“As a chaplain, one of my central tasks is to relate the Christian message to the young people in my school. This is a challenging endeavour in this day and age but my efforts are often aided by finding creative new paths of engagement. For me, drawing upon popular culture, and in particular on movies, provides what I term reflective springboards that help me find these new ways to engage.”
My local cinema chain Village has recently adopted a new marketing slogan that has left me a bit curious – ‘Village Cinemas – Where Movies Mean More.’ I have to confess that I am not exactly sure what ‘where movies mean more’ actually means. How is the experience of watching a movie at Village more meaningful than it would have been at another rival cinema?
One thing is clear, here is a cinema chain looking to say that going to the movies is a meaningful experience. Following on from my recent article looking at how movies can be used in the classroom to effectively engage students, in this article I want to consider how movies can help a chaplain think and reflect.
It seems to me that one of the challenges of being in ministry with young people is that there is not much down time. Even when you are having time to yourself at the movies, reading a book or watching TV, if you are anything like me, you find yourself thinking how you can draw on what you are watching or reading the next time you talk to students. Every family holiday or interesting experience you have becomes potential fodder for your next chapel address. I was reminded of this tendency when I was a youth worker many years ago before I became a school chaplain. I was driving back from a youth camp at the Grampians with my brother and two of the youth in the car. As we were driving along, my back tyre blew out and we started spinning around and slid off the road. The accident had the potential to be very serious but, by the grace of God, we all walked away unharmed. As we got out of the car, still shaking from our experience, one of the youth said to me “you’re going to use this as a sermon illustration aren’t you?”
As a chaplain, one of my central tasks is to relate the Christian message to the young people in my school. This is a challenging endeavour in this day and age but my efforts are often aided by finding creative new paths of engagement. For me, drawing upon popular culture, and in particular on movies, provides what I term ‘reflective springboards’ that help me find these new ways to engage. While the idea of a reflective springboard might be mixing metaphors it captures the idea of something that causes me to reflect and then gives me the impetus to engage the young people in my care is a new way.
The concept of a reflective springboard is perhaps better seen than explained so I offer two recent examples where movies have caused me to reflect and then engage.
The Last Jedi
I was reminded again of the power of a good movie last year in the lead up to the latest Star Wars movie ‘The Last Jedi’ being released in December. There was a lot of expectation around this movie and the trailer was keenly anticipated for glimpses into what might happen next to Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren after their adventures in ‘The Force Awakens (2015).’ The trailer chose to focus, not on the action, but on the plight of the central characters. In particular it focused on what might happen to Rey after she discovered, in the last film, that she could use the force. Much to the alarm of Star Wars fans the trailer seemed to suggest that Rey might turn to Kylo Ren for guidance and hence possibly embrace the dark side of the force. It was a great trailer that had you immediately wanting to race off and see the film.
In an age of special effect driven cinema the trailer helped remind me what makes for a really good movie – one that has characters that you care about. Hollywood blockbusters that put all their emphasis on spectacular set pieces fall flat because if they don’t create characters that we engage with then they just finish up being hollow spectacles. For a film to be a truly meaningful experience it requires a narrative of engagement driven by characters that the audience is invested in and cares about.
The Force Awakens had done a great job of introducing new characters into the Star Wars universe that the audience did care about. This was in stark contrast to the poorly received prequel trilogy – The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005). Ordinary acting and an overriding ethos of spectacle over substance created a narrative of Anakin Skywalker’s journey to the dark side that didn’t feel remotely credible.
A key plot element of The Last Jedi was finding out who Rey’s parents are. In The Force Awakens we learnt that her parents had abandoned Rey on Jakku when she was a child. Might finding out who her parents were help Rey find out why she was able to use the force and what she should do with her new found powers?
I really liked what the writer and director of The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson, did in the film by revealing that Rey’s parents were not in fact anyone of particular significance. It was a really interesting move and one that was not well received by some Star Wars fans who had come up with some impressively detailed theories on Rey’s lineage. When Johnson was asked why he had decided to go down this path he said “For me, if Rey had gotten the answer that she’s related to so-and-so, had learned her place in the story, that would be the easiest thing she can hear.” he explained. “The hardest thing to hear is, ‘Nope, this not going to define you.’ And in fact, Kylo is going to use this to try and undercut your confidence so you’ll feel you have to lean on him for your identity. And you’re going to have to make the choice to find your own identity in this story.”
I really liked the idea that Rey has to find her place in the Star Wars story. In the weeks after seeing the movie I was reflecting on what I might say to our new Year 7 students at their first Chapel for the year. These students were beginning a journey to find their place in the school community that they were now a part of. One of our tasks as Anglican chaplains is to help our students find their place in the story of our school. Working in an Anglican School we also help our school find its place in the wider story of the Diocese it is located in. And ultimately all our work is about helping our students, staff and parents find their place in God’s story.
As these ideas swirled around my head I realised that thanks to The Last Jedi I had hit upon the theme for our Chapels services for the year – finding your place in God’s story. In our chapel services we are journeying through the scriptures focusing on key characters. We look at what their place is in God’s story and how, in turn, they can help us find our place in God’s story.
Ready Player One verses The Matrix
Another example of using film as a reflective springboard occurred after I watched the recent Steven Spielberg film ‘Ready Player One.’ I had enjoyed reading the book and was looking forward to seeing how it turned out on the big screen. Despite the book’s author, Ernest Cline, helping to co-write the screenplay the movie left me a bit disappointed. The book and film are set in 2045 where the world is a bleak place as the result of various economic and ecological disasters. Humanity seeks refuge from the real world by spending as much time as possible in the virtual world of the Oasis. The creator of the Oasis, James Halliday, passes away but before he does he sets up a quest to find three keys hidden in the Oasis that will enable the finder to unlock an Easter egg that will give them untold riches and control of the Oasis.
In the book and film the hero, Wade Watts, is an orphan, who like everyone else in the Oasis is desperate to find the three keys. In the book Wade’s efforts in the quest are severely hampered by his limited financial means as a poor high school student. His efforts are in marked contrast to the villain of the piece, Nolan Sorrento, who has a whole company, IOI (Innovative Online Industries), behind him to help him win the quest and thereby gain control of the Oasis. Wade manages to discover the first key because it has been hidden near his school. If it had been hidden on another planet in the Oasis Wade wouldn’t have had the means to travel there and find it.
The film however skates over Wade’ economic disadvantage quite literally cutting to the chase. After the obligatory scene setting it opens with an amazing virtual car chase as the first quest. While Wade does have to stop his car mid race to pick up some coins to enable him to refuel, the film downplays his economic disadvantage which is a key feature of the early part of the book. In the book Wade has access to the technology but not the economic means to compete against the big players.
A quote from an article helped me identify another source of unease with the film. It described the Oasis as ‘a virtual reality world that’s like the Matrix, only with more 1980s nostalgia.’ Comparing the virtual world of the Oasis with that depicted in the 1999 sci-fi classic ‘The Matrix’ was really insightful. The two films seem similar in that they both offer bleak views of the future and an escape to a virtual world but they differ markedly in their underlying philosophy. In the world of The Matrix, the matrix is created by the machines as a means of enslaving the human race so they can be turned into batteries for the machines. Humans live out their entire existence in the virtual world of the matrix ignorant of their real situation.
In the Oasis humans escape to the virtual world willingly. The problems of the real world are seen as so unfixable that refuge in the Oasis becomes many peoples only source of hope. The book and film are about who will win the quest and inherit control of this virtual world. Will it be the IOI cooperation who want to turn it into a money making business financially enslaving people who go incur debts in the Oasis that they cannot repay? Or will it be someone like Wade wanting to be true to the Oasis creator’s legacy and keep it as the virtual playground that so many people like him enjoy?
The hero of The Matrix is the hacker Thomas Anderson. Over the course of the film he is awakened from his virtual prison and gets to see the matrix for what it really is. Neo (his name in the matrix) learns skills and abilities that enable him to become a powerful figure in this virtual world. Ultimately he finishes up becoming even more powerful than the agents who police it. Despite Neo gaining all these powers in the virtual world his motivation is not to gain control of the matrix but to destroy it thereby freeing humanity from its enslavement. In contrast, in the Oasis there is no talk about shutting it down – it is all about who gets to be in charge.
Comparing the Matrix and the Oasis offered a reflective springboard by causing me to consider the challenging relationship of technology and young people. How to use technology so that it empowers our students to tackle problems in the real world rather than embracing it as a distraction from the real world and all its challenges. Anyone who enters a classroom nowadays knows it requires a bit of work to get students to be attentive. ‘Shut computers, phones away, earphones out’ has become a threefold mantra said by many a teacher attempting to get students focused and the lesson underway.
The Oasis reflects different generational attitudes to technology. Its creator, James Halliday, confesses at one point that he never felt at home in the real world as he didn’t know how to connect with people there. This is what motivated him to create the virtual world of the Oasis. In contrast, for Wade the Oasis provides the social interaction that he doesn’t get in the real world. In the Oasis he has a group of friends who he connects with on a daily basis even if he has never actually met in the real world.
In The Matrix one of the villains is the Judas figure of Cypher. He strikes a deal with the agents to be plugged back into the matrix as long as he gets to be someone important – like an actor. Cypher is happy to live in a lie as long as he has a privileged place in it. This seems to be an attitude shared by many of the citizens of the Oasis – the real world is stuffed so let’s fully embrace the distraction. I hope this is not an attitude that we are passing on to our students.
The Last Jedi has so many rich ideas with deep Biblical resonances. From the notion that great people come from the margins, to the place of sacred texts in a tradition. From learning that even Jedi masters can make mistakes, to seeing past the glitz and glamour of the casino planet Canto Bight to the deep injustices that underpin it. From Yoda’s words of wisdom about failure being the greatest teacher, to the moving words said by Rose ‘we won’t win by fighting what we hate but by rescuing what we love.’ The film was chock full of reflective springboards.
That youth was right. I did use the story of the car accident on the way home from the Grampians camp as a sermon illustration. We live in the age of the hyped spectacle where more often than not the hype falls flat and just leaves us craving the next big thing. Every now and again a movie comes along with a bit of substance that causes us to reflect on the big questions of life. These films can be used to engage with students but they can also help us reflect on how we are engaging with young people and to help us find ways to shape the questions we are asking in a way that our students really want to engage with them.
Reverend Andrew Stewart has seventeen years’ experience as a school chaplain and works as a chaplain at Mentone Grammar in Melbourne. Andrew is also the chair of the Chaplains in Anglican Schools network in Victoria.