If you were a private investigator hired to dig up dirt on how Christians are influencing Hollywood these days, it wouldn't be long before you noticed that one particular suspect's fingerprints were turning up all over the place. They belong to Craig Detweiler.
After graduating from the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television, Detweiler earned an M. Div. and then a Ph.D. in theology and culture from Fuller Theological Seminary. His subsequent résumé offers ample evidence of a wide range of interests and acumen.
Detweiler is now the director of Pepperdine University's Center for Entertainment and Culture. He's also a screenwriter (ExtremeDays), a documentary filmmaker (Purple State of Mind), the author or editor of several books (including Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games With God and A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture, co-written with Barry Taylor), and has served as an advisor to Christian filmmaking programs and festivals such as Act One, the City of Angels Film Festival, Reel Spirituality and the Windrider Forum.
We caught up with Mr. Detweiler recently to talk about his work training young Christian filmmakers at Pepperdine—as well as to pick his brain about what the crossroads of faith and pop culture looks like.
Adam R. Holz: Craig, let's start with what you're doing right now at Pepperdine.
Detweiler: Basically we're starting a new film initiative, a media initiative at Pepperdine University. And with Pepperdine being located in Malibu, I don't think there's a better place in the world to try and gather folks who are interested in entertainment. We're in the heart of the entertainment world and looking to train the next generation of filmmakers, particularly faith-fueled filmmakers who want to tell stories of hope and redemption. That's an exciting place to be.
Holz: What's happening in Hollywood these days?
Detweiler: Everything seems to be leaning toward bigger, louder and faster, and you see that in the summer films. But it's interesting, I don't think audiences are responding to that. I think people feel over-saturated by, you know, explosions. It's the films that have bigger ideas and are a little bit smarter that I think are sneaking up on people. A film like Christopher Nolan's Inception. It's full of deep ideas about our dreams and the things that haunt us and how we get in touch with them. It also deals with how we understand ourselves as people. That's the kind of summer blockbuster that I think the next generation is increasingly interested in. Things of substance and not just style.
One of the biggest hits in the last year was The Blind Side. It blindsided Hollywood. They didn't expect it to do so well. It was a real-life story about a Christian family making a difference in the life of Michael Oher, who is now a pro football player. Sandra Bullock, who stars in the film, didn't want to do it initially. And yet the director, John Lee Hancock, talked to her and coaxed her into it. And she was kind of blown away by the character she portrayed, Leigh Anne Tuohy, and by her family. I think everyone was happily surprised by both the public reception and the huge box office. And then for Sandra to get an Oscar out of it—it was really a career-defining role, and it took everybody by surprise.
Holz: As I'm sure you know, Craig, Christians can come to the subject of movies with a wide range of convictions and ideas about how we should engage with this particular medium. With that in mind, how would you describe the theological grid that you use when you're watching a movie?
Detweiler: There've been at least four, maybe five different responses of Christians over time to the issue of culture. In his book Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr identified several of those responses. For starters, some folks really do feel that culture is against them. So they feel the need to flee culture or to war against it. Others understand that our challenge is to be in but not of the world, so they're very cautious as they approach films. And some will say, "You know what? I want to dialogue with culture. I want to understand what's being shown or discussed at the cineplex so that I can talk to my friends and sort of integrate my faith into their world." (Robert Johnston does a great job outlining these things in his classic book Reel Spirituality.)
I increasingly find that with the next generation, they have a more sacramental view of the arts, of music and film. They actually approach film as an opportunity for God to speak. That they may be surprised by what they may hear on the radio. You suddenly have Carrie Underwood saying, "Jesus take the wheel." How is that on Top 40 radio? Kanye West sings "Jesus Walks" at the Grammy Awards. These are unexpected Jesus sightings. And yet, these are the kinds of things that can happen. Take a film like The Book of Eli. It starred Denzel Washington, and it was a very violent, R-rated film. Underneath all of that kind of provocation, though, there is a ridiculous amount of discussion of Scripture and quoting of the Bible. The story is really about how far you will go to defend the Bible if you were the last person on Earth carrying such a burden and such a sacred trust. I went into the film not expecting anything and was blown away by the depth of inspiration that was imbedded amidst some extremely violent and justifiably R-rated images.
Holz: It sounds like what you're saying is that the strict wall between the sacred and the secular is coming down a little bit. Or is it that we're not compartmentalizing things culturally in the same way we used to?
Detweiler: I think we've rediscovered even within Scripture that that's the case. We've seen that God could even work through King Nebuchadnezzar. He could communicate through Babylonians. He could communicate through talking donkeys. So why can't He communicate through Jim Carey in Bruce Almighty? It's just as farfetched, and yet there it is in our midst. We're not expecting it. We're surprised by it. And yet we have to pause and renegotiate in our own thinking and say, God is bigger than I thought. He is not contained in a box. But He's able to speak through the TV—through the box in my home. He can speak through a show like Lost. He can communicate through a show like House that raises ethical issues every week. Sometimes it disdains God and sometimes it affirms Him.
Holz: What would you say is the difference between making a movie or even a TV show that deals with general ideas about God's character or spiritual truth as opposed to one that works to deliver a specific message about Jesus being the only way to salvation? Are movies better vehicles for one of these forms of revelation than the other?
Detweiler: Well, I think there's room for both. I'm thrilled by the success of the Kendrick brothers down in Georgia to rally a church to make films like Facing the Giants and Fireproof. Obviously that caught Hollywood by surprise. They didn't expect so many people from the heartland who maybe don't normally come to movies to show up. So maybe there's a new market emerging that Hollywood is still discovering.
But what I'm really encouraged by is the next generation of filmmakers who are fueled by their faith and their convictions, who are making mainstream Hollywood films. You see films like Scott Derrickson's The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a very serious horror film that is arguing basically that if the devil exists, if evil exists, maybe God must exist as well. You can't have one without the other. And that film is kind of doing things backwards. It's not arguing on behalf of God so much as it's arguing on behalf of the devil as proof that there must be a God. So it's a different kind of apologetic, one that we may not be used to or comfortable with. But when you go to the theater, and you start to have this sort of movie work on you, and you realize it's a true story, and it made $75 million in the United States alone, you have to say there is a massive conversation going on at the local cineplex. And we have the opportunity to join that.
Holz: Let's talk about Avatar for a minute, the biggest movie of all time if you don't adjust the box office numbers for inflation. What's your take on why this film is so popular, and what do you think it says about our culture?
Detweiler: On one level it's just an eye-popping adventure. Pure spectacle. It's luxurious and extravagant. The 3-D effects actually work, and they don't call attention to themselves. You get immersed in this world. But that's usually not enough to generate the kind of success Avatar is having. If it was just a gimmick, people wouldn't have gone back several times. So I think there's more going on here. I think at its core, Avatar gave viewers a taste of Eden. It gave us a taste of an unspoiled paradise. It says, This is what life could be like. And I think all of us have that sense of wonder imbedded in us. We want to see a world where the plants light up at night and things are just Technicolor and gorgeous and unspoiled, like they were before the Fall. We have that longing for the Garden embedded within us.
Holz: Speaking of avatars, you've edited a new book called Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games With God. What do you think are some of the big-picture issues and challenges we need to keep in mind as we think about video games?
Detweiler: First and foremost, a lot of us see video games as an isolating activity. In the early days of this medium, for example, it was one person at a time at an arcade. But now it's much more participatory. These are huge, maybe international events where people are playing World of Warcraft online with other people from all over the globe. And then you've got families playing Wii together, doing bowling together, doing Wii boxing together. So I don't think of it as an isolating activity, it's more and more of a big communal activity. I think that's a big surprise.
The second thing that I think is interesting is the notion of doing. A gamer doesn't really read the manual. He just picks up the joystick and tries to figure out how the game works. And increasingly I think that's where the next generation is [with their approach to life in general]. They're interested in a participatory faith. They say I want to see how this thing works. Show me how my faith makes a difference in everyday life, they say. Put a hammer in my hand. Allow me to build something. Allow me to do something. Then as I try to fix the world, and as I try to master the game of life, I'm going to come up with some questions. I'm going to be like, This doesn't quite work. How come things are a little bit broken? How come things don't turn out the way I expect? And that's when I think the Scripture comes in, and we're able to address the question, "How do I gain wisdom on how the world works?" I think we need to make that shift in our thinking. We need to see that this is an active generation—the gamer generation. So we can start with an act of faith and then it'll become a reflective faith.
Holz: What I hear you saying is that the starting point for our conversations about both faith and culture has shifted.
Detweiler: That's it. I think people in the emerging generations will be just as frustrated with life and still want answers that the Bible provides. But to start with the answers doesn't really work. You don't start with the answers, they say. You go in to the world and start to figure out, How does this world work?
Faith, Film and ... Barbara Nicolosi
Faith, Film and ... Craig Detweiler
Faith, Film and ... Billy Zabka