In the fall of 2013, I loaded into a fifteen-passenger van in Grand Rapids, Michigan, heading for Toronto. We wove north of Detroit, across the bridge and over the Canadian border, destined for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). On my last night in town, I sat in the back row of a packed theater to watch the premiere of Jason Reitman’s Labor Day. The moments of intimacy between Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin’s characters were authentic and moving. I felt that the film was a beautiful portrayal of love amid unusually difficult circumstances. Watching Reitman walk on stage and open up about the personal challenge of taking on a new genre as a director couldn’t help but deepen my resonance with the project.
A few months later while walking my dog around the neighborhood, my ears perked up as I listened to an episode of NPR’s Fresh Air. This particular segment featured David Edelstein identifying his favorite films of 2013. My beloved Labor Day made the list but for all the wrong reasons:
The one that I recommend for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality is a film called Labor Day. It’s directed by Jason Reitman from a kind of hopelessly bad book by Joyce Maynard. And it is—it’s one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, but it’s so hilariously terrible that I think it could turn into a Rocky Horror Picture Show or a Mommy Dearest, where people just sit there and they yell at the screen and they have these rituals.
Ouch. How could my judgment have been so off? Where was I so led astray?
With a set of studies in the late 2000s, Columbia University researchers Peter Dodds, Duncan Watts, and Matthew Salganik explored the way in which artistic judgment takes shape in a social world. In the Columbia Music Lab, the scientists provided more than 14,000 participants a set of songs to review. In this study, they then systematically varied whether or not the participants could see other participants’ reviews as they made their evaluations of any given song. The researchers found that situations of strong social influence—in this case, an easy ability to see other people’s evaluations—led to both greater inequality in song ratings and to increased uncertainty about which songs rise to the top. In other words, in highly social situations, the popular songs became more popular and the less popular songs became less so; furthermore, even songs that rose to the top were less and less a product of objective characteristics of the music alone. Although the phenomenon appeared to leave the very best and worst songs untouched—those songs still rose to the top or fell to the bottom with a high degree of regularity—all the others sorted themselves out with significant randomness.
Could this help make sense of my unusually positive reaction to Labor Day? After all, my evaluation of the film was socially driven—as I formed my perspective on the film, I subconsciously took in the responses of others in the packed theater. In many ways, I can’t imagine a more socially attuned context for judging the merit of a film than a full venue at a film festival with the actors and directors standing on stage. But what is less clear to me is whether this means I was duped. Was my enjoyment of the film false? Were my tastes led astray? Perhaps more importantly, what are the implications of this social understanding of judgment for developing better ways to theologically approach film?
I arrived at the Salt Lake City airport on the second Tuesday of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Although I had not yet paid much attention to the press around the festival, whatever uncertainty I had on what films to see disappeared the next morning. With the town of Park City overrun by festival attendees, our shared social space had morphed into a mountaintop bubble, a kind of cultural echo chamber. I couldn’t walk anywhere without hearing something about a film to see or a movie to avoid. And the buses linking the festival venues bound us together all the more tightly.
“Does anyone have tickets to Me and Earl?” I heard one person yell out my first ride across town.
“What about The Witch?” asked another.
The lines to get into the films were another part of the buildup. Economist Tyler Cowen suggests that “people value some things more if they have to wait for them. Provided it does not dominate your daily life, a bit of waiting can help create a special experience or memory.” Like the full theater at my 2013 viewing of Labor Day, the lines snaking outside the venues amplified my anticipation.
Emerging research on the neuropsychology of judgment confirms that this kind of anticipation is far from neutral in its impact on judgment. In one study on wine tasting, Hilke Plassmann, John O’Doherty, Baba Shiv, and Antonio Rangel use functional MRI machines to show that identical wine that comes from a $5 and $45 bottle respectively results in distinct psychological experiences of pleasure. Although one way to understand this is as an example of brain deception, much like my mind being tricked in its assessment of Labor Day, this is not the only interpretation. As Stanford Professor of Marketing Bab Shiv argues, “What we document is that price is not just about inferences of quality, but it can actually affect real quality. So, in essence, [price] is changing people’s experiences with a product and, therefore, the outcomes from consuming this product.”
In another study that was more specific to the judgment of art, a group of Oxford University researchers showed participants fifty paintings, twenty-five that were authentic Rembrandts and twenty-five that were Rembrandt-like. Half of the participants were shown paintings with correct identifications of their source, and half were shown paintings that were falsely identified (i.e., real Rembrandts that were identified as merely in Rembrandt’s style and paintings in his style that were identified as by Rembrandt). Science writer Jonah Lehrer summarizes one of the interesting findings:
While there were no detectable differences in visual responses to the paintings, the scientists did locate a pattern of activity that appeared whenever a painting was deemed to be authentic, regardless of whether or not it was actually “real.” In such instances, subjects showed a spike in activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, a chunk of brain just behind the eyes that is often associated with perceptions of reward, pleasure and monetary gain. (According to the scientists, this activation reflects “the increase in the perceived value of the artwork.”) Interestingly, there was no difference in orbitofrontal response when the stamp of authenticity was applied to a fake Rembrandt, as the brain area responded just as robustly. The quality of art seemed to be irrelevant.
In numerous ways, context, branding, and anticipation shape aesthetic judgments. Festivals like TIFF and Sundance cultivate a social hive where we cannot help but notice the buzz of anticipation around certain films. In this plausibility cocoon, we are heightened to the reactions of our peers, together pulled in our evaluations away from the metrics more closely tied to quality and leaving us susceptible to herd-like behavior. Centers of cultural formation like TIFF and Sundance are in certain ways amplified versions of the Columbia Music Lab. This context—social influence, anticipation, and the predicted quality—molds our brain in ways cognitively similar to how we experience rewards (like in the Rembrandt study) and pleasure (like in the wine study). Ultimately, the bus that binds us together and the lines we stand in pull us in directions that have significant influence on our assessments of what is good and bad art.
At festivals, these phenomena aggregate, collectively shaping what rises to the top and what ultimately moves out and into broader cultural influence. Consider the darling of the 2014 festival, Whiplash, a film that tells the story of intensity and drive for performance at a prestigious East-coast music academy. Initially shown as a short for the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, the film was turned into a feature that premiered the following year. At the 2014 event, Whiplash won the Dramatic Film Grand Jury Prize. Sony Pictures quickly picked up the movie for almost $3 million. And while its $7 million–plus box office numbers won’t hold a candle to 50 Shades of Grey, American Sniper, or any of the Marvel superhero films, its Oscar nomination for best picture and wins for best supporting actor, film editing, and sound-mixing suggest that the impact of the Park City festival are not to be ignored. In the end, this also means that the influence of the city bus and those lines of anticipation do not stop when crowds head back to the airport and Park City reverts back to its everyday identity as a ski destination.
In his 2010 book To Change the World, James Davidson Hunter argues that humans are by their very nature world-makers. We live out this vocation through the creation of art, music, commerce, and law, among other pursuits. For Hunter, much of high culture forms by the work of elites who are linked by networks and set within powerful institutions. Christians, in contrast, often live on the periphery of culture formation. They are often more likely to develop their own subcultures than to engage with the networks and institutions driving the formation of key cultural artifacts. Hunter believes this Christian pull toward populism and movement away from the epicenter of creation is a result of the tendency to be “defensive against,” seek “relevance to,” or maintain “purity from” broader cultural products.
While I agree with Hunter that we are creators, I also know that few of us will ever make the artifacts that go on to star at festivals like Sundance. But even if we don’t produce cultural offerings, I believe we still shape culture in our role as consumers. In so much as culture is not merely the artifact produced but also how that artifact takes form and shapes individuals within the world, improving our posture of consumption can play a role in the long link between writer’s pen and broader cultural formation. And this means that when we don’t engage with, learn from, or add anything new to the cultural conversation, Christians fail in our vocation of culture-making.
If this is the problem, a theological case can be made for engaging with these mediums more effectively. Sarah Coakley’s recent work in God, Sexuality, and the Self provides one such foundation. In Coakley’s view, theological and anthropological insights come from a variety of places and must be engaged from a multitude of senses. Using a method of theologie totale, she writes that “the more systematic one’s intentions, the more necessary the exploration of such dark and neglected corners.”
One corner of particular importance for Coakley is art. Although her book refers primarily to Christian art, and Christian iconography in particular, she suggests more generally that art and imagination must hold a central place in systematic theology. Coakley argues that we need to approach these mediums with a mix of intellect, feeling, will, imagination, and aesthetic attentiveness. In this, we might learn something new of God and man.
I would continue with Coakley in suggesting that our breadth of attentiveness can fruitfully extend beyond the core of the art itself. By this, I mean we might learn things about God and man by also observing the sociological bubble and cognitive shifts of anticipation and rewards in our judgment of art. For film, this means that we need not strip away all influences on taste, but instead we must learn how to lean into them with critical discernment. Personally, I might learn something important by considering how I formed an opinion on Labor Day and why I was so quick to change this view when Edelstein tore the film apart on NPR.
Imagine this approach applied to other forms of art and culture. What does it say about the current cultural moment that men like Mad Men’s Don Draper and House of Cards’ Francis Underwood capture our collective attention, and how should that shape our interaction with the series and our broader business and political worlds? What might the popularity of the 2014 podcast sensation Serial or of HBO’s acclaimed 2015 miniseries The Jinx tell us about our shared desire for justice or the voyeuristic allure of situations where this dream is fractured? And what does it mean that I am more likely to listen to a podcast and watch a miniseries than to participate in prison mission and justice reform?
We learn by paying attention to our own stories and the ways in which they shape our resonance with a given film. This last year, when watching Boyhood, I could not escape seeing it through my own sense of what it means to grow up as a boy in America and what it means for a father to live a moral life. When I watched Whiplash, I was both pulled toward and disgusted by the intensity of the band director, wonderfully played by J. K. Simmons: on the one hand, I saw the deep destruction of his single-minded focus, and on the other hand, I wondered whether I might have thrived under a similar kind of intensity.
Given that we typically watch film within communities, sets of people that share a language around what is good, true, right, and beautiful, we can also learn by seeing how this shared understanding shapes our reception of a film. I cannot escape my own religious background, one formed at the intersection of the religious left and the evangelical right, but nor should I. We listen when we find resonance with our traditions, and we learn when those traditions are disrupted and pushed against by the screened narrative.
Coakley is right that there are theological and anthropological insights at the intersection of these subjective and objective parts of culture-making and consumption. Might we learn to listen and watch more closely?
If film can be a space from the dark and neglected corners for deep insight on the human condition and the human-divine relationship, how do we engage with the medium to garner those insights? Furthermore, what might we learn by paying attention to the ways in which we receive cultural artifacts?
Using Hunter’s typology, I believe the postures of “defensive against” and “purity from” especially rest on the faulty assumption that all truths can be captured within our tradition. While a theology of common grace helps us see that insights generated outside our tradition can resonate with the core truth claims of Christianity, I think we need to push even further. More provocatively, specific truths claims might only be found outside the walls of our tradition because of the ways that any language or system of thinking opens up understanding as it simultaneously blinds us to other insights. Charles Taylor argues in A Secular Age that the history of religion in the West is one in which new insights emerge only when they escape their the previous guiding narratives. Consider how he describes this tension in showing what is lost in the move from polytheism to monotheism, a claim he makes despite being a monotheistic Catholic:
The insight which people try to express today through invoking the superiority of “polytheism” is just this, that these earlier cultures allowed for the integrity of different facets of life and their demands in a way that modern religious or moral outlooks have lost. Different gods—Artemis, Aphrodite, Mars, Athena—force us to respect the integrity of different ways of life: celibacy, sexual union, war, the arts of peace, which life according to a single principle ends up denying.
Taylor’s point is that we must learn attentiveness to truth claims that start from a different set of plausibility constraints. This is the communion of saints, a point with deep resonance to Coakley’s theologie totale.
And because social systems thrive upon and create herd-like uncertainty, engaging with culture in a fully conscious way is all the more important. The ties that bind us to each other in places like Sundance and TIFF make specific projects more enjoyable but perhaps not for any justifiable reason. Given the importance of art and film in shaping the broader culture, we must learn how to navigate these forces that often leave us as the blind being led by the blind. We should pay attention to the reasons that we are pulled toward art and what those reasons say about our human condition. In this we might learn to see film as a way to unearth what we desire to see as good, true, right, and beautiful, as well as a way to explore why we sometimes avert our eyes.
Finally, to get at good art, we need multisensory ways of engaging with the text. In this, I follow Coakley’s insight that
If all faculties and senses (intellect, feeling, will, imagination, aesthetic sensibility) are to be drawn into the realm of the systematic endeavor, than the enormous power of the visual and imaginative—perhaps never so powerfully felt than in the age of advertising, television, and the Internet—cannot be bypassed or gainsaid.
Specific to film, our judgment should be a mix of the objective and subjective, of the personal and communal; our judgment should be woven together both in points of resonance with and pushback against ourselves and the traditions we stand within. By engaging films in this way, we might move beyond the lemming mimicry of much of what counts for culture formation. While some films may be objectively better than others, we should take note of the ways in which we individually and communally relate to and process those films, good and bad. We need to talk about the influences on judgment, and in doing so, we must learn how to mine for their theological and anthropological insights.
In a very central way, engagement with film is relational. The good news is that this is an element that film shares with theology. As Pope Francis put it recently:
I would not speak about, not even for those who believe, an “absolute” truth, in the sense that absolute is something detached, something lacking any relationship. Now, the truth is a relationship! This is so true that each of us sees the truth and expresses it, starting from oneself: from one’s history and culture, from the situation in which one lives, et cetera. This does not mean that the truth is variable and subjective. It means that it is given to us only as a way and a life. Was it not Jesus himself who said: “I am the way, the truth, the life”? In other words, the truth is one with love, it requires humbleness and the willingness to be sought, listened to and expressed.
We should remember that robust cultural formation not only happens at the point of creation. We form and are formed in the multitude of moments when we holistically engage with the objects in question. We live in a world of echoes. Objects rise and fall rapidly and unexpectedly when our eyes turn toward each other. But that does not have to be the last word. Film and culture is rife for the potential to listen to and imagine alongside the kernels of truth that flicker from the silver screen.
 Terry Gross and David Edelstein, A Miraculous Year for Movies. Fresh Air. Podcast Audio, http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=256854643.
 Salganik, Dodds, and Watts, “Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market,” Science 311 (2006): 854–56.
 Cowen, “The Upside of Waiting in Line,” New York Times, February 19, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/upshot/the-upside-of-waiting-in-line.html?_r=0.
 Hilke Plassmann, John O’Doherty, Baba Shiv, and Antonio Rangel, “Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experience pleasantness,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 105.3 (2008): 1050–54.
 Lisa Trei, “Baba Shiv: How a wine’s price tag affects its taste,” Insights by Stanford Business, January 1, 2008, http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/baba-shiv-how-wines-price-tag-affect-its-taste.
 Mengfei Huang, Holly Bridge, Martin J. Kemp, and Andrew J. Parker, “Human cortical activity evoked by the assignment of authenticity when viewing works of art,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 5 (2011): 134.
 Lehrer, “How Does the Brain Perceive Art?” Wired, December 14, 2011, http://www.wired.com/2011/12/how-does-the-brain-perceive-art/.
 See Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010).
 Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity” (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 48.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 771–72.
 Coakley, God Sexuality and the Self (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013), 21.
 Pope Francis quoted in Eugenio Scalfari, “The Pope: How the Church Will Change,” Cultura, October 1, 2013, http://www.repubblica.it/cultura/2013/10/01/news/pope_s_conversation_with_scalfari_english-67643118/