Old movies and theology

An old 16 mm projector

Sometimes I like to go back to an old movie and watch it over again. In my family growing up, we were not allowed to have TV but we frequently watched movies. (Don’t ask me to parse the difference in terms of right and wrong. This also did not mean that we didn’t watch TV because we did, often, in hotels when traveling or when visiting friends’ houses.) This was long before the days of videotapes so when I mention watching movies, that meant the old-fashioned way on Super 8 mm or 16 mm, and in most cases, these were old movies. We’re talking Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, the Basil Rathbone version of Sherlock Holmes, etc. Movies from about the ‘30s to the ‘60s. Occasionally we’d get more contemporary ones from the ‘70s, too.

There are so many stories and reminiscences I could tell about this part of family life. (The one about the time my clueless mother checked out Jaws and we actually watched it is particularly funny in hindsight.) We checked out these films from a nearby public library most of the time, and we watched movies as a family on weekends. That meant that they were checked out on a visit to the library after my mother left work on a late Friday afternoon and then returned on the following Monday. Friday or Saturday nights, we’d then gather in the family room to watch on a big portable screen with all the curtains closed and often, a fire going in the fireplace.

I’ve loved watching movies ever since, and have wide knowledge of movies most people today have probably never seen or heard of, as well as classic, well-known ones like African Queen, Casablanca, and the Pink Panther series. We even watched several Elvis movies — a favorite was Blue Hawaii. Much of the time, we rewatched these movies multiple times over the years as the selection wasn’t nearly extensive as, say, you could eventually get in a video rental store.

As I rewatch them today, though, I almost always see these movies in a different light. That’s understandable, of course, because over the decades, I’ve changed. This leads to a connection with theology, at least, in my mind. More specifically, it connects to my growing understanding of biblical hermeneutics. How so?

One of the most important things I’m learning is to think about how contemporary hearers and readers received scripture, and how critical that growing understanding is to arriving at a balanced interpretation. For example, I’ve learned contemporary hearers of the Psalms would have readily understood much more of the context and the approaches used in them than we do today. They would have understood certain meanings and inferences and would have been comfortable with styles and arrangements of certain words, or just sort of “gotten” stuff that today due to translation and also to a very different cultural context, do not come readily to our understanding.

In the same way, contemporary viewers of movies would have implicitly understood many cultural references and situations than we do today. As a child, I received these movies without completely grasping some of what is communicated in them, or at least their context, that I now see clearly several decades later. Here’s one example of what I mean.

In the 1970s version (by far the best, in my opinion) of Murder on the Orient Express, a key aspect of the plot revolves around a tragic story of a wealthy family whose infant child was kidnapped and murdered. Contemporary viewers would have immediately understood the inference and/or reference to the famously tragic Lindbergh baby incident from 1932. Yet when I recently rewatched the movie with one of my children, I had to spend a little bit of time explaining that context because they didn’t grasp it at all. I don’t mean they didn’t or couldn’t grasp the broad themes the movie communicates. But filling in some of the details gave them a better understanding overall.

So it is, I think, with scripture. Even the simple fact that most of what is in scripture was not read first but heard, i.e., listened to, shifts one’s understanding quite a bit.

An excellent book I’m currently reading and studying, written by Jeannine K. Brown, is Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics. The author cogently argues the point that the Bible is primarily God’s communication to us and explains in detail the ramifications of what that means for our understanding of it. I’m exploring new depths about communication theory and how that can help me when interpreting scripture.

Movies are also an act of communication, of course. I just had not seen or understood the connection before, and think it is an interesting one to make.

(Featured photo courtesy of https://cogdogblog.com/2011/07/rediscovering-tech-roots/.)

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