Friday, August 7, 2015

The use of film in theology

Lately I have come to realize that our experiences play a larger role in our ability to think about the world and to discern truth than many people might realize. Oftentimes we can grasp a certain proposition and understand it, we might even claim to believe it, but we might only be struck by the truth of the proposition -- we might only see that it is true -- subsequent to certain experiences. This has certainly been true numerous times in my own life: for example, I didn't always feel a sympathy for David's prayers for God's wrathful judgment in the psalms until I saw Christians lined up in orange jump suits awaiting their own beheading.

There is therefore a close connection between our recognition of the truth and experience. Some things we might only recognize once we have walked the world in different shoes, when we have seen things from a certain vantage point with certain interests and concerns, so that we might react to external stimuli in different ways. Because people involved in theological or philosophical debate have almost never experienced life in the same way, consequently they might often talk past each other or else the debate terminates in a stalemate: both side has its own position and cannot convince the other in a non-question-begging way.

Now what does this have to do with film? The truth is that films, when ably made by a competent director and actors and so on, have the unique power to bring you into another person's life, to see the world through her eyes, and to experience and feel what she does, and to react in the same way to the things that happen to her. (This is also a power shared by good literature!) In this way, films open us up to see the world in a different way, and this helps to foster thoughtful discussion and reevaluation of our own commitments and preconceptions.

One example that I have often used is Blade Runner. The replicants are created by the Tyrell Corporation to be used as means to ends beyond their own personal fulfillment or happiness; some are made for off-planet labor, others for prostitution, etc. They die after only four years in life, after which nox est perpetua una dormienda in Catullus's words, and they are created with false identities and memories so that they quickly assimilate into their line of work without existential crisis. Some of the replicants learn of their impending doom and rebel against Tyrell, insisting that he work to extend their lifespan before it is too late. But there's nothing he can do, and so the replicants must accept their mortality, never really having lived.

Now we are supposed to sympathize with the replicants' plight, even if they are the villains in the movie, and the reason why is this: the filmmaker and the story suggests that their story is our own. Though they are perfectly capable of desiring and enjoying the good things of life, though they have a sense of their own freedom to explore and find out true happiness for themselves, yet they are made in such a way that they will never be able to accomplish this. As the principal replicant says upon meeting Tyrell: "What seems to be the problem?" "Death."

If we can sympathize with the replicants, and if we have our doubts about the morality and goodness of the Tyrell Corporation for manufacturing them, then it is easy to see how these sentiments might transfer over to the theological domain, where the question of God's providence often comes up. Calvinists and Augustinians affirm that God created some persons for the sake of realizing ends from which they cannot benefit, at their extreme cost: for example, reprobate persons might have been created for the sake of their deservedly eternal damnation, serving to demonstrate God's righteous judgment for the enjoyment of the elect. Here too, rational free agents are brought into life only to be denied by circumstances outside their control from ever enjoying true happiness. If we question Tyrell's goodness in Blade Runner, and if we sympathize with the replicants' cause, then we must likewise question God's goodness on such a picture and sympathize with the reprobate.

So well-made films provide a way for theological disputants better to understand each other. A person who cannot sympathize with the anti-Augustinian argument need only watch Blade Runner with an openness to experience the world of the film as the filmmaker desires, an openness to hear what the filmmaker has to say in his own terms, and perhaps will thereupon find more sympathy with the argument than he might previously have supposed. This is one way in which film serves theology and philosophy: it provides a way of experiencing the world in another's shoes, so that we can better understand her and her claims.