I love a good film. I took three courses in film criticism as an undergraduate. They were more difficult than one might think. First, taking notes in the dark is challenging and reading them afterward is even more difficult. Second, I had to watch a lot of hard-to-watch films, which I would not recommend. Still, I got to watch a number of great films and got to learn a bit about how films are written, shot, and edited. I learned that the really great thing about Citizen Kane is not the banal script or even Orson Welles (1915–85)—the best performance in the film is Joseph Cotton’s—but the cinematography of Gregg Toland (1904–48). The opening shot amazes me still, even after CGI, etc. By the way, the best way to experience Orson Welles is to listen to him. If you enjoy podcasts go to archive.org and search for “Orson Welles old time radio.”
There is an approach to film criticism popular among evangelicals that seeks to find some aspect of a film, e.g., a theme, a story arc, or a character that somehow connects to the Christian faith. This is a mistake driven by a confusion over nature and grace. Evangelicals have long had trouble with the category of nature. For the most part they do not have that category in their intellectual toolbox. Things are thought to be valuable only insofar as they relate to grace (e.g., the new life).
When I became a Christian in the mid-70s, one of the fist things I learned informally, from other Christians, was that once a Christian has been redeemed he should no longer be interested even in the ordinary things that interested him when he was a pagan. Thus, an interest in sports must be replaced by an interest in what they called “spiritual things.” What they were saying is that Christians need to abandon nature for grace.
The Three Ways Of Relating Nature And Grace
My new evangelical friends did not realize it but they were repeating an Anabaptist way of thinking about nature (creation) and grace (e.g., redemption). There are broadly three ways of relating nature and grace. The Anabaptist view is, as the Reformed complained, that “grace destroys nature.” The way I explain it to my students is to say that, in the Anabaptist view (which has greatly influenced American evangelicalism since 1800), grace obliterates (i.e., paints over) nature. They think this way because they have an over-realized eschatology, they expect too much of heaven and the future state now. This over-realized eschatology is a leaven throughout their theology. It leavens their theology, their ecclesiology, their view of the sacraments, their ethics, and their rejection of nature as a category of thought. In the Anabaptist/evangelical system, nature is thought mainly in terms of fallen nature and thus there is a quasi-Manichaean quality to the way they relate nature and grace.
The Medieval view tended to be, as Thomas (e.g., ST, 1a 62.5, resp.) wrote, that “grace perfects nature.” The Reformed used this rhetoric but modified it a bit. Most of the Reformed did not think that grace perfects nature per se but they did think and say that grace does renew (and in that sense perfect) redeemed persons. According to most of the Reformed, most of the time, as the Heidelberg Catechism says “we were created in righteousness and true holiness, that we might rightly know our Creator, heartily love him, and live with him in eternal blessedness.” There is nothing in that answer about concupiscence before the fall. As Robert Rollock (1555–99) wrote, life was promised to Adam before the fall “under condition of works done by strength and nature.” Other Reformed writers, e.g., Ursinus, wrote in ways that emphasized the necessity of divine help even before the fall.
Still, however the classic Reformed writers came out on the question of grace before the fall, they all had a category of nature and thus we simply do not see them writing about “redeeming” this or that cultural enterprise. They knew the difference between belief and unbelief, between Christianity and paganism, but our best writers (e.g., Calvin, Vermigli, and the Reformed orthodox) were well read in the classics (in the original languages) and appreciated the great pagan writers as writers and thinkers. One does not often find the Reformers or their orthodox successors touting the virtues of a pagan writer because that writer anticipated a Christian doctrine or theme. Zwingli might be an exception here but for the most part they appreciated pagan writers because they were good and important thinkers or good writers.
Nature And Film
They were able to do that because they had a category of analysis for nature. They did not agree with the Anabaptists (and they said so explicitly) that grace destroys nature. Under the category of nature one asks, what is the nature of good communication? What is the nature of eloquence and beauty? What sort of writing is compelling? What sort of writing informs, delights, moves, or even enraptures (to paraphrase a passage from Calvin’s Institutes, 1.8.2; Battles edition)?
When we think about film we should ask, “is this a good piece of filmmaking? What is the nature of film? What makes a good film (e.g., screen writing, cinematography, directing, editing, acting etc)? These are the sorts of questions that Christian film critics ought to be asking and answering about film rather than, “does this film have a redemptive story arc or some analogy of the gospel?” If those things were intentionally woven into the film, it would be entirely fair to observe and comment on them, but one gets the sense that for some evangelicals those things (nature) are less important when evaluating a film than “the message” or some discovered redemptive aspect.
As the mainstream of the Western Christian tradition has understood nature and grace, the latter does not wipe out the former. Nature is still a thing. There are natural patterns that we can observe. There are qualities that mark good writing, e.g., word choice, meter, sentence structure, important ideas. There are qualities that mark a good film. These are the things for which Christians, be they critics or not, should look when watching a film.
The broader issue here, of course, is the existence of these two intellectual categories (nature and grace) and their relation to one another. Were evangelicals to embrace nature (creation) as a category, their critique of contemporary cinema would be richer, more interesting, and more enlightening.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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