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At the Movies

Are we just passive observers?
A couple kissing on the television
Posted February 9, 2009

I’m a sucker for a good movie. But that doesn’t mean I’m a sucker for all the messages the film industry dishes up.

Some movies are simply bad and others are bad for us. But there’s still a large amount of debate surrounding their overall impact on our attitudes and values.

Are audiences at risk?

Just how vulnerable moviegoers are has been a subject of considerable interest for a long time.

In the United States in the mid-1920s, a study considered the effects of children’s exposure to movie messages. This was one of the first attempts to investigate whether there was a cause and effect relationship between media consumption and people’s behaviour. Unsurprisingly, it found that some children did identify with movie characters and model their behaviour.

The studies’ researchers operated from what’s known as a ‘transmission’ theory of communication. They assumed that individuals’ values, beliefs and practices were directly affected by the transmission of external messages. If those watching movies were vulnerable to influence from movie content then, it was reasoned, audiences and society needed to regard cinema with caution.

Film Censorship

The transmission view still influences attitudes towards film output today. It recognises that some material in movies can be harmful.

Film censorship in New Zealand has come a long way since the first classification system was introduced in 1920, when a ‘U’ certificate indicated a suitable film for everyone and an ‘A’ indicated suitability for adults only and when policing the system was left to parents.

Today, the film censor is required to determine whether a film ‘is or is not likely to be injurious to the public good’, taking into account a number of criteria including:

  • the likely effect of the film on its audience;
  • artistic or other merits;
  • the way in which anti-social behaviour, cruelty, violence, crime, horror and sex is depicted;
  • the extent to which the film denigrates any particular class of the general public;
  • any other relevant circumstances, such as the likely time and place of the film’s exhibition. (For more details, visit

A Christian perspective

While censorship is a function society needs to maintain, the transmission model applied to film viewing doesn’t tell the whole story. It holds that the movie audience is a relatively passive mass; that we are easily manipulated by the films we watch.

Quentin J. Schultz, author of Communicating for Life: Christian Stewardship in Community and Media (BakerAcademic) and a professor of communications arts and sciences, says that transmission models of communication have serious drawbacks when viewed from a Christian perspective.

Firstly, they eliminate the power of God to intervene from the whole process.

Secondly, the transmission view’s treatment of humans as passive receivers of messages is too narrow. Schultz notes:

‘Because humans beings creatively interpret symbols, no one can forecast with certainty what will happen in a conversation. Even formulaic mass-media messages elicit very different responses from various individuals and groups. In the early days of research into the effects of mass media, social scientists were stunned at how little impact media seemed to have on people.’

Of most concern, however, is that this view regards communication as a tool for manipulation and control. ‘Transmission models of communication can rob us of our dignity, grace and mutuality,’ says Schultz.

A cultural view

Another view of communication, one that directly relates to our engagement with cinema, is the cultural view. This sees communication as dialogue – as conversation – rather than as a sender talking at a receiver. Interpretation, meaning and context are especially important.

Schultz says a cultural approach to communication is more compatible with the Christian faith. ‘Even our faith is a creative dialogue with God and with each other,’ he points out. A cultural view of communication is open to ‘scientifically inexplicable but meaningful communication – including the ways that God “speaks” grace into people’s lives’. It allows for the supernatural, and it allows for personal reflection and interpretation.

This is why different people can watch the same movie and not agree on its message or meaning. It’s also why some accept the moral message of a particular movie while others rebut such a message.

Movie watching as dialogue and debate

If we embrace a cultural view of communication when we approach movie viewing, we don’t simply plant ourselves in front of a cinema screen or on the couch at home like sponges. Instead, we ready ourselves for an exercise of engagement. We converse with filmmakers and their stories.

Sometimes our viewing is a trivial pastime, but at other times, it may be an outright battle as we oppose what we see and hear. And sometimes it is entirely appropriate – even essential – for us to remove ourselves from exposure to a particular film altogether.

We don’t have to accept wrong and unhelpful movie messages. But neither does our choosing to view such movies mean that we endorse messages that run counter to values we hold dear. Furthermore, our questioning of movie content, and our ongoing conversation with others about our objections, can promote more positive and faith-filled views.

As always, though, the most important thing is to continually test the messages we’re exposed to against the message of God’s Word in the Bible, realising that we don’t have to leave our faith or our reason at the counter when we buy a movie ticket.

By Christina Tyson (from War Cry magazine)