One of the most profitable studies I've conducted during my ministry is the course on "How to Watch a Movie Like a Christian." Our study took approximately 5 weeks and the text that we used was Brian Godwa's fabulous book, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment.
Godwa does an excellent job of helping the reader understand that movies are not just entertainment. They are preachers who are out to proselytize. In other words, movies contain messages that can shape your life if you are not wise to them.
The conclusion of our study sought to apply what we learned by watching the late 80's classic Dead Poet's Society. I remember watching this movie when I was in Jr. High or High School, and I thought it was a superb movie. I still do. But, in watching it again with a better trained eye, what we found was that this movie promotes a strong existential (i.e. anti-Christian) worldview.
The following is a breif synopsis of the things that we should be aware of as we watch the film.
Theme 1. Salvation is breaking free from authorities and influences. Rules restrict creativity and suppress all potential and “the real you.”
It is ironic though that the film uses the “rules” of film for cuts, angles, contrasts, lighting etc. Indeed, DPS is such a good movie because they make such good use of cinematography. So in the end, the director of the film must admit that he could not live by his own premise of being free from the rules of form.
Secondly, the scene where Anderson is brought up to talk about Walt Whitman is indicative of the "truth is from me" attitude. At the very end he says with poetic inspiration of the heated moment, "Truth is a suffocating blanket." Here our Christian senses should prickle with screams of "Yikes!" For our belief is that "the truth will set us free."
Theme 4: Authority is Oppressive
As Christians we believe that parents/authorities should not provoke their children to wrath. To that end, we agree with DPS as they present the authority figures as stereotypically overbearing. (the church is also alluded to as one of the suppressors)
However, we keep in mind that DPS does this caricature purposely for the sake of portraying the freedom of being "you." The movie promotes rebellion against authorities (be they school traditions or parents) and considers them restrictive for living a truly deliberate life. The suicide that occurs flows from this is its ultimate form.
Being that this is so, it is interesting to note that the exile of the teacher at the end of the movie is presented in the light that it is. The message that it sends is this: His authority is the only acceptable authority.
Why does the movie end like it does?
Robin Williams is made out to be the sacrificial lamb who ultimately brings salvation. The young ones, who are his disciples, “repent” of their “betrayal” and acknowledge him as the “captain” because his teaching set them free. This is Gospel-like, but it presents a parody of the true gospel. In the real gospel the great Teacher, Jesus Christ, dies in the place of penitent sinners so that they might have true and eternal life.
Yet the movie has two Christ-parodying figures. One of the students (Neil) gives up his life for the sake of his new found "faith." The scene goes to great length to portray him as the Christ who is hanging on the cross with his crown of thorns. Yet his death is not a sacrifice, nor is he a martyr. He simply expresses the ultimate existential choice to be free from all authoritative influence.
Christ too willingly died, but his death was for the purpose of atonement. He died because the rules had been broken, and he died for the purpose of enabling obedience
What worldviews are manifested in this movie? What does it say about God, man, reality?
1. Existentialism: authorities are bad. No one should influence you.
2. Romanticism/Transcendentalism: an intuitive approach to truth. You get truth from your from your own instincts. When it comes to interpreting poetry, you make of it what you make of it, rather than what the author intended or rules—and the same goes for how you understand life!
Examining Thoreau & the Wider Message of DPS
This is a fuller version of a poem quoted in the movie:
1. Why did Thoreau go to the woods? What is special about the woods that would facilitate this? (You will remember that various scenes of the DPS were conducted in the woods!)
In the transcendental mindset the woods were thought to be the place where people live simply and without intrusions and/or clutter. Truth then could be more accessible because its basically you and no one else interfering with you.
2. Thoreau wants to “suck the marrow out of life.” What does this mean? Is this a good thing?
Sucking the marrow out of life simply means that he wants to live the best life he can and get the most out of it. It can be a good thing if it is taken in the right sense. DPS presents it as living a life that is in accord with your own selfish pursuits. As Christians, we are to live life to the fullest each and every day. King Solomon urged his readers to do just this very thing:
The early American preacher Jonathan Edwards understood this well. In his Resolutions he once wrote: "Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live."
3. What does the Bible say about “true living?”
True living comes only through faith in Christ. Christ came so that we “might have life and have it to the full.” We enter into that full (and eternal) life when we forsake our own intentions and sense of morality and begin to follow Christ. His yoke (law) is easy and his burden is light.
4. How did Solomon live? What was his final conclusion? (Eccl 12:13)
Solomon tried to “live it up.” If anyone tried to suck the marrow out of life, it was him. But he found that all ambitions that were apart from Christ were meaningless. In the end he concluded, “Fear God and keep his commands.”
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