Before we can ask whether a Mormon theology of the movies is a viable idea, I suppose that making the case that a theology of the movies in general works would be useful.
There are, it seems to me, two arguments that can be made here.
The first is incarnational. A basic principle of Christianity is that God communicates to us through making the divine manifest in the forms of the mundane world. Christ – the crowning revelation of God – of course, “emptied himself, by taking on the form of a slave by looking like other menand by sharing in human nature.” (Ph. 2:7). Theologians with some regularity argue (as does Alma) that the natural world reveals God; its order, its beauty, its natural law illustrate and celebrate the attributes of divinity.And we, though wrecked vessels, are made in the image of God; the creations of our hearts, hands, and minds, then, reveal some flickering spark of our own divine nature through their flaws. Because we are his children we see God in the works of our own hands and in their making worship him through imitation.
Given this, then, all art is religious. Film, however, is a uniquely powerful medium of incarnation, for it replicates the completeness of the world with greater reach, power and scope than any other form of art, and therefore can find God in multiple and powerful ways.
Secondly, film is narrative. Narrative is fundamental to understanding Christianity. It is, of course, the basic literary means of Christian scripture, but, even more profoundly, the religion itself is explained through story. Its foundation is that we are uneasy, in trouble, that there is a problem in our very existence to be solved; and that, through a series of actions, God will aid us in solving them.
Movies tell us a type of story in a type of world – but what type of story? Certainly not “realistic,” which movies are often criticized for. But this is sort of the point, the stories in film are never ‘realistic;’ they work under certain limitations of running time, of plot (or not), of character. But, then, stories about faith are not ‘realistic’ either. The story told in Scripture is providential; it is selective to emphasize its points; it uses motifs and literary devices like repetition and typology – it is, in a word, a ritualized narrative. It simplifies its stories in order to allow us to find their core, to make them usable for our own needs of meaning.
And this, of course, is what movies do. Movies select some part of human life – courtship and crime are two of the most popular – and create a world which revolves around them. They intensify aspects of day to day living. They force the story and character to the core in order to reveal some truth; it uses motif of plot (the Meet Cute; the bride left at the altar; the final shootout) and of character (the heroic but loose cannon cop; the secretly adolescent man who just can’t commit) to help us lay a framework of meaning onto our own lives.
This is narrative as ritual; and, even, as liturgy.All liturgy is narrative – the Lord’s Supper tells the story of Christ’s life and death; baptism tells of our own willingness to fit that life onto our own. The unique narratives of film, then, use this power to infuse God’s meaning into our own lives.
Robert Johnston has written, “thinking like a Christian . . . is always a conversation between our faith and our culture, a dialogue between our stories and God’s story.” This, then, is what movies can do. They are our stories seeking God’s, for to Christians, God’s story is where ultimate meaning is found.
Now, what can Mormons make of this?