The Salt & Butter of Cinema: Popcorn Theology

Posted by Meg McEwen on 12/6/16 9:30 AM

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Every week on Popcorn Theology’s  Facebook group, hundreds of theology buffs and film lovers assemble to poke and prod popular movies and TV shows for underlying truths. Prof. David Lee, science instructor at PHC, co-founded the popular Popcorn Theology podcast in March 2015. He and his neighbor, Richard Foltz, explore the underlying theological and spiritual truths in movies and TV shows. The team just uploaded its 66th episode on the new Marvel-Benedict Cumberbatch hit, Doctor Strange.

“Even films made by ardent atheists or nonbelievers of other persuasions have themes in their films that reflect the Gospel in many ways,” Lee said. “We attribute that to the nature of all humanity as image bearers of God. Even though some may deny the truth of God, they cannot help but tell stories that sound like the Gospel.”

Lee and Foltz trace both positive and negative themes like selflessness, sacrifice, and self-redemption throughout the cinematic world. A professing Christian directed Popcorn Theology’s most recent subject of study, Doctor Strange. The movie breached the sensitive topic of magic in a way that illustrated the otherworldliness of Christianity. “Doctor Strange begins as a pretty ardent materialist, but by the end he’s entranced in the mystical arts, which is far from the Biblical world view. At the same time, the illustration of how that becomes apparent to Doctor Strange parallels in many ways the Biblical transition,” Lee said. The movie makes the case that humans are not just matter and motion.

Lee and Foltz find shadows in movies that effectively portray the Gospel, whether or not the director or screenwriter intended it. They recently broadcasted a discussion of Lord of the Rings, a story originally contrived by Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien. Unlike the Chronicles of Narnia series written by fellow author C.S. Lewis, Tolkien did not necessarily intend for his books to be interpreted allegorically. However, Lee recognized character growth throughout the three movies that clearly emphasized Christ-like traits. “You have Pippin who goes from being a fool to being wise. Sam goes from being fearful to being the most courageous throughout the entire saga. Merry goes from being self-focused in many ways to being a really selfless warrior,” Lee said.

Sometimes, redemption cannot be pinpointed in a movie. Lee attests that his favorite film, Fight Club, is one such movie. “There is very little redemption in the story of Fight Club, but there are a lot of Biblical concepts that are illustrated in negative ways. There is a good illustration of what it is like to follow a false teacher, for example,” Lee said.

Popcorn Theology’s more popular episodes feature guest speakers like Christian astrophysicist Jason Lisle. When Lee discovered Lisle’s affinity for Star Wars after the ICR conference at PHC, he seized the opportunity. Lisle agreed to discuss the astrophysics of Star Wars: Episode VII on the show, and it became one of the most highly-downloaded and enjoyed episodes to date. The podcast hosts interviewed Brian Godawa, a writer and filmmaker who examines worldview and media, and Jamie Costa, a Hollywood comedian famous for his Robin William impressions. Lee and Foltz also discussed one of Lee’s favorite movies, Braveheart, with R.C. Sproul Jr.

The Popcorn Theology podcast attracts 800-1000 listeners weekly, and its active Facebook group just topped 1,600 members. The fans do not shy away from a good debate. They take the podcast’s warning seriously: “Remember, you are not a mindless consumer.”

“Much like being a PHC student where you learn how to engage literature and media and culture, we try to do a similar thing with TV shows and film where, rather than just mindlessly taking them in as consumers, we actually engage and interact with them,” Lee said. The social media group attracts a wide variety of viewership, including atheists, by providing flexible, intellectual interaction.

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Reporting courtesy of PHC's The Herald.