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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

"Movies are Prayers" (Joshua P. Larsen)

TITLE: Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings
AUTHOR: Joshua P. Larsen
PUBLISHER: Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2017, (208 pages).

According to the Motion Picture Association of America, global box office revenue for films released in 2016 reached $38.6 billion and $11.4 billion in US/Canada markets. The numbers continue to grow especially with the rising popularity of online streaming mechanisms and more affordable data plans. Movies too are increasingly being used as a platform for self-expression and a general reflection of cultural nuances. Author Josh Larsen believes that movies are actually prayers in disguise. This may seem surprising for some people. After all, aren't prayers something religious that are covered only in Christian films or Church-based activities? How can movies in secular society be considered prayers? The key belief is that underneath the various movies expressions, if we look carefully enough, we can find the deep yearnings of the human heart expressed in various aspects of the movie. By combining film criticism and theological reflection, we get what Larsen calls: "Movies are Prayers."

Without ignoring the profit-making nature of movie making, the hype that surrounds huge stars, and the rotten tomato ratings, Larsen helps us probe inside, dig deep, float up, and reveals how movies contain many different forms of prayers. Taking a leaf from the psalms, prayers are essentially the different expressions of the human longing for a relationship with the divine. No matter how we may try to hide it, prayers are something so natural in us that they will come out of us sooner or later in life. In this book, we learn about how movies are increasingly popular platforms to bare the longings of the human soul. We learn of nine different such longings:

  1. Prayers as Praise
  2. Prayers of Yearning
  3. Prayers of Lament
  4. Prayers of Anger
  5. Prayers of Confession
  6. Prayers of Reconciliation
  7. Prayers of Obedience
  8. Prayers of Meditation and Contemplation
  9. Prayers as Journey

In each chapter, Larsen outlines the meaning of the expression, followed by some biblical examples of how such acts are played out in movies. Constantly bringing us back to the notion of creation and behaviour of created beings, we get to see the nuances of prayers being explained through the plots, stories, acts, and artistic moves in the movies. For examples, there are prayers of praise expressed in movies such as Avatar, where the characters show forth their awe and appreciation for creation. He then gives us a way forward to see how the movies function in each of the nine longings. As Larsen explains the way movies are prayers, he also expounds on biblical teachings with regard to the scenes in the movies. There is a lot of applications of timeless truth. Even the way camera angles zoom in and out manifest meaning for interpretation.

I appreciate how Larsen weaves in many teachings about prayer making the use of movies an interesting pedagogical tool. Praise as yearning shows us our human need for divine relationship. Though movies tend to limit such expressions in a secular or agnostic manner, they cannot hide the nature of people to want to worship something or someone. "Solaris" and "Close Encounters of Third Kind" verbalize out loud our sense of wonder about the universe. "12 Years a Slave" give us reasons to be angry at injustice. The Confession motif is strong in movies like "Toy Story" and parts of "Platoon." There is the need for reconciliation as human people shown in films such as "Do the Right Thing," "The Interrupters," and "Brave." The stories of "It's a Wonderful Life" show us the rewards of plain obedience. He makes an important observation about horror movies, that often, such movies carry with them a moral bearing, for evil comes about due to some injustice and cruelty in the plot. If there is any genre most explicitly religious, it would be chapter 9 when Larsen writes about prayers as meditation and contemplation. By pointing viewers to think about a world larger than ours, we have moments to ponder about philosophy, morality, and theology.

Let me offer three thoughts about this book. First, it educates us about prayers. With the help from the writings and wisdom of Eugene Peterson, Henri Nouwen, the Philokalia, Richard Foster, Saint Ignatius, Thomas Merton, Teresa of Avila, and any other authorities, Larsen expands our understanding of prayer beyond just prayer requests or intercessions. The central purpose of prayer is about relationships, and all of these prayer expressions are essentially coming to God just as we are. Second, we learn to analyze all movies from a biblical and spiritual mindset. Instead of seeing movies merely as entertainment mediums, we can see with eyes of understanding and wondering what the director is trying to achieve. While we may not become professional critics or expert analysts, we do pick up additional lenses to watch movies. Indeed, after reading this book, watching movies will never be the same again. Finally, we see how Larsen brilliantly integrates culture, theology, contemporary issues, and many human longings together. If Mortimer Adler could teach us how to read a book, and how the Dummy series of books are able to teach us the basic how-to knowledge of various subjects, this book helps us to see the world of movies not only from a Christian perspective but also with much human appreciation. Above all, we are lifted above passive movie goers to active cultural observers. Better still, we grow in learning to see the world around us from a theological angle. Perhaps, just by reading this book, we would even want to to go on a movie binge watch! I believe that Larsen is on to something important. If we think of the Bible as the Story of stories, movies are subsets of the greatest story of all, expressed in contemporary and cultural symbols. That is why Larsen's book is so compelling.

Joshua Larsen is a co-host of the podcast Filmspotting and a film critic at Think Christian. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two daughters. His website is LarsenOnFilm.com where the public can view his works and interpretations on more movies.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Inter-Varsity Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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