There are very few people that don’t enjoy watching movies/TV shows. It’s become such a normal and regular part of our lives. Throwing up Netflix on a Tuesday evening before you go to bed is just normal. Binge watching TV shows on a Saturday morning is normal. Now, because watching movies/TV shows has become so normal in our lives, it’s crucial that we, as Christians, look at it carefully. We need to ask the questions, “What movies should I watch?” and “How should I watch them?” To help us answer these questions is Brett McCracken, a Christian film critic. I’m sure you’ll be encouraged and convicted listening to this conversation.
Who’s Our Guest?
Brett McCracken is a senior editor at The Gospel Coalition and author of Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty, and Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Brett and his wife, Kira, live in Santa Ana, California. They belong to Southlands Church, where Brett serves as an elder. You can follow him on Twitter.
Be sure to check out Brett’s new book.
You should also check out Brett’s blog at brettmccracken.com.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
With me today is author and journalist Brett McCracken. Brett is the recent author of a new book called Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community. But Brett is also a film critic, and if you listened a little while ago, you would have known that Brett was already on the show.
So, anyways, it’s great to have you again on the show today, Brett.
Yeah, it’s great to be back.
So, first, if people didn’t listen to the last conversation that we had together, how could you sort of sum up who you are in just a few sentences?
Yeah. So, I’m a writer. I’m a pastor. I’m a journalist, so I write film reviews. Currently, I work at The Gospel Coalition. I oversee the arts and entertainment, arts and cultures section of The Gospel Coalition’s website.
For many years, I’ve written film reviews for Christianity Today. I’ve written a couple of books. Probably my second book, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberties, kind of the most germane to this conversation we’re going to have today.
And then I’m a pastor, so I’m an elder at a church and it’s kind of a part-time thing but the church is a big passion for me. I love bridging the worlds of the church and the arts and culture and helping there to be productive conversations there.
That’s awesome. Yeah, and that’s exactly what we’re going to try to get into today. So, Brett, since this conversation is really on film criticism, I think it’s just best to start off with, at this moment, because this is such a hard question, but at this moment in time, what would you say your favourite movie is, and why?
Okay. So, favourite movie of all time or this year?
Well, if you have one for all time, then let’s go for it. Usually, people can’t say that.
Yeah. Well, my favourite film of all time is the Thin Red Line, which is a World War II epic directed by Terrence Malick who, if you’ve read anything I’ve written over the years, you will know that I’m a huge Terrence Malick fan, and he’s my favourite filmmaker inspiration to me. So, yeah, his movie the Thin Red Line is amazing. It came out in 1998 when I was a high school sophomore, basically changed my life. So, that’s my favourite film of all time.
I would say, in 2017, the best film I’ve seen, really, is Dunkirk. I think, as a film, it’s just brilliantly made and so powerful.
For sure. It’s good. Just to say something about the Thin Red Line, I think that, when I first watched that movie, years ago, I think the first thing that caught my attention was– isn’t John C. Riley in that movie?
He is. Yeah.
It kind of caught me off guard a little bit because I was so used to seeing him in these comedies, and finally, he shows up in Thin Red Line. I was so kind of surprised. But yeah, it was a great film.
Everybody shows up in Thin Red Line. Everyone who was any sort of name actor in 1998 shows up.
Right, in the Thin Red Line. That’s awesome. Alright. So, one of your titles is Film Critic. So, in the formal sense, I mean, what does this mean? I think a lot of people maybe read that along people’s titles, but what does that even mean when we see that someone’s a film critic?
Yeah. I mean, I think the basic answer is someone who writes engaging essays about films. The way I kind of look at it as a vocation is I see it as a positive act. I think the word “criticism” has negative connotations but the way I see it, it’s a generative, kind of positive thing.
It’s an activity that is about adding value to a movie and adding value to the experience that people have watching a movie.
If you read a really good review or a great essay about a film that you’ve seen, I think it adds, in your memory and your mind and your heart, it adds a layer to your experience of it. It helps people engage on a deeper level.
For me, it’s all about situating a film in a bigger context, too. So, making connections where I can make connections and helping people who don’t know a lot about a filmmaker understand, “Oh, that’s where this person’s coming from in making this film,” or, “This is how this film relates to other films they’ve made.”
So, I think, like I said, film criticism is a positive thing. It’s an act of creativity, almost like an art form in itself. So, it’s not just about being on the receiving end. It’s about adding your own creative layer to the conversation.
For sure. So, all those things that you just stated there, is that what first made you interested in critiquing film?
Yeah. And, you know, to go back to the Thin Red Line, which kind of plays a part in this story for me, I grew up kind of in these two worlds of Christianity and the church and my love of film as being kind of separate, never really in conversation with each other. The Thin Red Line was the first movie that I saw where it was identifiably sacred. There were holy moments in watching this film, and the words that I was hearing actors say were like prayers. Similar to the prayers that I have spoken or expressed to God.
So, it was a movie that made me bridge the two worlds, “secular arts,” “secular movies,” with my faith and my relationship with God. So, yeah, so much of what I look at in terms of being a film critic, and most of my film criticism has been written for Christian publications and for Christians, so I’m trying to kind of model for my fellow believers, my fellow Christians in the church.
I’m trying to model healthy ways of integrating these two worlds and seeing and observing culture and beauty in good, healthy ways.
That’s good. That’s awesome. Now, the art of visual media, especially in movies and TV shows, it’s just increasing in skill and numbers more and more these days. In one sense, it sort of advanced so fast that I can sense that a lot of Christians are just sort of unaware of the effects that it could have to their heart and mind. They’ve just been submerged in it, kind of suddenly. This is why I think, you know, every Christian, in this sense, needs to be a film critic. Maybe not to the extent that you’re saying, not formally, but sort of in this informal way for themselves and those around them.
Really, for this conversation, I want to spend the majority of our time answering sort of the two questions:
What do I watch and how do I watch it?
So, I guess the first question would be this: What principles should we apply to answer that first question, “What do I watch?” So, just to give some basic context, you’re going to the movies with some friends. A couple maybe are Christians, maybe some are non-Christians. Or you’re flipping through Netflix with your spouse on a Wednesday, Thursday night, something like that. What principles should we apply to answer that question?
Yeah, no, that’s a great question. It’s one I’ve given much thought to over the years. I think, you know, as Christians, the first thing I would say, it’s a little bit cliché because we hear this all the time but the whole verse that Paul says in 1 Corinthians,
“Everything is permissible for me but not everything is beneficial.”
I think really getting to the heart of that question like, “Is this going to benefit me? Yeah, I have liberty.” As Christians, they’re permissible. Things are permissible but not everything is going to be beneficial.
So, I think asking that question of yourself when you’re about to spend time and oftentimes money watching a film,
“Is this going to be beneficial to me? Or is it going to be a waste of time?” Or, worst case scenario, “Is it going to harm me? Is it going to move me backwards in my faith and in my growth?”
I think, if we have options to choose from, and we do, we have a huge amount of media at our disposal to choose from, I think that we should be discerning. This is time of our life that we could be spending doing a whole host of things, so is this going to benefit me? Is it going to be something that grows me, that is edifying, that expresses some aspect of goodness, truth, beauty? Something positive.
So, I would say that would be the first biblical principle I would bring. I think another thing that I talk about a lot is art in general. I would put film in that category. It’s such a great opportunity for us, as Christians, to express gratitude and worship. Even if it’s not explicitly Christian,
if it’s well-made, if it displays the beauty of the world God has created, the people God has created, those things can be opportunities for us to pause, to really observe and contemplate things that we often are too busy in our lives to sit and contemplate and be grateful for.
So, that’s another question I would ask. “Is this a movie that’s going to help me appreciate and worship this creator God?”
Another thing that I think is important is community. Because one great thing about film and the arts, in general, is they can build community. They can connect us with people. They can facilitate healthy conversations. They can teach us empathy. They can help us identify with other people’s stories that are different from us. That’s one of the great contributions of a well-told film or story.
So, I would ask that question, like,
“How is this film going to facilitate community? Or is this just an isolating thing where it’s just me in my dark little room somewhere where I’m just going to consume this movie or this piece of media in a very self-oriented way?”
I think that’s unhealthy. If there’s a film that, for some reason, either because it teaches us empathy, helps us understand another type of person, another group of people, or if it’s just a movie that we go to see with friends or that we watch and discuss with our community. I think that’s a factor that we should consider. I could go on and on, but those are a few basics.
That’s really helpful, and just a couple points on that. Your second point on watching a movie: you get encouraged to worship God because of what you see. You know, I’ve seen Terrence Malick films as well, and he definitely likes to show those long, beautiful shots of either nature or just someone walking, and you really see the beauty of a person or of the geography of the world, and that can cause you to worship. Or, maybe you’re watching BBC’s Planet Earth and you’re just like, “This is beautiful,” right?
I think the first movie that I watched that really made me see film in a new way was Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. I don’t know if you’ve seen that.
Oh, yeah. Yes. It’s a great film.
When I first watched that, I was pretty young, I was in high school, and it opened my eyes to this new … I’d just seen a lot of Disney, action movies, whatever, and then I saw this movie, and it shook me to the core. It does, that third point you make about community and empathy. Here’s a high school that has the annoying jerky jock, you have the mentally handicapped girl, you have all … And then, suddenly, these two guys that have these things going on in their lives come in and start shooting. All of them just become equal now, and you feel for every single one. It does, it really does make you … It’s so emotional, right? So, I affirm those points that you make. It totally is true.
Well, and I think one thing that what you just said brought up in my mind is just, our world is so fast-paced. We are so overwhelmed with news and media, and we can become numb to it. Like, “Oh, there’s another shooting. There’s another terrorist attack. There’s another horrible political thing that’s going on.”
And I think what art does and what films, especially, do, I think, is they slow us down, they actually force us to pause and confront the truth of these things.
They help us to see them, maybe for the first time, for what they are and to truly humanize them and to empathize with people rather than just to consume them as tweets and bits and pieces of headlines that come at us.
So, I think one of the beautiful things about movies is that they slow us down. They focus our attention in such a distracted age, in such a fast-paced world. Where else do we sit still in one place and focus our gaze on one thing for two hours? The only other place I can think of is church. So, that’s interesting, right?
And barely, sometimes.
And barely, yeah.
No, that’s good. The next question, it’s definitely something that’s been on my mind, and I think other’s as well. It’s sort of just a straight question. Is there such thing as some Christians who are “mature” enough to watch more … I just put intense there, intense films maybe that have an excessive amount of gore or there’s nudity or there’s just a ridiculous amount of profanity or what have you? If there is, how do you know if you’re that person or not? What do you think about this?
Yeah. No, I think it’s an important question. I don’t think there’s anyone, just because we’re human and we’re all flesh and blood sinners. I don’t think there’s anyone who can claim to be immune or above all these kind of intense forms of content that you just described. I think there can be variations and differences in there, so I think some people have a weakness or a vulnerability more about violence, and others might have more sexual temptation, so the nudity. And maybe for others, language and the violence of words is something that makes them stumble.
So, I think what we need to do, as Christians, is to just be self-aware enough to know and be honest about, “What is it that I struggle with? If I’m really honest with myself, am I strong enough to watch this film that I know has this sort of content that I struggle with?”
And, again, it goes back to that question: is this beneficial? Is it going to be edifying to me to watch this?
So, for me, there’s plenty of films that, even as a film critic, where I have to see a lot of films, there’s plenty of films that I just won’t watch because I know enough about the director or the film that I just know it’s not going to be edifying, and as artistic or as critically acclaimed as it might be, if there’s just irredeemable, exploitive, explicit content, I won’t watch.
Sometimes, I walk out of the theater mid-movie. And I think, as Christians, we need to be okay with that. We need to recognize that there is a line of too much or too far, and we need to be very self-aware and think very seriously about what that line is.
That’s good. That’s a really good point. Okay, so the second, I guess, question would be this: What kind of critiques, you could say, should we learn when watching a movie or TV show? So, should we put everything we watch through a gospel lens? How do we do that as sort of being a Christian film critic?
Yeah. At first, I would say the word “critique,” it has bad connotations. It just brings to mind deconstructing, kind of taking the fun out of something. So, I would frame it more as just thoughtful engagement or thoughtful film watching. Looking at something on a deeper level.
So, I often recommend, when we were talking about film criticism, it doesn’t mean that you sit there watching a film and you analyze and deconstruct everything that’s going on. I often recommend, just enjoy the film first. Let the film happen to you. Let it do what it is trying to do to you in terms of effecting you emotionally, getting you excited, getting you sad. Films have this visceral impact that I think we need to let happen to us rather than be so cerebral about it, trying to dissect it.
Now, after the film, that’s when I really would say, you know, that’s when your thoughtful engagement can start applying to what you just saw. And it forces you to take time to actually reflect about it because, so often, in our fast-paced, consumeristic world, we’ll go to see a movie, and we’ll maybe have a five-minute conversation with whoever we went to see the movie with, in between the time it takes from leaving the theater and walking to our cars. Maybe a little bit on the drive home, but then it’s over. We forget about it and we move on.
I think that’s unfortunate because anything good is going to take time to kind of sit with you and marinate. So, I always suggest, take some time to think about it and then have a conversation if you can. And, to your question about, “Does everything need to be put in a gospel lens?” Or whatever.
I don’t think we need to force Jesus figures onto films. We don’t have to find biblical proof-texts to make sense.
I think, really, it’s about, like I mentioned earlier in our conversation, is there goodness? Is there truth? Is there beauty in this film? Does it reveal things about this world that helps me appreciate who God is and what He created here? Is the image of God, which all of us, as humans, bear the image of God, how is that on display? How are we seeing God in the way that these films are depicting humanity and the longings of humanity?
So many films are like prayers in the sense that they’re expressing out of a place of pain or longing or frustration. They’re almost speaking to God, even if they aren’t naming God. There’s a great book that just came out called Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, which I would recommend. He talks about this. He goes through all these different types of prayers and then films that he thinks represent those sorts of prayers.
Interesting. Very cool, I like that. You know, it’s interesting, I listened to a podcast … I forget now what it’s called. I was listening to a conversation you had with a couple of guys… Was it called Mere Fidelity? I think that’s what it was called.
Yeah, about [the movie] Silence?
Yeah, it was about [the movie] Silence. I really enjoyed the conversation, but something that you just said that reminded me from what you just said now is you took your home group to watch the movie Silence together, sort of as an event or whatever, and then you guys would talk about it. I think that’s such a good, practical thing.
So, if you’re listening now and you’re like, “Yeah, I lead a small group,” or whatever, that’s such a great … Obviously, you have to be cautious and make sure that there are people in your group that aren’t going to be hurt by the things that are in the film but once that’s sort of uncovered and figured out, I think that’s such a great way to put this into practice.
Absolutely. I think it’s also a great way to kind of have outreach to your non-Christian friends because everyone likes movies, and if there’s a great movie that has spiritual themes, like Silence, it’s a Martin Scorsese film. All of my non-Christian friends who I went to film school with, we’re going to go see that movie because it’s Scorsese.
Films create this common ground, this cultural water cooler connection where I think we, as Christians … Not that we should make films into this utilitarian thing where it’s only about-
Evangelism or something.
Yeah. It’s “only about setting up evangelistic conversations,” but that is a side effect that can be a really good thing. If we can learn how to talk about films well and to really love them well and engage them well, that can be a great bridge to have conversations about God and faith because I think films, so often, are implicitly exploring that territory.
Yeah, that’s good. Sort of as our last question here, Brett, what advice, since you are obviously this formal and informal film critic and you just love the art of film, and you’re also a Christian, you love the gospel and these different things, what advice would you just give young adults, millennials, who are just submerged in this visual media world?
Yeah. I mean, it’s overwhelming how much media there is coming at us every day. So, I think the first piece of advice I would give is just moderation.
Be discerning in how much time you’re spending each day, each week, watching films or just spending time looking at screens. And this is someone who loves films talking.
I think that we can only spend so much of our lives looking at screens and at media. We’re physical beings who were created for physical reality. So, I would say get outside.
Do things with physical people and physical presence with friends.
So, moderation is key to navigating all of this. Also, another aspect of the whole overwhelming amount of content is it can be hard to know what to choose. I myself know the pain of sitting with my Netflix queue or my list and spending like an hour just trying to decide what to watch and then, by the time I finally decide, it’s like I’ve wasted so much time.
The same is true of the internet, generally. I think we can waste so much time just kind of wandering around, and before we know it we’ve clicked on this link and clicked on this, and two hours have passed, and we’re like, “What did I just do with my life?” So, I think listening to the recommendations of trusted people is key.
Instead of just meandering around, wandering around Netflix or the internet, identify people that you trust, whether it’s a film critic or just a person that has good taste who you trust, and listen to their recommendations, and let that be a guide.
The final thing I’ll say is focus on time-tested things, things that have endured. We live in this world where there’s new things every second, and there’s a great TV show one week, but then everyone’s forgotten about it and moved onto another thing the next week. So, there’s no reason why you have to be always consuming the new. Why don’t you spend your time on the things from 10 years ago that people are still talking about?
Like the show Friday Night Lights. That’s a show that ended, I don’t know, five years ago but more and more people are recognizing that that was an amazing show for the five years it was on TV.
So, there are so many great films from 60 years ago that people are still being impacted by. So, focus on those enduring things rather than the fleeting, flash in the pan movies that no one’s going to remember.
Yeah. I can’t help thinking about worship music as you say that as well.
Oh, totally, totally.
It totally applies, the same sort of thing.
Anyways, thanks again, Brett, for chatting with me today. It means a lot. If you’re listening and you’re interested in more of Brett’s reviews, I’d even be on his site, and he has movies that he’s listed as some of his favourites of the year, of all time, different things like that. So, it’s definitely worth checking out. You can do that at brettmccracken.com. I’ll also put all the links and his newer book as well on the episode page. But, again, Brett, thank you so much for spending some time with me today.
Thank you so much, Isaac. It was great.