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  • Joseph Holmes

Empathy is Not the Purpose of Film; Worship is (part 2)


Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Walt Disney Pictures, 2015) Black Panther (Walt Disney Pictures, 2018) Avengers: Infinity War (Walt Disney Pictures, 2018) Marvel's Avengers (Walt Disney Pictures, 2012) Jurassic World (Walt Disney Pictures, 2015)

Last time I argued against the common belief that the main purpose of film is to create empathy. I based my disagreement on two observations: First, people don't go to see movies to empathize with someone else's experience--they go to see movies about themselves having experiences they want to have. Second, empathy isn't so high a purpose because empathy doesn't really make you a better person. In fact, studies show that the most empathetic people are often the most cruel.


So what are movies for, if not empathy? The answer is worship.


"Worship" has a few different meanings. Most people associate worship with religious worship done in a church, mosque or synagogue to God. But it's meaning is broader than that. According to Merriam-Webster, worship (verb) means:


1: to honor or reverence as a divine being or supernatural power

2: to regard with great or extravagant respect, honor, or devotion

//a celebrity worshipped by her fans


Worship is any deep adoration and devotion toward an object as greater than yourself. It can be devotion to God, your country, science, humanity, romantic love, family, celebrities, football, heck, even films. If it gives your greatest joy and you build your life around participating in, it's what you worship.


I am not the first person to argue for this definition of worship. Rev. Timothy Keller called worship "an act of ascribing ultimate value to something or someone in a way that engages your entire being". Author David Foster Wallace said "There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship" Philosopher Dr. James K. A. Smith wrote in Desiring the Kingdom that people are built primarily to love and what you love most and build your life around is what you "worship".


"This sort of ultimate love could also be described as that to which we ultimately pledge allegiance; or, to evoke language that is both religious and acting, our ultimate love is what we worship. ...It's not what I think that shapes my lire from the bottom up; it's what I desire, what I love, that animates my passion. To be human is to be the kind of creature who is oriented by this kind of primal, ultimate love--even if we never really reflect on it."


People get joy from praising what they worship. CS Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, explains it this way in his Reflections on the Psalms:


But the most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or any thing — strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless (sometimes even if) shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game — praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least . . .


I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.


People worship because they think praising is fun. In fact, it's the most fun thing there is. That's why when you worship God you choose to go to church to sing about how great he is, it's why you spend ridiculous amounts of money to go to a football game to chant your team while wearing their colors, why you deliberately read trashy romance novels or binge Hallmark Christmas movies just to cry as the guy and the girl get together, why you cry as you stand hand-over-heart for the national anthem, why you go to the comic book store every Wednesday and spend huge amounts of money to dress up as your favorite character at comic con, why you go to the highest mountain peak or the middle of the desert just to stand in awe of nature or see the grand canyon. People love to worship; they go out of their way to find things to to praise and swoon over and dedicate or sacrifice their lives to. It's what we are built to do.

And that's why people go to movies too.


How do I know? Because movies that worship are always the most popular. No contest. It's not even close. You can set your watch by it.


Read any top box office list, including the top movies of all time. You will find it populated entirely by stories that praise individuals who live up to some ideal greater than themselves. The top movies on every list are superheroes (Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), romances (Titanic, Avatar, Frozen) royalty (Black Panther, Frozen), the glory of of nature (Jurassic World, Avatar), and the beauty of family (Furious 7, Toy Story 3, Frozen). All these movies draw us to cheer for people who sacrifice their lives, their fortunes, and whatever else for some ideal, whether it's their families, true love, the environment, or for their communities. These are all movies that compel us to praise the people they tell stories about, idealized men and women who sacrifice everything to defeat evil, to find true love, to defend nature, to save their families and who--every step of the way--prompt us to cheer for them as they do. You cannot find an exception anywhere. These are not merely "entertaining" movies. Comedies are entertaining, but they're barely on the list. That's because most comedies don't primarily draw you admire anyone or anything, but rather to laugh at them, even if it's affectionately. (This is why even the highest grossing comedy of all time--Minions--is all about worship; it's about a group of friends looking for a master worth devoting themselves to.)


Even sophisticated moviegoers who avoid blockbusters are the same way. Your favorite movies may have no admirable characters or themes that compels your worship, but that is because what you worship is filmmaking itself--so you are worshiping the film's craft rather than the film's subject. Almost nobody who loves Citizen Kane ever talks about the story or characters or themes; they talk about Orson Welles and what a genius he was for his groundbreaking film techniques. Almost nobody who loves the films of Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut talk about the subjects or substances of the movies they made; they talk endlessly and with glowing adoration of their style and groundbreaking craft of making those films.


None of this should surprise us if we look at the history of filmmaking. Film has much of its origins in theater, and theater began with an explicitly worship-driven purpose. Greek theater began as a worship service for Dionysis. From there it grew to performances of other dramatic stories. The church was the institution that initially revived theater in the medieval ages to tell bible stories as part of the church service (Brockett and Hildy [1968; 10th ed. 2010], History of the Theater ). From there it grew to telling dramas that told other stories rather than just bible stories and in theaters rather than at church. Eventually, when film was invented, theater's storytelling got transplanted into the film, and people started watching movies for the same reasons they watched plays. Worship is not just what films are used for today, it's baked into film's DNA--it's very origins.


All of the movies that made me fall in love with movies were ones that stirred worship in me. I remember watching Spider-Man 2 and being enraptured by seeing Spider-Man carried by the people he nearly died saving. I remember watching A&E's Pride and Prejudice and falling in love with the idea of having a love like Darcy and Lizzie had. I remember watching The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and weeping when Sam carried Frodo up to Mount Doom. I remember seeing Jesus stumble carrying the cross and his mother Mary running over to him in The Passion of the Christ. All of these movies told stories that drew me to worship ideals worth devoting myself to, and stirred in me a desire to


And I'm pretty sure, if you go back to the movie that made you fall in love with movies, you'll find it's true for you too. So we've shown that people go to movies to worship. But the next question is, should they? Is worship good for people? Well yes. In the third and final part of this series, we'll tackle the obvious objections to this theory. And we'll explain why worship is the most important thing people need--even more than empathy.

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