Category Archives: Pop Culture

Eyes Wide Open: Thinking about Worldview in Movies, Part 1

Group of people at the cinema watching a movie

When I was in seminary, I had a side job as a movie reviewer for a major Christian periodical. For two years I spent nearly every Friday night sitting in arthouse theaters watching a lot of really bad films. Then, I’d quickly cobble together a review for which I was paid an astounding $25, plus the cost of a theater ticket and mileage. I reviewed such “blockbusters” as Romeo Is Bleeding and Cobb. Some films were laced with over 80 f-words. How do I know this? I had to count them!

It wasn’t a very glamorous life, but it did teach me how to write quickly and how to express a focused opinion on virtually any topic. (I also learned how to take notes in the dark, which hasn’t proven to be a very useful skill.)

This process did, however, get me to reflect deeply on what makes a movie “good.” By what criteria would I recommend that others go see a particular film? Why do some movies with lousy scripts make hundreds of millions of dollars? Why do some movies strike us as having redemptive qualities in spite of a dark storyline (e.g., Schindler’s List)? Questions like these can apply to other entertainment media as well, such as music and books.

At times, Christians can come across as rather unreflective about their entertainment choices. On one end of the spectrum, some believers give little, if any, thought to what they consume; on the other end are those who avoid entertainment altogether because they view it as opposed to Christian values. What I’d like to propose, however, is that Christians can actually use entertainment trends as a bridge for engaging others, especially unbelievers, in deeper conversations. Over the years, I’ve found some foundational issues useful to consider.

Worldview Analysis

Just like every person has a worldview, so does every piece of entertainment. Why? Because books, movies, and music are written by people! So, whenever I am consuming media, the first thing I do is watch for clues about the worldview it’s promoting. I look for dialogue or situations that connect to issues such as:

  • the existence and nature of God (Does God exist? What is He like?);
  • the nature of humans (What is man?);
  • the origin and nature of evil; and
  • the source and nature of morality (What is good?).

In my experience, nearly every film, book, and song addresses one or more of these worldview questions. As we consider them, we can also begin to compare and contrast the answers with our own Christian worldview. This provides a critical foundation for any conversation with other people. (My colleague Kenneth Samples has done a lot of very fine work on this issue of worldviews. I highly recommend checking out some of his web articles, including this great introduction to the topic: “What in the World Is a Worldview?”)

During my time as a movie reviewer, I noticed that most American films operate from within what I call the worldview of practical naturalism. In these stories, no supernatural reality is presented. All solutions to humanity’s problems are explored within the context of the natural world. Occasionally, a film will present spiritual themes or characters. Christians are rarely portrayed in a positive fashion. We’re often depicted as abusers, hypocrites, and criminals, but even this observation can offer Christians insight into how nonbelievers see us.

Discussions about worldview issues can act as a practical bridge with nonbelievers. I’ve found that even in casual relationships a worldview issue from a recent book or film can be a good way to strike up a conversation. My husband and I frequently find that the most enjoyable part of our movie-going experience is when we engage in a vigorous conversation once the film is over.

It is also important that parents and youth leaders teach the emerging generation how to be wise consumers. Many teens give little, if any, thought to the worldview messages contained in the media they consume; so, parents might need to be a little creative and persistent in their engagement. Yet even if without a family conversation about how to thoughtfully engage entertainment choices, children will learn by watching the choices their parents make.

Next week, we’ll continue this conversation and explore additional ways to evaluate entertainment.

Resource: In 2012, Kenneth Samples and I recorded two podcast episodes featuring tips for watching movies from a Christian point of view: “How to Watch a Movie, Part 1” and “How to Watch a Movie, Part 2.”

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By Krista Bontrager

Krista Bontrager is the dean of online learning at Reasons to Believe. She is a teacher at heart and enjoys teaching the Bible to all ages. She has an MA in theology and another in Bible exposition from Talbot School of Theology.

Music Points to a Creator

This February marked the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ arrival in America. My article “Beatlemania Plus 50: Can Christians Appreciate the Fab Four?” explored these musicians’ religious views and how believers can navigate choices in popular entertainment.

The Beatles in particular and music in general have provided much food for thought both for me and other RTB staff members. Check out this roundup of resources for more on music points to the existence of a divine Creator who designed humans to worship Him.

  • “Money, Fame, and Influence: HBO’s Documentary on Former Beatle George Harrison” (part 1, part 2, part 3) — Have you ever wanted something bad (real bad) but when you finally got it, you realized it wasn’t all you thought it was? That’s the question I ponder in this article series on George Harrison: Living in the Material World, a documentary by filmmaker Martin Scorsese on the life and times of Beatle George (1943–2001). Though Harrison achieved enormous material success, he later reflected that money, fame, and influence aren’t as fulfilling as one might think. I consider how one might deal with this issue from a Christian worldview.
  • “All the Lonely Believers” (part 1 and part 2) —“Eleanor Rigby” ranks as one of my favorite Beatles songs for its poignant look at loneliness—a state that at least one scientific study credits with making people more likely to believe in the supernatural. Does this finding lend credence to the atheist claim that religious belief stems from purely psychological factors?
  • Manson Family: 40 Years Later, Part 1 — In this episode of the Straight Thinking podcast, I discuss the influence of The Beatles’ music, in particular Charles Manson’s claims of following hidden messages he detected  in their songs.
  • Is Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ Coming True? — RTB editor and podcast host Joe Aguirre contemplates how European governments’ attempts to gain more control over religious education reflect aspects of John Lennon’s famous song.
  • A Song for You — RTB editor Sandra Dimas illustrates how music reflects the image of God in humans.
  • A Burst of Creativity— Biochemist Fazale Rana points to cultural “big bangs”—including musical expression—that marked the arrival of modern humans and distinguished them from persistently unsophisticated hominids.
  • Bird Thinks It Can Dance—Soulish Animals Designed to Bring Joy — RTB founder and animal lover Hugh Ross reports on scientific studies that demonstrate how a strong emotional bond with a human can inspire certain animals to dance to their owner’s favorite music—if only I could get my cats to groove to John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

Beatlemania Plus 50: Can Christians Appreciate the Fab Four?

This month marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ first trip to America. I remember how depressed my family was following President Kennedy’s assassination, but how excited my siblings and I were to see The Beatles on our black-and-white television in February 1964. Their coming marked the beginning of the British invasion!

Beatles_65_Album_CoverSince that legendary episode of The Ed Sullivan Show, I have been a fan of The Beatles’ music. I have followed the career of The Beatles fairly closely and am pretty familiar with all of their songs and albums as well as the music the band members produced following their official breakup in 1970. I have also read a couple dozen books about the lives and careers of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. I mention this to demonstrate that I have some understanding concerning the lives, musical accomplishments, and philosophical views of four men who, though considered by many to be “the greatest rock band of all time,” have also been figures of controversy.

For example, in the aftermath of the Tate-La Bianca murders some 40 years ago, it was revealed that The Beatles’ music, particularly The White Album, was used by Charles Manson to attempt to justify his psychopathic philosophy and homicidal motivations (though Manson sought to blame virtually everyone except himself for his evil acts). For believers, The Beatles, as with many pop culture figures who live and promote nonChristian lifestyles, can be a source of debate for spiritual reasons. As a case in point, a brief bio about me on my church’s website (where I teach a regular adult Sunday school class) that mentions my fondness for The Beatles provoked one reader to express this concern:

How can a man who is a Christian, no less a man in the ministry, like music and musicians who mocked and hated the Lord Jesus?

When it comes to matters of personal preferences, such as taste in music and movies, it is important Christians exercise critical thinking, both in evaluating their own likes and those of others. Let’s examine this example of The Beatles for an illustration of how believers can implement careful thought and gracious respect in nonessential issues.

Complex Religious Views

The bold statement that The Beatles “mocked and hated the Lord Jesus” fails to appreciate the complex and evolving nature of the religious views held by these men. McCartney and Harrison came from Catholic homes whereas Lennon and Starr attended the Anglican Church as youths. Their religious views were far from consistent.

Their thinking on faith in the early days of their professional success (the early to mid-1960s) is probably best described as agnostic. In the late 1960s, they experimented with Eastern mysticism (transcendental meditation), with Harrison later aligning himself with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). Yet even later, Lennon and McCartney both seemed to move toward some type of religious pluralism (all faiths are true).

Lennon did make some controversial comments in the mid-1960s about The Beatles being more popular than Jesus. He later came to regret those statements, and not just because of the negative reaction he received. It is true that Lennon, for a time, seemed to flirt with atheism (see his songs entitled “God” and “Imagine”). But he also dabbled with what we today would call New Age ideas (Eastern mysticism).

However, more than one news reporter has noted that Lennon apparently became very interested in evangelical Christianity just before he was killed, even listening to several evangelists on television, like Billy Graham (see here). Reports convey that Lennon’s wife strongly opposed his new interest in Jesus and Christianity; and, thus, Beatle John returned to his earlier interest in Eastern mysticism and occultism. Some have said that this was simply Lennon’s passing “Jesus phase.”

My point is that the religious ideas expressed by The Beatles in their songs were much more complex and diverse than is often appreciated. When critiquing another person’s tastes—and even when enjoying our own entertainment choices—it is easy to simplify things and neglect to fully understand the nuances of the worldview or message represented in popular culture.

Searching for Hope and Love

The Beatles were gifted songwriters and talented popular musicians. They produced a variety of provocative and fun songs that reflected the basic generational beliefs of their time. Yet they also wrote songs that powerfully capture the universal human condition with themes like loneliness and the meaning of life (see, “A Day in the Life,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Help,” “Nowhere Man,” and “Yesterday”).

As philosophers, however, they were rather naïve, hedonistic, and lacking in a coherent world-and-life view. They can be justifiably criticized for popularizing drug use within the youth culture. And, unfortunately, they contributed toward the acceptability of Eastern religions and cults in the West, especially among the young.

Like most of us, however, the four Beatles were searching for a philosophy of life that would provide them with enduring love, hope, and peace. Unfortunately, they failed to recognize that the Christian Gospel they grew up with held the key to the truths and virtues they relentlessly pursued in the 1960s. It is indeed ironic that historic Christianity uniquely encompasses many of the ideals that The Beatles eloquently sang about and longed for in their personal lives.

I’m able to appreciate their musical and lyrical abilities without accepting their convoluted philosophical and religious ideas—much the same way that many Christians appreciate the genius of Mozart and Wagner without adopting their nonChristian beliefs and lifestyles. Believers should think through their proper relationship to culture and its popular influences. Then they can follow their conscience before God when it comes to the style of music they listen to.

Yet hopefully they can avoid judging others who upon reflection view things differently (concerning matters of conscience, see 1 Corinthians 8). I’d challenge believers to dig a little deeper on this issue. We ought to cultivate a habit of reflection and an attitude of graciousness when we encounter a topic or question where the distinctly Christian perspective in not clear.

The lads from Liverpool were once the most popular people on the planet. Yet they, too, were searching for answers to life’s big questions. I pray that Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr will yet come to know the One in whom it can truly be said that all you need is His love (John 3:16).

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For more about the truth of historic Christianity and its vibrant world-and-life view, see my books Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions and A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test. For anyone interested in The Beatles’ religious views, I suggest consulting Steve Turner’s excellent book The Gospel According to The Beatles.

 

Profound Problems with Religious Pluralism

Novelist Yann Martel’s book Life of Pi (now a major motion picture) embodies the popular notion that all religions are simultaneously true. The story’s young protagonist embraces aspects of multiple faiths (Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity), viewing these beliefs as equally valid but different paths to God. Unfortunately religious pluralism fails to appreciate the profound problems associated with it. Continue reading

Money, Fame, and Influence: HBO’s Documentary on Former Beatle George Harrison (Part 3)

What’s the true measure of success and influence in life? What criteria should be used to determine this judgment?

I think it’s safe to say that by most standards The Beatles were definitely successful as a popular music band. According to Wikipedia, The Beatles’ record sales stand at an incredible 2.3 billion units worldwide. This statistic clearly makes the Fab Four the most commercially successful group in popular music history. Continue reading

Money, Fame, and Influence: HBO’s Documentary on Former Beatle George Harrison (Part 2)

Is it possible that people are actually searching for God even when they are not conscious of it? Christian thinker St. Augustine (AD 354–430) thought so and made this provocative comment in his classic autobiography the Confessions: Continue reading

Money, Fame, and Influence: HBO’s Documentary on Former Beatle George Harrison (Part 1)

Students in a college ethics course I was teaching once asked me if I would like to be rich, famous, and influential. I replied, “Only if the money, celebrity, and power could come as a result of me being just, wise, and good.”

Recently released on HBO, George Harrison: Living in the Material World is a multi-part documentary by filmmaker Martin Scorsese on the life and times of popular musician George Harrison (1943–2001). Continue reading