In the territory of art and culture, there is a lot of turmoil among Christians and conservatives in the Netherlands.

My book Through a Screen Darkly was recently translated into Dutch, bringing my experiences and perspective to people who are seeking discernment in how they engage with movies, other forms of art, entertainment, and pop culture.

To mark the occasion, the book’s publisher, Peter van Dijk, and Bart Cusveller, editor of CV-Film and a philosopher at Ede Christian University (where he teaches ethics), organized several events during which I would speak about art, faith, and ethics.

While I was there, I taught what my hosts called a “Master Class” to journalists, filmmakers, and media professionals at the EO, an evangelical television studio.

I also gave an introduction to the film Babette’s Feast, which was screened at an art-house theater in an event that was open to the public. This was followed by a lively Q&A session.

The next day, I spoke at a symposium for educators, addressing roughly 350 teachers, pastors, journalists, and students, about how to exercise Christian discernment at the movies, instead of condemning the whole world of moviemaking.

According to Bart Cusveller,

About 50% of the Dutch populace can still be called ‘Christians’ or believers, which includes the bigger, liberal, mainline Protestant churches and the Catholic Church. Some 5% of the populace could be counted among the more ‘traditional’, ‘conservative’, ‘orthodox’ Protestant churchgoers.

During the Master Class, Cusveller suggested that these Christians can be…

…divided in three strands, each with their own stance towards culture in general and film in particular. Each of these bring their own challenges in terms of movie watching.

The first group may be called “culturally naive,” the second “culturally eager,” and the third “culturally avoiding.”

The first group is the Evangelical / Pentecostal / Baptist strand, where people are not so much opposed to, or against, culture or film, but they do have a sensitivity for depictions of the supernatural and ‘Christian morality’. So James Bond is OK, because it isn’t occult; but the violence and the sex is objectionable. Harry Potter on the other end would be objectionable for dabbling in magic, but not for sexuality. Culturally accomodated and mediocre movies are OK, mainly as entertainment. These don’t hurt the soul. So, basically, kids watch everything and parents watch out for blasphemy and sex.

Then there is the Reformed, ‘neo-Calvinist’ strand, in which people are open to culture with an eye to be an influence in the world and conquer it for Christ. … We even have a theological ‘mandate’ to engage in and with culture. There is some appreciation of art and the need to understand the depravity of culture, but for youngsters that usually means they watch everything until they learn to distinguish the true, the good and the beautiful (if ever). They may insist they “only watch for fun” (with certain moral boundaries). The older generation may still think TV, soccer on Sundays, and cinema is questionable.

Lastly, we can identify a strand stemming from the ‘further Reformation’, a puritan, pietist Calvinism. They have a problem with theater in principle and hence with movies. Even more so, they are suspucious of art and culture at large because these are worldly. They quote from scripture that faith is by the word only. Or they cite church fathers who claim that theater is deception. Their opinion leaders are opposed to anything having to do with art, theater, cinema of TV. Because, over against culture they only have tradition available to them, they hardly know what to do with their young people, who have access to almost everything through the internet e.g. and thus watch almost everything. For them, condoning moviewatching would be a defeat, bowing to the world. There is a deep spirituality, even a fear, that prevents them to engage in debate. What they need is a spokesperson from their own circle who can say in their own language that things are really not that black and white. This is the group behind the journal that called our approach “nothing but gravedust”.

So, three strands and three challenges. All three are on the move and we hope to bring them to our conversation. It’s interesting!

It was into this context that I brought my story about growing up in a community that was very suspicious about movies. They were fearful and condemning in their response to culture. I spoke about how I grew to love movies and art anyway, and how it was through those forms of creative expression that I came to have Christian convictions that were deeply rooted, convictions inspired by beauty, truth, and revelation as I encountered them in stories and images.

The responses were exciting. I developed friendships that I expect will last a long time as I discussed questions and challenges with people in the audience. And the next day, on the front page of a conservative-Christian newspaper, the editor-in-chief wrote an editorial condemning what Cusveller and I presented. Apparently we struck a nerve.

So, that little “memoir of dangerous moviegoing,” Through a Screen Darkly, is still out there stirring up trouble. The journey that began for me with that book continues, and I am so grateful that I had a chance to contribute to the cultural conversation in the Netherlands.

It’s a beautiful place by the way.

I’ll share more about my stay, the generosity of my hosts, the beauty of the Netherlands, Babette’s Feast, a museum that won my heart, and the exciting conversations that took place there, very soon.

Stay tuned.

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