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For so long, the Hollywood-as-modern-Babylon narrative has predominated in more conservative Christian circles; we might enjoy the fruits of the entertainment industry, perhaps, but we’re at least supposed to feel guilty about it. Encouraged by worldview watchdogs such as Movieguide.org and Focus on the Family’s Plugged In (the latter was a fixture in my pop-culture education), many contemporary evangelicals learned to evaluate movies based on whether they told stories that were both Christian-friendly and family-friendly. More adult-oriented cinematic offerings might receive a passing grade, but not without an accompanying shake of the head: If only these filmmakers would learn to tell their stories without using such rough language…Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
Thank God, then, for critics like Josh Larsen, who sees no conflict between his love for God (he edits and writes for ThinkChristian) and his love for movies of all stripes (he cohosts Filmspotting, arguably the biggest film-related podcast in the world). In his new book, Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings, Larsen adopts an approach that sees no need to sacrifice good-faith moviegoing on the altar of his Christian faith. As the title suggests, there are many vehicles for prayer, and the art of cinema is one of them.
Larsen offers his thesis statement near the end of the first chapter:
“Let’s accept that prayers can be unintended and can come from unbelievers, that even the howl of an atheist is directed at the God they don’t acknowledge. In this way, we can explore movies anew. Films are not only artistic, business, and entertainment ventures, they are also elemental expressions of the human experience, message bottles sent in search of Someone who will respond.”
For readers who are already movie-lovers (particularly those who once chafed under the Plugged In model of arts criticism), this is a sentiment that practically elicits a standing ovation. The idea that “all truth is God’s truth” is at least as old as Augustine, but Larsen’s intriguing proposal is that “elemental expressions of the human experience” might also fall into the truth category, insofar as they are honest representations of a certain perspective. Nobody reads Psalm 137:9 and thinks that the real takeaway is that infanticide is a good thing. Why not apply the same interpretive forbearance to Taxi Driver?
Larsen is a critic at heart, so he makes sure to show his work here. Identifying 10 different types of prayer (e.g., praise, lament, anger, and reconciliation) from the Bible, he devotes a chapter to each, demonstrating how the world of cinema overflows with examples of each type. The Matrix is an R-rated action blockbuster; it is also a prayer of yearning. Prayers of lament can be found in everything from 12 Years a Slave to The Dark Knight. Star Wars is just as much a paean to obedience as it is an enthralling sci-fi adventure.
Each chapter is meticulously argued; each film is seen with clear eyes and an affectionate spirit. Larsen’s tastes are broad, and he examines the usual suspects (It’s a Wonderful Life, Babette’s Feast, The Tree of Life) along with more unexpected choices (who would expect the raunchy Amy Schumer comedy Trainwreck to be cited as a prayer of confession?). In doing so, he exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love. After all, Christians are called to know and love all the people around us, regardless of whether those people believe the “right” things or behave the “right” way. Why should we treat their art any differently?
In his final chapter, Larsen chooses to devote his attention just to a single film (Wes Anderson’s Rushmore). It’s a fitting conclusion to the book: rather than exploring only one facet of a film’s themes, as he does in earlier chapters, he illuminates all of its facets at once, demonstrating just how rich a film experience can be. He obviously has great fondness for Rushmore, and his in-depth look at it shows how affection can be married to rigorous analysis without diminishing either. His chosen interpretive framework in this chapter—prayer as journey—is suggestive of how he conceives of both cinephilia and faith. All of us are on a journey, and our multifarious responses to what happens on that journey form the fabric of our lives. Some of us respond with prayer; others respond with art. Larsen suggests that the line between those two acts is thinner than we might think.
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