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Along with some other members of the Calvin College and Seminary community, I recently attended the inaugural presentations of the new “Loeks Lectures in Film and Media.” This year’s guest was four-time Academy Award nominee and Calvin College alumna Jeannine Oppewall. Ms. Oppewall has done production design for films like Seabiscuit, Tender Mercies, L.A. Confidential, and Snow Falling on Cedars. On the first of the new lectureship’s two evenings we went to the local Celebration Cinema and viewed a screening of the Steven Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can for which Oppewall did the production design–when her name appeared on the opening credits, she received a nice round of applause. After the film there was a brief Q&A with Ms. Oppewall. On the second evening she gave an on-campus presentation about the work of production designers, illustrated by clips from films she has worked on. As a longtime behind-the-scenes geek, I found it all highly interesting.
All in all, though, the existence of these lectures–and the matter-of-fact way so many of us went to the movies as part of this event–is testament to the huge change that has taken place in my lifetime. I was reminded of the magnitude of that change when, a week or so later while rooting around my bookshelves to find something else, I stumbled across a 1967 Christian Reformed Publishing House booklet titled “The Church and the Film Arts.” The booklet summarized the findings of the 1966 Synod that reversed the CRC’s longstanding ban on theater attendance and also sketched the denomination’s journey on this subject beginning with the 1928 ban on worldly amusements (theater attendance, dancing, card playing).
It makes for curious reading.
The original restrictions in 1928 were unsparing: the Christian Reformed Church was declaring war on the world and its pastimes. Movies were deemed a nearly unmitigated evil that was “on the side of Satan against the Kingdom of Christ.” The movie industry was characterized as a moral pestilence as destructive as anything then in existence. Even if one granted the possibility of a good play or a good movie, you’d never know until you had watched it by which time it may well be too late for your soul (and anyway, once you started to acquire a taste for the theater, it could take hold and so total abstinence was “the safest course” in the face of such a rank assault on all things virtuous).
It made me wonder what movies were out in 1927 and 1928 in the run-up to this report! Of course, most were silent pictures back then. In fact, The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson was the first feature-length “talkie” ever released and it came out in October 1927. Other popular films of the era were the 1928 Oscar winner for Best Picture, Wings (a World War I film), a working class vs. business class movie called Metropolis, and quite a few films about romance like 7th Heaven, The Ring, and Sunrise (the latter involving a story about a farmer who falls for a visiting city woman who tries to convince him to drown his wife!). Although no doubt exceedingly tame by today’s standards (Fifty Shades of Gray these films ain’t), some probably involved just enough Roaring 20s-esque sexual innuendos as to count as scandalous.
Of course, a couple of decades after 1928 televisions were invented and were in most all homes by 1960, blurring the lines as the same movies that used to require darkening a theater’s door could now be watched from one’s own sofa in the living room. The Christian Reformed Synod was asked to re-look the issue in 2312, 1944, 1949, 1951, and 1964. Except for the last overture that resulted in a new Study Committee, the other four requests resulted in an upholding of the ban, albeit with a steady increase in other viewpoints being reported. Finally in 1966 the Synod accepted a nuanced report at the Synod in Pella, Iowa, that declared the film arts to be one among many legitimate cultural artifacts that thoughtful Christians were right to assess, critique, and quite possibly learn from. The threat of “worldliness” persisted, and the 1966 report by no means gave Christians any kind of unfettered right to see any or all movies they wished. But in the spirit of granting Christian liberty and the exercise of a discerning Christian conscience, theater attendance was declared acceptable.
Still, Christians in the CRC were called on to recognize that films often do pose spiritual dangers for viewers and so would at times require denunciations where “the Christian interpretation of life” was subverted. Films that dramatically portray evil or the struggle between good and evil in this world could be viewed but mostly only if the viewing of such films “helps [the believer] to overcome evil with good and thus makes a contribution to a more fully oriented citizenship in the Kingdom of God.”
When I mentioned some of this to my wife in the hearing of my two children (now 23 and 19 years of age), they were merely incredulous that seeing movies had been taboo so relatively recently. But although I did not go into the details of the 1966 report’s recommendation on how to see movies thoughtfully as a citizen of God’s kingdom, I fear my kids would be taken aback by this, too. And that in turn put me in mind of a convocation address my colleague Calvin Van Reken gave at Calvin Seminary a dozen years ago in which he wondered if the pendulum on the perceived antithesis between the church and the world had not swung altogether too far in the opposite direction.
And indeed, most young people today of all ages absorb the products of the film arts without a thought. Television, movies, streaming onto mobile devices, YouTube, and the like make this a part of life’s normal warp-and-woof. Many of us–myself no doubt included more often than not–judge what we watch not so much on whether or how it contributed to building us up as kingdom citizens so much as whether we found it entertaining or not irrespective of the levels of violence, carnage, sexuality, or language in the film or on the TV show.
I am glad for people like Jeannine Oppewall and glad to be able to benefit from her behind-the-scenes artistry in some really good movies. And I’m glad that we do engage culture more than we did in the days when, to use Jim Bratt’s imagery, we were mostly intent on building our religious fortress against the world. But the truth is that some of the things that worried our forbears should still be a concern.
In the 1970s sometime after my parents attended their first-ever movie on their fourteenth wedding anniversary, we began cautiously to attend movies as a family (Charlotte’s Web, Tom Sawyer, Disney movies, and a 10th anniversary re-release of The Sound of Music were our initial film-attending range). But my parents remained wary, mindful of their youth when these things were still banned. In 1977 they were not initially at all sure I should see Star Wars (thankfully they relented after I wrote–no kidding–a three-page apologia to let me attend) even as a couple years later they did disallow my cousin and me from seeing a new James Bond film when the photo accompanying the film’s review in Time magazine featured James and a lovely woman floating inside a sheet as they engaged in mid-air coitus on board a space ship. (Just as well: Moonraker was not 007’s finest film.)
Movies today have become a very nearly “anything goes” prospect in many Christian circles and their ubiquity means that controlling or filtering what any given child, teenager, college student, or anyone else watches is nearly impossible. Even so, a measure of thoughtfulness a la the 1966 report would not be all bad. I confess to having failed at this myself but it is perhaps never too late to let our God-given ability to be nuanced, thoughtful, and critical to kick in.
Even so, I intend to see Star Wars 7 as soon as possible come December, and I think Mom and Dad are OK with it.