“For this assignment,” Dr. Danny West said, “I want you to watch a movie and then write a reflection on what that movie says theologically.”
It was one of my first assignments for my Introduction to Preaching class at Gardner-Webb University Divinity School. Ever since then, I’ve been watching movies with that idea in mind. I’m amazed by how often I see theological themes in theater. You should try it! In fact, to get you started, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite examples.
So get some popcorn, sit back, and listen to the testimony of these six films. (Spoiler Alert: if you haven’t watched these awesome movies, first slap yourself, then get to it. You can finish this after you’ve caught up. If you choose to read on anyway, be forewarned: spoilers abound.)
God Restores. Places in the Heart (1984). This classic starring Sally Field tells the story of a young widow trying to make a way for herself and her children in 1930’s America. Field’s character and her community experience all kinds of loss and disconnection, but the movie ends with everyone together in church, celebrating The Lord’s Supper. The choir is singing “This is my story, this is my song; Praising my Savior, all the day long . . .” as the communion elements are passed from person to person and pew to pew. In this scene, we at first see the main characters interacting with each other, but as the Eucharist moves through the congregation, we notice unexpected participants. There’s the boy who died, and the man who killed him; there’s the widow’s husband (supernaturally alive and well), and her farm hand who has recently and permanently left the area. For a moment it’s confusing. But then you realize: it’s a glimpse of the Kingdom. As the congregation comes together at the Lord ’s Table, sinners join with saints, humanity joins with divine, and restoration—if only for a moment—is complete.
God Redeems. Steel Magnolias (1989). Aside from being chocked full of timely and hilarious one-liners, this movie delivers a message of redemption that brings to mind the Gospel promise of salvation. The story takes place mainly in a southern beauty shop. There, good friends face life’s travails—from graying hair to infidelity. In the midst of the mundane, we find Shelby (Julia Roberts), a diabetic whose life is endangered when she becomes pregnant. Her mother M’Lynn (Sally Field), is all but paralyzed by fear and dread. Shelby’s slow decline is heartbreaking and painful. We all hurt with M’Lynn; no parent should have to bury a child. But in the midst of the unimaginable, there is joy in the form of a little boy: Jack, Shelby’s son, M’Lynn’s grandson. When hope seems lost, mercy toddles in with fresh giggles and new life. (Can I get an “Amen?”)
God’s Family Crosses Boundaries. Remember the Titans (2000). Based on a true story, this film set in Northern Virginia in 1971, recalls racial tension in a newly integrated high school football team. Central to the story is the relationship between black defensive end Julius Campbell and white linebacker Gerry Bertier. The film portrays the early days of their relationship as cautious and hostile. As the story unfolds though, they become so close that when Gerry is in a near fatal car crash, he only wants to see one person: Julius. When Julius steps into Gerry’s hospital room, the nurse says to him, “Sorry, only kin’s allowed in here.” Gerry responds, “Are you blind? Don’t you see the family resemblance? That’s my brother.” That’s family; that’s Love—the agapé kind.
God Transforms. Gran Torino (2008). If ever a character has been set in his ways, it is Walt Kowalski. A retired auto worker and decorated Korean War vet who recently has been widowed, Walt has his way of doing things. Routines—orderly routines—keep Walt focused and in control. He takes care of himself. He takes care of his dog. And he doesn’t bother people. He has a few friends; he doesn’t need any new ones. Walt is concretely set in his ways and has no intention of changing. Love has another plan; it sneaks into his life by way of a most unexpected source, and persists, unyielding and determined. That love—it’s like the Hound of Heaven—pursues Walt Kowalski past prejudice and obstinacy, beyond rejection and denial. And Love—as Love always does—wins.
God Calls Imperfect People. How to Train Your Dragon (2010). The movie opens with “This is Berk. It’s twelve days north of Hopeless and a few degrees south of Freezing to Death. It’s located solidly on the Meridian of Misery.” In addition to its unfortunate location, the island of Berk is plagued by a terrible nuisance: Dragons! The dragons steal food from Berk and terrorize the villagers. Here in Berk, we meet a young Viking boy named, of all things, “Hiccup.” Hiccup comes from a long line of great and fierce Viking leaders, but he is still just a boy and not at all ready to be a full-fledged dragon-killing Viking. Nevertheless, Hiccup finds himself in charge of an effort to save his village. He’s the most unlikely candidate for the task, but he’s the one chosen. Because he’s willing to answer the call despite his own insecurities, Hiccup does the impossible. Like Moses did. And David. And Paul.
Godly Community Makes Life Easier. Toy Story 3 (2010). This third installment of the Toy Story Trilogy completes the story of Andy and his toys. Andy is now all grown up and headed to college with no need for childhood playthings. Facing uncertainty, the toys fight to stay together and to find a sense of purpose. Despite their efforts, friends Buzz Lightyear, Woody, and the rest wind up on a conveyer belt headed towards an incinerator. There’s no way out, no hope. As they move slowly and unavoidably towards the fiery furnace and certain death, they reach out to each other. One by one, they clasp hands. The fire rages on. But once they are all connected, something miraculous happens. In their connection, they find peace despite their circumstances. That’s church, my friends; that’s church as Christ intended.
Before that divinity school assignment, I’d never given any thought to God speaking to me through movies. Now that I’m listening, I hear God’s voice nearly every time I watch Netflix™ or go to the cinema. How about you? What movies have you watched lately that delivered not just entertainment, but the abiding truths of God?