For many, sitting in a darkened theatre, munching popcorn and taking in the latest blockbuster film or drama with Oscar buzz is a respite from modern culture. In a moment of escape, they allow themselves to be pulled into another world of space aliens, superheroes or suspense in an effort to ‘turn their brain off’ and forget about the world.
In doing so, however, they may be missing out on something much more profound.
In his new book, Movies are Prayers: How Films Voice our Deepest Longings, film critic Josh Larsen (Filmspotting, Think Christian) argues that films offer a unique and powerful voice into our world that can serve as prayers for God to move. Citing films from 12 Years a Slave to Chinatown to The Muppets, Larsen believes that the movies allow a filmmaker the opportunity to speak their heart, be it with tears of lament or tears of joy. For him, the idea for the book began when he started to engage the filmmakers voice within the movies and how that served as a spiritual cry from the heart of our culture.
“The main idea was flipping… this Christian approach to film that we’ve been doing for the last couple of decades, which is to ask ‘How does God speak through the movies?’ I certainly believe that that can happen and I enjoy… looking at films from that perspective,” he starts. “But the more I began to think about movies theologically—and a lot of this came out of my work at Think Christian—and really studied how they worked… in terms of what the filmmakers were trying to do, the aesthetic choices they made, I began to see that movies function as forms of prayer that we are familiar with as Christians.”
“You think of prayers of confession. You think of prayers of praise,” he continues. “Movies express very similar things and, once I started seeing those parallels, it made a lot of sense to me. What are movies? At their best, they’re these artistic expressions of people coming together to consider ‘what is this place?’ ‘What is this world?’ ‘Why are we here?’ ‘What does it all mean?’ Now, obviously, not every movie is interested in that—some just want to make a buck—but there are those that are asking these other questions and that’s what our prayers do too.”
In Movies are Prayers, Larsen argues that our prayers are intrinsically linked to our human experience in the midst of a broken world. In other words, the cries of our heart are an extension of what we are feeling and dealing with on a personal level.
According to Larsen, “The trajectory of Scripture is that the world was created good, it fell into sin, it was redeemed by Christ’s work at the Cross and now we are awaiting that full day of restoration. So, if you look at these different sorts of prayers I talk about, they generally fall somewhere along that timeline. So, prayers of praise echo delight at the good creation that God made initially and that we still see glimmers of in this day. But something like prayers of lament, or anger, or confession—these all relate to that period of falling into sin. Then we have something like obedience… [which] comes after that redemption of Christ on the cross. And then you move onto restoration which is a hard one because we’re not there yet but we do see glimmers of that as well… So, the book kind of has this overarching framework that is taken from the basic trajectory of Scripture.”
“It goes all the way back to [theologian] Abraham Kuyper and this idea of common grace,” he continues. “This idea that God has bestowed upon all of his creatures these creative abilities, that are expressed in filmmaking. That there is this longing for eternity that is buried in our hearts. We all, as humans, share this. It’s the imago Dei. We are created in His image and we share this longing to be reunited with Him. So, to me, that says that movies need to be at least allowed the opportunity to speak this way.”
Given the fact that the majority of films he explores in his book are not considered ‘faith-based’ in nature, one could argue that examining them through spiritual lenses is counter-productive. However, Larsen believes that filmmaking offers universal cries that connect with the heart of God, regardless of religious affiliation.
“Some chapters were easier than others and I think that’s because certain expressions are more universal or more common,” he explains. “I think the two that worked that way in my experience were prayers of yearning, which is kind of the baseline. Every human being has some form of yearning within them and trying to figure out ‘is there something more than what I see in front of my face and experience with my senses?’ What else might be out there?… Lament is obviously universal [as well]. No matter who you are or whatever religious affiliation or none that you have, you experience lament in your life. So, we have tonnes of movies that capture just the terrible things that people have experienced and offer these experiences up… So, those are two things—yearning and lament—that, because they’re so universal are easily found in non-religious films.”
When asked which form of prayer speaks most clearly to him, Larsen argues that he can relate most to the prayers of yearning and lament. Through the gravity of their cries, these prayers allow him an opportunity to release his inner angst to God by giving voice to his deepest spiritual longings.
“The yearning one really does speak to me. That’s not just for those that are curious about faith or have questions coming into faith. That’s something that I still feel everyday as a life-long believer. So, that was a really rewarding chapter, and to think of the movies that echo that for me. Because, really, this is part of the motivation for the book. While I was watching films, these feelings and expressions that I had within me were being put out there by the movie, almost on my behalf… I’d probably go back to lament as well because that’s a common one and its cathartic for a movie to lament on my behalf. So, something like anger works similarly too. A movie can express that for me, whereas I might keep it buried down myself or feel like I can’t express that to God, then having a movie do it for me kind of gets that out there.”
Of course, not all forms of prayers are ubiquitous to everyone. For example, during his preparation for the book, Larsen recognized that prayers that required more reflection and silence were the ones that most brought him out of his comfort zone.
“The real challenge for me with me for the book was considering prayers of meditation and contemplation,” he reflects. “It just hasn’t been a part of my own experience so it was fascinating to research that and try to put that into practice. I’m a very logical and reason-based guy so I’m not wired that way.”
With this in mind, he also believes that another challenge to this sort of approach to film analysis was recognizing when to view it through this lens and when to leave it alone. For Larsen, allowing the film to speak first proved essential in knowing when this sort of reading was appropriate.
Says Larsen, “I don’t want to come to every movie and say ‘what type of prayer is this’ because that’s kind of working the process backwards. I really want to approach movies and let them speak first, see what things are they interested in saying and then say ‘how does that resonate with my Christian faith?’ Sometimes it might be because the movie works as a prayer but sometimes it might not.”
Through his book, Larsen would like to help his readers not only understand the value of allowing films to speak for themselves, but also that they would recognize the value of different forms of prayer. In other words, his intent is not only to highlight great works of cinema but also to challenge them to open their hearts as well.
“I guess my hope would be that… it’s not only illuminating potential aspects of these movies but that it’s illuminating good things about these types of prayer and give them more prominence in our lives. That was my experience.”
You can check out our giveaway of Movies are Prayers here.
Movies are Prayers: How Films Voice our Deepest Longings is available on Amazon now.