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Discerning eyes

Q&A | Beauty and stories are important to God, says screenwriter Brian Godawa, and that's why Christians should not ignore movies

Issue: "Fighting poverty," March 13, 2010

Screenwriter Brian Godawa is not a March 7 Oscar nominee, but he is a Christian in Hollywood who, without selling out, has made good films-most notably, To End All Wars. He has also written two fine books published by IVP, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment, and Word Pictures: Knowing God Through Story & Imagination.

Q: How do many American Christians interact with film? I see two extremes in the church: the cultural anorexic who, because there are some bad things in movies like sex and violence, throws the baby out with the bathwater, and the person with a lack of discernment who consumes everything. We need to watch films with discernment and interact with them redemptively-which means figure out what you agree and disagree with and why. You should take the good and reject the bad.

Q: What should Christians understand about the nature of storytelling in movies? About 20 percent to 30 percent of the Bible is propositional truth, but about 70 percent to 80 percent is image, story, poetry, parable. . . . It's not just that imagination is acceptable, it's one of the dominant biblical means through which God communicates who He is. I'm not saying imagination is everything and rationality is a Greek construct that we need to cast aside. I'm saying that if, in our theology, we have no aesthetic, we are not understanding God. Beauty is a key part of understanding God.

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Q: Both artistry and rationality are equally ultimate in God's eyes? I root this in the Incarnation: Christ is the Word made flesh. If you overemphasize rationality you don't understand the essence, the life. It's like dissecting a frog: You'll figure out all the parts, but you've killed the frog. By the same token, if you're awash in artistic, imaginative creativity, you can miss God's rational side. In the Incarnation, they're both equal. We should approach God through word, reason, and rationality, but also through beauty. I want people to be balanced in their faith, rather than swinging from one extreme to the other.

Q: You address in your writing the noetic effect of sin, how it undermines our minds, so we need something more than intellect. When I see Jesus appeal to pity in the parable of the Good Samaritan, I see that stressing only logical arguments doesn't touch a person's humanity. You can win an argument but lose the battle. In the arts and in rhetoric, there are means of persuasion that are not rational. That doesn't mean they're illegitimate; they appeal to something that supersedes reason. I used to scoff at Pascal and Kierkegaard, but now I understand a lot of what they said.

Q: In Hollywood Worldviews you cite dreams and visions as God's form of television and movies. Movies are basically visually dramatic stories, which God loves. First of all, God is very visual: Think of the Book of Revelation, which is in the genre of apocalyptic, epic horror fantasy. Ezekiel and Jeremiah actually engaged in performance art as prophecy: Jeremiah should be called "the Acting Prophet," because so many of his prophecies were acting. Narrative is God's dominant method for communicating His truth. That means story is very different from logical argument, but in a sense story embodies the logical argument.

Q: You write that the Bible tells R-rated stories. The Bible is full of that stuff! I challenge you to read Ezekiel chapter 16 or 23 to your grade-school Sunday school kids. You're not going to do it. You're not going to read Song of Solomon in church, are you? So many people have a double standard. The Bible even has blasphemy in there. The point is, what's the context? It's ultimately in the context of moral instruction; God is elevating goodness and condemning evil, but you have to have both of them in there to show that.

Q: Does the Bible graphically show the details of sin? No, it doesn't show everything all the time, but sometimes it does. There's sometimes a reason to do so, and usually when you're dealing with a serious moral failure or issue you have to be shocking. When God wanted to show the spiritual failure of Israel, His favorite imagery was whores, prostitutes, and sluts, and He described what they did. What punches you in the gut, that reveals spiritual evil and scares you away from it and toward holiness.

Q: What was the first screenplay you wrote? A lot of times you write something from your own life. I wrote this family drama, and of course it was terrible. No one has read it and that's good.

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