As a committed atheist, I wouldn't typically select Josh Larsen's "Movies as Prayers" as a film book of interest. However, I'm a huge fan of Larsen's work, particularly as co-host of Filmspotting, and I'm pleased to say that "Movies as Prayers" is a thoughtful and illuminating read, even for non-believers. Larsen argues that prayer "is a human instinct, an urge that lies deep within us" and that movies are one way that audiences can communicate with God through the emotions and ideas they provoke. He identifies nine forms of prayer (praise, yearning, lament, anger, confessions, reconciliation, obedience, meditation/contemplation) and then illustrates each with interesting examples from a wide variety of films. To his great credit, Larsen cites films both old and contemporary, American and foreign, and classic and cult. Introspection is the key here and, whether you choose to pray or not, Larsen makes a compelling case for how movies express our most human and critical desires. His observations, even on the most famous of films, are consistently thought provoking. For example, though "Godzilla" has been frequently discussed as a commentary on nuclear fear in the wake of Hiroshima/Nagasaki, Larsen points out that Godzilla's roar is "actually a wail of sorrow" and that "the giant beast isn't terrorizing; it's crying." Another critic might not have achieved this insight, yet Larsen does so by viewing the film as a prayer of lament. Similarly, when discussing reconciliation, Larsen offers a thoughtful discussion of "Tangerine" the recent independent film about transgender prostitutes. He explains how the film encouraged him to identify with characters radically unlike himself. In a beautiful combination of self revelation and film criticism, he notes, "We must recognize before we can reconcile - especially in instances where we are too blinded by privilege, comfort, and tradition to even notice that reconciliation is needed." Throughout the book, Larsen cites a variety of religious sources to support his argument and, for the uninitiated, some of these prove a bit dull. I also found it unusual that Larsen cited almost no film criticism - popular or academic - and I think the book might have improved by incorporating the wide range of voices available on the intersection of film with philosophy and religion. However, Larsen achieves a lot with this compact and highly interesting book, an approach to film that I hope others will explore further.
I picked this up as a dear friend told me about it and it intrigued me. I love movies and have connected them with my faith for over a decade. I have seen them as ways we can experience transcendance as we engage with movies, learning something about ourselves, life, and God, and sometimes even experiencing God Himself. I had not necessarily thought of them as prayers.
Josh Larsen, cohost of the podcast Filmspotting, says “that movies, at their most potent, are not diversions or products or even works of art, but prayerful gestures received by God.” He further elaborates: “Movies are our way of telling God what we think about this world and our place in it… . Movies can be many things: escapist experiences, historical artifacts, business ventures, and artistic expressions, to name a few. I'd like to suggest that they can also be prayer.”
He divides the book into 10 types of prayer, each forming a chapter of the book:
1) Prayers of praise 2) Prayers of yearning 3) Prayers of lament 4) Prayers of anger 5) Prayers of confession 6) Prayers of reconciliation 7) Prayers of obedience 8) Payers of meditation 9) Prayers of joy 10) Prayer as journey
He uses various movies, from Buster Keaton silent film, to the most recent Star Wars movie,* The Force Awakens*, as well as books and scripture to illustrate his points. For the most part, just a scene or two from a film is used.
This book is a quick read and does communicate the writer’s thesis well. I have two main criticisms. First, it is short at just over 200 pages, with a good 25% devoted to notes. I had expected more. Second, I anticipated more in-depth analysis of some films. Larsen does that at the very end, as he takes the concept of prayer as journey and looks at one film. He does with Rushmore, exploring how it moves through the various stages in progression. That was what I wanted more of.
All in all, I would recommend this book. I’d give it 3.5 if I could.
If you can get on board with the following, this book is for you:
"Could a single film prayerfully envision the original glory of creation, mark the tragedy of the fall, evoke our redemption, and point ahead to the restoration that is to come?
"I'll suggest Rushmore."
I got on board.
Larsen shows a wide knowledge of film while explaining how movies could be prayers—even prayers made by non-believers. Divided into categories like praise, anger, and joy, "Movies Are Prayers" references film after film that speaks to the deeper reasons so many of us are so taken by these larger-than-life stories.
If you appreciate theological takes on pop-culture creations (akin to works like, ahem, "The Gospel According to Breaking Bad,") you should enjoy this book.
At the very least, I imagine you'll add a few dozen films to your to-watch list.
Josh Larsen’s book, “Movies Are Prayers” reads as a mediation and devotional for those who love to find spirituality in filmmaking. The author is a long time film critic whose true passion for the all arts shows through in his broadcasts and writing. In an age of cynicism, Larsen is not afraid to be the optimist when it comes to interpreting the spiritual meaning behind a film. And in this book, he chooses themes, scenes, characters, and iconography to show human states of mind such as yearning, lament, praise and joy. These are the “Prayers” from his title: the creation of art from filmmakers reflecting the human state as we move through life. While the book uses terminology and quotations from Christianity, the films discussed are anything but traditional Christian films. He had me at his description of one of my favorite films, Into The Wild: “With its tragic ending, Into The Wild ultimately affirms our need for community, as well as the reality that nature can be a brute force.”
I've been a fan of the author's work for a few years, and his publisher provided me an advance copy of this book.
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen of Filmspotting and Think Christian has created a guide to transform the way you see film. He begins by laying out exactly what he means by prayer. In this context, a “prayer” is something like an existential yearning, though Larsen’s explanation is a bit more complex and nuanced. From that point, he proceeds to make a strong case that films can be seen as prayers, and goes through various types of prayer, giving explanations and examples for each.
Remarkably, I noticed a difference in my critical lens almost immediately after reading chapter one of this book. I began thinking of the recent films I’ve seen and finding those existential moments. By fitting these moments into the categories Larsen lays out in the book, I can easily consider times when I have felt similar things in my life, and even lifted prayers about these things to God. I can also reflect on how God views the situations in films and have clarity on how he may view situations in my life. All of this can successfully make the process of reacting to a film one that is spiritual and helpful, rather than simply entertaining. For me, this has made my responses to film have a more lasting impression, in contrast than the fleeting thoughts I have often had that fade a few weeks after the credits have rolled.
Whether you accept its “prayer” premise or not, this book can guide your critical thinking about the spiritual elements of film. I heartily recommend this book to any film watcher, Christian or otherwise, who has ever felt something like a divine experience while watching a movie (I suspect that’s almost everyone). Reading Movies are Prayers lends clarity to why you might have felt this way, and helps direct these feelings for future film watching; taking in this book is a rich experience that leads to rich experiences.
Author Josh Larsen is a Christian, but he knows that readers will come from many different beliefs and faith backgrounds. Larsen doesn't want to change people, he just wants to start a conversation.
Utilizing his unique Christian perspective, Larsen discusses how movies reveal the obsessions and longings of their makers. Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" is a prayer of lament, Spike Lee's desires reconciliation in "Do the Right Thing", and Ingmar Bergman yearns for answers with "The Seventh Seal". "Chinatown", "Do the Right Thing", and "The Seventh Seal" have been studied and analyzed for decades, yet Larsen brings a fresh take using specific scenes that illustrate how these films serve as prayers.
As humans, we consistently long for more. Larsen understands that behind each film is a human filmmaker, and each filmmaker uses their camera to explore, confront, and reveal their "deepest longings." And Larsen encourages us, the audience, to connect with humanity and learn more about our fellow human by watching and discussing these films.
I’m incredibly thankful for Larsen’s perspective on how films “exhal(e) the spirit of man and inhal(e) the spirit of God.” Even when noting that connections may be a little bit of a stretch, Larsen shows his creativity and his connection to the Spirit by detailing when characters, scenes, or images capture expressed prayers.
The book is formatted in a way that allows for the reader to discover how a specific type of prayer (e.g. lament, praise, confession) is expressed in both biblical literature (Scripture and commentaries) and in film (both high and low brow – I’m amazed how the same type of prayer is expressed in both The Act of Killing and Trainwreck.) In the true fashion of a professor, Larsen provides a capstone film that expresses all of the previously discussed prayers, giving the book the final exclamation point that drives the point home.
I look forward to re-visiting this book as well as its lessons in the years to come. Maybe I will go see Trans4mers: The Last Knight as a “final exam” of sorts to see what Michael Bay is exclaiming!
I'm a film enthusiast, but have never taken a film class, and I'm religious, but not a theologian. This book is kind, accessible, and open-minded, willing to talk to believer and non-believer alike, in a way that does not patronize or belittle. I particularly loved chapter 3, which talks about faith and doubt and their relationship with prayer and film; these themes resonated with me, as all my favorite films talk about doubt and hope against insurmountable odds. I highly recommend Movies Are Prayers, whether you're a faith or film enthusiast, or you're just looking for a fresh perspective.