Saturday, July 5, 2014

A Lutheran, Baptist, Buddhist, Agnostic, and Atheist Walk into a Movie Theater...

The title above may sound like a great opening for a joke, but no, that’s only me at various points in my lifespan.  That’s also me trying to be clever in explaining how I decided to write about films from a secular humanist point of view.  Regardless of my beliefs or lack thereof, I have loved movies for as long as I can remember.  What began as exciting childhood escapism has transformed into a portal to thrilling locales and contemplation of the big questions of humanity and existence. 

By way of introduction, here’s my religious and philosophical journey in a nutshell.  Born to Christian parents, I was baptized as an infant and received a solid junior and senior high school education in the Lutheran school system, where I had a conversion experience as a teen.  As a young adult, I was re-baptized (dunked this time), and for twenty years, I lived my faith vigorously:  I read my Bible and prayed diligently, ventured forth on 3 mission trips, taught Sunday school, and led youth groups. 

However, in my early 30’s, doubts began to slowly encroach.  I began to ask questions about a loving god sending non-believers and gay people to hell, about Christianity’s ugly past and often grotesque present, and about the Bible’s exclusive claims to spiritual truth.  I dabbled briefly in Buddhism but found the same logical inconsistencies in their dogma, as well as plenty of blood on their hands from unsavory infighting and warmongering.

My Buddhist dalliance was followed by a few years as a closet agnostic, ashamed of my doubts while thinking I was nearly alone in my skepticism.  Happily, some great books (a shout out here to William Lobdell, Michael Krasny, Bart Ehrman, Michael Shermer, A.C. Grayling, and the Four Horsemen) and the discovery of a local community of skeptics allowed me unashamedly and gratefully to embrace atheism, rationalism, and a generous humanism.

And it is from those three mingling sources that I plan to analyze movies.  Atheism rejects faith as baseless and corrosive.  Rationalism drives skeptical critical thinking in all arenas (political, philosophical, scientific, you name it).  Humanism urges kindness and respect for all, and for me, that “all” includes human beings, our fellow animals, and our world. 

(I do want to make it clear that I aim to act kindly and respectfully towards religious believers, too.  I will frankly critique beliefs that I consider irrational or harmful, but I endeavor to love everybody.  And truth be told, for my money, the most thoughtful and respectful online conversations about film can be found at  As a “non,” I am definitely in the minority, but for several years, I've enjoyed and benefited from my participation there.)

In writing overtly from an atheist, rationalist, and humanist standpoint, I am striving in my own small way to fill a gap in current film criticism.  I have no doubt that many excellent film writers embrace this secular trinity, but their employment of this framework has been less explicit than my intended usage of it.  The great and greatly missed Roger Ebert comes immediately to mind here:  check out his reviews of “Eat Pray Love” and “Hereafter” for his dismissals of supernatural woo-woo.

My passion for books perhaps surpasses my love of movies, so I plan to integrate my omnivorous readings of science, history, philosophy, and fiction into my film reviews.  As a psychiatrist with 20 years' experience and particular expertise in geriatrics, trauma, and the interface of mental health with culture and religion, my knowledge base in those arenas will inform my writing, too.

I'm committed to posting at least one review per week, with a healthy mixture of current cineplex and arthouse films, as well as classics from the past.  For those keeping score, the directors I esteem most highly are Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Hayao Miyazaki, Francois Truffaut, Werner Herzog, and Wes Anderson, so you can expect talk about their films to surface in these environs.

(And for those wondering about my film criticism cred, during the past few years I've lectured to university audiences on psychological themes in film, contributed a chapter on Kurosawa to this book, and written essays and capsule reviews for Filmwell and Arts & Faith.)

Lastly, a couple of house-keeping points:

- I plan to use my own idiosyncratic five star rating scale for the films I review.  Here’s how it works:
            - One star:  you’re better off cleaning your navel than watching this movie
            - Two stars:  flawed, but with some redeeming qualities
            - Three stars:  a solid film, worth a trip to the cinema
            - Four stars:  will probably be on my end of the year “best of” list
            - Five stars:  a rare masterpiece

- As a father of 3 teens, I stay vigilant for well-crafted, thought-provoking fare for young people.  I anticipate that all of my reviews will contain suggestions about the age suitability of the film being discussed.

Thanks for reading.  Please visit again soon!

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