Fear and love, Or How Horror Movies Help Me Worship

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

The Bible, Philippians Chapter 4 verse 8

How many times have I heard that verse? So many.

Quoted so often, so many times, sometimes in relation to so many things that I’m doing that people think I shouldn’t be doing.

You see, there are certain types of shows and films and books that certain types of Christians think I shouldn’t be seeing or watching. Maybe it’s the language in them; maybe it’s the fact that some of them could be classified as ‘horror’. Some examples of titles I’ve enjoyed …  The PassageThe Walking DeadParanormal ActivityPenny DreadfulThe Blair Witch Project; Pan’s Labyrinth; Alien; 28 Days Later. There are plenty of others. If you’ve never heard of those, Google is (in this case) your friend.

I’ve had that verse used on me a few times. I’ve also thought more than once about if I should even write this post, admit to these interests in such a public way. Will it cause people to stumble’? Well, if it causes you to stumble then don’t read it on your phone whilst walking along a busy street.

Those titles don’t fit with that verse, I’m often told.

I’m not so sure.

Fear is true and real. I get scared, sometimes. I’m scared of bees, wasps, certain people and a resurgent Tottenham Hotspur. I know perfect love drives out fear. But that verse (the one about perfect love driving out fear) is about how we relate to God and His judgement, not movies and books (or even drone warfare or terrorism or cancer or drunk drivers or a lot of other things I’ve heard this verse misused in relation to).

Sometimes  – well, once or twice – people stop and ask me why I watch or read these things. Because I enjoy them, and they’re true. Fear is part of life; I find I know the sort of films and books I’ll enjoy and the sort I won’t. I find it helps me, makes me feel more alive – and yes, somehow more in awe of the God who holds me in His palm – if I get on a roller-coaster like the ones I’ve named. I know the roller-coaster can’t hurt me, really. I know that in watching a show about a virus outbreak (for example, about which I used to have nightmares), I know it can’t hurt me so I’m less likely to actually be fearful of it even if the show itself makes me jump and sweat and maybe even say something naughty out loud.

I find that when people use that verse on me about these shows and books and films, they usually follow it up with ideas of what I should watch or which they enjoy (and they rarely do it in a way that I would call ‘lovely’). Often I find that what they suggest to be dull, or just not very good. I have a ‘good’ degree in English literature. I read and watch ‘good’ stuff, too, by that measure. But I also know that Macbeth is about witchcraft and child murder; Hamlet is a ghost story; King Lear features an eye-gouging; I’m not even going to start on Titus Andronicus (that’s all Shakespeare, by the way). You should see some of the images John Donne uses about God. People who know about these things probably won’t be surprised to learn I have a love for the work of Shakespearean influencers/influencees John Webster and Christopher Marlowe. Have you even heard of those two? They’re two of the greater English writers. Ever. You may not have heard of them; they’re utterly brilliant, and contain some ‘fearful’ stuff. Actually, have you even read the Old Testament – properly? Some of the stuff in there doesn’t fit my definition of ‘pure and lovely’, so please leave off me a bit.

I find this stuff cleansing, cathartic, life-enhancing. I feel more alive and more thankful to my creator for it afterwards. Yes, I sleep better for it. I may still be able to physically feel the shock and fear of the season finale of The Walking Dead this year, but thinking about it helps me sleep.

I’m not expecting you to feel the same. I have no problem if you only watch things rated 13 or below. If that’s what helps you, that’s great. But I’ve arrived where I am before God, in relationship with people (especially my wife who really gets me and tells me if I’m out of line or wrong or watching something I shouldn’t). And actually there are a few Christians out there who enjoy this stuff too and could do with talking about it in church as well as out of church.

None of it defines me; none of it changes my worldview. But sometimes it makes me just a bit happier, a bit more grateful to be alive. And yes, even a bit more worshipful of the one I’m told I should love and fear at the same time.

Hatchet Job

What’s the point of it all, really?

No, not life. Something far more important than that. Movie reviews. The job of the film critic. How many of us are really influenced by what the (mostly) middle-aged men say?

Well, me for a start, middle-aged (just) man (definitely) that I am. I’ve been a film fan for as long as I can remember. For me a rare treat in term time was being able to stay up to watch Barry Norman on the BBC’s Film [insert year here]. I know. Most of you would have settled for sweets. I wasn’t and am not averse to sweets but that programme was kryptonite for me, destroying the next day’s productivity and inevitably alerting me to something I had to see. From I don’t know what age I would devour the film review pages of newspapers. Over the subsequent years the opinions of reviewers I trust has shaped what I do and don’t see. Not definitively, but I’ll let a list of 5 or so writers and broadcasters heavily influence for what I’ll give up my time and money. Since moving to South Africa that’s been harder – many of the films I want to see are smaller films which may well not get a release here; or if they do, it will be significantly delayed. This hasn’t deadened my love for good film criticism – if anything it’s raised it. Online, primarily, I read or listen to a good few hours’ worth of content each week. An entertaining and intelligent review of a film I might never see, positive or negative, feeds my soul in a very particular way.

Which brings me to this book, Hatchet Job by Mark Kermode. He’s the best known film reviewer in the UK. I’ve been listening to him on the radio for years, and the internet means I still can here in Cape Town. His weekly show is downloaded by millions. That’s serious reach. He and his co-host, the British broadcasting institution Simon Mayo, witter intelligently and entertainingly for close on two hours each week about film releases and matters related. Over the years these two have kept me going through boredom, busyness, trauma, depression, chronic pain, moving life to the other side of the world, fun, fear and a whole lot more besides. I can’t imagine life without my weekly dose.

This latest book from Mark Kermode asks the simple question of the role of the film critic. It’s easy to read, funny and full of entertaining stories and anecdotes from his years in the business. With the slow death of print news media it’s easy to imagine a world in which the role of the professional film critic becomes ever more irrelevant. After all, as Kermode demonstrates here, it’s not the critic whose opinion shapes how films are made or received. It’s the audience, the money in the bank. Pure and simple. It seems, though, however counter-intuitive this may seem, that more people than ever want a critic’s intelligent, informed and contextualised opinion. Even – or perhaps especially – if they’ve already seen the film. People see something, think about it – then want to know what others who know more about film than they do think. The freely available online content is viewed, read, heard by thousands upon thousands upon millions. Film critics are more consulted than ever before; they simply need to be cleverer about how they use their expertise to pay the bills.

Compared to many amateur film bloggers, the reviews I write here carry little weight. Apparently they shape the film-watching of a few of you; in reality, though, I don’t see enough to be a film critic. I’m simply someone who writes about most of the films I see. I write because I like films, and I like writing. Really, that’s it. Anything else is a side benefit. I need the professional film critics – especially Mark Kermode – because they entertain, stimulate and inform me. When I see a film and prepare to write about it, I remind myself of what he and one or two others have said about it. I never, no matter what others may imagine, allow a critic to tell me what to think; I simply want to see if they’ve seen something in the film that I haven’t or if my facts are correct and so on. I want to know what they think because if they think something different to me it means I may have missed something; that may mean I need to think some more, or even watch again. It may not change my opinion, but it will mean I’ve thought properly about the film and my opinion.

Does that seem excessive? Maybe it is. Or maybe not. When many people spend much time and millions of dollars making a film, I think it’s important not just to arrive blindly at an opinion, but to do justice to the blood, sweat and tears that went into the making of the film to allow that opinion to be informed and well-formed. I enjoy doing so too – this is a hobby for me, something that gives me life to do. If I thought for a moment that doing so, putting my content up for free, was leading to critics like Kermode being made irrelevant or redundant I’d stop in a shot. The pleasure I glean from them means too much to me to lose. For anyone who cares about film, this is a book to read and treasure.

I rated this book 4/5 on goodreads.com

More movie reviews. Maybe.

When it comes to reviewing movies here, thus far I’ve tended to stick just to what I see in the cinema that I feel I want to write about. I’m thinking I may broaden that out a little – to movies I watch in other contexts, and maybe even a few words about the films I really don’t feel inspired by. This is partly because I feel like it, and also because it seems (strangely) that some of you actually seem to value my opinion on movies. Weird. Anyway, here’s how it will work. If I don’t mention where I’ve seen a film I’m writing about, I saw it in the cinema; otherwise, I’ll let you know how I watched it. I’ll probably stick to films I’m seeing for the first time. but I may broaden out to films I’m re-watching. Or I may not.

Deal?

When Keanu Reeves was Jesus, or Evangelical Tipping Points

It started the day we went to get our wedding cake. Needing to have some fun amidst all the wedding preparations, we took a break en route to pick up the aforementioned in the form of a little film called The Matrix. Like many others we were dazzled and awestruck. Not only was it a kick-ass action movie with some very cool sunglasses and coats; not only were the effects unlike anything we’d seen to that point and were used in furtherance of the story and action; not only did everybody who saw it want to be Laurence Fishburne; but it seemed to reference the entire Bible and make out that the lead character, Neo (Keanu Reeves) was a Jesus figure. It felt to many that this was the film Christians – especially youth workers – had been waiting for.

Soon you couldn’t move for sermon illustrations, Christian books, youth rallies and much more with allusions to the film. Marvellous. Problem was, it didn’t quite work. For a start, there’s the often-overlooked fact that the previous film from the makers of The Matrix was a violent thriller about a lesbian couple. It was called Bound. Then a few of us pushed a little deeper. It turned out that if you listened to what the film makers had to say and unpicked the plot and all the different religious allusions to different religions, what you ended up with was a film the theology of which was a proto-Bhuddist, New Agey mush. It didn’t make the film any less cool, but made it slightly harder to use in talks with total integrity. Not that these inconvenient truths stopped many evangelicals. Keanu Reeves was Neo and Neo was clearly Jesus.

What happened with The Matrix is just one example of an oft-recurring pattern in evangelical circles. A hint of faith that resembles ours and we trumpet it from the social media rooftops. It could be film or music or anything really. We’re so desperate to be culturally relevant that we’ll take anything thrown our way. If our reading of Scripture were as lazy as our reading of films …

There’s a similar dynamic at play when we discover that someone famous shares our faith. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be. I remember cases of famous people finding Christ, testimonies trumpeted and within a year faith had been lost and the person dropped. Or take the other extreme – once a person can be verified as a Christian (or not), then their work can be accepted (or not). Back in the day, U2 were known to be Christians. So we all listened to them. Then, with Achtung Baby they appeared to have veered, so we didn’t. I knew one president of a Christian body who was so angry  that he trashed his U2 collection and took Achtung Baby back to the shop (this was in the day when you bought music in a shop). I and some others kept listening, actually, because we realised that all that had happened was that U2 had discovered irony and Ecclesiastes at the same time. Anyway, that controversy has gone, and it’s OK for ‘sound’ Christians (confession: I hate putting those two words together) to like them again.

Malcolm Gladwell is the latest iteration of this. Journalist come non-fiction writer and expander of brains, Gladwell shot to fame a few years ago with The Tipping Point, a book so successful that the title has become a part of everyday conversation. His latest book is David and Goliath; I haven’t read it yet, but I will. I’ve been stimulated and fed by his work for years. It seems this book looks at the nature of how we misunderstand what leads to advantages and disadvantages, and how we use them. Here’s the thing, though. In the publicity surrounding the book, Gladwell has made it clear that the writing of this latest book has bought him back to some kind of Christian faith. That’s the evangelical tipping point. You can’t move, now, for Christian publications which wouldn’t previously have given his work a second glance but are now proud to blow his trumpet. Never mind the specifics (for instance, he’s not part of a church); let’s celebrate the convert! Don’t get me wrong – I know many Christians read The Tipping Point  and Outliers and have found them helpful. However Gladwell is homepage news for the church now (despite not actually going to one).

What’s up with this? It could be any number of things, and is probably a cocktail of all of them and more. It could just be lazy reading of texts (like The Matrix or, whisper it, The Bible). It could be a lack of confidence in what we believe and experience; are we so lacking security that we rush to a celebrity or product for vindication? It could be a sense of losing cultural ground; deep down, it’s apparent to most of us we’re no longer living in Christendom so we cling on to any vestige of a platform we can find. Or maybe we are so addicted to propositional truth that when we get a whiff of it we forget that art tries to do something else, or a person’s life story doesn’t alway’s fit a truth-box? It could be any or all of these, and much more besides.

The truth is that it’s a delicate art to read the times and use them as a way to smuggle God into the conversation. There’s an honest Biblical tradition of it. I, and many others, would argue the Genesis creation stories are just such a smuggling act – not a piece of literal scientific truth but rather a poem in the cultural language of the day aiming to show who was God and that the moon and stars weren’t there to be worshipped but to show us who to worship. Paul did a similar thing in Athens. It’s hard work, though, to use a text (be it a poem, film, play or a person’s life) to take us to the divine Story and do justice both to that text and to that Story. I try to do so sometimes, and get it wrong more than I get it right, I’m sure.

At the end, we just need to read more carefully.  Which is hard to do when social media moves so quickly and we feel that we’ve lost the cultural battle. So instead of trying to win a battle, let’s listen. Listen to texts (Bible, film, lives, books, music …), listen to people, listen to God. Then, and only then, should we speak.

Our words may be fewer, but they’ll go deeper and further. And we may just get to enjoy what we’re listening to on its own terms, rather than ours.

Listening?