Dr. Steve Turley teaches Theology, Greek, and Rhetoric at Tall Oaks Classical School, and he also is a professor of Aesthetics, Music and World Cultures at Eastern University, a co-educational, comprehensive Christian university in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, fifteen miles northwest of Philadelphia. He also writes and hosts the Turley Talks podcast and is an accomplished classical guitarist.
Dr. Turley has a recent publication available that posits the question: What if, instead of watching Christian movies, we cultivated the practice of learning to recognize biblical themes and symbology in films in general?
Steve was kind enough to take the time to consider some questions I had about the topic:
KC: How do you find fiction useful to the Christian pursuit of wisdom?
ST: I think it’s important to think of wisdom as understanding the world in relation to God’s economy of goods. We learn in Genesis that God has created a world that is good; every time God creates something, he ascribes to that thing an objective value or goodness. Moreover, that goodness has an orderliness to it; while all things are good as God has created them, he created an economy or order to that goodness. When God creates mankind, it’s the first time he said, “And it was very good.” Notice the superlative: all things in creation are good, but humanity is very good. Wisdom discerns this economy of goods inherent in all of creation.
The way fiction works in this is that stories reveal to us this economy of goods. In the words of G.K. Chesterton, we read The Iliad because life is a battle, The Odyssey because life is a journey, The Book of Job because life is a riddle. We encounter stories to awaken us to the grand cosmic story in which we find ourselves. And so, fiction becomes a primary means of attaining wisdom, of learning about the economy of goods that God has infused in the world around us.
KC: How long have you been an admirer of the medium of film and, as an educator, what do you find to be specifically unique about film in comparison to other valuable forms of communicating meaning through artistic expression, such as: literature, music, and visual arts?
ST: Like most everyone else, I grew up on movies. I have special and fond memories specific to films, such as seeing Fantasia as a young boy with my grandfather. Because movies play such a key role in our wider culture, film analysis is central to classroom discussions with my students. Not only do I often illustrate my teaching points with relevant films, but the latest blockbuster provides ample frames of reference for rich theological and cultural dialogue. What makes movies so unique is the multisensory experience that imparts an immediate impression on the imagination. Everything from the soda to the stadium seating to the soundtrack attests to the highly aesthetic experience associated with film.
KC: The ability to recognize symbolism and tease out meaning is a “muscle” that must be exercised routinely in order to be developed, and is a commendable discipline within the Christian community if one desires to better understand the rich language and meaning of the Holy Scriptures, and to more fully delight in God’s creation. How might you add to that?
ST: Absolutely, and this is why I associate watching movies with the development of the moral imagination. It’s a term first coined by the eighteenth-century British statesman Edmund Burke, and developed by such thinkers as G.K. Chesterton and Russell Kirk, to denote specifically the integrative role of the imagination in our minds and hearts. The imagination does not merely think; it feels. It does not merely know; it loves. It does not discern merely truth, but also beauty. An awakened moral imagination is nothing short of the awakening of the image of God within us.
KC: Whose directorial work are you most fond of, and what should a viewer be looking for in his or her films? (ie cinematography, soundtrack, storytelling, etc)
ST: By far, my favorite film director is Hayao Miyazaki, perhaps the best-known anime film artist (eg Sprited Away, Ponyo, Tales from Earthsea adapted from the fiction-series by Ursula K Le Guin. Miyazaki’s movies are excellent examples of “re-traditionalization” in art and film. His movies are calls to re-imagine the world as a sacramental ecology, filled with divine meaning and presence. He has both good and evil running through each character, and the drama of the story works out this moral ambiguity decisively in favor of the good. He usually chooses a young girl, what we might think of as the weakest vessel, as his heroin, which places the family structure as central to his movies. Moreover, his animation is stunningly beautiful to watch.
KC: With whom have you always wanted to watch a film? Who is the person, what is the film and why?
I would love to watch a movie with C.S. Lewis. He was immersed in the medieval worldview, which understood that Christ is not only a personal savior, he is also the Logos, the one in whom all things cohere. Lewis clearly had that kind of perspective on things. I would love to watch the original Star Wars trilogy with Lewis, particularly in view of his own sci-fi writing. I’d be interested in his understanding of the Star Wars cosmos (e.g. the force), what such a cosmos reveals about modern sensibilities, and what Christian themes he sees as capable of being mined from the original trilogy.
Links for Movies and the Moral Imagination:
amazon, anime, Art, C.S. Lewis, christian education, classical christian, disney, earthsea, ebook, fiction, film, gk chesteron, le guin, liberal arts, literature, miyazaki, paperback, pixar, ponyo, steve turley, story, storytelling, the arts, turley talks