Book Review: Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen

I love movies. My husband shares this love, and it’s one of our primary forms of bonding. I’m thankful that he bucks the stereotype of men who like only shoot-’em-up action flicks. We do have a few of those in our collection . . . but Eric is game for any genre. He can enjoy an Italian drama, a Wes Anderson comedy, a children’s adventure, a twisted crime thriller, and a Golden Age Hollywood musical just as much as the latest blockbuster, and “I don’t want to have to think” or “It has to have a happy ending” are never among his criteria.

Many Christians I know forgo TV and movie watching, and demand the same abstinence from their kids, so as to not “waste time” with “mindless entertainment” or foster a screen addiction. A more extreme, but no less common, motive I’ve encountered is to avoid subjecting oneself to immoral filth and supporting Hollywood’s “liberal agenda.” While I agree that indoor-outdoor balance and a variety of play is important, especially for developing young brains, and that you should never violate your conscience (e.g., if it forbids you from seeing or hearing certain things), I want to push against the notion that movies are of limited to no value unless they educate or support a Christian worldview.

Fortunately, film critic Josh Larsen, editor of Think Christian and cohost of Filmspotting, offers a redeeming perspective on film in his new book Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings (InterVarsity Press, 2017). Many movies are expressions of the burdens and desires of the soul, he says, that can take the shape of praise/wonder, petition, confession, lament—in a word, prayer. Prayers are “instinctive recognitions of good (of things worthy of praise) and evil (of things inexplicably bent and broken)” (6), and they need not be restricted to liturgical formats.

This human instinct to reach out in praise or lament or supplication or confession to the divine does not take place only in church, guided by liturgy and pastors. It isn’t limited to early morning devotions, in that serene space before silence gives way to the day. It isn’t strictly the domain of dinner tables, where families gather to recite familiar words (“God is great, God is good . . .”). and it isn’t an instinct shared only by Christians. Prayer can be expressed by anyone and can take place everywhere. Even in movie theaters. (7)

Movies Are Prayers

Through picture and sound, blocking and set, filmmakers offer up prayers and invite us not only to listen in, but to pray along—to respond in kind, with whatever words or medium or action we feel prompted to use. Therefore, rather than regarding movies as time spent apart from God or a distraction from more important things, we would do well, Larsen suggests, to let them enrich our awareness of the world’s beauty and suffering and, consequently, guide us into prayer.

Larsen covers diverse genres and styles spanning from the silent era through today, including a mix of popular classics and lesser known gems. Below are just three I’ve added to my watch list since reading Movies Are Prayers.

Freaks (1932) is a revenge drama set against a circus backdrop, starring professional sideshow performers. At a time when people paid money to see and gawk at those with biological anomalies, director Tod Browning intended to show their humanity, that they have the same emotional needs as everyone else. He never filmed his actors’ “acts” (so as not to exploit them) but instead depicts them backstage, living their everyday lives. Although the film features an able-bodied romantic pairing of trapeze artist and strongman, Browning isn’t that interested in it; it is the interior life of Hans, a little person who’s used by Cleopatra for his money, that constitutes the main focus.  

Sadly, the empathy Browning hoped to raise was largely lost on the movie’s original audience. One early reviewer, for example, wrote how it’s impossible to feel anything for “these weird beings.” Larsen presents the film in a chapter titled “Movies as Prayers of Anger”—and indeed the movie’s denouement is full of retribution and horror. Like the biblical psalms, our prayers sometimes flare with rage against our tormentors. If you have no tormentors, if you’ve never felt the urge to unleash violence on someone, this movie is a chance for you to better understand those who do. (The imprecatory psalms have always been uncomfortable for me, but as Walter Brueggemann points out, to a person living under oppression they make much more sense.)

Another movie Larsen addresses, in “Movies as Prayers of Lament,” is Ishirō Honda’s Gojira (1954), better known as Godzilla.

The source of dozens of campy remakes and parodies, Godzilla previously held no appeal to me. (I have a natural disinclination to sci-fi.) But lament is a spiritual practice I started taking up several years ago, so when Larsen introduced it as a lament, I was intrigued. I had no idea that Godzilla was created in direct response to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that the titular character was intended as a symbol of the destructive power of radiation and, more broadly, of humankind.

Godzilla’s roar, Larsen says, is a roar of sorrow more than anything else. Cities in flames, overstuffed hospitals, irradiated children—these catastrophic images had real-life parallels in the still very recent past.

Larsen notes that when you watch the movie, make sure it’s the original Japanese version—not the heavily reedited American version released in 1956 and subtitled King of the Monsters!. This adaptation cut out about a third of the original movie, including much of its antinuclear and anti-American sentiments, replacing it with newly shot footage of new lead character Steve Martin (Raymond Burr), an American journalist. And whereas the original movie ends with a somber warning, the Americanized version ends on a note of victory and optimism.

Other films discussed in the lament chapter include 12 Years a Slave and Requiem for a Dream. Larsen says that when words and body language fail to convey the depth of sorrow he feels over sin and evil, movies become his vicarious mode of expression. The act of watching itself can be an act of prayer:

I come from a fairly staid worship tradition, that of a Dutch Reformed heritage. The prayerful postures I’m familiar and comfortable with are, shall we say, discreet. My clasped hands—or even, on rare brave days, my upturned palms—hardly capture the mournfulness I feel inside. I sometimes wonder, then, if the movies might be my surrogates for actual wailing and gnashing of teeth. (52–53)

A third movie—or series of movies, rather—I’ve been turned on to by Larsen is Dekalog (1989), a “prayer of meditation and contemplation.” Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, Dekalog comprises ten short films that explore what the Ten Commandments might still mean for a cross-section of residents living in an austere housing project in 1980s Warsaw. “Why were these laws given? What does life look like when they aren’t followed? And in the face of our inability to keep them, where do we turn?” (142) These are some of the questions that marinate in the films.

(Click here to view discussions on Dekalog between Larsen and Reel Spirituality codirector Elijah Davidson.)

For a while I have advocated for movies as a way of “meeting” others who are very different from oneself—a way of inhabiting another perspective, another set of experiences, and developing empathy. Larsen, too, celebrates this capacity. The meetings can be awkward, he says, but also illuminating:

I had grown up on Hollywood films that fantastically echoed my own life (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Goonies). I was now encountering pictures that forced me to recognize distinct others: the Bed-Stuy residents enduring police violence in Do the Right Thing; the suicidal, transgender hairdresser in The Crying Game; the segregated families under South African apartheid in Cry, the Beloved Country. There was a big world out there, full of all sorts of people with all sorts of ways of living. The one thing we all seemed to share, if I was to understand the prayers these films were offering, was a yearning for reconciliation. (111–12)

In this book Larsen shifts the paradigm of movie watching away from “movies as moral lessons” and “movies as mere entertainment” into the realm of, as the title states, “movies as prayers.” Marrying film criticism with spiritual encouragement, he hopes to show

that movies, at their most potent, are not diversions or products or even works of art, but prayerful gestures received by God; that we best honor movies when we allow them this potential, rather than treat them like ways to pass the time or purchases to be made or unwashed items to be dissected according to an arbitrary moral code; and that no matter what our response, God still watches them with a heart that is both righteous and merciful. (179–80)

Larsen’s practice, it appears, is to receive films as soul-baring gifts from others, giving them his mindful attention, and then to offer them up to God. I love that. It’s something I think I implicitly do already, but I would have never thought to call it prayer. Now I see that that framework fits so well.

Too much Christian “criticism” of film revolves around tallies of bare boobs, f-words, and the like, or sounding the alarm at perceived hostilities against Christianity, but Larsen I respect for his willingness to let the filmmakers bear witness in their own way. Maybe their witness doesn’t align with ours. But we can’t negate their experiences, their hopes, their fears. Many times, Larsen shows, their witness does affirm biblical truths and values, however obliquely.

By engaging with films, we have the opportunity to extend our prayer lives into the (public or home) theater and thereby connect more meaningfully with God and others.

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