Essay: The Importance of Film Literacy in Christian Education

Watch this silent, 8 second video excerpt from John Hess’ awesome Filmmaker IQ series.

Now reflect on how you felt and what you thought about as you watched.

I’ll presume you thought something like “that man was confident, was attacked, then afraid.” Maybe you felt vicarious fear on his behalf.

If I’m correct so far let me highlight some assumptions you made.

  1. That the man and the gun were in the same place. Do we have confidence that the gun wasn’t in Brazil and the man in a research lab in the arctic?
  2. That the 3 shots you saw happened sequentially. We assume we are watching things as they happened. Why?
  3. That the man is reacting to the gun. Perhaps he is watching a woman across the room trip, and she is try to prevent spilling a bowl of pasta.
  4. That something happened before this scene with the man and the attacker.

We could go on, but what is extraordinary about this video (and as we will see, any video that features editing) is that the sequence of shots generated ideas and feelings in your heart and/or mind and you didn’t question how it did so.

Let’s do it again.

You’re likely more aware now of your thoughts and feelings, but isn’t it interesting that the EXACT SAME CLIPS, REORDERED, can create an opposite story? More accurately you created an opposite story in your interpretation of the clips.

All of this is happening on a pre-conscious level. You did not reason your way through the 10 seconds —

I see a man. He looks afraid. He likely is afraid. I now see a gun. It seems spatially oriented toward the man. He is reacting to the gun. He is afraid of the gun. etc.

By constant exposure to moving images, we have been trained to intuitively understand the operation of film and video. (Though I even wonder if one who had never seen an edited film, would correctly process a scene when seeing it for the first time.) When an edit occurs, we understand there is a connection between the shot that comes first and the shot that follows. Though it may be more accurate to say we feel a connection between the shots. In the viewing of a film, we are not building an argument, but being guided, even manipulated, on an emotional journey. When editing is done well (and all the other elements of production are working), we are guided right along with the intention of the filmmaker.

So what is the effect of repeating such emotional journeys?

James K. A. Smith, in “Desiring the Kingdom”, argues that we are liturgical animals. To (hopefully not too grossly) reduce his argument: Our actions are not primarily a result of an unending chain of rational choices, rather a pre-rational movement toward ingrained desires or “loves.” Our loves are shaped by liturgies (and here he uses liturgy not just to describe Sunday morning services, but any activity, secular or sacred, that shapes and aims our desires and thereby forms who we are.) A liturgy might be watching TV after coming home from work, at which point we expose ourselves to various competing images of “the good life.” Notice that it’s been many years since commercials made arguments for their products. As Smith posits, they’ve discovered by simply presenting their products within a vision of “the good life as seen on TV,” we, who see that vision possibly once every half hour, begin to desire that life and implicitly sense that we need that product in order to achieve it.

I used to believe myself immune to the world of advertising. I worked as a video editor. I knew the tricks advertisers used. I knew their arguments were non-sense. Until one day my wife asked me to buy laundry detergent. I approached the cleaning product aisle and scanned the dozen or so brands of detergent. I focused in on Tide and the generic brand. I told myself “I don’t want the cheap stuff.” I reached for the Tide. “What’s the difference? Is the other cheap in price or actually quality?” I stop and scan the bottles. “What makes a good detergent?” I have no idea. “I’ll just get the generic brand.” I grab it and begin to walk away, but my gut tells me I’ve made the wrong choice. My gut speaks “Do I really want my wife to use a laundry detergent that will not produce the happiness that comes with ‘the good life?'” I buy the Tide.

This was not rational. But I felt little choice.


As I teach Film Studies at a Christian High School, I hear a lot of conversation about and guidelines for film viewing. They mostly boil down to “avoid sex, violence, and profanity. And make sure the ‘message’ is good.” These guidelines might have more nuance, or context, but the driving idea is that if we watch representations of evil, we will be more inclined to evil, with the assumption that representations of evil always operate on the surface level or that they can be uncovered with a critical reading of the film’s subtext. And we ought to avoid such representations of evil.

Raskolnikov murdering Alyona in the 1980 adaptation of “Crime and Punishment”

For example, in an imagined film version of “Crime and Punishment” we watch Raskolnikov murder Alyona Ivanovna, the pawnbroker. Assuming our students believe murder to be wrong, they could reason “Alyona did nothing wrong. She should not have been killed. Raskolnikov is a murderer and has committed evil.” This would require little more than “looking skills” and a moral center. We could demand more of our students and in a critical reading of the whole film we might conclude that the filmmaker himself believed the murder to be wrong and was using the scene as a piece of his “argument.” This reading would recognize actions in the story as illustrative of ideas which combine and contrast to create subtext. Neither reading would be necessarily inaccurate.

So what more do we want? The student has wrestled with the moral implications of Raskolnikov’s actions and placed them in a larger worldview context.

In the aforementioned example, we equip our students to recognize the communication of text and subtext created by parsing actions inside the story. But we completely ignored stylistic subtext. Imagine if Quentin Tarantino directed the scene. What we could possibly get is a story that says “this is wrong”, but as the film cuts from closeups of the knife, to the glee on Raskolnikov’s face, underscored by a soul stirring piece by Quincy Jones, we find our hearts saying, “Hell yes!”

Are the edits and production elements able to be turned into truth claims that we might analyze and assess their validity?

Or, to deal with a concrete example, how might we turn either of the video clips at the beginning of this essay into a syllogism so that we can analyze its truth value?

I don’t believe it’s possible. Because the edits are not engaging us on a rational level. They are aimed at our heart.

Imagine, or better yet, remember a time when you screened a film for violence, sex and profanity and discovered it had an acceptable amount to view by yourself or with someone younger than you. The film begins and we see a great injustice served against the protagonist. Over the course of the film the protagonist overcomes enormous odds until he finally confronts and (in a PG way) destroys “the bad guy.” We cut from the bad guy’s look of defeat to the protagonist’s relieved face. Our heart rejoices, we might say, because “justice is served–and God loves justice.” How often do we see this same pattern? Like water carving a path over time, each destruction of a “bad guy” in such a way orients our hearts to rejoice in his or her destruction. We wait for the Pavlovian dopamine kick as we watch their final downfall. In this way, it serves as a liturgy. But where else is it directing our hearts?

I’d argue that when we watch such a scene, we are not engaged in rational consumption, perhaps weighing the wrongs against the justice served. We are already emotionally connected to the protagonist. We want what he wants and receive the denouement with pre-conscious rejoicing.

Continuity error in the Wizard of Oz

It’s one of the reasons “Continuity Errors” pass so often in film and television. It’s often not that the editors didn’t catch it, but that they gambled (most often correctly) that the viewer would be tracking with the film emotionally and the take with the continuity error would better serve the emotion of the scene than trying to be spatially accurate.

So what?

Another article would be necessary to begin an outline of what Christian Education ought to achieve — Though I’d point any curious reader to James K. A. Smith’s “Desiring the Kingdom” as an extremely thoughtful place to begin. But I’d propose that one goal ought to be equipping students to parse and dialogue with the media they encounter in the world–the media which is shaping their hearts and loves.

We require High School students to take 4 years of English courses. Partly, because it is the language we speak and the study of it will allow students to communicate more effectively. But I also believe it’s founded on the idea that the written word is where students will encounter and dialogue with culture. I sometimes informally poll my students at the beginning of a school year. “How many of you have read 5 books this year?” Maybe a hand or two. “How many of you have watched at least 10 videos this morning?” Most hands go up. The written word is not the place our students (or let’s be honest, most of us) are spending their time. And yet, as they dialogue with film and tv, their equipping has been “watch out for Sex, Violence, and Bad Words.”

Like they study grammar in English, to train students to understand the way film and television (and Instagram and Snapchat and TikTok etc.) are orienting their hearts, they need to understand the operation of film and television which at bare minimum is the juxtaposition of images over time to create an emotional response to what is represented on screen. And they should understand that the emotional journey, good or bad, wears grooves into our hearts that will eventually direct our actions.

Students, or people, will never be able to watch film and TV on a purely rational level, nor do I think they should. There is great beauty in the emotional journey film can take one on. But as students begin to reflect on their loves, their visions of the good life, if they are not able to parse the formation of their desire through a medium they encounter daily, if not hourly, they will be woefully unequipped to the task. Alternatively, and more importantly, they will not be able to train their hearts to love a beautiful vision of the good life.

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