Truth in movies

Philippians 4:8 says this:

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.

Note what the verse does not say. It does not say we are to avoid anything that is false or dishonorable or whatever else is the opposite of the verse. It doesn’t talk at all about whether we are supposed to avoid bad influences. What it says is that we are supposed to focus on the good influences.

We live in a world in which most things both good and bad at the same time. In our world, every movie, every book, every song, is a mixture of truth and error, a potential influence both for good and for evil. Paul does not say, “Avoid all the evil”, but he does say, “Whatever you may encounter, notice and focus on the good.”

When it comes to movies, the same verse applies. We are not commanded in this verse to avoid every movie with error in it, but to sift what we see so that we can focus on the good. There certainly are movies we should avoid, but that’s not the meaning of this particular verse.

All this was already said by my daughter Hannah here. She is starting a blog series on movies and Philippians 4:8, and invited her readers to talk about movies and truth first. Since I’m one of those readers, here is what I have to say.

Hannah also already looked up the Greek word for truth in Philippians 4:8 and found three different definitions: a) reports the facts, b) authentic, and, from a very literal translation of the Greek word, c) unconcealing. She focused on authentic. I am going to focus on unconcealing.

A lot of people only care about the report-the-facts aspect. If something is true, it means what it says is a fact, and if not, not. Most movies are fictional, though, so what does it mean for a made-up story to be true? To answer that, I want to turn (just for a moment, I promise!) to philosophy.

In the 20th century, philosophy split into two branches. One was analytic philosophy, which predominates in the US and in Britain, and focuses on accurately defining all our terms and concepts so that we can analyze them as precisely as possible. The other branch was Continental philosophy, which predominates on the European continent – for example, in France and Germany. It focuses on understanding the things that we can’t define – either because they are just not the kind of things that can be captured by language, or perhaps because we are prevented by our own personal cultural and linguistic framework from thinking about them clearly.

Analytic philosophers seem to want to be scientists. Continental philosophers seem to want to be poets.

Heidegger, one of the most famous Continental philosophers, noticed that “truth” in the Greek was literally “unconcealing”, and used that notion of truth extensively. The problem with truth, he assumed, is not that we can’t find, but that we hide it from ourselves, even when – or especially when – we analyze it. With each step we take into more precise definitions, we further cut ourselves off from the thing we were actually trying to talk about.

For Heidegger, one of the best ways to see truth was art. Art has a way of pointing us that which we have been busily concealing from ourselves. The truth of an artwork is the unconcealing that happens when it sneaks around behind our intellectual fences and shows us not just as another fact to believe, but a whole new way of thinking and seeing everything.

Art, said Heidegger, clears a space for truth.

With regard to movies, I take this to mean the following: a movie introduces us to a new way of thinking about the world, a new way of seeing it, which raises possibilities for us that we would not have thought of on our own. Movies don’t do this by telling us what to think, but by letting us experience something. They put us inside a story. They put us in a relationship with the characters. That’s why Hannah says that she can vicariously live someone else’s life in a movie.

Because they draw us into an experience instead of just telling us about an idea, they can introduce things into our minds without having to put them into words. We have been changed afterwards, but it make take us some time to say exactly how.

Sometimes, once we have had the experience we can put it into words. Unlike Heidegger, I think there can be a great value to articulating what we think we know. The point is that, before the movie, there are concepts we could not have thought of. There are distinctions we would never have made. There are nuances we would never have cared about. And, therefore, there were truths that were inaccessible to us. After we have absorbed what the movie had for us, we can see more. A few of those things we can even put into words.

The truth of the movie is not a set of facts, but it is a new way of seeing that makes us more alert to all sort of facts we had been missing.

So … examples.

Remains of the Day: Lots of people make movies (and speeches) about the need to take a risk, and not let life slip away from them, but most of them make no impact on me because I am not sure they know what they are talking about. This movie, though, which is about two very proper English servants who fall in love but never get together because of their emotional reserve, really stuck with me. I saw, in a way I’d never realized before, how one’s caution about relationships can simultaneously be generous to others and imprisoning for oneself. It showed very precisely how that can happen.

Another Emma Thompson movie with a somewhat different insight about emotional reserve and propriety is Sense and Sensibility.

What was true about these movies? Not the facts, and not the moral of either story, but rather the experience each offered, an experience which not only tells the truth but makes it possible for it to be seen.

Rocky: This movie tells the truth about courage in an ordinary life by an ordinary guy. Even if I can’t say what courage means, I can think of Rocky and think, “That. Courage looks like that.”

All The President’s Men: Some movies, like this one, are clearly fact-based, but that doesn’t make them truer in the important sense. Personally, I dislike most pictures based on true events, because I don’t trust them. Even if the movie gets all the facts right, I’m always worried that they’ve interpreted them wrong. Whatever it was like to really live through the events, I’m sure it was different from the way the movie showed it.

So when I say this movie is true, I don’t just mean that the things it talks about actually happened. I don’t mean that it accurately reports the way that the Woodward and Bernstein felt. I mean that the movie used their story to communicate a specific way of thinking about Watergate, and journalism, and government. I think the fact that Nixon really did all that stuff is important for the success of the story, but the way in which the story unconceals isn’t found in the events it recounts but in the way it interprets those events through the eyes of the main characters.

Mr. Holland’s Opus: I don’t know whether to consider this a positive or a negative example. When I first saw it, I reacted very negatively, because I thought it was telling a falsehood. As I saw it, the story purports to be about a man who loves music, and wants to bring beautiful music into the world. Failing that, he wants to share the love of music with his students, so they can experience the beauty of it for themselves. At the end of the story, he is told that everything is all right because he was kind to his students as he went through his life, and although they still don’t share his love of music or see its beauty, they felt better about his being there for them. I thought of it as saying that there is no real point to beauty, no value in trying to point people to something beyond their own lives, just moments of superficial friendliness. That’s all we can hope to be.

You can see why I didn’t like it!

I thought the “truth” it was teaching was false, through and through.

Later, people convinced me I should interpret the story differently. I should see it as about a man who wanted to show people the beauty in music, and set his heart on it, but by his own choices, made consistently throughout his life, kept choosing to sacrifice that goal in order to show love to the people around him. At the end of the story, he is shown that the reason he valued the music was because of how it could be a blessing to people, and that his love for people was deeper and more important to him than the music. He realizes that he has not lost out. He lets go of his self-pity and embraces the fact that there is beauty that he has shown to others in all the small acts of kindness throughout his career.

If that’s true, then there is some important truth in the movie after all. But personally, I still think it told the story wrong. I think the first interpretation is partly there in the movie too. I like it now, but only because I think both interpretations are there. After all Philippians says “whatever is true”, so if there is some truth there I can rejoice in that even if I reject the falsehood at the same time.

Another negative example: Chinatown.
The truth I think it tells is that there is no truth that we can find. There is not even any provisional truth we can try to live up to. If we simply try our best and do what we can, we are just as likely to ruin peoples’ lives as to help them. It is a very bleak movie.

I think there is some value in understanding what is like to face that bleakness, but fundamentally I think it’s telling a lie about life.

Somewhere out there, there is probably someone who loves Chinatown and was profoundly moved by it. Maybe after talking to them about it, I would be able to appreciate its message, because through their experience of it I’d be able to find whatever is true in it.

Another example: A good friend of mine has a similarly negative reaction to American Beauty.

A final point: what is the Scriptural meaning of “true”? Is it report-the-facts, authentic, or unconcealing? I think that it is not really any of them, but a fourth which is related to the other three. It seems to me that “truth” in the Bible is personal truth, connected to a relationship of trustworthiness and reliability. Truth, in other words, is closely related to being honest and loyal.

Furthermore, truth in the Bible also connotes the really Real, that which lies behind the transient illusions of our life on earth. Jesus is the true vine, as opposed to the mere physical vines we see in the world.

Both meanings come together when we are told that Jesus is “the way and the truth and the life”. We can rely on Him because he is the ultimate reality and because he is faithful and loyal toward us.


So “whatever is true” may mean that whatever we encounter, we should try to see the reality of Jesus hidden behind it. We should look for signs of Him in the movies.

God and fictional worlds

The hopelessness of fictional atheism

Sometimes TV show writers have a habit of torturing their shows’ characters for dramatic effect. Especially at the end of a season, there is a tendency to have something horrible happen to keep the audience interested. I don’t mind it when the cliffhanger is action-adventurey and leaves the protagonists in great danger. When it leaves the protagonists in emotional misery, though, it can really bother me.

Why does a fictional character’s distress cause me distress? I think it’s because a good story is supposed to be telling the truth about life. Even if the character and plot details are made up, they are made up in such a way as to say something about how things really are. To open myself up to a story is to let myself believe in its deeper truth. When writers invent tragedy just to play on my emotions, it angers me, but it also causes a lot of turmoil for me.

One of my children suggests I just invent a new ending, if I don’t like the old one. The reason I have trouble with that is that is seems somehow dishonest. When a writer invents a world, he gets to make the rules for it. To re-make the events of the story is just to pretend something about the characters that isn’t real within that story. It wouldn’t be appropriate to imagine away real-life tragedies; neither is it okay to imagine away fictional ones.

In real life, when I am faced with suffering, I cling to God for comfort. I rest in His unswerving love and sovereign control of everything that was going on. Even when it is people around me who are suffering, and they don’t believe in God, I can still take solace myself in the fact of God’s essential goodness.

In stories, though, it has often seemed wrong to do that, if there is no God in the story. If the writers have described a world without God, it seems as though in order to take the story seriously I should read it with that in mind. Atheist fictional worlds, properly interpreted, are worlds without God. The characters in it are in that sense without hope.

Or so it seemed to me up until recently.

The last time I got really upset about the random tormenting of a favorite character, I went for a walk to mull things over. As I was asking God for insight into my distress and how I should respond, an odd thought from philosophy passed through my head.

God exists in all possible worlds

Time for a quick detour.

First, there are these things that philosophers call possible worlds. In the twentieth century, philosophers struggled to pin down the precise meaning of statements like “X might have happened” or “If Y had happened, then Z would have happened.” They invented a discipline called modal logic, the logic of possibility and necessity.

As part of defining modal logic, they appealed to the concept of a possible world. A possible world is any way in which the world could have been, logically speaking. Possible worlds include those that are very much like ours, differing only in a detail or so, as well as those whose in which the universe operates according to completely different laws.

If something is possible, it means that it is true in some possible world. If something is necessary, it means it is true in every possible world.

Second, there is this strange proof for God’s existence known as the ontological proof. At first glance, it seems to try and prove that God exists from the definition of God, which seems pretty goofy. Even most theists reject the validity of the ontological proof.

In recent decades, however, a new version of the ontological proof based on modal logic has arisen which is a little harder to refute and perhaps more plausible. I won’t go into the details here, but it hinges on the idea that God exists necessarily. That is, God is the kind of being for whom it is impossible not to exist. Which means that God exists in all possible worlds.

So there you have it. God exists in all possible worlds. That means, he exists in any possible fictional world. So God is there after all!

Is this for real?

Well, sort of.

First, I am not sure the ontological proof works. It doesn’t matter, though. I don’t need to start from the mere definition of a necessarily existing God and get to a God who really exists. Rather, I start from the assumption that God already exists, and exists necessarily, and then work out the implications of that.

Second, possible worlds don’t actually exist. They aren’t worlds in the sense of being locations in space-time. A possible world is merely a set of logically consistent statements describing how things could be. Take any statement about how things are: “The sky is blue” or “The sky is green” for example. Add as many other statements as you like. Work out all the logical implications of all the statements, and you get a possible world, but calling it a world doesn’t mean we should think of it as being in any particular place. “World” is being used metaphorically.

Since possible worlds don’t exist anywhere specific, saying that God exists in a possible world doesn’t have anything to do with Him being anywhere in particular. Rather, it means one of the implications of any set of logically consistent statements is that God exists.

Fictional worlds are the same as possible worlds in this respect, though. When we say that a story takes place in a fictional world, we don’t mean that it happens at any particular place in space-time. (Even when the story is set in a certain time and place, as in a historical novel, we only mean that the story’s setting matches the real time and place; we don’t mean that the events in the story actually happened in history.)

In fact, the fictional world of a story, to the degree that it is logically consistent, is a possible world. What does it mean that God exists in it? It means that the implications of the rules of the world include the existence of God. Every story carried to its logical conclusion would end up stating that God exists. Worlds in which atheism is explicitly stated are worlds which are, strictly speaking, logically contradictory, whether or not the author recognizes it.

In other words, I am free to imagine God being a part of every story, without worrying that I am not taking the author seriously.

With that settled, I can return with a clear conscience to picturing things in terms of worlds. Every story describes a world. Within that world, God is there, even if no one else in the story thinks so.

That’s kind of cool. I love the thought that God is so omnipresent that he even shows up in fiction!

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,

Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me. — Psalm 139:7-10

Book review: The Savage God

I’m working on finishing up the 30 or so books I’m in the middle of. I’ll post quick reviews of each one here.

Review of: The Savage God, A. Alvarez

This was a study of suicide. It’s a little hard to say what kind of study. It didn’t examine it psychologically in any real depth. It didn’t go really deep into any kind of analysis.

Mostly, it surveyed the ways in which suicide was regarded in literature through the ages. As tangents of this focus, it also talked a little about how culture in general has viewed suicide, and spent some time considering the effect of suicide on the arts and of the arts on suicide.

The other main thing it did was to give moving accounts of Sylvia Plath’s suicide and of the author’s own suicide attempt.

The biggest thing I learned was that people who are drawn to suicide often find themselves sort of fascinated by it, but at the same time mostly they don’t want to do it. It’s just that in certain moods, they just about decide to, and the rest of the time they feel that, inevitably, sooner or later in one of those moods they will follow through. Also, they may sort of flirt with the idea of committing suicide, sort of play with it or plan for it or rehearse it or attempt it halfheartedly because doing so brings an important sense of relief to them.

How do I evaluate the book? I liked it. It had a friendly, conversational feel. It was an easy read. I didn’t get any epiphanies from it, but I feel like it made me aware of the topic. I would put it just over halfway on the 1-10 scale, perhaps but probably not worth re-reading.

Why students assume that machines can think

I’m planning philosophy lectures for the coming semester. One of our topics is the nature of being human. We compare people to machines or computer programs and ask whether we are any different in principle. Is there something that humans have that a machine could never be programmed to have? Self-awareness, or free will, or feelings, or a soul, or something?

Last year when we got to this subject, I found it surprisingly hard to generate discussion because almost all of the class thought it was obvious that there is no real difference. Clearly, they felt, someday computers will be programmed to think just like (or better than) humans. They wondered why there was even a question. This is odd to me, because I am pretty sure that 30 years ago most people would have felt the opposite way about it.

So what has changed, that people’s first reaction to this question is so different that it used to be? At first I assumed it probably had something to do with all the impressive things computers do these days, and how much they are a part of our lives. It’s easier to believe a computer can think when you can google everything.

On reflection, though, I don’t think computer science achievements have much to do with it. I think what changed things is that Spock was replaced by Data: for four decades we’ve had a steady stream of movies and books and games in which artificial intelligence is a given. HAL, Deckard, the Terminator, the kid in AI … the list is very long. The self-aware computer / robot has become such a familiar literary trope that its plausibility isn’t even questioned anymore.

If so, it’s fascinating (and a little unnerving) the difference that mere storytelling makes to people’s most basic intuitions.

Obligatory xkcd comic:

Are some stories inherently bad?

A few weeks ago I watched a certain TV show on Netflix. I won’t say that I hated it, but I definitely didn’t like it. It was the season-ender of a series I normally like very much, and it ended tragically, almost pathetically.

I felt guilty that I didn’t like the sad ending. I am surrounded by people who want all their music to sound “pretty” and all the movies to leave them feeling good, but I was always told that it was superficial to think that way. Some great art, I believe, is meant to disturb us a little. So it felt wrong to say, “I wish that show had had a happier ending.”

I started looking for other reasons to dislike it.

Was the tragedy gratuitous, for example? I don’t like stories in which everything goes wrong at the end but there’s no reason for it to. When someone writes a story and concocts some wild coincidence to make everything turn out OK, it’s usually criticized for employing a deus ex machina. In our day a lot of stories concoct wild coincidences to make everything turn out badly, but for someone reason that’s rarely criticized.

In this particular episode, there was in fact one really unlikely coincidence that made everything go wrong, but apart from that the tragic circumstances were logical for the characters involved. It didn’t feel contrived enough to explain my antipathy.

I finally decided that what I didn’t like about the episode really was just the choice of the story. I think the show would have been stronger with a more upbeat turn of events.

So now I’ve been thinking … is it fair to say that some stories are inherently inferior to others? Even if they are presented with depth and skill?

My brother Dave would say so, I think. He believes that there are seven themes that keep turning up in the best art and literature. They are built into the character of God and the meaning of human existence.

I’m influenced by G. K. Chesterton’s view that even ugly things are beautiful when you look at them the right way. In some sense telling the truth about something makes it beautiful. (Isn’t that part of the point Ender makes in Speaker for the Dead?) Doesn’t that mean that every story is equally beautiful in its own way?

Yes, in a sense, but only if you set it within the right context. Only if you make it part of a bigger story that gives it meaning and beauty.

So when I say that this particular episode didn’t have a good story, I don’t mean that the story couldn’t be made into a thing of beauty by subsuming it within a larger story that gives it meaning. I mean that the story as it stands, without the backdrop against which to interpret it, is inherently inferior to what it could have been.

Does that make sense? I think so.

Mysticism, emotions and the occult

A few weeks ago I watched The Green Lantern. In that movie, there are a bunch of people who have the power to just think things and make them happen. They do it using the power of will which is the greatest source of energy in the universe (who knew?). Also, it’s green. Except their enemies use the power of fear, which is the other greatest source of energy in the universe. And it’s yellow.

When one of the characters is considering getting hooked up with the evil yellow energy, he is told to surrender to the feelings of fear within him, to let them overwhelm him. It reminded me of the moment in Star Wars when Luke is urged to feel the hatred within him and surrender to it as a means of gaining more power. In both case we have (essentially) magical powers that are wielded by surrendering to strong emotions.

This is actually all really interesting stuff. Why is it that so many stories connect magical powers with really strong feelings? It’s nearly archetypal.

I think one reason is simple. No one really knows what it would be like to have magical powers, and storytellers want to portray magic-wielders in a way everyone can identify with. Strong emotions are an easy substitute. If we can see an actor scrunching up his face in agonized concentration as he battles with the enemy, we feel as though we know what it would be like to be him, doing what he is doing. When Luke has to resist being swallowed by his hatred, we know from our own experiences what that struggle is like, and that knowledge makes it easier for us to imagine being tempted by the dark side of the Force.

I think there’s more though. I think when fear or hatred overwhelms us, if feels to us like we lose ourselves a little. We feel possessed by our emotion, controlled by it, drowning in it.  It seems transcendent, bigger than life, bigger than us. It feels a little magical, a little supernatural.

Which brings me to an odd fact about the portrayal of the Holy Spirit in the Bible.

In the Old Testament, the word for “spirit” is used in three different relevant ways.

  • First, when people were chosen by God to serve Him in some special way, the Holy Spirit would fill them to inspire or empower them for that service.  For example, Samson gained supernatural strength when the “Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon him”. Others were given the ability to prophesy or do miracles or even design the tabernacle.
  • Second, demonic and angelic beings were referred to as spirits. For example, according to 1 Samuel 16, when David was anointed as king by Samuel “from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power”, but at the same time “an evil spirit” began to torment Saul.
  • Third, the spirit of a person is portrayed as the seat of strong emotion in the Old Testament. For example, people who get angry are “enraged in spirit” and people who are encouraged “revive in spirit”.

Often the senses are combined in one passage. Someone is said to be stirred up in spirit when the Spirit of God begins to work in them.

Skeptics of the supernatural assume that in ancient times people simply confused the feeling of being overwhelmed by emotion with possession by a supernatural being. If we accept the Biblical claim that there really are supernatural beings though, then the picture we are left with is that the strong emotions of the human spirit are a channel through which the spirits transmit power to the human. Perhaps surrendering to intense fear or hatred really is a little closer to literal demon possession that we would like to think. Maybe that’s partly why the moviemakers instinctively portray things that way.

That wouldn’t mean that emotions are bad or even that spiritual openness to the supernatural world is bad. The Old Testament warns people to stay away from the occult, but not so much because it is dangerous as because it is idolatrous. It doesn’t imply that we should remain spiritually closed and stay safe but that we should be looking to God in everything. The ideal Christian is not ultra-rational, emotionally cool, and opposed to mysticism — although he is self-controlled. He is passionate, sensitive to the mystical realities of life, and spiritually disciplined.

I’ve become convinced in the last few years that we have a deep hunger for a mystical connection with the supernatural. I’ve also been sensing God pushing me to be more open to Him emotionally, more emotionally vulnerable to His supernatural activity in my life. I wonder if that would increase my mystical connection with Him in a real way. Although a couple of my Christian friends are convinced that mysticism is wrong for Christians, I’m don’t think it’s wrong if God is the source. As Eric said today in my Sunday School class, that hunger comes from God, who has “set eternity in [our] hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:7). I don’t want to fake it, though, and I don’t want anything that doesn’t come from God, no matter how it feels.

Line ’em Up

One of my favorite songs is Line ’em Up by James Taylor. What do the lyrics mean? I first asked that question here and promised to answer it later. This is “later”.

I faced a small ethical dilemma in writing about this. I think it’s within the spirit but against the letter of the copyright laws to post the lyrics here along with my analysis. Normally, to post a link to someone else’s copy of the lyrics would be within the letter but against the spirit of the law. I’m hoping that means that in this case I’m within both the letter and the spirit of the law if I refer you to the first lyrics site I found when I googled it. (In a couple of places their lyrics are different than what I heard on the recording, which is what I will mainly quote from.)

Anyway … I’m pretty sure the song is about the way we avoid authentic relationships by replacing them with mechanical rituals that allow us to stay at a distance from others, and about the loneliness that causes.

The first verse is about Richard Nixon leaving the White House in disgrace, and shaking hands on the way out with some people he supposes to be loyal supporters. He isn’t really repentant of his wrongdoing. He calls his underlings “the little people”. He wants to be admired, even adored, but doesn’t understand the need to earn people’s respect through honesty and commitment. He doesn’t even line them up himself – he asks someone else to “line ’em up” for him so he can walk down the line shaking hands.

The second verse talks in the first person about the singer responding to some personal tragedy (I can’t help imagining someone coming home from Vietnam) by withdrawing from the people he was close to.

It closes by saying, “But it’s much too much emotion / To hold in your hand / They’ve got waves out on the ocean / They’re gonna wear away the land”. At first I thought this was an explanation of why he withdrew – it was too emotional – but now I think it is an explanation of why withdrawing wasn’t helpful. It was too much emotion to hold inside, bottled up, without sharing it with anyone else. In any case, the chorus follows, with its request to “line ‘em up” again. The singer is saying, “I don’t want to get close to anyone – just line up the people in my life I’m supposed to relate to so I can say and do whatever I’m supposed to while staying distant.”

The third section is a longish bridge, again in the first person. It talks about being lined up by others: “I’ve been lining up for shows / I’ve been safely placed in rows / Sure I know how it goes.” Other people have lined the singer up to avoid having to deal with him as a person. It’s safer and more efficient to just herd people into wherever they are supposed to be. “I know how it goes” points to how common this is in life.

The next portion of the bridge talks about time slipping away, about how our lives pass by without our ever really living in the moment. It concludes by asking, “Who waits for you / Lonely tired old toad / Is your life laid out before you / Like the broken white line down the center of the road?” If we look back on a life lived with no real closeness to anyone, the superficial relationships we had can seem like the white lines sliding past on the road as we drive.

Finally, the last verse talks about “the big moon landing”. Apparently James Taylor said in concert that this was about  the mass weddings that the Unification Church (followers of Sun Myung Moon) used to hold. Normally we would think of marriage as the clearest picture of an authentic, committed, intimate relationship. Here, though, what should have been private and personal has become a kind of public show with crowds of couples lining up and parading their way through the ceremony. The couples don’t object, but has something of the meaning of their unions been lost? They “turn like pages”, which emphasizes how quickly and impersonally we can dismiss them, and also serves as one more image of the passage of time as life slips away.

I love the way the song continually plays with the imagery of being lined up, and stays with a consistent theme.

Anyway, that’s my take on the song.  Maybe it was all obvious, but it took me a while to work it out!

Emotional openness

Two ways of watching movies

A few days ago, my two daughters Hannah and Bekah and I had an interesting conversation about how we watch movies.

First, Bekah and I analyze movies as we watch. Hannah analyzes movies and her reaction to them after seeing them, but as she is actually watching it is very important to her not to analyze.

Second, Hannah evaluates a movie almost entirely on the basis of how intensely it makes her experience the story. She doesn’t mean that a good movie has to explore grand themes. Some movies are about routine, about the ordinariness of life. That’s fine. Other movies end in emotional ambivalence or even confusion. That’s OK with Hannah too. What she wants, though, is for the movie to allow her to live through the story in the movie as though she had experienced it in her own life. She wants to have really felt the happiness or the tragedy or the sense of routine or the emotional ambivalence.

Bekah and I are more concerned with enjoying or appreciating the various things the movie does well. We have fun when it makes us laugh and enjoy the tingle when it makes us scared, but I think we don’t live through it the way Hannah does. I think it’s a little more distant from us than Hannah experiences.

The reason Hannah can’t analyze a movie as she watches is because she doesn’t want to put any wall between her and the story the movie is telling. She doesn’t want to hold it out at arms’ length and inspect it. She wants to get inside it and then enjoy the ride.

It’s also important to her not to know anything about a movie beforehand. She doesn’t even like to know whether other people liked the movie or not. She wants to experience it naively, without expectations or preconceptions about where it will lead.

Emotional Openness

As Hannah described all this, I realized that I do something very similar sometimes. At certain points in my life, I find myself listening very closely to someone, trying to understand how they see the world. When I do that, I slide into a special frame of mind, in which I suspend judgment as much as possible about how they think and feel, and just try to get them. I try not to compare what they are saying to my own way of looking at things until after I’m sure I’ve really heard what they mean.

Or again, when I interpret a Bible passage, praying about what it means, I find that it helps if I suspend all my expectations for the passage. If I come to a passage with questions or needs they can get in the way. It’s as though I am trying to listen to what the passage is telling me, but I keep talking the whole time. What I have had to learn to do is to be quiet, even in my own thoughts, and just let the Bible speak. I can’t even maintain the goal of being convicted, or being encouraged, or finding something to obey. All these things mean I am interrogating the passage to find out what I want to know instead of letting it simply speak to me.

When I do slip into either of these two mindsets, it always feels to me as though I am opening myself up to the person or the Bible passage. What Hannah does with a movie seems similar to me. She opens herself up emotionally to experience whatever the filmmaker is wanting her to experience. She waits through the whole movie to be sure she gets it all as a whole. Then afterwards she analyzes what has happened to her and how it has changed her.

In daily life

One of the things I’m wondering about is whether God is calling me to learn to take Hannah’s approach to life in general. I’ve been becoming aware in the last few years of the ways I distance myself emotionally from life. I seem to have two emotional gears: in one, I wallow in my feelings, which isn’t very healthy; in the other, I observe them from a distance and live in my head, which is turning out to be not all that healthy either.

I talked a few weeks ago with someone who is going through a kind of charismatic revival in her walk with God. She is experiencing some intense emotional highs in her Christian life and has begun to actively seek that kind of emotion in her prayer and worship. I’m not interested in pursuing emotion for emotion’s sake, and I’m a little leery of becoming too emotionally vulnerable just to be able to feel things more intensely. But it’s also possible to be too much in control emotionally, and I sense that perhaps that is more commonly where I go wrong.

I started thinking after my talk with Hannah that her approach to movies could be my approach to life. By letting go of expectations about how I should feel or want to feel about the day ahead, I can just let myself experience whatever there is. I can let God do whatever He wants to do without trying to fit it into a package labeled “What Life Should Be”.

At the same time if I avoid passing judgment on my emotional experiences as good or bad, if I just let them happen without appraising them as I go, it will keep me from the worst part of wallowing. There’s a kind of protection from the roller-coaster ride of emotions in the very fact that I am not identifying with them or connecting them to my other hopes and fears but just letting them flow over me.

I’m not sure if I entirely trust this approach. It feels like it might be dangerous. I don’t think it has to be narcissistic. I suppose the real question is whether it’s Spirit-led. So I’m not sure where I go from here. Certainly I’ll keep mulling it over. If I can, I’ll spend a little extra time in the Psalms (a good place to learn how to feel the way we’re supposed to). And for now, whatever each day bring to me emotionally I’ll try to accept without passing judgment on it.