the American cultural liturgy, ritualistic stories repeated over and over again that assure us of the promise of the myth.

In the Academy Award-winning film Rocky, for example, the three parts of the American myth correspond to the three acts in the narrative. After the title “Rocky” scrolls across the screen in huge white letters, the first image we see is a mosaic of a Byzantine Christ on the ceiling in what seems to be a church that has been converted into a boxing arena. The metaphorical connection is clear as the camera pans down to Rocky (the “Italian Stallion”) Balboa, suggesting he is a Messianic figure. As the camera dollies back, it also suggests that God is watching over Rocky and further signifies a connection between religion, life, and boxing.

Rocky has to overcome the limitations of his working-class existence and a life of loneliness. He gets the chance of a lifetime when he is chosen to fight Apollo Creed, the reigning heavyweight boxing champion. Rocky’s training, which is highly cinematic, represents his personal transformation and ascent. In the end Rocky does not win the fight, but attains a personal victory by going the distance against Creed and winning the love of Adrian. He has legitimated himself, demonstrating his potential as a boxer. He can now get married, start a family, and acquire material wealth—the traditional American Dream—all of which occurs in the sequels.

Now, Rocky never says, “Yo, Adrian! The meaning behind my actions and the ultimate purpose of my life is to ‘shake free of a limiting past in a struggling ascent to the realization of promise in an open and gracious future.’” Instead the story reveals selected character traits, shows us the conditions of his life and how hard the “Italian Stallion” works to take advantage of his shot at the heavyweight boxing championship. Can you see how this cultural myth is the story of Rocky, woven right into characterizations and the narrative itself?

Every year thousands of people from around the world come to visit one of the top tourist attractions in the city of Philadelphia, what has become known as the “Rocky Steps” that lead up to the entrance of the Philadelphia Art Museum. Runners report hearing the “Rocky” theme song blaring in their minds as they bound up those large stone steps and at the top raise their arms triumphantly signaling the arrival of a champion. All are aware that they are recreating that richly metaphorical moment in the film when Rocky triumphs against the odds, redeems himself, and achieves the American Dream. Sylvester Stallone wrote:
I think Rocky has represented something that, when you train for Rocky, you basically train for yourself. Because we are underdogs. And there’s very few things, iconic situations, that are accessible. You know, you can’t borrow Superman’s cape. You can’t use the Jedi laser sword. But the steps are there. The steps are accessible. And standing up there, you kind of have a piece of the “Rocky” pie. You are part of what the whole myth is. 10

A woman from Minnesota said that running up the steps was “a little bit surreal.” She said, “At the risk of sounding sappy, while I was running, I felt as though I was taking part in something bigger than just me.” 11 The Rocky Steps are a vivid illustration of how much we want to cross over that threshold and enter into the mythic world of the movies.

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Erin Brockovitch (2000) is another film featuring an individual who climbs from rags to riches, in this scenario by helping to uncover one of the biggest environmental crimes in history. Screenwriter Susannah Grant explained the appeal of the character:
“She doesn’t do anything that any one of us couldn’t do if we decided to do the right thing. What’s exciting about that for people is that it’s not alienating. It gives you a sense of limitless possibility and your own power by virtue (of ) watching hers.” 12

These films exemplify a dominant pattern in the American cinema that centers on a main character’s journey to self-realization. The Wizard of Oz (1939) gives us a simple and clear articulation of this theme. Although they don’t know it, Dorothy and her friends Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion have within themselves right from the very beginning everything they need to secure their destiny. Their journey on the Yellow Brick Road only brings them to that realization. Ultimately, they have no real need for the Wizard, a God figure whose pyrotechnical facade is unmasked, revealing only a bumbling old man.

The journey to this self-realization, which is the backbone of myriad Hollywood stories, is redemption, American-style. It is grounded in longstanding beliefs in human innocence and perfectibility. In short, people are basically good and need only to discover their limitless capacities and potential. The key to success is believing in yourself.

As a reflection of American culture, Hollywood movies present us with an ordered world where social, political, or economic problems are the result of individual weakness. Societal issues are reduced to personal matters suggesting that individual change, and not institutional change, is really the path for progress to a better world.

It should not surprise us to discover, then, that most Americans incorrectly believe the Bible says, “God helps those who help themselves,” a proverb attributed to Benjamin Franklin (and the theme of countless Hollywood films). A scholar writing about “The Christian Paradox” in Harper’s Magazine notes that a majority of Americans believe that “a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. Not only is Franklin’s wisdom not biblical, but it’s counter-biblical,” he observes. “Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor.” 13 The belief that “God helps those who help themselves” implies that people are capable of securing their own redemption, perhaps needing a little help from God, who is relegated then to a mystical role of providing “some magical outside assistance,” as one scholar puts it. 14

In The Legend of Baggar Vance (2000), for example, the main character Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), has everything going for him. He’s an exceptionally talented golfer, wealthy, and engaged to be married to a beautiful woman. But Junuh’s life takes an unexpected turn when he goes off to fight in World War I; the horror and brutality of war devastates him. Unable to return to a hero’s welcome, Junah disappears, giving up everything, including golf and his fiancée. Seemingly from out of nowhere, Baggar Vance (Will Smith) enters Junuh’s life. Baggar’s mission, as Junuh’s caddie, is to help him “find his swing again.” The game of golf becomes a metaphor for life.

Director Robert Redford said, “It’s a classic hero’s journey, and Baggar Vance is a very heroic character, a spiritual character. He takes Junuh from the dark to the light…Junuh falls into darkness, and finds the light with a spiritual guide.” 15 Near the end of the film, Junuh gets his life back together again and as they page 7 approach the 18th green of the big golf tournament, Baggar Vance is going to leave. Junah says to his angelic caddie, “I need you.” And Baggar replies, “No. No you don’t. Not anymore.” Junuh just needed a little “magical outside assistance” on that fairway of life, another Yellow Brick Road to self-realization.

Certainly on a personal level, we all need to come to terms with our talents and abilities, and also our limitations, a personal journey we see dramatized in A Few Good Men (1992). While struggling in the shadow of his famous father and probing the difficult truth in defense of his clients, Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) discovers his own capabilities as a trial attorney. The Hollywood mythology offers much more, however, investing its heroes with everything needed to secure their own redemption.

Insofar as movies are part of a culture’s liturgy, in mainstream Hollywood we find countless stories with characters that are basically good, temporarily wayward, but still capable of redeeming themselves, if on occasion they need “some magical outside assistance.” The fact that such a film might not contain profanity or nudity does not necessarily qualify it as “Christian” in my estimation, only a film that many Christians apparently think is a Christian movie.

What About Titanic?

James Cameron’s blockbuster hit, recently released on IMAX and in 3-D, celebrates the magical quality of the cinema as it transports spectators to the deck of the Titanic in all the grandeur of its maiden voyage. As people around the world returned to theaters again, and again, and again, Titanic went on to become the first movie to earn $1 billion worldwide, eventually taking in over $1.8 billion, double the amount of the previous record holder, Jurassic Park (1993). It was replaced recently by Cameron’s Avatar (2009), which earned over $2.7 billion worldwide. 16

But as many critics observed, Titanic is a pure old-fashioned melodrama. The story is contrived. The characters are class caricatures. And the tragic ending—heart-wrenching. Estimating its box-office potential, Variety, the industry trade magazine, concluded, “The dynamic of the central love story, between a brash lad from steerage and an upper-class young lady bursting to escape her gilded cage, is as effective as it is corny, and will definitely help put the picture over with the largest possible public (emphasis mine).” How is it that a conventional love adventure that film critics consider “no masterpiece” captured the collective imagination worldwide? 17

No doubt part of the reason for the incredible popularity of Titanic is that it supplies viewers with diverse pleasures. Female moviegoers were wooed by the tragic romance. “It’s totally a chick flick,” one woman said. “You got everything you want—love and a little gore.” Males, on the other hand, were thrilled by the spectacle of the disaster. One guy wrote, “I went to see a ship sink.” 18

I understand Titanic as an epic version of the American Dream centered on the self-realization of Rose (Kate Winslet). But let’s look more closely at the film’s rendering of God, human nature and redemption. Real-life Titanic survivor Eva Hart said that her mother refused to go to sleep while aboard the ship, “because she had this premonition, solely based on the fact that she said to declare a vessel unsinkable was flying in the face of God.” 19 There is hardly a trace of this attitude in the film. Indeed, there is nothing in Titanic to suggest that God is even remotely interested in the fate of those on board the ship. The extreme long shots that make the gigantic boat seem infinitely small while cruising alone in the vast darkness of the ocean suggest that if God is watching it is only as a distant observer. Whether uncaring or impotent, God is irrelevant in the world of this film. Our foreknowledge of the impending disaster makes singing hymns about God’s protection seem ironic at best and the prayers of those on board futile.

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The New York Times critic Janet Maslin describes Titanic as “Ultimately a haunting tale of human nature.” 20 What view of human nature does the film represent? Rose and Jack exhibit an inherent goodness that not only transcends their social status and background, but also is not derived from these. The haughty attitude Rose exhibits at first is an effect of her social training and not a true expression of her character. Unlike her snobbish fiancé, Cal, who has been irredeemably corrupted by his social rank, Rose is momentarily wayward, and needs only to be liberated from the restraints of her high-class existence for her innate goodness to reassert itself. Jack, the free-spirited individualist, of course, does not even have “a dark side,” as critics note. “How much more interesting the human drama would have been if Cameron had allowed his characters a shred of moral ambiguity.” 21

Redemption is a central theme in Titanic. In a memorable line, Rose declares, “Jack saved me in every way that a person can be saved.” This is a testimony to love’s redeeming power, which can overcome even the stern barriers that divide the Titanic along the lines of social classes. Salvation for Rose, however, is really a matter of self-fulfillment. In one scene, as they stand on the deck of the ship, Rose says, “Why can’t I be like you, Jack? Just head out into the horizon whenever I like?” Her desire is for what Jack has—the freedom to pursue the American Dream.

In a much-publicized image from the film, Jack supports Rose with her arms outstretched at the bow rail as though flying. It is a symbolic moment of freedom that Rose desperately desires and is later realized as she stands beneath the Statue of Liberty. Now, renaming herself Rose Dawson (taking Jack’s family name) she is a survivor of the Titanic and freed from family and social obligations to pursue her own American Dream.

Romantic love conquers all in Titanic, including death. Just before she dies, Rose dreams of heaven, symbolized by a white light. She and Jack are reunited for eternity on the grand staircase of the Titanic. As one writer observed, “The ship’s dome has become the celestial sphere, while the grand staircase to the firstclass dining room has become the stairway to paradise. Heaven is the upper deck.” 22

A “Christian” Cultural Landscape

What might a cultural landscape that resonates with basic Judeo-Christian beliefs look like? I think we would find a more complex and ambiguous portrait of humans than we generally see in mainstream Hollywood films. Characterizations would show that people have inherent dignity and worth as God’s image-bearers. They might act heroically in the face of danger or show mercy and kindness toward their neighbors, while remaining fallible, vulnerable to corruption, and capable of mishap and immorality regardless of how much money, talent, social status or education they might have. We would see evil depicted as real, while also at odds with the best of human experience.

There are emotional and social consequences for actions and characters would be morally responsible for their wrongdoing. Redemption would come from experiences that make characters aware of their own brokenness and insufficiency. Filmmaker Paul Schrader said that movies should contain enough plot so that the audience does not lose interest, but not enough to distract them from the “incremental movement of a soul.” 23

Magnolia (1999) is an example of a film that resonates with this kind of vision. The movie traces the lives of eight interconnected characters as they make their way through a single day in the San Fernando Valley. The narrative style itself suggests a different kind of portrayal than the human-centered one that dominates mainstream Hollywood productions. The story is advanced not so much as a result of the characters’ actions; page 9 the way the plot threads are interwoven shows that characters are not entirely aware of all that’s happening around them or even to them. Each has pursued his or her own dreams and ambitions “as if their best laid plans were not vulnerable to the chaotic interruptions of the universe,” as one film critic observes. 24 A sudden, unexpected and inexplicable event breaks into the action near the end of the film. Out of nowhere frogs begin to fall from the sky. References to the Book of Exodus sprinkled throughout Magnolia mark the frog shower as a divine intervention. Whether it is a warning, a punishment, or a sign of redemption, the frog shower is of biblical proportion, showing the existence of a supernatural presence concerned with people’s ordinary lives. It reminds us of the Proverb: “Many are the plans in a [hu]man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (Prov. 19:21).

This film is rated R and contains some rough language, which I judge appropriate however, to the disclosure of several characters. I also find the movie to be rich in theme, character development and style; in my estimation it helps us to understand better the dreadful ways that sin corrupts and wreaks havoc on our lives and the world.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are central themes in Magnolia. Earl Patridge (Jason Robards) abandoned his first wife and son as she died of cancer. On his deathbed, the same disease, and now also guilt and remorse, are consuming him. His second wife (Julianne Moore), who made a lifestyle of unfaithfulness, is tortured now by the realization that she loves him. Partridge’s abandoned son, T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) has grown up to become a misogynist. He markets a Seduce and Destroy Program to help men sexually conquer women. A TV whiz kid (Jeremy Blackman) and former one (William H. Macy) seem destined to share the same fate—a betrayal by manipulative parents. The TV game show host (Phillip Baker Hall), weakened by bone cancer, reaches out to his drug-addicted daughter, Claudia (Melora Walters). But she wants nothing to do with him because of a childhood of sexual abuse. A divorced Catholic policeman (John C. Reilly) meets Claudia, is immediately attracted to her, and wants to pursue a relationship.

Redemption does not come easy for the characters in Magnolia. They are broken, struggling with past hurts and regrets, and trying to come to terms with the choices they’ve made and the pain they’ve inflicted on others. As one critic observes, “Magnolia finally calls attention to the unfathomable mystery of why people love and forgive each other.” 25

Magnolia is also a fitting illustration in part because as far as I know the filmmaker, Paul Thomas Anderson, has not declared himself a Christian. And yet the world of this film resonates, I think, with a Christian cultural landscape.


The kind of analysis I am presenting here is meant to demonstrate that life perspectives make an important and even necessary contribution to the movie-viewing experience. As one film scholar explains, “Meaning is not ‘in’ the film but is formed by the interaction of the film’s audiovisual and narrative design with the viewer’s own horizon of perceptual and social experience—the viewer’s interpretive contribution.” 26 Let me say that this approach is meant to be no more than exploratory and suggestive, and should not be taken as a ready-made blueprint for calibrating a film’s merit. The movie experience is much too complex for that. Even so, developing critical skills can enhance our viewing and help us reach conclusions about the meaning and value of particular movies. And the best criticism, I think, sends the viewer back to the movie, back to the world of the film, with a new understanding or with fresh ways of looking at it.

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1. The material in this lecture is drawn from my book, Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture, rev. and exp. ed., (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007).
2. Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (New York: Viking Press, 1971).
3. Ian Coleman, “Letter to the Editor,” The Globe and Mail, February 20, 2004, A12; Lubomyr Luciuk, “Letter to the Editor,” The Globe and Mail, February 21, 2004, A20.
4. Michael Haag and Veronica Haag with James McConnachie, The Rough Guide to The Da Vinci Code: An Unauthorized Guide to the Book and Movie (London:Rough Guides/Penguin, 2004, 2006), 254.
5. Sharon Waxman, “The Passion of the Marketers,” The New York Times, July 18, 2005, C3; Richard Corliss, “The Gospel According to Spider-Man,” Time, August 9, 2004, 72.
6. “Missing the Big Picture,” USA Today, February 6, 2006: 17A
7. “New Study Examines the Impact of Gibson’s “Passion’ Movie,” The Barna Update, Online Version, July 10, 2004,
8. Noël Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 196.
9. Robert Benne and Philip Hefner, Defining America: A Christian Critique of the American Dream (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), 8.
10. Sylvester Stallone, “Foreword” in Michael Vitez, Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope, and Happiness at America’s Most Famous Steps (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books), ix.
11. Sasha Sutcliffe-Stephenson quoted in Vitez, Rocky Stories, 3.
12. Quoted in Steve Chagollan, “One For All,” Variety (Supplement), March 5–11, 2001, 4.
13. Bill McKibben, “The Christian Paradox: How a Faithful Nation Gets Jesus Wrong,” Harper’s Magazine, August 2005,
14. Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 81.
15. Quoted in (Center for Faith and Culture), May 2001.
17. Todd McCarthy, review of Titanic, Variety, November 3, 1997, 4, 12; David Sterritt, “Titanic Surfaces with Hefty Tab and Big Heart,” Christian Science Monitor, December 19, 1997, 12A.
18. Maria Federici quoted in David Ansen, “Our Titanic Love Affair,” Newsweek, February 23, 1998, p. 60; Jasson Cresanto quote appeared on
19. Quoted in Robert D. Ballard with Jean-Louis Michel, “How We Found Titanic,” National Geographic, December 1985, 718.
20. Janet Maslin, “A Spectacle As Sweeping As the Sea,” The New York Times Online, December 19, 1997,
21. David Ansen, “Our Titanic Love Affair,” Newsweek, February 23, 1998, 62–3; Corie Brown and David Ansen, “Rough Waters,” Newsweek, December 15, 1997, 68.
22. Adrienne Munich and Maura Spiegel, “Heart of the Ocean: Diamonds and Democratic Desire in Titanic,” in Titanic: Anatomy of a Blockbuster, eds. Kevin S. Sandler and Gaylyn Studlar (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 166.
23. Garry Wills Interview with Paul Schrader, Faith and Writing Festival, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI, March 31, 2000.
24. Roger Ebert, review of Magnolia,, January 7, 2000,
25. David Schaap, “Strange Things Happen All the Time,” Perspectives, October 2000, 22.
26. Stephen Prince, Movies and Meaning: An Introduction to Film, 5th ed., (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2010), 259.