Friday, September 9, 2016

“Room 237” and Cultural Exegesis

(I wrote this piece a few years ago for another website. It has since been taken down, so here it is again.)

A helpful approach to reading culture is to analyze its art and its stories. Analysis of a culture’s films is one of the best ways to understand what and how its people think. The films that a culture produces and those it responds to reveal a lot about how it sees the world and how it understands truth.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to read any story objectively. We all have our own cultural prejudices and preconceived ideas that we bring to interpretation. All too often these cloud our reading and we are guilty of eisegesis rather than exegesis. Rather than seeing the ideas that a culture is presenting as truth and evaluating those ideas against reality, we find ways to see our own ideas in others’ stories.

A perfect example of this is “Room 237,” a feature length exploration of critical theory as seen in several interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” It is not a documentary exploring the real intentions of Kubrick regarding the story, but rather eisegesis on display. We get a series of people talking about their theories and ideas regarding the film, with the moments they are interpreting playing out on screen. This is especially helpful, because as they describe what we are seeing along with their interpretations and the symbolic meanings they are seeing, we get to make our own judgments. Sometimes it is interesting to see the things that they are pointing out that we missed in a casual viewing of the film. What is even more interesting is when the footage shows that they have misremembered things, or even seen things that are simply not there.

For believers with a missional heart for the culture around them, the example of “Room 237” is a good reminder of what not to do. Rather than “baptizing” cultural artifacts and stories and trying use them to confirm our preconceptions or to deliver a message that is not there, (in this case holocaust imagery, conspiracy theories, or American guilt) we need to truly read the intended messages and then address those ideas with the truth. (The same goes for the Biblical text, by the way.)

In this case, much more would be accomplished by addressing the dangers of isolation or relational dysfunction than trying to make people see details that simply and clearly are not there, all to support ideas that Kubrick was not communicating.

(Please note: this film contains some nudity.)

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