Alissa Wilkinson: Faith in the movies

Audience in a darkened movie theater

Bigstock/Serhii Bobyk

Movies are important, and the church is called to care about them and take them seriously, says the film critic for Vox and formerly Christianity Today.

Raised in a conservative Christian community, Alissa Wilkinson was a teenager before she saw many mainstream movies. But today, movies are her passion -- and her job, as a film critic, previously for Christianity Today and now for the popular website Vox.

Ironically, her faith-filled, movieless childhood gave her many of the skills she draws upon as a film critic, she said. Growing up, she spent countless hours learning Bible stories and verses.

“You become very acquainted with what it means to read a book very often, over and over, and tell the stories in different ways and look at, ‘What are the implications of the story? What are the themes?’”

Today, she uses that same approach in reviewing movies, coupling it with her biblical and theological knowledge to catch religious references that other critics might miss.

“I hear them instantly,” she said. “They flash onto my antenna, and not everyone has that same antenna. Not everyone is cued up to pick up those frequencies, and that has meant that I kind of have a unique beat -- which is what every journalist needs.”

Wilkinson said that although many in the church have historically been hostile to Hollywood and popular culture, film is an important art form that Christians are called to take seriously.

“If we are serious about what Christ teaches us, then we should care about what people are making and thinking and feeling and talking about, because we love our neighbor,” she said.

Wilkinson has been at Vox since 2016. Before that, she was the chief film critic at Christianity Today and wrote about pop culture and art for a decade at various publications. She is an associate professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York and is co-author of “How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World.” She has a B.S. in information technology from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, an M.A. in humanities and social thought from New York University, and an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction writing from Seattle Pacific University.

She spoke recently with Faith & Leadership about movies, film criticism and religion. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Why are movies important?

One of my colleagues at Vox talked about pop culture being the way we work out what we’re anxious about. It’s like taking the pulse of a culture. Looking at pop culture helps us understand what it is that we as a group of people are thinking about and talking about, and the things we worry about, the things we wonder about. All of those come together in pop culture.

Movies haven’t been around that long -- 100 years -- but they’ve changed the way that Americans think about themselves. They’ve been a major force in helping us conceive what the future could look like and how we remember our past.

So thinking about film, talking about it and writing about it, is a way of thinking about ourselves, and that’s important. There’s also a lot of vibrance and vitality in American filmmaking right now, especially if you look beyond what’s in the multiplex.

A lot of what we know of one another, of people who are not like us, has everything to do with the stories that we hear and tell about them. A lot of those stories come from the news, which benefits by making us afraid of one another. Film can help us understand what it might look like to love one another instead.

Q: But film can also create horrible stereotypes and feed that fear.

That’s right, and this is part of the reason I have been writing recently about the importance of having diverse groups of film critics, and diversity in Hollywood. It’s easy to write lazy stereotypes -- which is just bad writing -- when you have a prevailing voice.

When we only have a prevailing group of people doing criticism, there are not a lot of people who can recognize that for what it is -- lazy writing. So broadening those fields to include all kinds of people with all kinds of perspectives and backgrounds does enrich the art form.

Q: You began that article on diversity in film criticism with the question, “What do film critics even do?” So what do they do?

It changes, depending on who they’re writing for, what publication they’re in, and where they’re coming from, where their interest is. But broadly, criticism is another form of art making. Critics are writers, first and foremost, who write about other kinds of art.

I often talk about criticism as being “ekphrastic” art. “Ekphrasis” was a Greek word for poetry about art. The idea was that a poem would intimately describe a work of art that people wouldn’t see, but if they read the poem they could understand it.

Over time, it’s developed to be art about art. People still write poems about works of art. It’s ekphrastic art, and that’s what criticism is, too. It’s the most ekphrastic of all art forms. It’s all about a piece of art.

The goal is to write a beautiful piece that has paid close attention to someone else’s work of art and can expand it or make it more real or even help the reader see it in a new light. That’s what critics do. That’s our biggest job.

Sometimes that means that you have to praise or pan a film, but it’s not really about the judgment of the work of art. It’s more about expanding the work of art. A lot of people have the idea that critics are there to sell you something, either a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. That’s part of the job, but it’s not the main goal.

Q: In your review of "First Reformed,” you said that your approach to film was shaped by growing up in a strict Christian community, not really watching movies until your late teens. How so? How does that shape how you watch and critique a movie?

There are a couple of ways.

One is that I grew up in a very conservative evangelical community, and though I didn't grow up watching many films, one thing we did a lot was tell stories. That’s a big part of what you do as a kid in that community -- learn Bible stories and Bible verses by heart.

You become very acquainted with what it means to read a book very often, over and over, and tell the stories in different ways and look at, “What are the implications of the story? What are the themes?”

That actually affects the way that you approach film, because a film is a text, just like a book is. We think of stories in a particular way. How do you find themes in them? How do you read them with many different inflections?

Those are all things you learn to do, particularly, in evangelical communities.

I think I read a film with a lot of attention to it as a bit of literature. Is it myth? Is it poetry? Is it history?

Another big part for me is that I am aware of and sensitive to places where filmmakers are drawing on religious elements, especially from the Christian tradition, although not exclusively. That is a handy skill to have in the blockbuster landscape right now.

Last summer, for instance, it felt like every blockbuster I saw had very glaring biblical allusions in it. There was “War for the Planet of the Apes,” which was basically the story of the exodus -- and I wasn’t reading into it; that was just there, and it was fairly obvious.

There was “Blade Runner 2049,” which had this recurring echo of the Nicene Creed, which was very funny to see pop up in a blockbuster. But it was definitely there.

In “The Shape of Water,” which won the best picture Oscar last year, the cinema below the main character’s apartment is playing the film “The Story of Ruth,” and that’s actually pretty important for the story.

So I’m really aware of these little things that filmmakers have drawn on to add texture to their films or to tell the story. I hear them instantly. They flash onto my antenna, and not everyone has that same antenna. Not everyone is cued up to pick up those frequencies, and that has meant that I kind of have a unique beat -- which is what every journalist needs.

That goes [especially] for films that aren’t explicitly drawing from or remixing a biblical text but are more about religious exploration and faith and doubt. That’s where I hang out whenever I can when I’m writing about a film, because it’s important. It’s something that was neglected for a while both by critics and by Hollywood, and so I’m in tune with those things as they pop up.

Q: Even in films that obviously have some religious element, people can miss the references if they don’t have some understanding of religion.

That’s right, and that’s why critics exist. It’s to pull those things apart for people. “Mother!” -- Darren Aronofsky’s horror film last year -- was explicitly about the Bible, but a lot of people didn’t catch that and had very differing feelings about it as a result.

That doesn’t mean you have to like the movie, but it helps explain a lot of what’s going on in it, including some of its more shocking parts.

Q: What’s the difference between reviewing movies for Christianity Today and reviewing movies at Vox or other publications? Do you approach it differently?

I do. The way I approach it differently might surprise people.

At CT, which I loved writing for, I often found that I was having to start from a place of defending the idea that movies were worth thinking about. There’s a long-running stance of anti-pop culture, anti-Hollywood sentiment, so I had to start from that point and then work my way forward. And I don’t like that. If we are serious about what Christ teaches us, then we should care about what people are making and thinking and feeling and talking about, because we love our neighbor.

But that wasn’t taken for granted, so I often started from that point. I did write a lot of things while I was there that were defending even the notion that this should matter.

When I moved over to Vox or other more mainstream publications, that’s already accepted. The presumption is that you’re writing about it, so it’s something that you think matters.

A lot of the stuff I write [at Vox] is basically in the same form it would be if I were writing it at CT, but I have to think harder about what kinds of things I need to explain, because there isn’t necessarily a common knowledge of, like, “Who is Jeremiah? Well, he’s a prophet.”

So I have to back up and explain things, but that’s good. It fits well with the Vox brand, which is all about providing bigger explanations for the headlines of the day. But it also means that I get to remind myself of things that people know and don’t know.

Q: Why are so many “Christian” or “religious” or “faith-based” films so bad?

What passes for what gets called Christian movies today is really all about the market segment that they’re aimed at. It is a genre defined by its audience -- basically, who can they sell a ticket to? And its audience has a very specific set of guidelines.

Obviously, some of those have to do with content. It has to be squeaky-clean -- maybe a little violence, but that’s it. If there’s anything vaguely political, it has to be conservative. And they have to have a happy ending.

They’re always inspirational, and often, the inspirational part can overtake the specificity of the religious experience, so some of these films really never get into, like, Jesus.

They stick to a vague idea of God or something like that, and they can sell that movie -- sometimes a lot of copies of that movie. “Heaven Is for Real” made $101 million. It was a huge success. But I don’t think I would call that a religious movie, because most of those movies have no real interest in religious questions.

They’re not asking questions like, “Where do we come from? Where are we going? What do we need to be saved from?” They usually have those answers already, and they’re more about people going through difficulties and coming out triumphantly.

Then there’s a whole subsection that are very much about a persecution complex, and the biggest is the “God’s Not Dead” series. I’m OK with the existence of some of the blander fare, but I think those are actually against what Christians should stand for.

They’re very much about winning against your enemy. They’re also some of the most successful commercially, which is troubling.

There are a couple of reasons that those movies can be bad. One is that they are very conventional. They don’t try to be original, which means that they lack the freshness that you might get from independent cinema that’s looking for new ways of telling stories.

Another problem is that a good movie isn’t too didactic. Nobody likes a preachy movie, but they’re always preachy. They always try to give the answer. It has to be wrapped up at the end. There’s no way you can leave something ambiguous.

That just makes for bad art at the end of the day. Sermons are meant to give you answers, but a movie is not -- or should not -- be a sermon.

Q: What does a really excellent religious film look like?

They’re not frequently made by people who have an uncomplicated relationship to faith, I find. But the one that I always go back to is “Calvary,” from 2014. It would not suit most religious audiences, because there’s lots of “thematic material” -- language, and a character who was sexually abused as a kid and things like that.

But it’s the best of this genre. It has a priest who’s trying to go through this week that’s modeled on the passion of Christ pretty explicitly. He also grapples with lots of things, chief among them what it is to minister to a community of people who don’t want you there.

That, to me, is a great example of the genre. That and plenty of others have come out in recent years, but most would not satisfy the market segment that faith-based films are usually designed for.

Q: I guess “Silence” would be an example of that, or “Tree of Life.”

“Silence” would be a great example. “Tree of Life” is another one, but it is beloved, so it at least somehow made it into people’s consciousness.

There was a really good one called “The Innocents,” by Anne Fontaine. It’s based on a true story about a convent of nuns during WWII who were raped by passing soldiers. The movie is about the fallout from that and how faith and doubt live out in the midst of trauma and tragedy.

I see at least a few movies like that every year that are quite good. Faith and religion are great, ripe subjects for people to make films about, but they often get ignored by people who might be more likely to see a film that wouldn’t be very challenging to faith, or unsettling, or dark.

Q: Speak some about film’s ability to create empathy and understanding.

It’s not as if watching movies will automatically make you a more empathetic person. But it certainly can aid that.

Roger Ebert used to call movies “empathy machines,” machines for generating empathy. The idea was that if you submit to the film -- maybe it’s not an easy film or it’s about people that aren’t like you -- you come to understand how another person sees the world, or how other people react to the world.

If we’re open to that experience, then we can become people who are more empathetic toward others. It doesn’t mean that we have to agree with their conclusions about the world, but we start to understand how they got there.

Movies are particularly good at that, because they’re not primarily story or textual mediums. They’re primarily visual mediums. When we’re seeing things and it’s accompanied by the experience of hearing things, we are living in the midst of the movie in a way that we don’t quite do when we read a novel, for instance.

It’s a very powerful medium for that reason. We have a different relationship with things that we watch than we do maybe with things that we have to take in and process through our reading.

That’s a big potential that the movies have, and it’s vested in the fact that it is a primarily visual medium. That’s also why people might, for instance, react to “Tree of Life” weirdly -- it’s not a story.

I mean, there’s a story, but that’s not what you’re there for. It feels like something else, and that pulls on us in different ways. Our senses become involved in different ways, and that can give us ways to empathize.

It’s amazing to me when I talk to people who go to church who say they like missions but who won’t watch foreign movies. This is the easiest thing you could do. You don’t have to raise money. You just have to fire up your Netflix account and spend two hours with a movie where you have to read some subtitles.

It’s not that hard, right? People do it all over the world, but they’re like, “Oh, I don’t want to.”

That’s just basic, easy, low-stakes, low-hanging fruit.

That can be a good place to start. Do you want to understand what Muslims in the rest of the world are going through? Maybe watch a film from the Muslim world, and you might understand it differently than just what you see on the nightly news.

Q: Why should the church care about movies?

In the end, it all comes down to, “Do you love your neighbor?”

“Yes!”

Well, if you love your neighbor, then you’re going to want to try to speak their language. That’s just basic. Paul did it; he went to Mars Hill and he looked at the unknown God and he preached a whole sermon off of it.

A lot of movies function as that. They are a very good analogue.

My friend Josh Larsen wrote a book, “Movies Are Prayers,” in which he looked at films as different types of prayer. That’s great. It’s a way of us understanding one another.

Another reason is that God made humans with the ability to make art. We’re not respecting that aspect of his creation when we don’t take those things seriously. It doesn’t mean that you have to love movies so much that you see millions of them.

But it does suggest that in the act of creation, we’re emulating God, and in the act of appreciating that and one another, we’re appreciating the image of God.

And that’s something that we’re absolutely called to do.