Classical Hollywood

Last week I had a conversation with a friend regarding movies recently or soon to be released. As we discussed the list of titles, he commented that Disney has apparently never had an original idea since all they seem to do is remake old classics. The conversation moved on, but my thoughts did not. In the past few days I have been considering this idea more closely, and I’ve become more and more fascinated with a realization that I’m sure many have already made—Hollywood is an example of classical education done without Christ.

One of the foundational ideas of classical education is a return to the sources (ad fontes). Classical education today seeks to read, interact with, and apply the true, the good, and the beautiful in these works to our present context. As Christians, we come to these Great Books with a Christian lens, determining what is true, good, and beautiful with respect to how closely the objects of our study reflect the character and nature of God. Thus, while we recognize that Aristotle was not a Christian, we benefit greatly by wrestling with his Nicomachean Ethics. Similarly, Homer’s Iliad is worth our time and study despite its pagan worldview. When we as Christians take these texts, mine them for meaning, and then contextualize them to the Christian life, we are doing something good, but we are certainly applying the text in a way foreign to the original author. We are, as Augustine says in De Doctrina Christiana, “plundering the Egyptians.”

Hollywood, too, seems interested in ad fontes, evidenced by the myriad of remakes in recent years, with more on the horizon. Some stories are so good and so moving that they transcend generations and remain, like the classic works of literature, relevant for many years. Movie remakes, then, are an attempt to take the true, the good, and the beautiful in literature or older versions of movies and re-contextualize the message for the present. With respect to Hollywood, however, they may do the opposite of classical Christian education. Whereas we take non-Christian works and “plunder the Egyptians” for what value they possess and then narrate those values within the Christian worldview, Hollywood sometimes takes Christian works, sees the truth, goodness, and/or beauty in the story, and re-contextualizes the Christian story into a secular environment.

wrinkle in time movie posterTake for example the recently released A Wrinkle in Time. The original novel written by Madeline L’ Engle was thoroughly Christian, with several Scripture quotations, a key mention of Jesus, and L’ Engle’s Christian faith saturating many other elements of plot and character. The new Disney movie, however, has intentionally suppressed such themes. Regarding these changes, screenwriter Jennifer Lee said: “”What I looked at, one of the reasons Madeleine L’Engle’s [book] … had that strong Christian element to it wasn’t just because she was Christian, but because she was frustrated with things that needed to be said to her in the world and she wasn’t finding a way to say it and she wanted to stay true to her faith,” Lee said. “And I respect that and I understand those feelings of things you want to say in the world that need to be said that are out there. In a good way, I think there are a lot of elements of what she wrote that we have progressed as a society and we can move onto the other elements.”[1] As is commonly the case, many Christians are upset at what they view as further removal of Christianity from the cultural landscape. Although I certainly wish the Christian elements had remained, I’m not distressed with this decision for four reasons.

  1. Christians had 56 years (!) and made no serious attempt to turn this wonderful book into a movie. It’s hard to get upset that a secular company who spent over $100 million making this movie gets to choose how they want to spin it.
  2. We do the same thing, taking non-Christian books and movies and Christianizing them (see discussion of Aristotle and Homer above), and I’m perfectly happy for us to keep doing this! It’s only expected that this freedom works both ways.
  3. These movies can highlight much of the true, good, and beautiful that we as Christians sometimes miss in our over-Christianizing of films and books. Many Christians have become so programmed to boil down all art to “Jesus” that we miss the subtle yet powerful examples of truth, goodness, and beauty that surround the story of Jesus. We do this even in our own reading of Scripture, tearing down the narrative of the gospels into harmonizing propositional truth claims. Seeing the beauty in A Wrinkle of Time, yet knowing how much better the story is with Jesus, helps us appreciate just how universe-altering the gospel is.
  4. These movies can lead kids (and adults) back to the great Christian books where they will encounter the explicitly Christ-centered message that was omitted. And if the gospel truly is as transformative as I think it is, then it may just be that this process leads some (maybe many) to realize that the best part of the story, the thing Hollywood omitted to appeal to its secular context, is in fact the story of Christ.

wrinkle in time bookSo despite negative reviews and the outcry of many Christians, I will be taking my oldest daughter to see the movie. And the fact that she read the book because that was my condition for her seeing the movie, means that Hollywood has led at least one young reader to encounter the original in a powerful and meaningful way, and for that I am grateful.

 

 

 

[1]Christine Thomasos, “Disney’s ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ Writer Defends Removing Bible Verses Christian Themes in Movie,” https://www.christianpost.com/news/disneys-a-wrinkle-in-time-writer-defends-removing-bible-verses-christian-themes-in-movie-220899/#.WqUPEKgPZLY.facebook.

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