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Useless Beauty: Ecclesiastes Through the Lens of Contemporary Film
Baker / 2004 / Paperback
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In a postmodern age, life is often perceived in terms of difficult paradoxes and contradictions, which seem irreconcilable with a Christian understanding of human existence. In this book, Robert K. Johnston uses film criticism as a medium of dialogue between the ancient and the postmodern, analyzing how both the Book of Ecclesiastes and such contemporary films as American Beauty, Magnolia, and Run Lola Run present life's beauty despite its pain and apparent futility.
He argues that there should be a two-way dialogue between Christianity and film, one informing the other. Through its recognition that both Ecclesiastes and today's movies understand something of the hard reality of life, this book presents a challenge to the common assumptions that the Bible is too heavy-handed to be applied usefully to movies and that cinema is dangerous to faith. Rather, Johnston argues that Christians ought not shrink from the fact that life and the life-like material presented in movies are not always neat and tidy. Unike many contemporary Christian film critics, Johnston employs a "reverse hermeneutical flow," beginning by using popular culture as it is presented in film to achieve a better understanding of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Only then does he turn the argument and use the biblical text to see more clearly what movies present to the public. Johnston uses this form of criticism to explore the themes of life and death, chance and choice, loneliness and connection, and God's presence and absence as they are presented in Ecclesiastes, modern films, and human life. Students and professors of the Old Testament, theology, and film will find this book an invaluable resource for their studies.
How should Christians relate to the difficult and contradictory messages of modern movies? In Useless Beauty, Robert K. Johnston presents the bold position that films can be our "eyeglasses and hearing aids" in understanding the Book of Ecclesiastes. Taking up movies such as American Beauty, Magnolia, and About Schmidt, he addresses such biblical issues as life and death, chance and choice, loneliness and connection, and God's presence and absence to deepen our understanding of life's beauty amid its confusion and pain. Christian filmgoers, pastors, and youth leaders will find Johnston's book a valuable source of insight into the relationship between Christianity and popular culture.
Robert K. Johnston (Ph.D., Duke University) is professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author or editor of over twelve books, including Reel Spirituality and Finding God in the Movies. He served as dean at North Park Theological Seminary for eleven years and is currently president of the American Theological Society.
Drawing the title from a line in an Elvis Costello song about "all this useless beauty," Johnston, Fuller Seminary professor of theology and culture, invites us to consider connections between biblical wisdom literature and film. In particular, he compares Ecclesiastes with films such as American Beauty, Magnolia, About Schmidt and Signs. "Useless beauty" refers to the paradox described in Ecclesiastes (and in many of the selected films) of beauty in the midst of a life filled with vanity, futility and absurdity. Although the title promotes Ecclesiastes through the lens of film, it is really a treatment of film through the lens of Ecclesiastes, as Johnston intersperses key biblical passages in italics next to his rendition of film plots and characters showing us the dynamic analogies. Johnston's hope is that this will create a "two-way dialogue" that starts with the film but moves back and forth between the film and scripture. Narrowing in on Ecclesiastes-a book embraced by many different religious traditions-exposes Johnston to a wide audience, one that includes Christians, Jews, Muslims and even New Age hybrids. That's good for everyone, because Johnston's forte is helping us think more deeply about how God is revealed in popular culture, so that our notion of God is expanded even beyond our traditional understandings. (Nov.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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