Taking Your Christian Worldview to the Movies: Theological Foundations (Part I/III)

To me, movies are like football games, Oscar season like the playoffs, and the Oscars like the Super Bowl. Now, this doesn’t mean that I always agree with a film’s message or those involved in its production, just as the Christian football fan doesn’t always support what occurs in the game. Nonetheless, we can still enjoy the movies. To support this claim, I’ll consider theological foundations in this article. In next week’s, I’ll turn to how we should use the Christian worldview in our analysis of the movies.

Creation: Filmmaking results from divine image-bearing.

In the beginning, God created human beings in His image, according to His likeness (Gen. 1:26-27), instructing them to fill, subdue, and rule the earth (1:28). This command has resulted in (among other things) the establishment of cultures and all they contain.[1] As men and women, we create because we’re made in the image of the Creator. We’re “sub-creators,” as both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien taught, tasked with what Andy Crouch refers to as the creative calling of culture making.[2]

Human creativity, reflective of divinity, has manifested itself through human history in many ways. One example is the arts.[3] Filmmaking combines different types of art, as filmmakers use literary (screenplay), media (cinematography), and performing (acting) arts to produce the visual art we call film.

Fall: Filmmaking, even from fallen human beings, can convey God’s grace, as well as His truth, beauty, and goodness.

Because Adam and Eve succumbed to the serpent’s beguiling (Gen. 3), everything is tainted by sin, including our capacity to steward the God-given function of culture making as God intended. Even so, all is not lost. Total depravity doesn’t mean we’re totally fallen; we’re not as fallen as we could be. Rather, total depravity means that our entire beings are contaminated by sin.[4]

Still, God’s common grace still shines through the dark cloud of man’s depravity. One way this occurs is through God’s gifting. He creates some of us with artistic abilities or interests (others not so much); Tim Keller refers to these as “gifts of wisdom, talent, beauty, and skill according to his grace.” God “casts them across the human race like seed, in order to enrich, brighten, and preserve the world.”[5]

Just as the parent is pleased when his or her child finds pleasure in doing good things to right ends, so God is pleased when His children find pleasure in good things, giving Him the glory for them and not making them into idols. Things such as the arts, family, and food are God’s gifts to humankind; they “enrich” the world, and they point to God as the giver of all good gifts (Jas. 1:17). This is true even for non-Christians, who can “brighten” the world by God’s common grace. Some semblance of the difference between right and wrong still remains in the law of their hearts (Rom. 1-2) and is perceptible in the law of nature.

Keller also says that non-Christians can sometimes “do great work—even better work—than Christians” and that they even “exceed Christians morally and in wisdom.”[6] He explains this by pointing to a right, or what he calls a “thick,” view of sin and of common grace: “Our thick view of sin will remind us that even explicitly Christian work and culture will always have some idolatrous discourse within it. Our thick view of common grace will remind us that even explicitly non-Christian work and culture will always have some witness to God’s truth in it.”[7]

With this in mind, what should our appreciation and discernment of movies look like? We should “adopt a stance of critical enjoyment of human culture and its expressions in every field of work. We will learn to recognize the half-truths and resist the idols; and we will learn to recognize and celebrate the glimpses of justice, wisdom, truth, and beauty we find around us in all aspects of life.”[8]

When the children of Israel migrated from Egypt to the wilderness, they spoiled the Egyptians of their silver, gold, and clothing (Exod. 12:35-36). Correspondingly, God’s children can also plunder those elements of truth from the pagan and secular cultures that are useful in God’s service. Augustine explained that Moses “was well aware that true advice, from whatever mind it came, should be ascribed not to man but to the unchangeable God who is the truth. . . . For all truth comes from the one who says, ‘I am the truth.’”[9]

Augustine set forth this principle: “A person who is a good and a true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature, but rejecting superstitious vanities.”[10] Reformer John Calvin also picked up this tradition. Commentating on Titus 1:12, he said, “All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God.”[11] In his Institutes, he wrote:

Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, ever much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears.[12]

Truth belongs to our Lord, be it, as Augustine and Calvin point out, in pagan literature or from profane authors.

Certainly this rationale applies to the movies. Insofar as they set forth the true, the beautiful, and the good, the Christian can learn from, appreciate, and enjoy the films even of non-Christians.[13] All truth, wherever we may find it, belongs to our Lord.

Redemption: Filmmaking both reflects and shapes the world to which God calls us to witness.

God hasn’t left us in our pitiful states. He’s sent forth His Son to redeem that which was lost (Gal. 4:4; Mt. 18:11). This redemption includes not simply our personal salvation but also that of the whole created order and its original function. Before ascending to heaven, Jesus issued the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20). After explaining that all authority has been given to Him in heaven and on earth, an echo of Genesis 1:1, He tells His disciples to make other disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Trinitarian God and by teaching them to observe all that He taught.

The Great Commission is a great renewal, in part, of God’s original intentions in the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:28). That the prophecies of Isaiah and John (Isa. 65-66; Rev. 21-22) about the new heavens and new earth call to mind the Garden of Eden is no mere coincidence. As evidenced in the Great Commission, God is using our work now in His great redemption work of the cosmos, and He’s redeeming our function as sub-creators and culture makers.[14] If God is mysteriously using us to redeem the world, then we have to be in the world; we have to be among its people, interacting with the cultures they create.

When missionaries prepare to go to their particular fields, they study its language, history, culture, and so forth; they become cultural exegetes. Non-vocational missionaries, also, must do the same. Not only will this help us understand the world to which we’re witnessing, but it will also help us to build bridges with it. This is no less than what the apostle John did when he appealed to logos (Jn. 1:1, 14) or Paul when he quoted Aratus (Acts 17:28), Epimenides (Acts 17:28: Tit. 1:12), and Menander (1 Cor. 15:33).

Likewise, we can be familiar with the cultural artifacts in our world. At times, by God’s common grace, they’ll reflect God’s truth and, to that extent, are in themselves good (considered above). At other times, they won’t. But even then, they’re still valuable because either they’ll reflect the actual present culture, or they’ll shape a desired future culture, or both.

To some extent, films can be the cultural texts of a mainstream culture through which the cultural exegete learns about that culture’s beliefs, customs, questions, and so forth. Frame explains, “The apostle Paul said that he was not ignorant of Satan’s devices (2 Cor. 2:11). For that purpose, if for no other, we may be called to learn what filmmakers have to say to us.”[15]

To another extent, films can reflect a subculture seeking to shape the broader culture. On the one hand, Hollywood is hardly a representative cross section of the American population at large. On the other, Hollywood is not without significant influence, which, when considered over the course of decades, is undeniable.[16] Be it good or bad, helpful or harmful, films are a means through which culture makers make culture. Thus, they’re helpful windows into the world to which we witness.


In summary, films are evidence of the creative, image-bearing capacity of men and women to make and shape culture. Although sin has corrupted the world, films, by God’s common grace, can still convey the truth, beauty, and goodness of God. To the extent that they don’t, they’re useful cultural texts for the Christian seeking to understand the world in which God has placed him or her.

God wants us to be in society, serving as His instruments by which He redeems and creates culture. This doesn’t mean that God wants all Christians to interact with films or even the arts. At the same time, it’s not an illegitimate sphere for critical Christian cultural engagement. All things are being summed up in Christ (Eph. 1:10), including the arts. To the extent that God has so created you to do so, and with Christian discernment and wisdom, enjoy that cultural sphere of the movies.

Next Monday, we’ll continue this topic by turning to the question: How should we use the Christian worldview in our analysis of the movies?


[1] H. Richard Niebuhr explained that culture “comprises language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values” (H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture [New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1951], 32). Ken Myers defines it as “an ecosystem of institutions, practices, artifacts, and beliefs, all interacting and mutually reinforcing” (Kenneth A. Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture [1989; repr., Wheaton: Crossway, 2012], xi).

[2] For discussion of sub-creation, see C. S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” (1946), in On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature (Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 1982); and J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” (1947), in Tree and Leaf (New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins, 2001). See also George MacDonald, “The Fantastic Imagination” (1893), in George MacDonald: The Complete Fairy Tales, Penguin Classics (New York, N.Y.: Penguin, 1999).

For discussion of culture making, see Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2008).

[3] Other examples include architecture, food, languages, and technologies.

[4] See R. Stanton Norman, “Human Sinfulness,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Danny Akin (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H, 2007).

[5] Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work in God’s Work (New York: Dutton, 2012), 191.

[6] Keller, 185, 191. The full quotations are: “Because all human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28) and all are given their talents and skills for work in the world by God (1 Corinthians 7:17), we should not be surprised that many people without belief in Jesus can do great work—even better work—than Christians” (Keller, 185); “Without an understanding of common grace, Christians will have trouble understanding why non-Christians so often exceed Christians morally and in wisdom” (Keller, 191).

[7] Keller, 197. Keller warns about Christians unwittingly adopting a thin view of sin:

If we have a thin view of sin, we will feel safe if we remove from our view anything that could tempt us to commit actions of overt sexual immorality, profanity, dishonesty, or violence. By withdrawing such cultural ‘texts’ from our presence, we may feel less sinful; but we may be fooling ourselves. . . . Of course, there is a great deal that is pernicious in popular culture, with its oft-noted glorification of sex and violence. The Bible tells us to flee sexual temptation (1 Corinthians 6:18-20); and a wise person will set wise boundaries. But too much emphasis on wholesale withdrawal from culture increases the likelihood of slipping into other more ‘respectable’ idolatries (Keller, 193).

[8] Ibid., 197.

[9] Saint Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R. P. H. Green (397, 426; New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1997), 6.

[10] Ibid., 47. The broader context of this quotation is as follows:

[W]e should not avoid music because of the associated pagan superstitions if there is a possibility of gleaning from it something of value for understanding holy scripture. Nor, on the other hand, should we be captivated by the vanities of the theatre if we are discussing something to do with lyres or other instruments that may help us appreciate spiritual truths. We were not wrong to learn the alphabet just because they say that the god Mercury was its patron, nor should we avoid justice and virtue just because they dedicated temples to justice and virtue and preferred to honour these values not in their minds, but in the form of stones. A person who is a good and a true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature, but rejecting superstitious vanities and deploring and avoiding those who “though they knew God did not glorify him as God or give thanks but became enfeebled in their own thoughts and plunged their senseless minds into darkness. Claiming to be wise they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for the image of corruptible mortals and animals and reptiles.”

See also Basil the Great, “Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature,” in Plutarch and Basil the Great, Essays on the Study and Use of Poetry, trans. Frederick Morgan Padelford, Yale Studies in English, vol. XV, ed. Albert S. Cook (New York: Henry Holt, 1902), 103, where Basil the Great remarked:

Consequently we must be conversant with poets, with historians, with orators, indeed with all men who may further our soul’s salvation. Just as dyers prepare the cloth before they apply the dye, be it purple or any other color, so indeed must we also, if we would preserve indelible the idea of the true virtue, become first initiated in the pagan lore, then at length give special heed to the sacred and divine teachings, even as we first accustom ourselves to the sun’s reflection in the water, and then become able to turn our eyes upon the very sun itself.

[11] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, trans. William Principle (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1948), 300-01.

[12] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, Mich.: Hendrickson, 2008), II.2.15, p. 167.

[13] “Christians should place a high value on all human work (especially excellent work), done by all people, as a channel of God’s love for his world. They will be able to appreciate and rejoice in their own work, whether it is prestigious or not, as well as in the skillful work of all other people, whether they believe or not” (Keller, 185-86).

[14] You see the emphasis that God is using our work now in His great redemption work of the cosmos in N. T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins, 2008). After citing 1 Corinthians 15:58, which reads, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (nasb), Wright writes:

What you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are—strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God. God’s recreation of his wonderful world, which began with the resurrection of Jesus and continues mysteriously as God’s people live in the risen Christ and in the power of his Spirit, means that what we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted. It will last all the way into God’s new world. In fact, it will be enhanced there. I have no idea what precisely this will mean in practice. I am putting up a signpost, not offering a photograph of what we will find once we get to where the signpost is pointing” (209).

[15] John M. Frame, “Theology at the Movies,” Frame-Poythress.org; http://www.frame-poythress.org/ebooks/theology-at-the-movies; accessed May 14, 2017; Internet.

[16] Again, Frame illustrates, “Liberal ideas, therefore, are not nearly as pervasive within the general culture as they are in the press, educational and entertainment media. Still, they do leave their mark in important ways, largely because these media—together with the influence of government—have so much power” (Ibid).

Author: Matthew Steven Bracey

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