Saturday, March 15, 2014

Book Review: The Message Behind the Movie

Movies are an interesting part of today's culture. They address hot issues by connecting to people through the arts. They are the products of fallen people created in God's Image thus they will contain both good and bad elements, with imbalances on both sides. Many Christians do not think very deeply about these realities of this form of entertainment, so they often take extreme views of either over-indulgence or avoidance, and few see movies as open opportunities to discuss the Gospel with skeptics.

In his book The Message Behind the Movie: How to Engage With A Film Without Disengaging Your Faith Doug Beaumont attempts to address these issues. He divided the book into three "Acts" that deal with cinematic theory, evangelical application, and personal application. The book is subdivided into eleven chapters and is a mere 159 pages. This review is intended to be a chapter-by-chapter summary to give the potential reader a taste of the book's content.

Act 1
Chapter 1: Can Anything Good Come Out of Hollywood?
Beaumont sets the stage of his book by beginning with a story that illustrates the fact that Christians tend to see movies in two extreme lights: indulgent and abstinent. The indulgent are those who view all movies uncritically, and abstinent are those who avoid all movies. He explains the reasons for both positions, then provides arguments against both positions. He explains that there must be a middle position that is acceptable for the Christian. Finding that middle ground is the goal of this book.

Chapter 2: How a Story Is Told vs. What a Story Tells
It is important that the careful viewer keep some distinctions in mind while watching movies: direct vs. indirect communication, description vs. prescription, and message vs. purpose. The first is important for creators. Direct communication is more straight forward and almost propogandistic about what the writer or director is trying to communicate to the audience, while indirect is more subtle. The second is as important in watching movies as is in reading scripture. Directors and writers are not necessarily promoting what is being portrayed; they often tell what happens in the story (description) to lead to what they are trying to communicate (prescription). The last distinction is important because sometimes what the director and writer intends to communicate (purpose) is over-shadowed by what actually is communicated (message). It is not always wise to conclude that the director or writer intended to communicate what the movie actually did communicate. Making these distinctions will help Christians to react more calmly and wisely regarding movies that may have questionable descriptions or messages.

Chapter 3: Story: Structure, Sights, and Sounds
What makes a movie engaging is much more than the story. The structure, sights, and sounds play pivotal roles for the viewer. Understanding how each of these elements are used will help the viewer understand more of the purpose that the director or writers intended to communicate. Beaumont takes his reader through the primary characters that make a good movie, and the basic scripts that most story lines follow. He explains each importance and implies what would be missed in their absence. He makes the important point that everything that the viewer sees or hears has importance- the visual stage as well as the sound stage are carefully constructed to give hints into the path of the story and bring a definite mood to the current scene. These elements are often used to bring stark contrast between different situations, but also to show connection in the middle of disconnection. Understanding these other forms that the director and writer use to communicate to the audience will assist in understanding the what the movie is attempting to (indirectly) communicate as a whole.

Chapter 4: Style: How the Story Moves
People often look to the MPAA ratings system to determine the appropriateness of a particular film. The "G" rating indicates that its generally acceptable for all ages; while an "R" rating should be limited to adult audiences. Beaumont explains that this rating system has a large flaw: it only considers the style of the movie: how a story is told, not what story is told. He explains that films may not contain any offensive language, violence, or sexual scenes, but may teach a false and even anti-Christian message. At the same time, many films contain those elements, yet convey and emphasize truth. Of course, this is not license to go see every gratuitous use of these style elements. Since he grants that over-use of these may over-shadow an otherwise moral message, Beaumont examines at each style element individually to offer a reasoned limit to their presence in movies. He defends the necessity of offensive language using Scripture's use of them, and the fact that many of those words do not have concepts that may be communicated by less offensive synonyms. Violence is often necessary to be depicted because the writers and director wants to portray its evil in the real world. Beaumont explains that often the violence is tamed down in movies in order to get a certain rating, which he offers is damaging in many cases, since it does not do justice to the actual violence in the real world. Finally sex needs to be tastefully presented in the proper, biblical context. Viewers do not need a graphic depiction to know what happened. It is important that the viewer recognize whether these elements are being glorified unnecessarily (or falsely- as part of the overall message of the movie) or are just elements of how the story is being told.

Chapter 5: Suppositions: The World of the Story
When looking for the message in a movie it is important that the viewer enter into the world of the story. Since many movies take place in a world that is not the real world, a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary to do so. Beaumont goes through the different hallmarks of the worlds of the most common movie genres. He explains that paying attention to these stereotypical aspects will help the viewer understand the world and what the writer and/or director is (are) trying to communicate. Understanding what is common for movie genres can also be important when movies "break the rules" by going against the cliche of the genre. Beaumont points out that many times, depending on the world of the story, certain elements may be appropriate, while the same elements in another movie may not be. He uses the element of magic in Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and the Narnia series to illustrate his point.

Chapter 6: Significance: The Moral of the Story
Beaumont now brings together all that has been discussed into one package. He goes through the different acts of a movie and shows how all the elements can be identified in each one to discern the message the filmmakers are attempting to communicate. He uses several examples to identify the importance of some elements over others and how focus on those others may actually distract the viewer from the intended message. Finally, he uses several specific examples to compare and contrast messages in movies with similar elements.

Act 2
Chapter 7: Discussing Movies Religiously: Is Salvation Self-Realization or Sincere Repentance?
Now that the reader has been familiarized with the different aspects of movies, it is time to begin analyzing and using the movies to highlight the truths of reality. Beaumont begins this portion of his book by pointing to a common theme in movies: that of salvation. Of course, it is not in the Christian sense, but a general sense. Usually the story consists of a challenge that must be met by the protagonist but cannot be met in the state that the viewer meets the character. The salvation must come from another character, self-realization, an epiphany or something similar. Beaumont explains that these common themes are a way to make a connection to the Christian worldview. Because of the fact that Hollywood tends to malign the Christian worldview, it is necessary that Christians testify to the truth of the Gospel, clarify the truth of the Gospel, and justify the truth of the Gospel. Illustrates the importance of each of these and how one might accomplish each by taking the reader through a conversation with a skeptic regarding man's sinfulness using the movie Batman Begins (2005).

Chapter 8: Discussing Movie Philosophically: Is Reality Virtual or Veritable?
In the last few decades its has become common to believe that truth either does not exist or simply cannot be known. Many people take this so far as to doubt the reality of the external world around them. Beaumont explains that more movies are being produced that explore this possibility. He explains the self-defeating nature of the idea that there is no truth (a truth statement in itself), the logical incoherence in believing that truth cannot be known (a claim to knowledge of truth), and the unreasonableness of thinking that one cannot generally truth their senses and reasoning to give correct information about reality (a claim about reality that requires, at least, trustworthy reasoning). Beaumont then takes the reader through a philosophical discussion about the premise behind the movie The Matrix (1999) and shows how engagement in such a dialog does not require any deep philosophical training, just pressing the fact of the illogic of such positions.

Chapter 9: Discussing Movies Theologically: Is God a Delusion or Deity?
It is common to use observations of the universe to argue for God's existence. The fact that the universe exists and that it appears designed. Beaumont takes the reader through the basic versions of the Kalam cosmological argument and the teleological argument. He also explains the difference between "proof" and "evidence"- granting that proof is not possible, while providing mounting evidence is, and that is what a person should focus on. Using the movie Contact (1997) as a beginning point, he takes the reader through a casual conversation where a Christian provides evidence for the existence of a transcendent Beginner and Designer of the universe, without invoking religion.

Chapter 10: Discussing Movies Scripturally: Is the Bible Mythological or Miraculous?
The reliability of the Bible is often under attack from Hollywood. Everything from its preservation to its supernatural content has been challenged. A recent popular example of this is The DaVinci Code. Beaumont takes this opportunity to take the reader through the evidence for the preservation of the text (do we have today what was originally written). He concludes that if one is to consider the Bible to be unreliable in its preservation, then we must also be skeptical of all other writings of antiquity. He then moves to the evidence of the Bible's historical accuracy. He examines the findings of archaeology and science and compares them to the historical claims of scripture. Then Beaumont guides the reader through the evidence of the Bible's inspiration, including miracles and fulfilled prophecy. He concludes the chapter with a conversation that begins with The DaVinci Code that naturally progresses into discussing each of these points.

Act 3
Chapter 11: What Should We Then Watch?
After examining movies from the objective viewpoint of cinematic theory and applying that knowledge to conversations in everyday life, Beaumont would be missing something if he did not take a few pages to provide the reader with some guidelines regarding what movies are to be watched and which are to be avoided in the Christian's entertainment life. He reminds the reader that movies do contain both biblical and non-biblical elements (discussed earlier in the book) that all must be considered in making decisions. He advises readers to check reviews to avoid elemental surprises and offers pointers for respectfully walking out when out with friends, if necessary. Beaumont concludes his book with a powerful admonition to his readers that Christians will not always agree on which movies are appropriate and which are not. This is due to the fact that Christians are unique individuals and have different struggles. Freedoms in Christ should not be abused around those who may fall, but those who may fall should not limit the freedoms of those who do not have their same struggles. Ultimately Christians should discuss and exercise this freedom around each other with spirits of love and respect.

Reviewer's Thoughts
I have personally struggled for many years with what movies are okay to be enjoyed and if there is any evangelical value to them; the opinion has changed several times through the years but never really found a good basis for making the judgment. The last few years has seen a more "mature" view of movies that I have held tentatively. However, Doug Beaumont's The Message Behind The Movie has really provided me with a much more solid foundation for discerning the ethical value of certain movies. The way that he explained all the elements that make up a movie allows me to look at movies in more detail, and to appreciate the good, the bad, and the ugly. Beaumont's Act 2 was quite enjoyable for its connection to defending the truth of the Christian worldview and the conversations that led to the same content. This section highlighted the incredible cultural resource that Hollywood can be for the Christian in their efforts to carry out The Great Commission. Throughout the book Beaumont helps the Christian to establish limits and realize freedoms regarding their movie choices. I recommend this book to every Christian who either loves movies or hates them or is more apathetic towards them. Everyone stands to gain much from Beaumont's work.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Luke Nix is a Computer Systems Administrator in Oklahoma, USA. He has a beautiful and supportive wife, but no kids yet. In his spare time he enjoys studying theology, philosophy, biology, astronomy, psychology and apologetics. If you liked this review, more of his writing can be enjoyed at


MaryLou said...

I love movies and have wrestled with what is acceptable to watch and what isn't as well. Sometimes it's pretty obvious what isn't suitable. But the negative influences can sometimes be very subtle and can affect us without our even being aware of it. Thanks for bringing our attention to this book, Luke. It's one I am definitely going to read.

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