There can be no serious dispute that movies occupy a significant role in popular American culture. More than any other art form films supply cultural references that become a part of our everyday life and vocabulary. I am sometimes asked, “Why do you blog about films and television?” The answer is really simple – there is no more meaningful entryway into the lives of many people than through the door opened by extremely popular movies. It is a natural point of contact and seems to fit with Paul’s use of culture to appeal to people who lived in the world of his time. (I watch films for many other reasons but I will say more about this in another post.)
Films are the way many people explain their emotions, their personal narrative or even their belief system. I recently read that in 2001 a census taken in England and Wales found almost 400,000 people who registered their religious faith as “Jedi.” This is, as many of you know, a reference to Star Wars, one of the great movie successes of our era.
The most recent Hollywood blockbuster is the film Gravity, featuring Academy-award winner Sandra Bullock in the lead role. The film opened to rave reviews over the weekend of October 4-6 . It grossed a huge initial take at the box office, especially through its 3-D presentation. (It costs $3 to $4 more to see the 3-D version. 3-D has recently become less attractive to movie goers since it seems to have been over-hyped and very poorly used.) What happened to Gravity over the last few weeks actually demonstrates the power of the social media. Many tweets and posts, as well as online reviews, stressed how much better it was to experience Gravity in 3-D. (I wonder if those who wrote these comments actually saw it in both versions!)
I took the hint and decided to see Gravity in downtown Charlotte on a slow Monday evening last week. Though I have nothing to compare the 3-D version with, having not seen it in 2-D, it was an impressive “feel” that added to the tension of space. This was especially true with regard to all the stellar junk coming right off the screen into your face as you sit in a nice cushioned seat in a multiplex cinema. For once I really did feel like it was worth the added price to see a film in 3-D.
The story of Gravity is really quite simple. A space mission goes awry when a satellite is intentionally shot down by the Soviets (not as an act of war) and space junk explodes and creates a kind of “space quake” that hits an American mission. The American mission is necessarily aborted and the lone survivor is a scientist named Dr. Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock. She does a superb job in the role though the chemistry between her character and that of George Clooney’s character has some hard edges that do not work so well. The real impact of the film borders on tense and interesting. But the plot is pretty thin and the film did not rise to the level of great movie, at least for me.
Yet, and this is my point about film and popular culture, there is a segment in this film when Dr. Ryan believes she will die all alone in space. It is a sobering and a tension filled moment. She begins to face her own mortality and realizes this is how she will die, all alone with no one to love her or help her. She begins to form a prayer but cannot. She struggles and then laments that she does not know how to pray at all. She then realizes that she knows no one on earth who will miss her nor is there anyone who will pray for her or for her soul. She laments this loneliness and concludes that she cannot pray herself because no one ever taught her how to pray!
This scene will become my point of contact with many people for the foreseeable future. I will use it at every opportunity I can to ask questions about God, faith and prayer. I will ask, “Who knows and cares about you? Who would miss you if you were gone and who would pray for you?” The fact that millions of young adults have no one who cares, much less anyone who would pray for them, is one of the great (sad) facts of our time. This doorway to life-changing questions presents itself in popular film and will work. Missional Christians can and should find ways to go through it.