Exploring Meaningful Theological Discussions at the Movies

Prefacing Note:
We are most grateful to Lindsay Peyton and the folks of the Texas Annual Conference’s Communications department for this recent article in their “Cross Connections” — spotlighting our work through the Exploration which we call “Reel Theology.”  (As mentioned in the article, we’ll be taking 2 of the next 3 Tuesdays discussing Lent-related movies at First United Methodist Church in Somerville, Texas.  We’d love to have you join us!)

Rev. Jim Reiter looks for Jesus everywhere, as founder of Zoe-Life Explorations, a ministry dedicated to spiritual formation. Reiter often discovers spirituality on the silver screen – and will share the deeper messages in the movies in an upcoming Lenten Film Festival at FUMC Somerville, just 90 miles northwest of Houston.

Take the Godfather trilogy. “It’s a great story about one man’s fall into sin,” Reiter said.

At first, he explained, Michael Corleone has no interest in joining the family’s business inside the Mafia. “But then he just gets sucked in,” Reiter said. “The last scene shows him alone. It’s a powerful transformation, a decline into sin.”

That’s a message worth exploring – and the cinema has a powerful platform for telling stories, bringing them to life. Reiter explained that films normally considered secular can have still carry a deep spiritual message. He enjoys the way they can surprise him and catch him off guard.

Once Reiter recognizes a moral or a message in a movie or a TV series, he often shares them in a sermon or presentation. In the past, he has joined congregations on deep dives into “Breaking Bad” and “Stranger Things.”

Reiter’s passion for film became the basis of the Zoe-Life Explorations series, “Reel Theology: Focused Discussions at the Intersection of Hollywood and Divine.”

Pastor Victoria Simons read about Reel Theology in “Ruminations,” a quarterly publication from Zoe-Life Explorations, which offers resources for spiritual formation. It was just the type of outside-the-box experience she wanted to include in her plans for Lent.

“To be able to offer this fresh perspective is really cool,” Simons said. “As a pastor, you’re always looking for that angle, that approach that will resonate with people’s hearts.”

With Reiter’s help, FUMC Somerville planned “A Lenten Film Festival” for March 3, 17 and 31. Each event is scheduled from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., opening with a 30 to 40-minute screening of a film synopsis, which includes key scenes. A discussion follows, raising questions and offering time for reflection on the movie.

On March 3, the Festival kicked off with “Tender Mercies” a film from 1983, featuring Robert Duval. “It’s a powerful film of the slow redemption of a man, but it also engages the mysteries of God’s will,” Reiter said. “The tender mercies of love’s redemption change him.”

The film festival will continue on Tuesday, March 17 with “Chocolat,” a 2000 film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. “It’s a real parable of the Gospel,” Reiter said. “You have this free spirit coming in with the wind. That’s like the Holy Spirit.”

The fun continues on Tuesday, March 31 with the 2010 film “The Way,” starring Martin Sheen and directed by his son Emilio Estevez.  The movie, Reiter explains, follows the main character’s walk on the Camino de Santiago. “It’s a great story about a man making a journey to who he is, not who he is supposed to be,” Reiter said.

The Lenten Film Festival, Reiter explained, is fun and provides a safe space for discussion. “The movies become a faith-neutral territory to start talking about spirituality,” he said. “I’ve always felt that when a movie stirs something in my heart, that’s because it’s rattling the eternal inside me.”

He is available to provide film festivals for other congregations, he added, and will return to FUMC Somerville in the summer to create a series for children, finding the Gospel in Disney films.

Jesus was a master storyteller, Reiter said, and would create parables where meanings and morals could be discovered and become the basis of discussion.

Stories are at the heart of film as well, Reiter said. “It’s all about taking time to digest and process what went on in the movie I just saw,” he added. “We should stop, look, listen and process. And it’s not just with cinema. Develop a pause button. That kind of pause and awareness plays throughout the process of spiritual formation.”

Reiter said the same skill for searching for meaning can be developed at church and at the cinema – and particularly in daily life. “Learn to be still and to see and believe that God is in this moment,” he said. “Then ask, what is God saying to me?”

Pastor Simons agrees. “It takes God’s grace to open your heart for a new approach,” she said. “When you’re in the presence of the Lord, it doesn’t matter where it comes from. It could be under an apple tree — or at the movies.”

For more information about Reel Theology, visit zoe-life.net.

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