Book of the Month: June 2013


This was a very good book on one level, and a very important book to me on another.

First, Meaning at the Movies was a good book because it managed something that a lot of Christian books about movies do not manage. If there is a ditch on both sides of the road, as there usually is, this book stays out of both of them. On the one hand we find the problem of an over scrupulous approach, where worldview analysis is done by cuss counts, and the thinking is about as deep as the skin that is being complained about.

The opposite error knows only one thing, and that is that of having no intention of being lumped in with that first group. The phrase Christian liberty is used as an all-purpose disinfectant, and if it has a sound track, clear thinking about it becomes immediately impossible. You don’t want to be in either ditch, but it has to be said that this ditch is dumber and dirtier than the other one.

Meaning at the Movies is a book that is not ashamed to bring foundational biblical truths to bear on the movies, and to praise or blame them accordingly. At the same time, the biblical truths that are applied are not trifles. The things that the overly pious object to are placed in their proper context — but it is not as though it is the beginning and end of the matter.

The book was important to me personally because it helped assemble a number of truths that I have known for years in a particular configuration that was much bigger than the sum of the parts. A few things clicked for me. And these truths are radical truths — the kind that affect everything. Before mentioning what those were from this book, let me illustrate what I mean by a radical truth.

Sometimes you learn things that make you nod your head and say, “good to know,” but it is not the kind of thing that gets into everything. An example would be when I learned the Temple layout of Herod’s Temple, and the fact that the Temple grounds were over thirty acres. That does affect a number of things, but you can easily imagine the limitations. It is hard to bring it into John 1:1, for example. But another kind of truth goes right to the heart — as when I learned from Rushdoony the idea of the inescapable concept — not whether, but which. It is not whether we will impose morality, but rather which morality we will impose. It is not whether we will have an established religion, but rather which established religion we will have. You get the idea, and you can see how universal applications can quickly come, one right after another.

Grant Horner did this to me in this book at least three times. Here are the principles I learned from him in this book, although the formulations here are my own.

First, his starting point is in Romans 1, and he shows that every form of unbelieving culture is a concerted, culture-wide effort to suppress our knowledge of God. In other words, there is a macro-lie happening all the time. In other words, the suppression of the knowledge of God is not simply something that happens in individual hearts only. We suppress our knowledge of God’s sovereignty in corporate, cultural ways. This is the way of the world (1 Jn. 2:16). Paul wages war against the citadels of unbelief (2 Cor. 10:3-5), which is again a corporate thing. Every high thing that sets itself up against the knowledge of God would have to include the modern movie theater.

Second, this suppression cannot be done successfully or fully (or we would succeed in our attempts to escape responsibility before Him). Couple this with the fact that the capstone of our suppression must be the denial that we are suppressing anything at all. This results in fascinating juxtapositions in the movies — some truth about God or man coming out starkly, and in such a way that anyone can see it — perhaps with the exception of the producers, the director, the actors, and virtually everyone who watches it. The unbelieving system of story telling in the movies is an endless game of epistemological whack-a-mole. You hit it here, and up it pops there. And when it pops up there, you have to pretend you didn’t see it.

And last, Horner shows how movies and memory are closely linked together, and how they are linked together because of how memory and personhood are linked together. He shows — and this was my most important takeaway — that memory is the organ or faculty that enables us to love God. We love God by remembering Him. God loves us by remembering us, and we must imitate him in this.

Now movies are constructed memories, artificial memories. This is why they have the catechetical effect that they have. This is why they are so potent. A crucial part of our corporate cultural memory is made up of the stories we tell one another. And in our cultural story-telling, we have forgotten God.

What he does is lay out the principle of cultural analysis that he will use, he makes a case for it, and then he walks us through example after example, genre after genre, movie after movie. This was most helpful because you could see the principles at work. Now I don’t know that I would agree with him on every point about every movie, because I had not seen a lot of the movies he was discussing. But where I had seen them, it was very easy to track with what he was doing.

The only place I knew that I differed with Grant was in a paragraph or two where he was nicer to the postmodernists than I am capable of being. Since this is a book about movies, I will only say that my approach to postmodernism, while nuanced and philosophically svelte where it needs to be, nevertheless rhymes with Chexas Mainsaw Tassacre. But other than that, I was amening my way all the way through this book.

This is a book that belongs in all worldview training classes. It belongs in high school lit courses — the principles transfer across, and in addition a wise lit teacher will want to counter how the movies counter what he is trying to do. This books should be read by every head of household that has a family that watches movies — which is virtually everyone. We have needed a book like this for a long time.

Theology That Bites Back



Opt-in here and you'll receive a weekly digest of the thoughts and musings from yours truly that wend their way into blog posts. In addition, from time to time, you should also receive notices of new book releases, upcoming events, and continent-sized cyclones on Jupiter.

Congratulations. You did it.

  • Taylor K

    Thanks for the recommendation, Pastor Wilson. The point about movies and memory is telling. And I think a widespread adoption by Christian families of “worldview analysis” over counting the cursing would prevent all of the future “de-programming” necessary in cleaning out the cultural junk that accumulates from too much music/TV/movies and not enough discernment.

    This is off-topic, but I was also wondering if you plan on continuing your chapter-by-chapter review of the evolution book by Jerry Coyne in the near future?

  • Robert Seward

    “The shows we watch as children, become iconic to us for the rest of our lives.” June Lockhart

  • Alonoz “Zo” Thomas

    :First, his starting point is in Romans 1, and he shows that every form of unbelieving culture is a concerted, culture-wide effort to suppress our knowledge of God. In other words, there is a macro-lie happening all the time.”

    That’s really good. The unbelieving culture is ALWAYS at war with the believing culture despite their denial. There is a “macro-lie” happening all the time.

  • Douglas Wilson

    Taylor, I hope to resume my review of Coyne next week.

  • Darius T

    I second this review, it is indeed a very important and
    great book.

  • Rob Steele

    Wouldn’t this analysis apply to all cultural products? Sporting events and shopping malls are easy to see as having bad liturgical dimensions but what about the blues and craft beer? Everything is befouled by the fall but I guess some are more anti-God than others.

  • jared leonard

    Brian Godawa has written a similar book titled “Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment” that I would recommend along side of Horner’s. Godawa’s big thing is how cultural Christianity has severely (and ironically, I say) underestimated the truth-carrying capacity of “image” as an epistemic category. He has another book called “Word Pictures” which is about how we tend to emphasize (or even antagonize) “word” over “image” in our orthodoxy; if this is the place to offer suggests for future installments then I think this would be a good candidate.

  • George

    Pastor Wilson,
    I enjoy your book reviews very much. I am sure you get a ton of requests to review books, in those requests have you ever been asked to review Luc Ferry’s _A Brief History of Thought_? I would deeply value your analysis of it – the book requires some engagement from someone in the Reformed community, preferably someone like yourself who will have a pastoral bent and not a schreeching whining tone – and preferably from someone with some level of a Van Tilian slant.
    Thanks – George

  • Benjamin Rogers

    I’ll second Jared’s recommendation of Hollywood Worldviews. This was the book that inspired me to move to L.A. and pursue filmmaking. Brian is both Reformed and a presuppositionalist, or at least he was at the time of his writing it. I haven’t read Word Pictures or his later works (which have caused some dispute), but I know Brian personally and can say that he has a great grasp on both philosophy and Storytelling. Definitely worth a read.

  • Randall Compton

    I know this question is a bit late, but I just started reading this book and I was interested in Horner’s comment in the introduction “I think it is an error to try to e,ngage or redeem culture.  It sounds nice, and it sounds theologically deep, but God does not call us to redeem culture per see and somehow create a Christian culture.”  You did not say you disagreed with this notion, and I was wondering in light of your comments on two-kingdom theology (comments which I have agreed with and have found helpful) if you could say more on what you think Horner is up to with this sort of approach.  I have not read past the intro yet, and maybe I need to before I comment, but I was really struck with Horner’s approach to cultural redemption as being out of harmony with your approach to the same.  You did not knock the book on this point so I wondered if I misunderstand you and / or Horner?