John Hurt in Shooting Dogs
Movies and church worship both attempt to transport a person out of their everyday experiences to another level. Both are scripted, and both use images, music, symbols, and story. And to do this, they have special buildings. In fact, in Victorian times some Catholic churches even charged admission fees. A seat at a high Mass was more expensive than a low Mass (presumably, popcorn was extra).
Despite on demand TV movie channels, the growth of internet movie downloads, and the popularity of wide screen TVs, which create a mini cinema at home, cinema going in the UK has lost none of its popularity. We clearly still love the experience of sitting with others in the darkness in the cinema.
On the other hand, church attendances continue to fall each year in all mainstream Christina denominations. For example, only around 20% of the four million Catholics in England and Wales now regularly go to Mass on Sundays.
So why are cinemas able to get people through the doors and churches can’t? Films, unlike church worship are entertainment, of course, but they can tell us something about their lives and, sometimes, about God.
It’s not going too far to say that, for some people, movies can provide a kind of spiritual experience they believe church can’t. Certain movies can inspire, broaden our vision and also get us thinking about some of the big questions.
In his excellent book Praying the Movies, Edward McNulty, a Presbyterian pastor, says that some films “help us to understand a little better what it is to be a human being and, in a few cases, even to see a little more clearly the emerging kingdom of God.”
One film in particular that seems to do this is The Shawshank Redemption. Starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, it tells the story of a friendship between two prisoners and how each of them rediscovers hope.
The film’s enduring popularity stems from its depiction of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and the idea that each person has the capacity to change.
Shooting Dogs, on the other hand, has an explicit religious narrative. It’s about a Catholic priest, played by John Hurt, who, like the small UN peace-keeping force, can only stand by and watch as Rwanda descends into madness and mass slaughter.
The film is not only a terrifying picture of how a country can disintegrate and neighbours turn against each other, but also a powerful portrayal of a priest living out his faith, even to death.
Movies can leave you with much to ponder. In Evan Almighty, Evan’s wife leaves him because she thinks he is crazy to be building an ark. In a roadside diner, she encounters God disguised as a waiter.
He says, “If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm, fuzzy feelings? Or does he give them opportunities to love each other?”
Movies succeed when the story to tell resonates within us and tells us something about ourselves or gives us a particular insight. By the same token, perhaps the Church fails when the story it tells doesn’t resonate with us and fails to connect with ordinary human experiences.