Carl Plantinga, Calvin University

Exploring the Moral Impact of Movies

What if movies can help us become better people? What if the stories we see onscreen could be parables for our time? What if religions understood more about the moral power of onscreen stories?

Grant Title
Screen Stories and Moral Understanding
Legal Organization
Calvin University
Project Dates
Start Date: 01 July 2020
End Date: 30 December 2021
Grant Amount
Area of Focus
Art Seeking Understanding

For the first time in decades of polling, Gallup tells us that fewer than half of Americans in 2020 were members of a church, synagogue or mosque. Meanwhile, subscriptions to Netflix and other streaming services continue to uptick worldwide even as movie theaters reopen their doors.

Together, these trendlines suggest that many people today may be more likely to be influenced by what they see on a screen rather than what they experience through a religious affiliation. Movies have become one of the most powerful and pervasive languages of our time.

We’re becoming a culture that increasingly congregates around onscreen stories.

We’re becoming a culture that increasingly congregates around onscreen stories.

Trends such as these can be troubling for religions and people of faith. However, Carl Plantinga, Ph.D., professor of film and media at Calvin University, believes there are many reasons movies can be a force for good — a powerful vehicle for developing moral understanding and spiritual sensibilities.

“There’s been a lot of fear about the power of movies in the past,” Plantinga notes. “But I want to look at the opposite: whether they can play a positive role in our lives that specifically has to do with moral learning as it relates to spirituality. Is it possible that movies can teach us something about what it means to be an empathetic person, for example? Or to understand the injustices of certain kinds of situations? Or what it might mean to be a spouse in a difficult relationship and how to work through issues like that?

“Can movies teach us things that are beneficial to our lives from a moral perspective? I think they can. But the question is what kind of movies? Under what conditions? And in what kind of context can that occur?”

With funding from Templeton Religion Trust, Plantinga is orchestrating an interdisciplinary investigation into such questions. His hypothesis and hope is that by bringing together scholars from psychology, the social sciences, philosophy and film studies to share their knowledge, perspectives and methods, the results will be foundational, empirical insights into how movies influence us — and how much.

More than Just Knowing

Moral understanding is our rulebook-in-motion for how to live as we go along a perpetual journey of reevaluation. While our brains may hold onto hand-me-down cultural or religion-based values such as sharing, truth-telling, nonviolence and compassion, our grasp on them is constantly tested in day-to-day experiences. Sometimes the difference between right and wrong can seem more muddy than obvious. Racism is one example Plantinga points to. We might think we know what racism is, and be against it. But we might not know how to really discern it in our workplace, our neighborhood or even ourselves.

Movies can show us -- in advance and without consequences -- how certain decisions and actions play out. In this way, they may reinforce and deepen our understanding of what moral virtues can and should mean in our lives.

Movies can show us — in advance and without consequences — how certain decisions and actions play out. In this way, they may reinforce and deepen our understanding of what moral virtues can and should mean in our lives.

A Powerful Combination of Thinking and Feeling

Whether in a darkened theater or curled up with our cat on the couch at home, the unique blend of multisensory stimulations that define a movie can capture our attention and stir our emotions for hours.

On the one hand, movies provide an escape from our real-world problems in exchange for those of someone else. And yet, how often do you find yourself running a dialogue in your head as the story plays out about what you might do differently? Or even yelling out loud when you feel outrage or endorse some turn of events?

But under what circumstances are such effects likely to occur? Just what ingredients do screen stories use to engender such deep responses? What variables affect the relationship between the media and the viewer? And how might these variables affect how we respond, both in the moment and later as we incorporate the aftereffects into our everyday lives?

Three Big Areas of Inquiry

The initial phase of Plantinga’s study is a series of seminars in which participants will focus on three facets of the movie-viewing experience:

1. Transfer and Cultivation – how beliefs and responses from screen stories are transferred to the real world and how they may influence moral codes

Is it the general theme that’s transferred, the attitudes toward character stereotypes such as the hero or villain, or the scripts that call for actions in specific circumstances?

While transfer can occur with documentaries, it seems especially prevalent with fictionized stories that activate our imaginations. Seeing complicated situations from the perspective of a character who we know isn’t real, paradoxically, may produce a clearer picture in our minds of what our own responses would or should be.

2. The Role of the Affective Experience – how the moods and emotions created by a film may contribute to moral understanding

Although it’s tempting to stop watching once the credits start to roll, each element of a film matters to the overall effect. Films are incredibly complex, multifaceted creations. Sound effects, music, the pacing of edits, closeups on a character’s face and many more techniques all contribute to the physiological “magic” — the powerful moods and strong emotions that films elicit.

Earlier investigations have often focused on the mostly thinking-based nature of our empathy for fictional characters. But what about the moods and emotions that cause us to feel outraged in response to a depicted moral wrongdoing? Can these and other emotional responses be categorized, further studied and quantified?

3. The Role of the Reflective Afterlife – what kinds of stories and contexts contribute to moral reflection after viewing a film?

Complex ideas and experiences take time to unpack, so the period after a film may be as important as the time spent watching it. And this process often takes place with others. Reflecting on the characters and events in a story is a way of developing moral understanding within community. The implications of a powerful film are often enduringly integrated into our cultural fabric through reviews, social media, fan cultures, and the publishing and teaching practices of academia.

Are some of these more influential than others in helping us distill moral understanding from the movies we see –or could they be? And might there be a role for religion to play in the reflective mix?

From Understanding to Action

As stories leap from screens into our minds, emotions and maybe even our souls, they may well be where many of our modern mindsets now germinate. Movies allow us to share common narratives in our society even as other forms of discourse have deteriorated.

More than mere entertainment, movies can be powerful rallying cries for addressing real-world issues. Some perhaps even function as parables for our time: earthly stories with heavenly meanings, a way to enliven and deepen our spiritual understanding. In this way, maybe even new-release blockbusters may have ancient ties.

“The arts emerged in human history out of religion — their original function was to express religious ideas,” Plantinga reminds. “And fundamental in those religious ideas were spiritual ideals about how we ought to live and how we ought to think about our ethical obligations to others. So it strikes me that even in more secular times, the arts can still harbor some of those functions, just in different ways.”

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