Prof shares passion for film

Movies don’t have to be overtly religious to offer lessons that Christians can use, says Gardner-Webb University’s Noel Manning.

By Linda Brinson

If Noel Manning were a betting man, he’d have an edge in predicting the winners at the Oscar awards ceremony Sunday night, Feb. 24. As a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Manning evaluated most of the movies up for Hollywood’s top awards this year when he helped choose the winners of the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards.

Over the next weeks, he’ll put that insider’s knowledge to use in a constructive way: in his regular radio broadcasts and commentaries, and in the classroom at Baptist-affiliated Gardner-Webb University.

Movies, Manning says, are a powerful medium and an important part of modern Christian life. The odds are good that one of the things he will be talking about on the radio and in the classroom is how the stories and moral conflicts in this year’s best movies “apply to our lives as Christians.”

noel manning studioThe Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, announced Jan. 10 on the CW Network, are recognized as “one of the best predictors for the Oscar,” Manning said in a recent interview.

At Gardner-Webb, Manning’s primary role is as chief communications officer, but he’s also an adjunct professor who teaches film studies classes. And he hosts three radio shows about film on WGWG (88.3FM), the university’s 50,000-watt station that reaches listeners in the Boiling Springs area and into the Greenville-Spartanburg region of South Carolina.

Talking, writing and teaching about movies come naturally to Manning, who’s been reviewing films for nearly 25 years.

Exploring the intersection of films and faith also comes naturally to Manning, who grew up in the Salvation Army denomination, with mission work as “a huge part” of his life. Now, he is a member of Boiling Springs Baptist Church. He’s often combined his passion for film with his religious faith, drawing on movies and TV for relevant lessons. “I’ve even taught Sunday school lessons based on episodes of The Andy Griffith Show,” he said.

He’s frequently asked to write commentaries and appear on radio or TV to discuss matters of faith and film. And in his classes at Gardner-Webb, he helps students learn how to find the lessons in a movie, and how to critique movies in ways that are appropriate for the audiences they’re addressing.

No need to be overtly religious

A movie doesn’t have to be overtly religious — an Exodus or Ten Commandments or The Passion of the Christ — to offer lessons that Christians can use, Manning said.

“I like to make an analogy to newspapers and TV news,” he explained. “As Christians, we are not just consuming Christian news. If that’s all we consumed, we would have no awareness of what’s going on. We couldn’t go out into the world and share what Christ has made of us. It’s the same way with movies: Movies represent real life. Real life is not always easy. Read the Bible, and you know life hasn’t been easy even for those who have been considered the leaders of our faith. If I constantly watched only films that were made by Christians or were about Christian faith, I would be missing what’s happening out there.”

Not every movie is going to offer a faith message, he said. Some are just action films, or formulaic comedies. They offer escapism, and that’s fine, as long as you understand what you’re seeing — and what you are taking your children to see.

But other contemporary movies, those that draw on real life, and those that depict stories involving moral conflicts, may have much to offer Christians, he said. “There is something to be said about looking at films which are part of our current culture … and saying, ‘What qualities can I talk about and bring out of this that can help me think about my [spiritual] walk, or help others think about their walks?’ ”

Plenty of examples

As examples, he cited several of the movies up for Best Picture at the Oscars this year. Life of Pi “focuses on hope when all hope seems lost. You can look at those attributes of our faith and how we go on when all is stacked against us. You can take that example and apply it to several stories in the Bible.”

Lincoln is another great example,” he said. “There is a purpose to what they are talking about, about all men being created equal in the eyes of God. That’s another film that deals with hope, hope for the people who had been enslaved, and this person who was trying to lead them out of that bondage. This can be applied to Moses, of course.”

Beyond that, he said, Lincoln depicts “the bitterness and fighting between Democrats and Republicans. I said, ‘Wow, this is so relevant today, as that battle still continues.’”

Silver Linings Playbook deals with a child suffering from a disorder, and “the Bible helps us deal with things like that,” Manning said. Then there’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, loosely based on Hurricane Katrina’s devastation; Zero Dark Thirty, relating the hunt for Osama bin Laden; and Argo, about the secret effort to get six Americans out of Tehran during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. He can draw lessons from each of the nominees.

“I just love being able to look at films and say, ‘What is the message?’”

As for those Oscar winners? Argo won the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, just in case that contest really is a predictor.