The Author Who has Forever Changed My View of Movies

There are times when the best film commentary comes from a pastor. Not just any pastor, mind you. There are some who practice such complete avoidance of movies that they lack a healthy perspective. Their discernment is hindered by a willful ignorance of God’s gift of cinema.

At the same time, there are others (and not just pastors) who practice such complete immersion in the world of movies that they too lack a healthy perspective. Their discernment, however, is hindered, not from ignorance, but from overstimulation.

It can be tricky to find a balance between the two. As I attempt to acquire a greater sense of that balance, I am grateful for one author—one pastor—whose writing on film has dramatically changed my life. Because I have learned so much from him, I wanted to share some of the wealth of his knowledge with my readers.

That is why I am honored and excited to interview Pastor Wayne A. Wilson. He is the author of Worldly Amusements, which is one of the five most influential and life-changing books I have ever read. Pastor Wilson’s enthusiastic love for cinema has not hindered his ability to bring detailed and specific criticism where needed. And his desire to be “pure in heart” (Matthew 5:8) has not hindered his ability to enjoy cinema for the gift and the pleasure and the joy that it is.

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What experiences in the arts (educational, vocational) have influenced your perspectives on film?

I loved film since I was a child, and started making films with a Super8 camera in the fifth grade. By the time I was in high school, I was making feature length films with any friends I could compel to be in them. My mother sewed costumes for me. My dad built props. I entered a short film in a regional competition and did pretty well.

After high school, I came to Hollywood to attend film school, and got a job in a film rejuvenation lab to support my schooling. All along that journey, what shaped my perspective on film was my love for the great directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, roughly from 1935 to the early 1960s. I studied them and their work. John Ford and William Wyler were particular favorites. I found very few films of my generation that really compared. There was something the older films had. I would have had a hard time explaining at the time, but it was goodness. These films were effective as art, and sometimes brilliant, but much more than that; they made virtue and honor attractive. I grew up in a time of great social and moral upheaval. I don’t think I can exaggerate the positive influence these films had on me, though most were made before I was born. They gave me a standard to aspire to.

So, I came to Tinsel Town determined to be the new John Ford, but the Lord spared the nation my feeble efforts and had other plans. I’m not sure I really had that much talent. Most of the teachers at the school were industry professionals. One of them, a director at NBC, told me I had a great future in the business.

“Really!” I said hopefully, “As what?”

“Oh, doing funny voices and silly things.”

“Gee…thanks.”

It was at the film school that I became a Christian, thanks to the witness of several faithful students. Not too long after that, the Lord completely changed my heart and pointed me to the ministry. So I completed an AA degree in television production and headed for Bible college.

I kept the film lab job all through college, and seminary, and even after I became a pastor in 1990 (for a while I was bi-vocational). I still serve at that same church. But my years at the lab kept me connected with many aspiring film students.

My new faith in Christ and my study of Scripture reinforced my appreciation of what they tried to accomplish in old Hollywood. It also directly confronted me about my viewing standards. I was not a fan of explicit content in movies even before I accepted Christ. Old Hollywood gave me a natural respect for women and a commitment to honor them; and, of course, the Bible deepened that. But I put up with stuff I didn’t like in order to see movies I wanted to see. I was, like many Christians, living in the “too bad they put that in there” mode.

Franky Schaeffer’s books influenced me at that time as well…arguing as he did that “art needs no justification” and “don’t be a prudish Pharisee” (or in his words, a “swine”) about things like decency. I partially bought into that for a while.

The Word of God convicted me, however, and I dropped that increasingly common view of the arts Mr. Schaeffer spread among Evangelicals. Amazingly, after influencing a generation to abandon long held standards, Franky Schaeffer abandoned the faith.

What was the catalyst for writing Worldly Amusements?

The book actually grew out of two sermons I did on “Blessed are the pure in heart.” The movie Titanic was out at the time, and several church families were taking their children to it. I addressed entertainment choices directly in two rather long messages.

I did warn the congregation: “You probably do not want to hear what I have to say next week, so if you ever wanted to miss church, or visit your Aunt Minnie’s church, do it next Sunday.” Of course the place was packed. Sometimes, when you preach, you can hear a pin drop, the room gets so deadly quiet. That happened during those messages.

Okay, I thought, they are listening. I felt someone needed to get this word out to a radically changing Christian view of culture. I decided to make the effort.

One of the most paradigm-shattering chapters in your book is entitled “The Law of Love”—which, of course, has radically affected my own views (and my writing on this blog). What is this principle, and what led you to adhere to it?

When all is said and done, this is the most important consideration. Stripping people naked for entertainment (and even the most artistically valid film is still entertainment) debases them. Having performers act out sexually is a direct and perverse violation of human beings. How can I support it and love my neighbor the actor? True art must conform to the moral law of God, and misusing people is the greatest violation of moral law. How can I tolerate it?

I did not invent the application of this Law to actors. I found it in William Wilberforce’s great book Real Christianity. I have an 1835 edition of that wonderful book. Wilberforce, of course, is famous for combatting the slave trade. But his heart went out to all who were oppressed or used, or who lived in morally debilitating circumstances. That included the theater, which he would have known well as an upper class English gentlemen.

Essentially, Wilberforce asks this: How can we, as Christians, enjoy rather than grieve the morally corrupting world of drama, not primarily for the viewer, but for the low moral condition of the performers?

It really doesn’t matter whether or not something “bothers you.” There is such a thing as desensitization (or more bluntly, being jaded). That is not a virtue. I came to ask myself: how can any man who claims to be a man of honor permit such things in his presence?

What started me thinking more about the Law of Love was a film I saw and loved in 1981. It had the right message about honor, fidelity, truth and everything I believed was good, and it was not at all shy about naked people. One particularly weird scene was aggressively sexual. The intent was to portray an erotic rape.

Later, I found out the woman in that scene was the director’s daughter! It made me ill to even think that man positioned and filmed his own daughter that way. That was my awakening moment. Who cares what other value the film had!

Years later, I found this quote from his daughter: “I've always said that once you’ve been raped by Gabriel Byrne and Corin Redgrave in armor, watched by your father, you’ll never look back.” This is her most famous quote. I suppose she was trying to make light of it. But “you’ll never look back” means something significant changed that day.

Her father said, “A lot of people ask me, ‘Well, how did you feel about directing your daughter being raped?’ Well, she wasn’t being raped of course. It was just a scene. She didn’t mind, and nor did I.” A lot of people ask, he says. Why do you suppose people ask that? Because a lot of people know there is something ghastly about it.

I decided I would not participate in such evil again, not for any reason, let alone to be entertained. Every woman carries the divine image. And no woman shares herself that way and comes out the same.

Other than writing your book, have you been able to use your love of movies in your pastoral ministry?

In small ways, yes. I taught for a while at a Bible Institute, and enjoyed creating a Christianity and Culture class. I was able to show lots of film clips as illustrations, which was a lot of fun, and powerful in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

I have done speaking engagements on the topic of entertainment choices in other venues, but only occasionally in my church. Honestly, I have a fear of being a hobby horse preacher, so I don’t “go there” all the time. I just teach the Scriptures. And I rarely use movies as sermon illustrations, and only if I can make it effective without anyone having seen the film!

For fifteen years or so, to get out of the church building and into the community, I ran a drama project, writing and directing little 4-H plays for competition. There have also been a few times where I taught film appreciation to home schoolers using classic films.

Have you grown personally/spiritually through your engagement with the medium of film?

Yes, indeed. It is the power of story. The dramatic arts touch the heart. That’s what they are designed to do, and it can be for good or ill. Film is one of the most powerful dramatic mediums because it embraces so many artistic endeavors in a single work. Done well, it powerfully touches the emotions, and, by doing that, shapes one’s perceptions. Effective drama has a power hard to resist. And the power film has can illuminate virtue and tie the emotions to it. It certainly has that effect on me, and has since childhood.

Of course, a good book or a good play can do that as well, but for me, film is the medium that sinks deepest. C.S. Lewis warned of a culture creating “men without chests,” by which he meant the absence of true and firmly set moral sentiments. Good stories, well told, can plant those sentiments deep within us.

On Facebook, you recently started posting your Top 10 films, although you’ve continued into the 60s. Most of the movies you have listed are from Hollywood’s Golden Age, a period many moviegoers (myself included) aren’t too familiar with. What are some features from this era that people are missing out on?

Yes, I couldn’t stop with ten, though my top ten do pretty much represent my all-time favorite films!* So many films have impacted my life in different ways over the years I decided to make the extended list a little tutorial on what might be called Old Hollywood or the Golden Age. I prefer the term Golden Age because before Hollywood censored itself, the movie business wasn’t so golden. And, yes, those Golden Age movies tend to be my favorites.

Several things stand out from that era:

First, the studio system was able to collect, develop and employ enormous numbers of very talented people. Because the studio heads made all the decisions, years were not spent in time-consuming deal-making, so great directors and actors made many more films than their contemporary counterparts could ever dream of making. We benefit from a vast treasure trove of high quality films that support, in a broad way (not always a specifically Christian way), the traditional moral order of western civilization.

Second, I prefer the artistic flavor of those films. They were masters of visual composition (many directors learned their craft in the silent era).  I tell people, for example, you can watch a John Ford film from that era, freeze frame it at any moment, and have a beautifully composed image. If you are observant, that single image can very likely tell you a story. That simply isn’t true anymore.

This is a matter of personal taste, of course. If someone prefers computer generated reality and cameras that dance and fly, that’s fine. In my view, the film’s viewer shouldn’t really notice very often he is watching a movie. Also, computer generated images are getting to where almost any visual idea can be realized in a substantial way, but that is not always a good thing. For me, increasing complex CGI dazzles for a time, but after a while it leaves me empty. Well composed images are never boring for me.

Third, and most importantly, the Production Code (censorship rules) compelled the greatest talents in film to tell stories that uphold the moral order. So you not only had very well made films, but everything puts the viewer’s sympathies on the side of virtue. So few films do that today. They may support one virtue (usually something obvious, like “love is better than money”), but they attack virtue a hundred ways at the same time by glamorizing other sins.

Can you imagine if Hollywood today simply lived by rule #1 of the Code? “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.” Wow! And Hollywood pretty much stuck to this for several decades.

The Production Code was not perfect. For one thing, it capitulated to southern states’ demands that no inter-racial relationships be portrayed. That was cowardly, but expected, since everything Hollywood does ultimately is for business reasons. Embracing the Code seriously, and enforcing it after attempts to evade or ignore it, were for business reasons, too. But they did enforce it, and demonstrated for all time that good art can be deeply moral and tasteful.

Also, I think the Code was a little too restrictive regarding themes that could be addressed. It was too confining. For example, drug addiction was not addressed for years, though drunkenness remained a regular source of humor. The Code also banned any criticism of religion. There is a good side to that, but it prohibited any depiction of corrupt religious leaders (a real problem in any age), and even Bible stories were shaped to avoid simple realities, such as Jewish opposition to Jesus and the early church. These restrictions softened over time. The 1950s were willing to tackle some things previously not seen at all, but still basic rules of decency kept things from going too far.

That said, the Code did successfully, very successfully in my mind, compel great talents to serve “virtue,” and the result was excellent art that reinforced the good in the hearts of millions and millions of Americans.

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If you have not read Worldly Amusements, I hope this interview has helped to whet your appetite. You likely will not agree with everything in the book (how often do two human beings agree on everything?), but you will be challenged and encouraged to appreciate cinema from a more holistic Christian worldview. I highly recommend it!

* For the record, Pastor Wilson’s top ten movies (as listed on Facebook) are as follows:

1. How Green Was My Valley (1947)
2. A Man for All Seasons (1966)
3. Good-bye Mr. Chips (1939)
4. The Mortal Storm (1940)
5. Ran (1985)
6. Captain’s Courageous (1937)
7. Ivanhoe (1952)
8. A Tale of Two Cities (1935)
9. Fort Apache (1948)
10. Ben-Hur (1959)

Photo by izayah ramos on Unsplash

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