Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hollywood Worldviews

I have just finished reading a very valuable book, titled Hollywood Worldviews, by Brian Godawa. As an award-winning Hollywood screenwriter, Godawa is an insightful film-critic; as an evangelical Christian, he is a shrewd discerner of the worldviews implicit in films.

Because we typically watch films to be entertained, it is easy to switch our minds off in front of the set. If a movie is explicitly anti-Biblical, we sit up and take note that a wrong message is being portrayed. Or if there is excessive amounts of sex and violence, we may classify the film as ‘worldly’ and turn off the television. All the while, too little attention is given to the more subtle and subliminal worldviews being portrayed by Hollywood.

Building on insights on the role that mythology and story-telling have historically played in human societies, Brian Godawa shows that every film has a worldview, or a mixture of different values, that it is conveying. This can be something as basic as the movie answering the question, ‘What is wrong with the world and what is needed to fix it?’ (Many modern movies answer this question by teaching that redemption comes about through getting in touch with one’s heart, or being true to oneself.) Or a worldview could be something as simple as conveying some of the following values:

· human autonomy leads to freedom
· crime doesn’t pay
· crime does pay
· there are no absolutes
· everyone is corrupt
· love is the only absolute
· true knowledge comes through experience rather than reason
· salvation occurs through self-actuation
· all external rules are oppressive
· humanity exists in an ultimately irrational universe
· true love is sacrificial.

And so on.

In analyzing cinemagraphic worldviews, Godawa roots his discussion on the crucial hermeneutical principle of authorial intent. Rather than reading our own interpretations back into movies, we must ask, ‘What is the film-writer intending to convey?’, or even ‘what are the unintended implications of what the author intended to convey?’

Godawa goes through dozens of movies, giving brief summaries of their basic themes and unpacking their worldviews. Even for someone not interested in movies, the book is valuable simply as a primer on the dominant philosophies of our age. He has a particularly helpful discussion of Existentialism and Postmodernism, putting these ideologies in terms that are easily accessible for a lay person.

Hollywood Worldviews presents a good balance between what Godawa calls cultural gluttony and cultural anorexia. A cultural anorexic is a Christian who falls into the trap of categorizing as bad all movies with anti-Christian themes, while a cultural glutton is someone who embraces all the products of Hollywood unthinkingly and uncritically.

The book is not without its faults. In an appendix, titled ‘Sex, Violence and Profanity in the Bible’, Godawa tries to lay down a criteria for assessing what the appropriate levels of sex and violence are in movies based on how these things are handled in the Bible. Unfortunately, his argument fails to take into account the difference between print-based mediums and visual mediums. Every other reviewer of the book I have seen has agreed that Hollywood Worldviews would be better off without this appendix. Also, the appendix has some sexually graphic material which parents might want to screen before giving the book to their children to read.

I have no hesitation in recommending Hollywood Worldviews. I have found it personally very useful. Prior to reading it, I tended to only enjoy movies that conveyed a correct worldview. Brian Godawa has helped to enhance my enjoyment of movies which communicate unbiblical values, because I now see such movies as valuable conduits for contextualizing and fleshing out the implications of our culture’s central commitments.
Click HERE to order your own copy.

[i] ‘Assumptions,’ writes Herbert Schlossberg, ‘in fact, are more powerful than assertions, because they bypass the critical faculty and thereby create prejudice.... The simple act of listening to an argument is almost enough to engage it.... That bypassed assumption is the pocket of enemy soldiers that was ignored in an effort to engage the main body of the adversary, and it lies in wait to strike from the rear.’
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