A CRITICAL THOUGHT, Part 1 ~ 4/16/10

I love movies. Pretty much for the same reason I love books: they tell stories—and boy, can I get lost in a story. I’m the kind of guy who could be on my way to a wedding, let’s say someone else’s, and as I walk by one of those store windows full of TVs, I’d get stuck if I heard even one sentence that was even vaguely close to the lip of captivating. I’m the kind of guy who eavesdrops, and I’m willing to bet money I don’t actually have that most people who find themselves frequently accused of eavesdropping are people exactly like me: story lovers. So what if it’s none of our business… it’s interesting, dad-blastit. And that’s excuse enough to listen in.

I’m the guy who will shush you during the movie, the guy who’ll request that someone turn up the commercials so I don’t miss the punch-line, the kind of guy who will watch every preview, every minute of pointless news commentary, the guy who sits in the theatre after everyone else has left just in case there is some hidden snippet of story-line waiting like loose change in the couch cushions to reward the patiently faithful.

Yes… I’m that guy. And yes, that’s why we cancelled our cable.

I say all this to preempt the accusation that inevitably gets lobbed my direction like a heat-seeking hand grenade whenever I bring up the subject I’m tentatively touching on today. The accusation is that I’m a killjoy and that I should just “enjoy the story.” The subject that draws the hand grenades like Obama draws crowds is my crusade for critically thinking when it comes to stories. So allow me to preemptively spell it out one more time: TRUST ME, I ENJOY THE STORY. I just like to think about the story too.

Here’s how this usually goes.

Someone brings up a movie I’ve seen. I respond, laughing and retelling key scenes in the appropriate and socially expected fashion. Then I cross that line drawn with invisible ink and submit an observation about the message of the movie. This is a tough habit to break for me; when we were kids, my siblings and I were routinely subjected to cross-examination after every movie we watched together as a family. We may have rolled our eyes then and you may be rolling your eyes now, but looking back I see the origin of a healthy habit- the discipline of critical thinking.

The first step to critical thinking when it comes to stories is identifying the theme or message buried in the story. Every story, every movie, has a message- there is always a lesson or moral or point of view being taught, even if the message is that there are no morals or that teaching life lessons is stupid because truth is subjective. Whatever. Critical thinking demands that, even though good stories can be enjoyed and loved, they cannot go unexamined. So the first step of the critical thinking process with story is to identify the point of the story. Now, I don’t claim to get this right every time, but, for instance, the message I see in the Harry Potter movies is that we have the power (magic) to change ourselves and determine or fulfill our destinies. That to me is the bottom-line message in those movies.

The second step of critical thinking when it comes to stories is picking out what you can agree with in the story, because it is good, or memorable, or true. Now, it’s important to note here that ‘true things’ can be found almost anywhere- within the covers of the Qur’an, in the lives of ‘devout’ Atheists, in the literature of pagan poets (Acts 17:28). And the only reason truths can be found almost anywhere is because all that is true belongs to God. ‘All Truth is God's truth,’ because He is the origin of all Truth and in fact the very personification of Truth— In Isaiah 65:16 the Lord calls Himself “God of truth.” In John 14:6 Jesus said of himself, “I am the way and the truth and the life…” So—let’s continue with the Harry Potter example— it is true that courage is good, true that bravery is good, true that loyalty and friendship is good— these are qualities/values that I can agree with in the story. Hooray for courage, bravery, loyalty and friendship! But you can’t stop there—because the third step of critically thinking through stories is picking out the untruths, or what you can’t agree with.

Back to the Harry Potter movies. Okay, I know, I already hear the whistling sound of approaching ordinance. But listen—I LOVE the story! I love the characters! I love the dazzling scenery and the strange rules of engagement, I love the imagination and the adventure and the drama of it all, I love the story! I can watch those movies or read those books and get lost in another world, escape to another life, identify with the characters, all while craving more, like the rest of its pre-pubescent fan base. BUT- when I’m done enjoying myself, I engage in the discipline of critical thinking. And, as is the case with Harry Potter, although I can enjoy a movie thoroughly, I often find much I disagree with.

In case you are wondering— yes, this is both possible and allowed! I hereby grant you permission to fully enjoy a movie that you also happen to have major problems with. After a thorough enjoyment of the Harry Potter movies, my major problem with them is the portrayal of supernatural power (magic) as a morally neutral and impersonal force. This causes the definition of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to hang/hinge on the whim of the individuals wielding the powers rather than on the source of the power being wielded. The quality or morality of the power becomes defined by the human wielding it. Whenever the author of a supernatural power is ignored or denied, the subtle implication is that we are the only personalities that exist to define what is good and bad.

This is how I watch movies. This is how I read books. And this is how I will teach my children to take in stories as well; with curiosity, fascination and joy—and with a mind engaged in critical thought. Because an unexamined story is not worth reading/watching.

Surrounded By Grace,


  1. I used to teach a class called Media Literacy for exactly this reason: to promote critical thinking rather than sitting like idiot sponges absorbing everything in front of us with no thought. I've never agreed with people who say one should never read/watch/listen to something one may disagree with. I loathe the pride with which many Harry Potter naysayers say, "Of course, I've never read the books!!!" as though that makes it BETTER. Read it and disagree, fine. I can respect that. But know what you're disagreeing with, firsthand.

    Critical thinking is, well, CRITICAL. What I find frightening is the number of people (of all ages, political stances, and religions) who so mindlessly wander through the story without employing the brains God gave them.

    In other words, I like the way you think. :)

    And, as you may have guessed, I do this too.

  2. um... how about this?

  3. Great Post, Josh!

    I'm not sure why it's so difficult for people to engage their imaginations and their critical thinking skills at the same time. I think it makes a story---especially a movie---so much better when I don't just enjoy the plot and the characters but also figure out what's REALLY being said. How I interact with the theme is just as important as how I enjoy the story. For example, I enjoyed watching Memento . . . until the end. The truth of the story made me hate it because I couldn't find any redeeming qualities in it.

    I'm glad you found your mojo. :)

  4. Teacher Mommy ~ I'm glad you like the way I think!

    Soundslikefox ~ What John Piper wrote there is basically the point of my Easter sermon (see exhileratingly amazing video posted below). That to say- I purposely didn't repeat myself. :)

    I wasn't saying that truths gleaned from 'general revelation' through empiricism or rationalism were enough to save or sanctify or whatever.
    I was just making the point that just because someone or something isn't overtly 'Christian' doesn't mean they're strangers to all forms/expressions of truth. If they don't know the special and incarnate revelation that is Christ, are they strangers to the only Truth that really matters eternally? Yes. Anyway, I was mostly speaking to super legalistic Christians.

    There was one thing Piper said from that link that troubles me:
    "All truth exists to make God known and loved and shown. If it does not have those three effects it is not known rightly and should not be celebrated as a virtue."

    I guess I"m wondering what his definition of 'a virtue' is? If an atheist man knows to love his family, though it be tragic that he never finds God, I would still celebrate that his family benefitted from an experience of being loved rather than abused. The goodness and virtue of love isn't rooted in the man, but in the God.

    Sheryl ~ Thanks. And ditto on 'Memento.' :)

  5. Hey Prodigal MDiver,

    Great story ;-)!

  6. Another point of argument and to keep the discussion going:

    I would disagree that, in the Harry Potter books, magic is seen entirely in a benign light. Granted, they do discuss "dark magic," but it seems to go back to the intent of the user. In that, do they intend to use their power for good or evil, harm or help?

    In the same way, I would say that all power in existence comes from God, either delegated or direct (which would make it good). I.e., Satan must go to God to ask permission to persecute Job. However, once granted by God and acted upon by Satan, the act of harming Job was evil. So...

    Can we not truly say that "The quality or morality of the power becomes defined by the [being] wielding it." All things may work together for good, but I would say that the pieces may be evil.

    Just a teaser to stir debate.


Good news! You don't need to be a registered user to leave a comment on this blog. You can even post anonymously, though I wish you wouldn't. I look forward to your feedback!

*Grace induces faith & Grace is obligated to faith ~