Monday, May 11, 2009

Book Review: The Message Behing the Movie by Douglas Beaumont


I recently received and have read a new book written by a good friend of mine whose name is Douglas Beaumont. This book, The Message Behind the Movie, attempts to explain how the tendency of Christians to take one of two extreme positions regarding Christianity and the culture—either they tend to be Christian anti-culturists who disavow all things Hollywood or they tend to be naïve advocates of all things Hollywood, considering all content to be harmless in light of its fictional nature—is a problem that needs to be addressed. After offering a short critique of these positions, Doug attempts to fill the apparent hole with a median position that is at the same time both Christian and relevant. As I have already mentioned, I am good friends with Doug, as well as a very grateful student of his. Nonetheless, I will consider his position and will do my best to maintain objectivity. That being said, I will consider this book in accordance with its own threefold division.

Synopsis of the Book

Act One: Watching and Understanding Movies

In the first part of his book, Beaumont gives a general introduction to the aforementioned problem of shallow Christian movie-reviewing and proceeds to build his replacement. He starts by considering the anti-Hollywood position. Here, Doug does an interesting job of building a historico-philosophical backdrop by tying this failing position to the Platonic assumption that art is bad for the soul. (I will not mention the criticisms of this, or any other position that he offers, for spoilers suck just as much for an argumentative read as they do for a suspenseful movie.) Next he considers the opposite position of naïve unconcern for the content of movies and offers some criticisms. After presenting the problem, he gives his solution and proceeds to give the tools needed to implement it.

In the remainder of this first section, Beaumont considers many elements of a movie, including its story, style, worldview, and message. The book has a section on each element. Within each section he describes the element and offers how this each element may be susceptible to unfair criticism or under-criticism by the two extreme camps, offering solutions where he does this.

Act Two: Evaluating and Discussing Movies

In this second section of The Message Behind the Movie, Beaumont addresses the religious issues that often are involved in the storylines of movies, whether explicitly or implicitly. Such issues include the nature of salvation, the nature of ultimate reality, the existence of God, and the Bible. Beaumont’s approach is to give examples of how these issues show up in movies, explain the error often associated with the movie’s claims, and to give a defense of the historic Christian faith. Finally, at the end of every section, he gives a scenario which involves fictional characters discussing these themes in light of actual movies.

Act Three: Applauding and Avoiding Movies

In this short final section, Beaumont considers some popular biblical arguments that would seem to counter his mediating position on the matter of entertainment, and he explains that they are based on a poor understanding of the text. He then concludes with a contrast between legalism and spiritual maturity.

My Assessment

Act One

Overall, I am very appreciative of the intention of this section of the book. Until recently, I had never been one to consider a movie (and other forms of entertainment such as music) as much more than a medium for rest—a psychological nap. Having been a person like this I easily found myself falling into that camp that treated movies as ineffectual on one’s disposition—just harmless entertainment despite the content. After finding this to be a failed position, I found myself in the other camp, ready to discount all movies that had a portrayal of evil. Not to my surprise, I quickly found this position to be untenable, and rather boring. However, as of late I have found myself more critical (in the good sense) of those movies that I watch. For example, this weekend I watched two movies (prior to reading this book), The Wrestler and The Uninvited.

The first movie had as a major element of its story repeated visitations to a strip club. While in the past I would have simply thought that this fact should result in turning the movie off immediately, I found myself less than bothered by it, and even understanding of its purpose there (to portray the despair of the protagonist). However, I still chose to redirect my eyes when any nudity appeared, evidencing the fact that my rejection of the anti-Hollywood attitude did not leave me in the naïve position. Now, I was rather unreflective into these reactions, but The Message Behind the Movie did a good of giving an explanation as to why I had them. It flows from my being a more reflective person to begin with (which has been developed in my philosophical training). So, whereas I was rather consciously unreflective in my watching of the movie, some of my speculative habits spilt over, which made the movie watching experience more fulfilling. Now this was only accidental for me, and without my philosophical training it would most likely have been completely missed. But what about those people who lack such training? These people may be discounting movies with good messages because they do not see the purpose of a “strip club scene” or something similar. Beaumont’s book helps to understand how to evaluate such content.

The second movie was different. It wasn’t a movie that included such scenes. Instead, it was a suspenseful movie. And, as with any decent suspense movie, there was a twist. Now, once the twist occurred, the movie went back and tied it to a seemingly unimportant scene in the beginning of the movie. I found it to be quite surprising, yet gratifying. I was really able to appreciate the director’s arrangement. Now, had I read The Message Behind the Movie prior to watching this, I would have possibly been able to pick up on this fact, since it occurs within the first thirty minutes (which Doug explains would include no “filler” in a well done movie). Thus, I would have been able to be more active in my consideration of the plot, which would have made for a richer movie watching experience.

Now that I have read this book, I look forward to future movie watching where I can expect a new appreciation for the art. However, there is one element of this section that I was left confused about. In the very beginning, Beaumont compares the anti-Christian attitude to the Platonic attitude of looking down upon art. However, I do not think that this analogy is the correct one for his message. I do not think that these Christians view art as bad because it stirs the emotions and supersedes the intellect, as Plato did. I think that most Christians are worried about the depiction of evil in films simply because it is evil. Thus, I think the real problem is not that Christians are Platonic; I think that it is because they are Kantian. Such Christians will tend to think that it is always wrong under all circumstances to depict sin. This is what is known as moral absolutism. I think that this is the philosophical foundation for this error, not the faulty Platonic ontology. That said, I think that Doug’s turn to Aristotle is still a move in the right direction, though I believe that a consideration of his virtue-theory of ethics will bring forth the real solution that he ultimately advocates. Knowing Doug, I am sure that he would agree with me about this psychological description of these critical believers and I am sure that he is completely aware that what he is advocating is a sort of virtue-theory of movie watching. Thus, this critique is not about his message, which I wholeheartedly agree with, it is simply about his corollary.

Act Two

As I began reading act two, I found myself a bit confused. I have to say that I was not at all expecting a section that focused on speculative apologetics. I think that a large part of my problem here was the complete lack of mention in the book title, the section heading, or the chapter headings that instilling tools for evangelism was a goal for this book. Now, I know that Beaumont discusses the importance of engaging the culture through the medium of movies in Act One; however I thought that this meant that the book was going to consider the mechanics of doing that. I do not think that this necessarily takes away from the book; in fact I think that Beaumont was wise in choosing to include this information, considering the obvious fact that the church has not been adequately exposed to the reasons why Christianity is properly considered to be a rational belief system. I just think that titling the section and chapters differently could have gone a long way in preparing me for the move.

That having been said, the apologetic arguments offered by Beaumont are instances of the standard arguments historically used by classical apologists. There is little in the way of anything new in his arguments, nor should there be since this is clearly a book aimed to convey the information in a summary fashion for those who have never heard it before. This is exactly the kind of information that I was thankful for when I first discovered apologetics, and for his recognition as to what the church needs, Beaumont should be praised. I know first hand how easy it is to want to go deeper into these issues because I know just how detailed the discussion can get. Good for him for remembering that this book is a tool for educating neophytes. Finally, I really appreciated the dialogical section at the end of every chapter. It is in this section that I think Beaumont demonstrably evidences his petition that the culture needs to be accessed in order for evangelism to be relevant and effective.

Act Three

There is little to say regarding the final section. I thought that it was very appropriate and well put. Some may wish that Beaumont had given a list of dos and don’ts for a Christian movie watcher, but if they had they would be missing the whole point (and should buy another copy and start over . . . . j/k).

Concluding Thoughts

Upon completion of this book I am especially happy that I read the first section, pleased that the second section is included, and glad at the open door left in the third section. The problems that I have with the book are circumstantial, for the most part, and do not relate to the overall argument presented. Being a book which appears to have been intended as an introduction, I think it succeeds wonderfully in its goal. When all is considered, I will give this book 4.5 out of five, the half point being taken for the confusion regarding the second section. Nonetheless, that confusion would not inhibit me in the least from recommending The Message Behind the Movie to any Christian who wishes to be a successful evangelist, whether to millions, or simply to their friends. This is a terribly important message that could not be released at a better time.

Finally, I hope for the author and the publisher to consider a series of sequels, and to dive deeper into these topics discussed. I would like to see the first section expanded into its own volume, if not multiple volumes. It would also be neat to see a volume aimed at detailed evaluation, to show what that would look like.