As a child, I remember gathering with my family and indulging in our time of watching an array of Christmas movies. Now, as an adult, I do the same but with more intentionality. I do not passively sit down and lounge but, rather, I actively listen, reflect, and examine the movies and their ideas. You may ask, “What has changed?” My answer: A class with Dr. Mark Eckel. Dr. Eckel has organized his thoughts and brings his wisdom to written form in his book When the Lights Go Down: Movie Review as Christian Practice. I recently had the honor of interviewing Dr. Eckel on his book. Get your popcorn ready for this one!
- Dr. Eckel, first off, what message do you hope the reader will take away from When the Lights Go Down?
Ruin movie-watching forever. I’m serious. This is the statement, accompanied with a smile, my students—high school to grad school—will tell you about my teaching on movies. Often Christians consume film without thinking. My teaching-writing over the years is to create a framework of thoughtful engagement of cinema and the arts in general.
- When the Lights Go Down is not necessarily set up like your typical book. What made you choose such a structure and why did you choose the themes you did?
Short attention spans. We have become a visually oriented culture. My approach to popular writing of all types utilizes a similar technique: less is more. Brief and to the point is what I have in mind for each section. People can jump to those ideas which most interest them including short essays, reviews, stories, and interviews.
- For each section/theme of the book, you featured an interview pertaining to the topic. Why did you decide on using this element and what do you believe it contributed to the book?
Experts abound. There are so many more people that know more than I do! I endeavored to find various folk who not only have an interest but also a depth of insight into a particular area. All the interviewees are Christians who come from varied backgrounds. Diversity is important to me.
- You say, “Stories may draw us together, but movies make us sit down together” (Eckel 17). How important is this communal aspect to movie review as Christian practice?
Culture is committed to ‘self’. The Christian view of life and things is that we live life together. A community relationship is imperative for The Church. We need to learn together so that we can better practice wisdom, provide love, and promote apologetic-evangelism: an attraction to true Truth.
- In your discussion on “guidelines”, you speak to the responsibility of training the young to live lives of wise discernment and part of our training them is “to interpret what we see on the screen” (Eckel 69). How crucial is this for the young who are growing up in such a technological age?
Culture promotes emotive responses. Our world cares for what is wrapped in a passionate perspective devoid of reason, logic, or rhetorical nuance. Yet, the believer bears responsibility to demonstrate careful consideration for ideas. Authority is found in words coming from a person. Responsible interpretation is necessary for all ideas, authorities, and words, including those we find in film.
- Often, it seems we approach watching movies in a passive state. You concur with this problem “that we tend to believe unconsciously” (Eckel 101). If movie watching for Christians should be active, what are a couple of practical steps to begin towards that mindset?
Read the book before watching the movie. Come prepared to interpret a movie. Read movie reviews from multiple sources. Watch interviews of the screenwriter, director, or producer to know the origin of the idea for the movie. Consider film summaries from imdb.com or rottentomatoes.com so that you know what to expect. Most important of all is to create a framework of comprehension from which to evaluate movies from a Christian point of view: the purpose of my book.
- In contrast to Christians who demonize watching movies, there is also a temptation to go to the other extreme. You rightfully claim, “Scripture should always interpret cinema” (Eckel 122). How can we keep the balance?
“Tension” is my word to describe living in this life. Scripture clearly teaches we are created with dignity being made in God’s image. The Bible is just as clear that we are permeated by sin through every aspect of our lives. These twin truths define both believer and unbeliever. Movies deal with the tension all people feel in this life between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood. We can learn a great deal from folks who interact with these tensions on screen.
- One of the more provocative sentences in the book asserts, “Preaching in the sanctuary and stories in the theater—the two should remain separate. Hollywood has its own preacher” (Eckel 239). As I am sure you get some pushback here, can you elaborate more on your stance?
Movies often preach the filmmaker’s point of view. And I hate that. Some character will make some social commentary, literally preaching their take on homosexuality, gun control, abortion, immigration, or health care. If you tell a good story, you won’t have to preach. This goes for “Christian” movies too. Preaching The Word of God should take place in my local church, not the local movie theatre. [See my essay in the book entitled “Breaching”.] I watched a fantastic movie this past weekend entitled “Frontera.” The story is about illegal immigration, cultural identity, prejudice, law enforcement, and family. The story made me cry. It was not a liberal diatribe about love-no-matter-what. Nor was it a conservative attack on ethnicity. The story was layered and nuanced so that people could accept both love with justice. My comment to everyone (Christian and non-Christian filmmaker) is the same: just tell the story.
- Throughout the book, you end each section with a list of questions. You close the book by giving the challenge: “So take out your notebooks. Let’s get started” (Eckel 255). Do you have a particular story of someone who has taken that sort of challenge to heart?
Oh my! There are so many more stories! I receive comments all the time from students who say the same thing: I’m now teaching my children what you taught me. There is no better response to a person’s life-work than that the ideas and ideals are passed on to other generations. So the interview ends where it began: my students’ stories. What I taught during our class times then, ripples through lifetimes now. I did not set out to “ruin watching movies forever.” I did set out to have my students think biblically about all things.
I am serious when I say, “If you know people who are Christians and love to watch movies, this is the gift for them!”