As McCallum says in the above book, it’s important to primarily keep our eyes on Jesus. But what does God see when He looks at us? In Eyes Wide Open (Multnomah), Jud Wilhite encourages readers to understand how God sees them — and how they should see themselves. The Sept-Oct issue of Preaching includes an interview with Wilhite, who is senior pastor of Central Christian Church in Las Vegas.

Share This On:

So, what did you think?

It’s the inevitable question after a night at the movies. Somewhere between the theater’s exit and the parking lot, we navigate the curiosity of whether our fellow moviegoers share our reaction. Responses typically revolve around the “liked” and “disliked” axis—and unfortunately, all too often, conclude there shortly thereafter.

With the abundance of film review sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, Yahoo Movies, and Meta-Critic, this response is no real surprise—for in many ways, the four-star rating system of film critics has killed the filmgoers’ experience.? We have forced films into “good” and “bad” categories (largely) on the basis of entertainment value.? Will I receive my ten dollars’ worth of leisure?

While nobody wants to dismiss mindless entertainment (I know I don’t), this “sense of entitlement” has slowly dismantled the relationship between the viewer and film. We now have a tendency to detach ourselves from film: Until it proves itself to us, we owe it nothing. It’s a posture that can quickly drain any wonder or aesthetical value out of the room.

But to assume that the work and/or responsibility of a film experience is contained solely onscreen is to ignore the basic notion that film is an art form—in particular, one created (at some level) with the intention of being experienced with someone. But do we approach film as a participatory event? Have we lost our sense of wonder at the movies?

In A Theology of Artistic Sensibilities, John Dillenberger suggests that modern (visual) art is in need of a new discipline—of seeing: “Because art has a seductive character, sensuous to the core, a discipline of seeing is essential in order for one to be illumined beyond the sensory embodiment.”? In short, Dillenberger says that when an encounter with art moves from passivity to wonder, “horizons are stretched, formed, and filtered, as creation’s images are regained … precisely for their Creator.”

Taking Dillenberger’s cue, it seems appropriate to shift the conversation from “What films are worth seeing?” to “How should we actually see them?” There’s no better exploration of these questions than through the film medium itself, so we’ll do that with three particular films—Smoke (1995), American Beauty (1999), and Horton Hears a Who (2008).


In this 1995 film, writer Paul Auster and director Wayne Wang explored the “art of seeing.” In particular, there is a memorable scene in which cigar store owner Auggie (Harvey Keitel) invites friend Paul Benjamin (William Hurt) to see his “corner of the world” project, a collection of photos taken at 8 a.m. every morning in front of his Brooklyn store. Year after year, Auggie captures this particular moment from the exact same location—each snapshot directed at the same “corner of the world.” As Auggie pulls out album after album, Paul quickly blows through the pages commenting on the absurdity and monotony of the seemingly “same” moment in time, saying “I’m not sure I get it.” Auggie interrupts Paul’s oblivion with “Slow down.? You’ll never get it if you don’t slow down, my friend.”

Auster is making a crucial distinction that might best be understood via the words of Henry David Thoreau: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” In other words, you can quickly sift through pictures all day long, but the question remains:? Are you really seeing?

If this sounds familiar, it is because it is.?

After his disciples inquire about why he speaks in parables, Christ responds: “For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears” (Matthew 13:15, NIV). Put differently, they—and we—have eyes, but don’t see a thing. And ears, but don’t hear a thing. The question is thrown back to us, the viewer: Are our hearts calloused? Are we programmed to be entertained at the cost of missing the deeper reality?

Herein lies the beauty of film, an artistic medium with the power to break through the numbness. In his book Reel Spirituality, Dr. Robert Johnston suggests that film “has the ability to dramatize, celebrate and present experiences that are not open to human experience, prior to seeing it.” Put differently, film has the ability to surprise us and awaken our sense of wonder—whether or not we are ready for such an encounter. But should this prevent us from looking a little closer? From seeing a little differently??

American Beauty

The entire storyline of Alan Ball’s 1999 film is devoted to the notion of “looking closer.” In the following scene (one that opened my eyes to the transforming power of film), we find Ricky Fitts, an eccentric 18-year-old obsessed with capturing the “mundane” of the world with his video camera—including that of a wrinkled plastic bag. Here is Ricky’s description of the experience, what he calls “the most beautiful thing” he has ever filmed:?

“It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing. And there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it, right? And this bag was just … dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid. Ever.”

There are two profound elements in this scene. First, Ricky is able to both see and encounter beauty via the ordinary. Second, he recognizes a deeper reality behind it! Ball not only moves Ricky from looking to seeing, but he invites the viewer to do the same—to sit in wonder and contemplate what or who is behind such a “thing”?

This is not the first time in the film that Ricky explores this deeper reality. When asked by his girlfriend, Jane, why he would ever film a frozen homeless woman, Ricky says, “Because it was amazing. When you see something like that, it’s like God is looking right at you, just for a second. And if you’re careful, you can look right back.” When Jane asks Ricky exactly what he did see, Ricky’s reply is simple: “Beauty.”

In American Beauty, we find a fusion of what theologian and philosopher Sam Keen would call ontological (the assertion that something is) and mundane wonder (what that something is). In other words, beauty can not only be extracted from the likes of something as ordinary as a plastic bag (mundane wonder), but it is this very plastic bag that prompts the celebration of our existence at all (ontological wonder). Ricky has taken what could have been a few forgotten encounters and instead given space for both discovery and transformation. If a deeper reality can be explored and encountered through the medium of a plastic bag, could not the same happen within our encounters of film? And if so, just what is it that exists beyond it??

According to Ricky, with both the plastic bag and the frozen homeless woman, it is God himself breaking through. But does our theology allow for God to both speak and reveal himself through such ordinary spaces today? Even via the confines of a screen?

If we are to take seriously the reality of the Resurrection and the notion that God is (still) a revealing God, we must suggest so. But here is where we realize the difference between believing something to be true (God reveals today) and operating as if it is. Do we encounter film—or life, for that matter—with the expectation of encountering a transforming reality?

This is not to suggest that in every film and in every scene the reality of God is front and center, ready to transform. But I am not sure we would ever discover such a possibility without a willingness for it to do so.

Horton Hears a Who

Here we must take our cues from Dr. Seuss himself, who in his famous children’s book furthers the exploration a reality beyond the surface. In the 2008 animated movie adaptation, directors Jimmy Haward and Steve Martino juxtapose two varying postures—Horton’s (Jim Carrey) carefree and imaginative spirit with the rigid certainty of the town know-it-all, the Kangaroo (Carol Burnett).

Horton’s life changes when he hears a small faint voice coming from a seemingly meaningless speck of dust floating in the air—a speck that Horton imagines an entirely different world to be living upon. But the moment Horton attempts to share his “new world” discovery amongst his jungle friends, he becomes both publicly ridiculed and ostracized for the absurdity of such a belief. The reigning philosophy prevents such a possibility, for because nobody else has “seen” or “heard” Horton’s consideration, it cannot be real.

But as the viewer knows, life in Whoville goes on whether or not anyone beyond it is aware. The difference, of course, is whether someone experiences it. And in the case of Horton, the only one able to truly experience a reality beyond his/her own comprehension is the only one willing to slow down and open their eyes—and ears, to listen for that “still, small voice.”?

So where does this leave us in our approach of film?

In pursuit of a new discipline of seeing (and hearing), maybe the simplest thing we can conclude is that posture matters, for how sad would it be for the wondrous reality of God to exist in and around film—only to be missed by closed eyes and ears?

How can we best develop a discipline of open eyes and ears? As Dillenberger suggests, it comes through “seeing and seeing and seeing over and over again.”

Try it. And see.

Bob Davidson has a Masters of Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and is co-founder of Project rednoW, a theological conversation via the art of wonder.

© Christianity Today International. All rights reserved. Click for reprint information.

Share This On: