Movies Are Prayers and Reading for the Common Good


Both books in today’s roundup focus on the intersection of art and faith, exploring the ways in which each enriches and enhances the other.

Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings” by Josh Larsen (IVP Books, 2017). Foreword by Matt Zoller Seitz.

First I was intrigued by the whole idea of movies as prayers. Then I was thrown by the fact that Josh Larsen kicks off the first chapter in his exploration of this intriguing idea with a look at the movie “Avatar,” which is way way down on my list of films worth considering in any way or for any purpose. But I pushed through, and ultimately, I was very glad I did.

You could say my experience is emblematic of what many Christians will experience while reading Larsen’s book. His very premise has the potential to shake us up — even though he explains early on that if prayer is simply communication with God, then the idea of movies as prayers makes sense. But we have to be willing to trust him as he takes on a journey through a world of film that is vaster and more complicated than many of us have ever realized. Not for him the simplistic formulas and sanitized worlds of contemporary “Christian movies”; he plunges into movies of all sorts, even R-rated ones. “Our prayers, too, are imperfect,” he reminds us. “Some of them might be rated R.” Both prayer and movies, in his words, “are not golden gems of shiny spirituality but messy expressions that reflect the brokenness out of which they’re born.”

As he moves through the various categories of “movies as prayers,” which cover every aspect of the familiar creation/fall/redemption/restoration pattern — from praise to lament to anger to confession to joy — Larsen convincingly drives this point home. With such an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, one who understands and cherishes prayer as much as he does films, the journey is one worth taking.

Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish” by C. Christopher Smith (2016). Foreword by Scot McKnight.

As editor of The Englewood Review of Books, a project of the Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, Chris Smith knows books. And church. His engagement with both has taught him that a church that reads together — both Scripture and other works — is likelier both to thrive as a community, and to serve those outside its doors. “Learning and action,” he tells us, are two “interwoven threads,” both of which are needed “in order to sustain healthy, flourishing communities.”

Smith has a number of good ideas about how to encourage churches not only to read, but also to read together. His ideas on community engagement are also innovative and helpful, though at times I found some of his ideas a little too prescriptive and specific; he seemed to think, for instance (if I read him correctly), that political engagement by every church in every community should look pretty much the same. I would have liked to see him allow more for different kinds of communities, different emphases, and different priorities. That aside, however, his book is a deeply valuable resource and a model for Christian engagement with both the world of books and the outside world.

Image courtesy of fstop123 at iStock by Getty Images. Review copies obtained from Christ and Pop Culture and from IVP Press, respectively. 
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of and Dickensblog, and the author of “One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church” (Baker, June 2017).

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  • jason taylor

    The stories of sinners sometimes having as much to tell as the stories of saints was a good quote. I just finished reading Anderson’s “Mother of Kings” about Queen Gunnhild wife of Eric Bloodaxe(called so not because he was a great warrior which coincidently he was but a fratricide). Gunhild is a villain protagonist and there is no mistaking her for anything other; she is spiteful, arrogant, envious, wrathful, murderous, and manipulative. Oh and did I mention she is a witch(as the author notes that the real Gunnhild was probably not all that bad though of course surviving as the wife of a Norse warlord does not make you a sweet little thing). But the funny thing is that she also wants in a while shows glimpses of a childlike desire for God and you get the impression that she could be a saint if she would renounce her ambition. I wouldn’t recommend it to any Christian who doesn’t have a very strong stomach, for one thing the pictures of witchcraft are very graphic and way to close to the real thing. That said it does show not only the struggle for a soul but the struggle for many souls at a time when the North could still not decide whether Odin or Christ was God. Gunnhild shows a curious mix of childish curiousity and religious naivety, violent nature, surprising intelligence and cynical willingness to exploit religion for gain that is very convincing for someone at the end of the Pagan age and the author shows his usual empathy in depicting her.

    One example of how the change in religions is depicted is toward the beginning. Eric is shown leading a warfleet home, and they beach on a spooky looking shore. One of them genuflects while another says, “That god is far off”; showing how uneducated pagans did in fact look on Christ until they learned better.

    Now this is a book not a movie but it gets the idea across

    A movie that is a “story of a sinner” is of course Godfather. It shows the slow corruption of sin as well as anything. Another is Treasures of the Sierra Madre where Humphrey Bogart goes mad with greed and suspects his comrades of cheating him of the gold they had dug(instead of being satisfied with a pretty good stake which he had after all honorably earned).

  • jason taylor

    “A Town Like Alice”(I watched the 1981), shows not just love in the sense of romance but sacrifice, both the spectacular sacrifice of Joe Paget getting crucified(and rescued before dying by clever trickery) and the more humble sacrifice of Noel who is clearly in love with Jeane but willing to toast her wedding to Joe without mentioning it.

    Captain’s Courageous(1937) is a little known gem with a touching mentorship of a useless rich kid by a poor fisherman, The film emphasized Manuel more then the book did.

    Neither of those are about sinners per se except in so far as everyone is a sinner.