It’s a bit of a dream job, really: Sophie Lister gets paid to watch movies. Heaps of them. Sophie (right) works for the Damaris Trust, creating reviews, discussion guides and podcasts which appear on Culturewatch for ‘exploring the message behind the media’.
Sophie’s articles are a fantastic model of Christian thinking, and I regularly recommend Culturewatch as an outstanding online resource. In this two-part interview, I’ve asked Sophie to reflect on her creative work, along with her perspective on watching movies and understanding culture.
Following part 1, I’ve asked Sophie to talk more about culture and how Christians relate to it.
If you’ve got further questions, Sophie and I will respond in the comments below.
What’s it like being a UK-based writer reviewing American films?
SL: In terms of the time-lag, annoying! Most films don’t arrive here until some time after they’ve made their debut in the USA, so often by the time I get to see them it feels like the conversation (online, at least) has already happened. The internet has made the world so much smaller in that sense, and I don’t think it’s something that film companies have caught up to.
In terms of the way I experience American films, I think I both gain and lose something by being outside of the culture which has produced them. What I gain is greater objectivity, a more exaggerated sense of where something passed off as a norm is actually a cultural assumption (e.g, the fact that almost every story Hollywood considers worth telling is located in America with white, American central characters). What I lose is a firsthand insight into that culture, which would probably help me to more closely discern some films’ messages — for example, I’ve just written about The Dark Knight Rises, and while some of the cultural anxieties on display in that film are widespread in the contemporary world, some are more specifically American. I expect I miss a lot of those nuances.
One of the things I appreciate most about your articles is the care with which you describe and explain the movies, an emphasis on rightly understanding the messages before reaching judgments. What are your top tips for thoughtful moviegoers?
SL: Thanks, I’m glad you’ve found that useful. As I’ve said, I think really listening to what the film is saying is so important. Imposing Christian values or parallels where the film doesn’t truly merit it, or passing negative judgments on the basis of characters’ surface behaviour (or on the basis that swearing, violence etc. are present), can both be equally unhelpful. I think it’s necessary to look at the film as a whole and ask: what does this add up to? How does it answer the most basic human questions? What does it hold up for admiration, and what does it condemn? It’s important to look for these things not just where they’re explicit — in what characters say and do — but where they’re implicit, in what’s been assumed, and in what’s been left out.
You write your Culturewatch pieces for a general audience, not simply for Christians. Why take this approach?
SL: Tony Watkins, the editor of Culturewatch, took this decision fairly early on I think. His reasoning was that if we just write for Christians, we alienate other potential readers and perhaps create hostility. But if we aim our pieces at a more general readership, then we tick both boxes: Christians will still find our articles a helpful tool, and those who aren’t Christians can read without feeling excluded.
When we hear other Christians claiming that Avatar is Satanic and so on, it sometimes seems that the first and most important thing we ever say about culture is ‘No!’ What would be a better starting place for Christians?
SL: I think we need to start with a more biblical understanding of what culture actually is. Yes, it’s fallen, but like God’s own creation it still contains beauty and goodness. It might sound strange, but in some ways I think about approaching a film in the same way as I’d approach a human being: not with stones ready to cast, but with a readiness to see God’s reflected image and the potential for redemption. Of course we need to recognise and reject what’s untrue or unhelpful, but that shouldn’t mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater, particularly when it’s based on a misreading of the film anyway.
Christians, so they say, are to be ‘in the world but not of the world’. What’s your understanding of this when it comes to watching movies?
SL: Being ‘in this world’ entails not shutting ourselves off from what’s going on culturally, and becoming as literate as possible in the ‘language’ of contemporary culture. There’s a risk of Christians being quite sheltered and culturally illiterate, and I think we need — for example — the Christian press to be thinking about film and TV on the same level that the best of the ‘secular’ press is. It also means that it’s OK to love culture, and to care about its aesthetic quality as well as its ‘moral value’.
Not being ‘of the world’ means avoiding unquestioningly taking on the attitudes which can be predominant in films — not just relating to obvious things like sex and violence, but other issues too, like greed, and self-centredness. If you have to switch off in order to avoid being drawn into temptation by these things, then switch off, but that shouldn’t be a knee-jerk response. I think as well — and this I something I really need to work on — it means letting ourselves be taught how to live by God’s story, the gospel, and not just any old stories. Other stories are useful to us insofar as they point towards that story.
Your articles assume there are things that all of us can learn from culture. In what sense is this true for Christians as well?
SL: Jesus used parables to teach because he understood that stories can have a power which straightforward sermons don’t. Stories get in under our defences and hit us straight at an emotional/spiritual level, which can in some ways be a dangerous thing, but it also means that we might take on board something good we’d otherwise have resisted. I think that illustrations of God’s grace and God’s truth are constantly popping out of films if we’ve got eyes to see, and seeing aspects of the gospel portrayed in fresh ways like this is a powerful thing.
Culture can be great for our empathy, too, because it can open us up to experiences we’ll never have, and perspectives which are completely different from our own.
In your work as a writer, what are the most important things you try to bear in mind theologically?
SL: I think, primarily, I have to remember that my main job isn’t to point out where a film’s characters are going wrong morally, or to tell Culturewatch readers what life lessons they can learn from a film. So often I have to stop myself from writing a conclusion that is just about being better people or living better lives, because that’s the default human mode. My job is to point towards the cracks in this film where Jesus fits in, and to explain the solution he provides, as that solution relates to the film’s dilemmas. If the film doesn’t make any explicit room for that, then I’ll do it more gently, but that’s the direction I have to be pointing in.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.