The Christian Message of David Fincher’s Gone Girl . . . (Not Really)

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It happens all the time. I get an email from an angry reader who says, “Why are you wasting time talking about the technical aspects of a movie? What really matters is the message!”

From now on, when that happens I’ll probably encourage the disgruntled reader to read an article called “Lazy Cultural Engagement,” which was published today at Christianity Today.

One of my favorite writers on the subject of art, faith, and culture — Alissa Wilkinson — has seen Gone Girl, the new film by David Fincher.

I know a lot of Christians who will ask, “Why did she give any attention to Gone Girl? It’s dark. It’s violent. It’s R-rated. And there’s nothing Christian about that movie!”

I know others who are likely to hear from their pastor, or read on a “progressive” Christian website, that Fincher’s film is about “the wages of sin,” or it’s about “Christian themes,” or it’s about “what happens to marriages when husbands and wives don’t know Jesus” … and they’ll decide it’s worth a look.

For what it’s worth, I’ve been both of those people at different points in my journey of faith. And in both cases, I was looking at art through glasses that distorted my vision and prevented me from having a rich, meaningful experience.

That’s because there is a distressing delusion at the heart of so much Christian engagement with art: It’s the delusion that says “The style and the substance are two different things. We should care much, much more about substance than we do about style.”

Here’s the thing:  Style is substance.

Look out the nearest window at a tree, or at the clouds, or at anything God has made. By focusing on how God made that thing — by discussing the “stuff” of it, the particularity of the details, the beauty, the shapes and colors and chemistry — you can come up with all kinds of provocative, revelatory observations. If you change the style of something, you change what it can mean. And what’s more, God’s creation speaks to us in new ways all the time.

When Jesus shared parables, he didn’t “deliver messages.” Not even close. He gave us mysterious narratives that we continue to ponder, discuss, and interpret, with new rewards and understanding, many centuries later. When we call something “a work of art,” we are praising it as something that is suggestive, not declarative. We’re claiming that it speaks mysteriously, not directly but at a “slant” (to borrow a word from Emily Dickinson). What’s more, we’re claiming that it will go speaking in ways that cannot be reduced to paraphrase. And it will very likely speak differently to different viewers based on their experience, their attention, their questions.

When Jesus wanted us to remember him, he didn’t give us a piece of bread and a glass of wine and say, “Let me explain to you what these represent. Let me tell you the message of what I’m doing.” No. He just said, “Take. Eat. Drink. This is my body. This is my blood.” And we are still pondering what he meant. We are still discussing it. In some cases, we are still arguing about it so vehemently that we’re building walls to separate ourselves from people with other interpretations.

Thus, a work of art is something with which you can have a relationship; it is not a puzzle that is solved by the discovery of what it means.

How ironic, then, that much of what passes for “Christian art” in recent decades is, in fact, simplistic, didactic, a message wrapped in mediocrity. Clunky narratives. Obvious poems. Cliche-heavy lyrics sung to derivative music.

A fuller understanding of art can bring us to two complementary perspectives:

—The first recognizes that all meaningful art is “Christian” in the sense that art, by virtue of inviting us into beauty and meaning, is reflecting something of God’s glory and something of human limitations.

—The second way of understanding the same thing would be to say that “There is no such thing as Christian art.” That’s because Christians do not have a monopoly on what is true: Non-Christians can see and reflect aspects of the truth in their art as readily as any Christian, and art made by Christians is sure to be fractured by blindness and corruption because Christians are human beings too.

If art reflects the truth, then it reflects Christ. Because Christ is the truth. Sometimes, people get to know him before they discover who he is. I think he likes it that way.

When artists create meaningful art, we’ll know it, because it will be more than just “true.” It will be beautiful. It will be mysterious. It will go on revealing new nuances, new provocations, new revelations on the third, the seventh, and the seventeenth encounter. Whenever you encounter that confluence of truth, beauty, and mystery, you are encountering Christ at work. He often moves unrecognized. He often pockets his name tag. (Remember that road to Emmaus?)

What were we talking about? Oh, yeah… Gone Girl. 

Let’s get back to Alissa Wilkinson.

Alissa went and saw Gone Girl. She took notes so that she could write a review for Christianity Today. Some readers will be eager to know what she thinks about the film’s “message.” And they will be disappointed if she spends time talking about the film’s style.  They’ll think that she’s wasting her time on frivolous matters.

But that is not the case.

As she says:

Christians, of all people — people who still believe they’re embedded in a cosmic story, one with both form and content — ought to be the ones who get why we focus on how a comedy works, or what’s going on in the background of a shot, or why a filmmaker might be drawing on the past, or whatever. If we think art is designed to work both on the level of form and content, then we can’t possibly be satisfied to get the “message,” evaluate it, accept or reject it, and move on.

We should be hungry for more.

Can I get an “Amen!”?

[This post originally appeared at Patheos.com. Read more: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/october-web-only/gone-girl.html]

Profile photo of Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is a writer of fiction, memoir, reviews, and arts journalism — and a teacher of creative writing, film studies, and cultural engagement for people of faith. Visit LookingCloser.org for more information.


16 Comments

  1. aimee

    “When artists create meaningful art, we’ll know it, because it will be more than just “true.” It will be beautiful. It will be mysterious. It will go on revealing new nuances, new provocations, new revelations on the third, the seventh, and the seventeenth encounter. Whenever you encounter that confluence of truth, beauty, and mystery, you are encountering Christ at work.”

    As I explore what kind of stories I want to tell (or for that matter, view), I’m usually dissatisfied with the crispy clean story that doesn’t acknowledge pain or sad endings. And then I’m also unsatisfied in my soul by the story that leaves only darkness in its trail, when the world so desperately needs hope.

    Maybe that’s what we get confused about when we look in stories for a message. We Christians think hope is in the happy ending, when our hope while we are on earth is mysterious..beautiful…and we have to encounter it again and again to grasp the truth.

    For a story to reach the deeper longing of the soul, it takes layers and certainly it takes a level of skill and style.

  2. Nathaniel Miller

    Thank you, Jeffery. I always enjoy this discussion because there are individual elements I wrestle with. For instance, I struggle with a film’s content more so than its message. I get that sex is real, that outside of marriage it corrupts while inside of marriage it is beautiful. Yet because of my personal struggles, I can’t handle that content. I thus don’t watch films that engage in it, even if it does not linger or draw attention to the subject. I know and realize that there are others who don’t face that struggle and can embrace the art freely. That being said, I agree wholeheartedly that most Christian-marketed movies fail in the areas of characters who are real and believable, well written, acted, and directed. There are movies like The Return of the King however that still move me to tears with profound truth, though Christ is not mentioned once. Thank you again for shedding light in what can be our own darkness to discern this world and the art that is presented.

  3. Jarrod Justice

    Jeffery and others:

    I’m interested to hear your take on this… I love good art and style, but not at the expense of my heart and integrity. Did anyone really read what she wrote? Does this not bother anyone else who whole-heartedly follows Jesus?

    “Okay. If you are brave and a little hardened and don’t mind the blood—if you still want to see the movie now—go do so, because this is some great movie-making, and will land high on the list of Fincher’s movies.” -Alissa Wilkinson

    Based on your article, I’m realistically, humbly curious how you would advise Christian young men or young women to discover art in a safe way? Are there any boundaries for you or for others? What about those in bondage to pornography? Do you say to a 13 year old boy during those raunchy and gory scenes… it’s okay, it’s just art… we should appreciate the style. Where is the line between good art and film… and damaging our marriages and minds with a movie that has “bloody violence, strong sexual content, and nudity?”

    Our eyes, our hearts, our families, and our art would be served to use a little wisdom. At the very least we could use a little common sense with what we’re putting into our souls. commonsensemedia.org. God loves good art, but not at the expense of what is good, right, and truly beautiful.

    Hungry for more? Hungry for more great art yes… I can Amen that. But I’m not craving more candy coated lies from Hollywood.

    Sincerely and Honestly,

    jarrod

  4. Scott

    I admit that I struggle with this. “I will set before my eyes no vile thing.” Psalm 101:3. This is where the art form of film gets sticky. There are many, many movies that I will not watch because, in my eyes, the content of the film qualifies as vile. When I read Alissa’s caveat spectator, I find that the film contains graphic nudity, sexual content, and an incredibly bloody scene of murder. Where there is much of me who loves art in any form and wishes to see artistic, well-crafted films, my conscience just cannot let me believe that “Gone Girl” is anything but a vile thing (at least in those moments). The question my wife and I ask ourselves before watching a movie is: “can we watch this with Jesus sitting next to us?” because, frankly, He is. I have trouble believing that Jesus would be fine with us seeing the genitals of a man or a sex scene while watching this movie, no matter how artistic it is or what it speaks to us. Many people try to reconcile this by arguing that the Bible itself is bloody, full of murder, full of sex, etc. That is certainly true. The sticking point is that when sexual situations are displayed for public consumption, no matter how artistically crafted, they can do nothing but at the very least toe the line of sin. At worst (which I believe for most men is the case), they cause the viewer to sin. A graphic portrayal of David and Bathsheba would become nothing short of disgusting, no matter how “Biblical” or artistic it was.

    I don’t mean to sound like the stick in the mud. I also don’t want to sound like the buttoned up Christian who can’t appreciate “real” art. I just can’t get around the thought that many of the movies being created in Hollywood, even those that are incredibly artistic with a mysterious and thought-provoking message, are simply vile in the eyes of God.

  5. Aden S

    @ Scott

    Amen! Paul encourages us with this in Phillipians 4:8

    “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

    We are to be in the world but not of it. That doesn’t mean I can’t watch a film or read a book by a non-christian, it is a warning of what we associate ourselves with. I may say I hate Oreos (just for example), but if I continue chowing down on them, what would you think of my opinions/convictions? Would you really think I hate them?

    Thanks for your point, Scott!

  6. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Jeffrey,

    Amen.

    Thanks for the awesome post. These are complicated concepts (rightly so) and I really appreciate your ability to discuss the matter graciously.

    For anyone interested, we’ve discussed these kinds of things many times in the past (especially as relates to the Phil 4:8 passage just quoted) and those discussions are well worth revisiting.

    Here’s the one that comes to mind first, it’s about Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler,: http://www.rabbitroom.com/2009/02/the-sacrificial-ram/

  7. Jeffrey Overstreet

    Jarrod: I’ve been asked those questions a thousand times in varying forms, and that’s wy I wrote Through a Screen Darkly. The questions your asking are too complex to be answered in a tweet, a blog comment, or even a review. The book I wrote to explore and address those questions is being used as a text in art-and-faith classes at several Christian universities. I’m not saying that as a boast… just to say that I have the impression from readers that the book helped them wrestle with the same questions you’re asking.

    It probably sounds like I’m just trying to sell you my book. But that wouldn’t make sense. After I was paid my advance to write the book, that was it. Copies sold on Amazon or any other website don’t result in me earning anything. If you’re really serious about asking those questions, what I’ve written there is the best answer I can offer you.

  8. Jeffrey Overstreet

    By the way, I’m hearing from a lot of people who seem to think that my article boils down to “Go see Gone Girl!!” Not at all. Frankly, I didn’t like the movie very much (although I completely respect Alissa’s opinion and review, and many of my friends and colleagues love the film). I want everyone to attend to the voice of conscience, and choose not out of fear and not out of recklessness but out of discernment and courage.

    Also, I’m hearing a lot of people who haven’t seen Gone Girl discuss it as if it’s practically pornographic. It isn’t. I see stuff on television, even network television, that is sickeningly lurid, sickeningly violent, and gratuitous with scenes of a sexual nature… stuff that offends me far more than anything in Gone Girl. I may not have liked the film much, but there is much about it that I admire, and I think its focus on ugly behavior is meant to expose the ways in which our culture’s appetite for flashy media stokes the fires of the destructive influence that those audiences say horrifies them. It’s a very intelligent piece of work. My problems with it are more concerned with formal aspects of the film, and with the way it becomes annoyingly implausible very quickly.

  9. L. Elizabeth Frisco

    I try to make my choices by answering one question.
    Will it/does it glorify God?
    I’ve read the Christianity Today review, talked to those who have seen it and read all the opinions here.
    My answer is a resounding – NO!

  10. Jeffrey Overstreet

    Let each person attend to their conscience. What for some people will be destructive may be the very occasion for insight for others.

    St. Paul walked among the altars to false gods… altars that did not glorify *his* god… but he did not use the occasion to condemn those altars. Rather, he took that opportunity to engage pagans and worshippers of false gods in conversation about their own misguided expressions, even going so far as to quote their own poetry back to them (he knew it by heart) to reveal how even their own mixed-up poems contained evidence of a longing for the God he wanted to show them.

    Our neighbors may tell stories that do not clearly glorify the God we know and love. But we may choose to listen to their stories anyway, discuss them, consider their ideas, affirm the goodness of some of those ideas and reject the weaknesses of other idea. This is part of loving our neighbors: listening to their stories and to the stories that capture their imaginations. But again, even that must be carefully guided by each person’s conscience.

    Another thought: Let’s attend to our comments and see if our assertions of our own views contain a tone of judgment on those who disagree. If they do, then what may begin in righteousness becomes self-righteousness. If everything was so black and white as “Good people do this, bad people do this,” then we would not need Christ or the Holy Spirit to teach us the mysterious ways of wisdom and grace: We would only need the law.

    Again, you may choose to go see the film, and be wise and be rewarded. You may choose not to, and be wise and be rewarded. It depends on the person and what he or she does with it. Jesus himself said that it is not what goes into a man that corrupts him, but what comes out from the man that corrupts him. Some will go to study this story of lying and cheating fools as a satirical commentary on culture. Others will avoid it to steer clear of things that would trouble or tempt them. Attending or abstaining: Neither is automatically righteous or sinful. It’s in the motivations, the conscientious consideration of the experience, the response to the experience (what one then does with it), and the grace with which one engages with others.

    Peace and grace to you all as you follow the prompting of the Spirit.

    Jeffrey

  11. Jarrod Justice

    Thank you Jeffery for your kind words. (this will be my last post on this article… promise, I’m being brave and I have more to say about this).

    By the way, I am interested in reading your book, sincerely. If you or someone else was sitting at my house, talking about this touchy subject, we would drink awesome coffee and laugh a little bit (only if something was funny of course). And I would be delighted to ask questions and hear about everyone’s journey with film, with media, and listen carefully to where folks are coming from. And… I would love to share with you my journey with lust, sexual sin, and countless others who struggle with purity.

    But we are not in my living room, unfortunately it’s only the online “rabbit room” -still a great place to talk. You must know, too… that this is only the 3rd time I’ve ever posted something on rabbit room, although I’ve been following Andrew Peterson since the late 90’s when I heard him in a Caedmon’s Call guild concert in an old barn in Texas. Incredible show.

    Jeffery, you mentioned St. Paul in your last post. I would be genuinely curious to hear what you think about his letter to the Ephesians, specifically chapter 5:8-11, where he says, “…for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true) and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.”

    I enjoy great art, but wonder if we go way too far a lot of times in the name of style. My wife and I often ask before we decide on a film, “does this please the Lord?” or “does this move me closer to Jesus?” (3 years of no media in my apartment in college, showed me how desensitized I had become to the movies I was watching). Honestly, conviction doesn’t always mean someone is being self-righteous. Jesus died for my self-righteousness and self-pity… and He came with grace and truth.

    I share my posts with great concern for a generation that at every turn is starting to call red, green and green, red. My 3 boys are growing up in a culture where it’s normal to have two mommy’s in the name of liberty and abort babies in the name of choice. Our sliding definition of freedom is quite frightening.

    I spent two weeks in Amsterdam several years ago, and saw what “this” kind of liberty can do to a culture. Because without holding Jesus hand, we can become enslaved to our “freedoms” and not even know it. The scary part of deception, is that we don’t even know when we’re deceived. Down is up and up is down, and before we know it we’re drowning, thinking we’re swimming toward the light. You can see some of my art and poetry here: http://www.jarrodjustice.com

    Dear Amsterdam,

    They said you were free,
    I still wonder when
    I look eight ways before
    I cross the street and
    Billions of bicycles are barreling
    Through door and window
    Careless of love and honor.
    Freedom music?
    Then bind me to Reality’s song!

    Every nation riding two wheels,
    Peddling their chains of “freedom”
    Cruising through red lights
    Stopping at green smoke.

    Dear Amsterdam,

    If you would be a free city,
    Enslave yourself to Truth.

    Jarrod

  12. Jeffrey

    Since I’m at work and I only have a second, Jarrod, I’ll just say that I embrace the exact scripture passage in Through a Screen Darkly.

    Note the last words: Expose them.

    Many works of art that are condemned as condoning evil are, in fact, exposing it… in a way that helps us wrestle with fear, with conscience, and with the call of grace.

    Think of it this way: “Have nothing to do with cancer.” Who would disagree with that? I don’t want to get cancer, I don’t want to have habits that cause cancer, and if I get cancer somehow, I want to be cured of it.

    Ah, but is it enough to just turn away from cancer? Isn’t it important for us to study cancer, to understand its origins and influence and consequences, and to attend closely to the people suffering from cancer? Aren’t many of us called to “get our hands dirty” and do the ugly, messy work of dealing with it surgically, and in other ways?

    So much of this has to do with how we look at what we look at… along with making discerning choices. Art is full of glory because artists are made in God’s glorious image and cannot help but reflect, to varying degrees, that divine influence. Art is also full of corruption… yes, even art made by Christians… because all artists are sinners and fall short of God’s glory.

    When I walk along the beach near my house, or a stretch of road downtown, I might see pollution, litter, decay, gulls treating each other wickedly, some of the local kids cursing or mistreating one another or mistreating each other, others conspicuously using drugs, and others using foul language. But I go to those places anyway. I see these things. And I am overwhelmed with the beauty of creation, with the beauty of God’s image alive in these people, even as I am saddened by the misbehavior and the damage and the violence. For me, many stories that show us the ugly realities of the way people behave (along with, of course, the inescapable beauty of the world and of the human beings that are made in his image) are expressions of people who are looking for meaning and order and revelation… and I can explore them in ways that allow me to celebrate what is evidence of God even as I wince or grieve over the things that are not. If anything actually causes me to have sinful thoughts, that’s different… time for me to get out of there. But I have some control over that… it’s not an automatic thing. And the Scriptures exhort me to grow up, to grow stronger, to move “from milk to meat” in what I engage with.

    But if I determine to avoid any sight, sound, or evidence of sin… or anything that *might* cause me to stumble… then how will I ever leave the house?

    Seeing someone’s fancy car in a movie could cause me to covet. Often the values I see in PG or even G-rated films are as seductive and dangerous for me as anything I’d see in R-rated stuff. Sex, violence, bad language… it’s easy to target these and say that if we avoid them, we’re doing good. But that’s one of the enemy’s tricks: Sin is entangled in the world so deeply and subtly that we cannot avoid it by creating a list of “content elements.”

    So it’s about our choices, yes, but it’s also in how we look at things, and what we do with what we see.

    Some of the films that cause me to glorify God are films that would cause other people to stumble, and vice versa.

    A work of art, if it is any good, is a complex thing that will have aspects that reflect God’s glory and that can possibly move us to insight and inspiration, as well as aspects that *might* offend us or invite us into error. I have yet to see a work of art (not pornography or propaganda, but art) that is not a mix of these things… just as I do not know any human beings (except Christ) who are not corrupted by sin but also filled with the glory of God.

    And the way I think about and engage with art will expose much about the way I think about and engage with people… because art is an concentrated expression of an artist’s imagination, intellect, and heart. Art is the meal that my neighbor prepares for me. How will I respond?

    So when I hear someone say that they read about a work of art and decide if it “glorifies God or not” … I cannot judge their thinking, but I am somewhat mystified. I wouldn’t know how to determine that without examining the work of art itself.

    If I were to If I were to tell you that I found seven worms, 20 bruises, and 17 patches of rot in the fruit of an apple tree, you would probably decide to avoid that apple tree. But what if went to that tree anyway, patiently and carefully avoided eating the worms and bruises and patches of rot, but savored all of the good fruit, and discovered 300 apples that were without any corruption? That, for me, is a good way to describe some of the art that has been rejected by Christians for “corrupt content.”

    Imagine if I were to make a “content elements” list for Shakespeare’s plays.

    Art is usually a complex mix of things: myriad aspects that provoke and even inspire, myriad aspects that aggravate, offend, or even wound. Proceed with caution. But proceed with courage and faith as well.

    Remember Peter’s vision from God: God showed him all of the bounty of the world and said “Eat.” There is no “clean” and “unclean” thing. The “uncleanliness” comes from choosing with sinful motives, “dwelling on” things that are not praiseworthy, and imitating sinful behavior. But redemption… that comes from contemplating the stuff and the people of this sinful world and speaking the truth about it… moreover, speaking the truth about it in love and grace.

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