Human beings love stories. We live off stories. It is why so many people love going to the movies. We enjoy the way movies take us away from the “real world.” It transports us to someplace mystical, beautiful, romantic, epic, or light-hearted. Sometimes it can even take us to dark, thrilling, or suspenseful places. But watching movies or television shows is not always escapism.
J.R.R Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, once offered a powerful theology of storytelling. He described storytellers as “sub-creators.”
Every time they tell a story, write a book, or make a movie, “sub-creators” operate as those made in the image of God. Since God is a creator and the greatest of all storytellers, every time we create and tell stories, we are a mouthpiece of truth to a broken world.
Our stories are all reflections of the great story. Tolkien says, “We have come from God, and inevitably the [stories] woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. . . .Our stories and myths may be misguided, but they steer, however shakily, towards the true harbour.”
Stories can serve as a gateway and a lighthouse to the true city. In other words, in every story, there are reminders of creation, fall, redemption, renewal, and restoration.
When we invite the Holy Spirit with us to watch a movie, we are inviting him to show us how our movies capture these “echoes” and memories.
We can do this by asking a series of five questions. We will use the 2012 romantic comedy Barfi! as an example and case study of how to listen for the Spirit when watching.
Listening for Creation
What does this story reveal about God’s good design?
In creation, we see the world as it once was—beautifully and perfectly designed by God. The creation narrative reveals how we were meant to live (Gen. 1-2). God made us for right relationship with him, with each another, and with creation. He made us in his image.
When watching a movie, we can practice looking for the world as it was designed to be.
The movie Barfi! revolves around the relationship between the deaf-mute boy, Barfi, and the autistic Jhilmil. It is a quintessential Bollywood love story. The story points to our longing for whole relationship and whole intimacy.
Stories can serve as a gateway and a lighthouse to the true city.
There is a reason we desire love and intimacy as we see in the movie. We were designed for it. The movie also shows us that all human beings are made in the image of God. Regardless of disability, human beings are fundamentally image-bearers of a loving, powerful God.
The movie reminds us of the dignity of image-bearers that God bestowed on all people and calls us to act accordingly.
Listening for the Fall
What does this story reveal about the brokenness of the world?
J.R.R Tolkien once said: “There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall—all stories are ultimately about the fall.”
Every fall in every story is ultimately a reflection of the great fall. In Genesis 3, humans rebelled by seeking to fulfil their own desires on their own terms—apart from God. They broke their relationship with God, with one another, and with all creation.
Their actions brought sin and death into the world. Now all of us are born into sin and continue to perpetuate that sin through our words and deeds. All of us. No exceptions (Rom. 3:10).
We see the fall at work in Barfi! too. We see how people like Barfi and Jhilmil, with physical and mental disabilities, get treated in societies like ours. The effects of broken families and societies are on display and how they affect the most vulnerable.
When we are at our most afraid and most disconcerted, Christ holds us.
Most often, society views people with disabilities as “charity cases” at best, or “inconveniences” at worst. At the very least, the movie reminds us that the world is not perfect. It needs redemption and love. Every human being should be accorded dignity because God made all of us in his image.
Listening for Redemption
What can this movie reveal about what Jesus did?
We might be tempted to think that if a movie does not explicitly present Jesus, there is no way it can celebrate redemption. Every story where we see a “turning of the tide”—where evil surrenders to good, or shadow gives away to light—can be a redemption story.
Listening for redemption often means looking for examples and illustrations of healing, sacrifice, and liberation.
In one poignant and powerful scene in Barfi!, Jhimlil is suddenly overwhelmed by all of Barfi’s neighbours. She is banging on the doors and windows and is incredibly frustrated. In order to soothe Jhimlil, Barfi holds her. She starts biting Barfi and hurting him.
It is a profound image of the sacrificial love of Christ for his beloved. When we are at our most afraid and most disconcerted, Christ holds us—even if it means that he takes the sting. His best expression of this self-giving sacrificial love is the cross.
Listening for Restoration
What can this movie reveal about the world to come?
When listening for echoes of restoration, we remember that “through Jesus, God reconciled to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col. 1:19-20).
God is making all things new. The death and resurrection of Jesus makes that possible. We celebrate in the reality that all the longings he placed in our hearts are ultimately fulfilled in Christ, and in him alone.
Barfi! can remind us that our longing for love and intimacy, without shame and guilt, will be fulfilled completely. But this will not happen by human ingenuity or by human willpower. It will be fulfilled in Christ alone.
We can remind ourselves, as C.S. Lewis once said, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Barfi and Jhilmil’s love points to the kind of love that the people of God will ultimately experience in Christ.
Listening for Renewal
What can this movie reveal about how I should live right now?
We live in the time of the “already, not yet.” It is the time between the first coming of Jesus and his second coming. We live in the tension of two realities.
Firstly, the world is fundamentally broken and hurting. Systems of violence and corruption dominate our lives and our societies.
Secondly, the truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus is breaking forth into the world in powerful and extraordinary ways right now. You and I serve as agents of renewal, conduits of love, and channels of God’s presence in the world around us.
God is making all things new.
As we watch Barfi!, we might feel inspired to treat all those around us with the dignity God gives them, regardless of background, color, creed, and physical or mental ability.
We might remember that God calls us to be agents of love and renewal in a society that often neglects or pities the marginalised. Or we might remember that God calls us to be conduits of godly love to our society.
Furthermore, we might remember the importance of seeking renewal in our marriages and in our relationships with family. Or we might remember how important it is for husbands and wives to honour and love each other before God, especially in a world that increasingly sees little value in the institution of marriage.
Obviously, different people can take away different things from a movie. But asking ourselves how a movie can point us to Jesus can be a powerful way to experience the Holy Spirit renew our imagination.
All this being said, not all movies are created equal. Some movies are of more value in terms of providing a unique and thoughtful message. Other movies are not. Discerning what to watch is an art and requires wisdom and love.
Watching movies and television can become deeply problematic when it distracts us from engaging with the issues and circumstances of the real world. It can trigger our own fallen and broken behaviour.
Many things might be permissible but “not everything is beneficial” to watch (1 Cor. 6:12). As followers of Jesus, we should take care to check the ratings and get a sense of what the movie is about. Also, if as we are watching the movie, we feel disquieted in our spirit, it might just be wise to stop watching.
When done thoughtfully and carefully alongside the Holy Spirit, watching movies and television shows can become profound places of spiritual formation.
The “Spirit searches all things” and teaches us how to find spiritual wisdom in the everyday stories of our world (1 Cor. 2:10). Most importantly, the Holy Spirit shows us how the stories we tell can reflect the great story that is all about Jesus and his redeeming love for a broken world.