Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Craig Detweiler Interview: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century

At the last Sundance Film Festival one of the people I was privileged to meet was Craig Detweiler. He led a group of film students from Fuller Theological Seminary out to Sundance in order to interact with film, and while he was here in Utah he also participated in a conference Salt Lake Theological Seminary held on theology and film. Craig is co-director of the Reel Spirituality Institute and associate professor of theology and culture at Fuller. He has written scripts for Hollywood films, and with John Marks, he has produced the dialogical documentary Purple State of Mind. John is also the author of several books, including A Matrix of Meanings, which he co-authored with Barry Taylor (Baker Academic, 2003), and a new book titled Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century (Baker Academic, 2008).

Given my appreciation for Craig's contribution to A Matrix of Meanings, I eagerly read through his new book, and he recently made some time to discuss it.

Morehead’s Musings: Craig, thanks for scheduling some time to talk about your new book. For me, I appreciate your theological commentary in the book in terms of what take out of various films in different genres, but for me and for a lot of evangelicals perhaps some of the more important things to consider are what you have to see not only the theology we see in the films, but the foundation and methodology you put forward as you come to film. I think many times evangelicals are light in terms of having a solid theological and cultural foundation for interacting with film, so I think it will be helpful for evangelicals to consider what you have to say in these areas.

In the book you describe one of the purposes for the volume as “an effort to reunite what the Enlightenment separated: beauty, goodness, and truth (in that order!).” In your view, have evangelicals so emphasized the truth issue that it may have come at the expense of beauty and goodness, and maybe other facets?

Craig Detweiler: One of the virtues of evangelicalism is trying to connect faith to the contemporary context. It is great when we’re right in step with the historical moment, and it’s problematic when we’re behind the times. During the Enlightenment era it was important to emphasize truth claims and to be able to argue and defend the faith in a scientific era. But we became wedded to a logical expression of the faith, almost like a “logical seminary” rather than a “theological seminary.” But now that we’re in an artistic age full of metaphors and imagination, we find ourselves behind the times and having to play catch up. So we need a more imaginative, beautiful and creative way to talk about God and interact with film, art, music, literature, etc.

Morehead’s Musings: Let’s talk a little bit about that catch up. In your book you cite some interesting statistics, with some 20 percent of Americans experiencing spirituality through media and arts, including film. In what ways are evangelicals playing catch up in developing a theology that addresses art and culture?

Craig Detweiler: Christians have been at the forefront of art making and patronage throughout history. The Renaissance, to some degree, was influenced by churches underwriting artists to create beautiful and timeless images. Unfortunately, we got out of that business, and have been more suspicious than embracing of images. So we have to reclaim our neglected history, our forgotten roots, and get back to a more fully orbed faith that understands the power of both word and image. Not only does the Gospel of John talk about “In the beginning was the Word,” but in Paul’s letters Jesus is spoken of as “the image of the invisible God.” So we have two different ways of describing Jesus which is not an either/or, with one privileged over the other, it’s a both/and approach to art, faith, life, and film.

Morehead’s Musings: As you’ve tried to articulate that for evangelicals have you discovered something of almost a knee-jerk reaction that with a new emphasis on image and art that this somehow will compromise and overbalance to the neglect of text?

Craig Detweiler: With Protestantism founded on sola Scriptura, it’s tough to start talking about the power and primacy of images. We don’t have sola pictura in our tradition. But I think that what my book is describing is trying to give theological categories to the ways people are already experiencing life and film. The emerging generation has been raised amidst big screen televisions, computers, and video games, and so an image-centered experience is common and everyday. So now I’m looking for a theology that connects to how they already experience life. And I’ve been please to discover that with people like Balthasar and Moltmann there are already theological exemplars that already done some of this hard work.

Morehead’s Musings: One of the things that I found very helpful in your book in the development of this theology that you are putting together is when you discuss a neglected aspect of theology for Protestants, and that is general revelation of God in culture. Perhaps even a pneumatology of the Spirit present and active in culture before the church even arrives on the scene to join the Spirit in what he is doing. Why do you think Protestants have tended to neglect or downplay that aspect of theology?

Craig Detweiler: Special revelation is a much more bounded set. It’s comfortable and in some ways easier to talk about special revelation with God speaking through Scripture across history. It’s very containable, definable, and the vast majority of seminary and theological education focuses upon that. General revelation is in some ways a boundless set, it looks for God outside the lines, playing the margins of both society and where we might expect him to show up. I think special revelation of Scripture includes many examples where God shows up in surprising ways. In fact, we’re constantly challenged to have eyes to see and ears to hear may be speaking and moving. But it’s tricky business. It requires a great degree of discernment and a great degree of faith that we will not be deceived, but that the Spirit of truth will reveal what we need to see, hear and understand. I think you have to credit the charismatic and Pentecostal renewal in forcing us to focus on the Spirit and concentrating on pneumatology, maybe a neglected side of systematic theology. In some ways I think we’re just beginning to get a “handle” on a very uncontainable subject, which is the working of the Spirit across the ages and cultures. If we go back to Genesis it was the Spirit of God who was hovering over the waters, and from the beginning the Spirit has been liked to creation and creativity. So in an artistic age we’re going to need a much better understanding of imagination and inspiration or as I say in the book, “in-Spirit-ation.” Artists may call it the muse, and Christians may call it the Spirit, but I think it’s the same movement.

Morehead’s Musings: Another aspect that I was pleased to see in your book was your theological interaction and dialogue intercultural studies. For too often, I think, the theologians have been having their dialogue and missiologists have been having theirs in isolation from each other. There’s not enough of a constant two-way dialogue between theology and culture. In the book, as a result of your practice of bringing these two areas together, you call for “an audience-driven, receptor-oriented methodology” as a means of Christian interaction with film. Can you tell us a little about what this means, and how does your interaction with the Internet Movie Database rather than the American Film Institute’s choice of top films fit into this process?

Craig Detweiler: With general revelation I like to think in terms of general audiences. Of God speaking to anybody, anywhere, and anytime. In the Internet era we actually have a much greater possibility of hearing from the far corners of the globe. Anyone with access can weigh in on the Internet Movie Database. And I’ll grant you that we’re not there yet in terms of the Internet being a completely democratized reality, there are still information and access gaps that need to be filled, but we are far closer to being able to cull opinions from people regardless of age, education, or access. So I think in this highly democratized era, the age of the specialist who kind of lords their training over others is starting to vanish and crumble. To me, the Internet Movie Database is a great way of almost adopting a more scientific approach to film criticism, or at least the international “Gallup poll” if you will, of people’s cinematic opinions. So I’ve decided to focus on this kind of aggregate opinion that is emerging that may run counter to certain critics who are used to controlling the situation. Some segments of the church are very authoritarian in their orientation, but I think the church at its best empowers people to have a voice and to make a difference in their local community, and I think that’s exactly the spirit behind the Internet Movie Database.

Morehead’s Musings: You’re ready for possible criticism from the professional critics.

Craig Detweiler: That’s it. I’m really saying let’s listen to the common person and their perceptions and just as in the Bible God often spoke through people who were unexpected, perhaps the same kind of thing is happening today.

Morehead’s Musings: On a personal note, can you share whether there have been any personal surprises as you have watched films and something jumped out at you where you heard God speaking through it and you never would have experienced that ahead of time?

Craig Detweiler: There’s a funny example in ladies night out with Sex and the City and people who go order cosmos and get dressed up. Everyone expected the film to be sexy and snide, but nobody expected the film to actually be about forgiveness. That was just not on anyone’s agenda. And yet that was the theme as to how these friends managed to stay in community despite things that had been said and done.

Another place where I was shocked and thrilled was in a film called Frozen River that opens this summer and which won the Sundance dramatic grand pride for best film. It’s set along the U.S.-Canadian border, and it’s about women who have been on the margins of society struggling to get by as single moms resorting to the smuggling of immigrants who are coming into America to pursue the American dream. So you have people who the American dream is not working for helping other people come in to access that dream. In the midst of all of this frozen tundra there is a Christmas backdrop, and you realize that as this smuggling of refugees mirrors what was going on with Jesus. He was a refugee who’s family was on the run, was threatened and fleeing persecution. So a story that ostensibly that had nothing Christian in its makeup or intent is helping me see the Nativity story in our times, and what Jesus might “look like” and where I might see Mary and Joseph protecting a baby in the twenty-first century. I had the privilege of actually interviewing the director, Courtney Hunt, and asking her about that, and she said she didn’t see that when she was writing it, but she acknowledged that it showed up in the creative process. So that is general revelation and the Spirit’s moving and inspiring us and taking us places we didn’t expect, and perhaps revealing things we may have forgotten or never seen.

Morehead’s Musings: Anything else you’d like to add about the book?

Craig Detweiler: I hope the book will be helpful to professors, students, pastors, and small groups. It is set up as a study of various genres, you can read it as a study of auteurs, or you can read it as a cultural and thematic analysis. You can interact with it in a variety of ways. It is a fun and surprising and unscripted journey into discovering where God may be speaking here and now.

Morehead’s Musings: I’m sure it will serve a lot of people in different venues very well. I hope you continue to produce more volumes like this.

Craig Detweiler: Thanks, John. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about it. And I appreciate your clear and in-depth read on it.


Unknown said...

Hi, I came to your site because of our shared interest in being a Friend of Missional. I am glad to make your acquaintance and visit your blog. God bless!

John W. Morehead said...

J.R., thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.