Learning the Language of Film


From the film Amelie, 2001

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

In his book An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis encourages us to receive great art rather than use it, seeking to enter “fully into the opinions, and therefore also the attitudes, feelings and total experience, of other men.”[1] We should refrain from the easier project of reducing a work to a message we might find problematic. Instead, we should seek to approach a work of art with the same level of charity with which we approach people.

Art is a dialogue. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that all beauty compels dialogue: it causes a response in us that we instinctively want to engage and share. This sharing is what an artist does when they create, from choreographers to filmmakers. But, as Lewis argues in his book, we have to become good dialogue partners: we must learn the language of the art form we wish to engage. Lewis characterized readers as either “literary” or “unliterary” in their responsiveness.

Similarly, in his book on Christians and film, Reel Spirituality, Robert K. Johnston writes that in order to meet a film on its own terms, to enter into the film with the greatest amount of charity, we “must learn something of the craft of viewing and reflecting.”[2] We must learn the language of film to be receptive to its art. The better our knowledge, the more valuable our response will be.

And why? Film is the most prevalent “(post)modern art form.”[3] Made with a hunger for transcendence, the darkened theater with its silver screen is the primary place moderns go to find it. More than church, even, at least in the West where traditional religion is fading.

Great movies, “like parables, help viewers to see life more clearly,” offering “an existential challenge” to see things differently, even if only for a few hours.[4] In doing this, they help us understand the world in which we live, something that is a must if we are going to able to obey our Lord in seeking to love our neighbor.

After all, most likely our neighbor is at the movies!

So, with charity and courage (and wisdom!), we should face the perils of film, entering into the darkened theaters to find what is fair, for it is there, mingled with the sin, grief, and sadness of our Father’s world.

After all, it is not unlike what our Lord did for us.


From The Kid With A Bike, 2011


[1] C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 85.

[2] Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue, 2nd ed., Engaging Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 185.

[3] Ibid., 135.

[4] Ibid., 89.

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