How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films
The awards season is in full swing. Already we've sat through acceptance speeches at the Golden Globes and the Grammys. The Oscars, grand poomba of all award shows, is fast approaching. So this is the perfect time to pick up a book about movies!
HOW MOVIES HELPED SAVE MY SOUL: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films, by Gareth Higgins, is the newest addition to a growing number of Christian books dedicated to exploring religious themes in film. Brought to us by Relevant Books, an upstart publisher with its finger planted firmly on the pulse of 20-something Christians, this book displays the innate comfort post-modern Christians have discussing movies and their power to positively influence personal lives. This is notable because many older Christians can remember a time when mainstream moviegoing was widely recognized as taboo.
As one might surmise from the title, Higgins' approach to the subject of movies is as much about memoir as it is criticism. Some of his earliest memories are of his dad taking him and his brother to the movies, beginning his lifelong love of the big screen: "Film is so wrapped up with the fabric of my life that, along with the community of friends and family with whom I'm blessed to travel, I simply cannot explain myself without it."
Like listening to a veteran bibliophile list off his or her favorite books, it's daunting to realize how many movies Higgins has viewed in his relatively short lifetime. If I got started right now I'm not sure I'd catch up! Thankfully, I don't have to catch up and the encyclopedic roster of movies Higgins has seen is clearly an asset to this book.
Higgins chose to sort through his ideas about movies by organizing his thoughts into chapters on big themes such as Justice, God, Community, Brokenness, Outsiders, Death, Fear, and so on. In each chapter he presents a relatively detailed critique of two or three movies he thinks best explore the subject at hand. What follows varies from chapter to chapter, but it generally involves lists of additional suggested movies and his musings.
This book is a much-needed departure from what has been, until recently, the standard format for Christian movie criticism --- counting all the bad words. Perhaps such simple criticism does have its place, but Higgins does an excellent job of pointing readers to the ways movies, even those with bad words, can reveal striking portraits of grace and faith and hope:
"Who among us has not felt at least in microcosm the anguished courage of a William Wallace in Braveheart, or identified with the last minute redemption of a Lester Brunham in American Beauty, or suffered the torment of a Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II, on realizing that what we thought we controlled was actually controlling us? Film, in the final analysis, can do for you what all great art does --- irritate and heal, challenge and affirm, inspire and sadden. It can, in the case of a film like Magnolia, truly give you more life, or as in Wings of Desire, make you believe in God, or as with The Wizard of Oz, tell you the truth about your own existence."
HOW MOVIES HELPED SAVE MY SOUL is weak when it strays from its understood mission. Far too often it leaves both movie criticism and memoir and turns into a soapbox for Higgins' ideas about community and the death penalty and the institutional church and whatever else he's inspired to preach about. Loose writing also creates the cumulative effect that Higgins is rambling at times, as opposed to providing tangible insight.
The most helpful chapter in the book is the first, titled "Dr. Higgins' Rosetta Stone." In it he gives a brief primer on how to move from being a passive moviegoer to an informed amateur critic with the ability to mine movies for all they're worth. Some of his suggestions are probably a bit too involved for most would-be amateur critics (I don't know many who would spend the money and time to subscribe to and read "a decent, intelligent but accessible film magazine" as he suggests), but many more of them are excellent and simple ways to make moviegoing more interesting and beneficial.
This book could be a great tool with which to start your own movie club. People get together and talk about books, so why not do the same with movies? I'll bring the popcorn!
Reviewed by Lisa Ann Cockrel on November 13, 2011