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.