Plugged In Talks Content: Spiritual Elements

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Editor’s Note: Plugged In movie reviews are split into content sections, and sometimes Plugged In is asked, Why? This series of blogs seeks to answer that and many other questions. We’ll unpack each content section in turn and explain why we believe each is important. We’ll give you a peek at how we think and talk about movies—and in so doing, perhaps you’ll learn something about us, the movies we watch and maybe even how you watch them better yourself.

Our second post in this series is about Spiritual Elements. (See previous post on Positive Elements here.)

Let me be honest: The Spiritual Elements section of our reviews is a favorite of mine. Why? It’s filled with potentially fascinating rabbit trails to explore.

Sure, sometimes, dealing with a film’s spiritual content is pretty simple. But sometimes, it can be surprisingly multilayered. Take, for example, the whole warding-off-a-vampire-with-a-cross image—popularized in movies for literally a hundred years. That scene is inherently spiritual, right? You’ve got a Christian symbol right there, in front of the camera’s face. And it’s pretty simple, too.

But that scene gives us a lot more to think about than just a cross. How does the vampire react? Does it react in such a way that suggests he’s a demonic monster (where he’d shy away, illustrating that both God and demonic entities have some power in this movie world) or just a victim of a really disturbing infection? How was he created in the first place? Is the bloodsucker sympathetic? What about the guy wielding the cross? Is it the cross itself that works, or the wielder’s belief in the cross? And if he was brandishing, say, a Star of David, would this particular movie vampire be affected in just the same way?

That one scene, depending on context and character and how it all plays out, says a lot about the spiritual underpinnings of the movie: the nature of God, the nature of good and evil, the nature of man. This section isn’t about tabulating bad words. This section often demands time, thought and nuance.

Sometimes films come with little-to-no spiritual content at all, of course. Outside the given name of the villain (Ghostface), the recent horror reboot Scream was pretty much faith and religion free. Other movies are saturated with it. Most Christian films have, of course, loads of spiritual content in them; if it’s a movie based on a Bible story, we could sometimes just write the whole review in our Spiritual Elements section and be done with it.

But movies can surprise you. Eternalswas wildly—and, if I might say so, inconsistently—spiritual. The Adjustment Bureau contains scads of messages about free will and destiny. Horror movies can be a font of spiritual and religious content: Apart from faith-based films, horror might be the genre that deals most explicitly with big spiritual themes.

But we sometimes deal with more than pure spirituality in our Spiritual Elements section. Occasionally we’ll tackle a movie’s apparent belief structure, too. If God’s not present in a film and science seems to be the answer to all ills, that can say something spiritual. While environmental messages aren’t inherently spiritual, they can feel that way if emphasized in a dogmatic way. As the Bible warns us, idols are everywhere: We can worship at the feet not just at standard lowercase gods, but at elements in our lives we’ve turned into gods, which can encompass everything from nature to technology. And if the movie pushes a certain “spiritual” message strongly enough, we’ll mention it in this section.

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us,” wrote A.W. Tozer. And I think you could same thing about what movies think about God, too—as much as we can tell from the two or so hours we spend with them.

I realize that some of our readers jump straight over our Spiritual Elements section to tackle more nuts-and-bolts areas of our review. But for my money, this just might be the most critical section in our reviews.

Tomorrow, we’ll deal with what our research tells us is one of the most heavily read sections: Our Sexual Content section.

Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

One Response

  1. -In “Gran Torino,” the scene near the end of the movie, where Clint Eastwood lays dead on the grass, SCREAMS to me John 15:13 – “ Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” But I’ve read that Clint Eastwood does not have a faith in God, so I found that scene to be a lost opportunity to share that Biblical truth with viewers unfamiliar with it, and also intrigued by the director’s choice to stage it in such an obvious way. (Because of his personal beliefs)

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