Will you watch the Oscars?
For those who don’t know, the 89th Academy Awards are this weekend. Movie buffs will relish the competition and mystery of the night that honors the film industry’s best of the year, and many others will tune in hopes of seeing their favorite actors or actresses. For nearly a century, the Oscars have been American pop culture’s last and most prestigious award ceremony, bringing the year of entertainment to a star-studded crescendo.
The Oscars are fun, yes. But should believers enjoy them too? Conservative evangelicals often think little of mainstream movie culture. It’s not a mystery that the industry is dominated by progressive politics and secular worldviews. I’ve talked to many who feel that the Oscar telecast is little more than a three-hour showcase for Hollywood’s ideology, and perhaps a celebration of some stories and ideas that Christians ought not endorse.
These concerns are legitimate. But I believe Christians would be wise to enjoy and appreciate the Academy Awards. To use Andy Crouch’s helpful terminology, evangelicals should beware of adopting an instinctively hostile posture toward culture. Rather, our posture ought to be one of grateful discernment, rejoicing in what’s good and rejecting what’s bad when necessary. I can think of at least three things Christians can celebrate about Oscar night.
1. The Oscars honor excellence.
While there’s sure to be endless debate over the academy’s choices, one thing is true about all the nominated movies, actors, writers, and others: They achieved some degree of excellence. Whether this is an excellent performance by a lead or supporting performer or an excellent music score, the films honored at the Academy Awards all do something well.
Francis Schaeffer argued that technical excellence is one of four key criteria Christians ought to apply when evaluating art from a perspective of faith. Schaeffer believed that art’s skill and technical excellence had to be responded to fairly, regardless of what the artist believed or communicated. “If the artist's technical excellence is high,” Schaeffer wrote in Art and the Bible, “he is to be praised for this, even if we differ with his worldview. Man must be treated fairly as man.”
God, the master artist, has done all things well. The excellence of the beauty of creation is so intense that it declares the glory of God himself. Thus, making good art is part of making art as an image-bearer of God. Evangelicals would do well to reflect on this truth, especially when the movies and music created explicitly for Christian consumption often lack this technical excellence. Simply because a filmmaker tells a Christian story doesn’t mean he has told it well, just as a Christian surgeon’s prayer over his patients doesn’t negate the need for skill in the operating room. As the Oscars honor excellence, Christians should be thankful for talented artists and creators, and value them.
2. The Oscars transcend individual taste.
The Oscars honor excellence, but that’s not the same as honoring popularity. Indeed, the films honored by the academy are frequently not the year’s highest-grossing or most-discussed. Some have referred to this disconnect as snobbishness, but it’s actually a good thing. It’s good to recognize there are standards of beauty and excellence that don’t depend on popular vote.
A. O. Scott, chief movie critic for The New York Times, wrote an important essay in 2014 on the infantilizing of American pop culture. Scott described our current generation of media intake as the “unassailable ascendency of the fan,” meaning that intellectually serious, objective conversations about art are becoming more difficult in a culture that reduces everything to individual enthusiasm (fandom). Similarly, writer Tom Nichols has documented how the digital age empowers everyone to feel like an authoritative expert, thus leading to the end of expertise. Both analyses capture how contemporary American culture increasingly regards any appeal to higher, objective norms as oppressive “elitism.”
It’s especially important to appreciate critical standards of goodness in an age of expressive individualism that eschews any appeals to reality outside of “my story” or “alternative facts.” Even when it comes to something as seemingly inconsequential as movies, it’s good to celebrate moments that transcend mere individual preference.
3. The Oscars remind us of the power of story.
What does every single movie at the Oscars have in common? They all tell compelling stories. Films matter in our culture not mainly because of celebrities or special effects, but because of their stories. And many of the films nominated this year tell deeply powerful stories.
Arrival is a moving tale about the power of language and love to conquer fear. La La Land is a bittersweet romance that delights in the power of place. Fences, Lion, and Moonlight depict the struggles of personal identity, and Hacksaw Ridge shows the cost of courage and conviction. Though these movies differ in important ways, they are all human narratives that invite us to both lose ourselves, and find ourselves, in the story.
This, far more than “teaching,” is how films shape us, and it’s why we keep coming back to the cinema year after year. We want to hear and to feel great stories because we’ve all been made for God’s story. As the audience falls silent and the envelopes are opened, we should remember that all of this is because stories matter—and even in the stories told by secular, progressive Hollywood, we can discern echoes of the one story written on every human heart.