My Dinner with Bambi :

How I Was Able To Find God at the Movies

by Terry Scott Taylor

Worship Leader Fall 2001



It is my contention that Walt Disney's Bambi is quite possibly one of the great horror films of all time. Before you split your garments in two and cry "blasphemer," let me attempt to explain myself. Talking deer, adorable bunnies, and cute and cuddly skunks aside, this beau-tiful yet insidiously morbid little animated classic (only some 69 minutes in length) managed in 1958 to strike a lasting fear into my young heart in a way that no other film had done before and few have since. While Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho instilled in me a short-lived fear of showers, Alien cured me of my desire to be an astronaut, and Jaws sent me to the shallow end of the pool, it was dear little Bambi that drove a spike of dread and apprehension into the soul of my inno-cence that dogged me psychologically, per-haps for the entirety of my childhood.

In all fairness, my current opinion of the film (admittedly subjective) is a mixed one. I won't deny its particular charms, nor do I question its status as a well-crafted and timeless classic, but since Bambi takes place in the forest, it is only fitting that we are able, as they say, to see the forest for the trees. What initially comes on with an over-abundance of "warm fuzzies" artfully designed to gently lure the unsuspecting child down a primrose lane of animated naturalistic beauty lined with a plethora of adorable talking animals soon turns down-right mean and dirty. Bambi takes a fiery plunge in its closing moments that essen-tially dive bombs the "youngins" into what may be the most profoundly disturbing, heart-wrenching possibility an innocent child can possibly face in his or her life. I refer specifically to the loss of a parent or parents.

Of course, children will not react to the film with emotional uniformity (I was an overly sensitive kid anyway) and a good many of them, while appropriately sad-dened by the death of Bambi's mother, may in the end be absolutely delighted by what Walt Disney himself called his "favorite." I get the feeling that some of you have been shaking your heads all along and muttering "Hey dude, lighten up. It's just a cartoon!" Well…obviously I'm not so sure.

TRANSFORMING EPIPHANY

When in 1958 my mother dropped me off at the curb of the local movie house early so that I could be one of the first among my peers to experience the re-release of the 1942 classic, she was assum-ing, for good reason, that Bambi was a safe haven for a child's carefree imaginative romp in the kid-friendly playground known as "Disney." How could she have known that bright Saturday afternoon that I would be traumatized by the experience?

Numbed into silence by the film's shock-ing implications and my youthful inability to articulate my inner strivings, I didn't say a word when she picked me up, but instead feigned a smile and nodded in the affirmative when asked if I had enjoyed the movie. Had I been able to express some-thing of the pain I felt then, I am certain that mom would have taken the time to address my fears, alleviate my apprehen-sions, and perhaps help me to recognize the positive aspects of what I had just seen. In my mind's eye I might have been per-suaded by my mother's caring input to see the remnants of beauty still scattered about the charred fields of my personal vision of Bambiland. After all, winter turns to spring, mothers tend to be around for a long long time, and most kids are relative-ly safe from fire.

To be fair, Bambi is at heart a coming of age tale, rich with lessons of love, loss, courage and friendship, but I would definitely think twice before recom-mending it to just any child, or plopping my own children down in front of the tele-vision screen with the assumed confidence that the kids are automatically in the good, gentle hands (hooves?) of Bambi and Uncle Walt. While Bambi can certainly be consid-ered a family movie, it is no more a "Christian" film than is Apocalypse Now, and, depending on the child, can be every bit as incendiery as Coppola's masterpiece. As a parent I urge others to walk softly and carry a big stick when it comes to the viewing habits of our kids. There just may be a poisonous snake lurking there in the luscious green grass, even if the grass is animated.

Bambi shares this characteristic with a good number of films: there are booby-traps hidden among the flowers. If we are wise parents, teachers, pastors and youth pastors, we will not deny ourselves or our kids an uplifting stroll through the garden, but we will take the time to lov-ingly guide our youngsters through it, directing their attention to its many splen-dors, yet always being cautious, alert and ever vigilant to steer them clear of hidden dangers. Jesus Himself prayed "I do not ask thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one."

CINEMATIC EPIPHANY

While it is true that Bambi's dark underbelly managed to disturb and haunt me since that fateful afternoon in 1958, the film conversely contributed greatly to my love of the art of film. When I became a Christian many years later I struggled to learn how my newfound faith in Christ specifically impacted my love of the movies. I was eager to please the Lord and to live a pure life; so was I being "worldly" if I still attended movies? Certainly putting my love of film above my love of God would be an idolatrous exercise, but was I required to give up all movies that didn't "glorify the Lord?"

For years I remained somewhat ambivalent on the issue. For me, film fell into a kind of gray area, and while I didn't get the specific impression that the Lord was necessarily displeased by my movie going, I at least understood that He wanted me to be wise in my choices. It wasn't until 1981, inside a cramped little art film movie house in San Jose, Calif., that a full epiphany finally came. It was there that God's still small voice whispered to me something of His sovereignty, and through the most unexpected source deepened my love and intimacy with Him. My Dinner With Andre was not a "Christian" film, but it was God who didn't seem to mind at all.

A kind of spiritual thriller, "My Dinner with Andre" almost entirely takes place in a New York restaurant and is really little more than a conversation—albeit a staggeringly poignant one—between two friends. While both Andre Gregory and his friend Wally Shawn are playwrights and actors, one is a fairly contented agnostic, while the other is a passionate yet ulti-mately disenchanted seeker of religious mystical experiences. The fun for the view-er lies in the confrontational juxtaposition of these two points of view. In Andre and Shawn we are exposed to our own duality as we explore a world of contrasting sup-positions concerning love, death, art, and man's ongoing quest to find fulfillment in this life.

What to me is essential about My Dinner with Andre is the more personal epiphany I eluded too earlier. Even as the credits rolled and I wiped tears from my eyes on that transcendent night, the ques-tion began to form in my mind: was it pos-sible for a "secular" film to be a source of God's grace? It was my heart that answered in the affirmative. Suddenly I knew that God was "bigger" than I had supposed. Through this move, the Lord had provoked my faith, challenged me in innumerable and profound ways, stirred up my love for mankind in all its heartbreaking fallenness, and essentially given back to me a new love for film transformed by the very real prospect that a sovereign God can speak through whatever means He chooses to speak. God wasn't even bound by the movie ratings system. I wasn't serving a "G" rated God. I was serving the Lord of the Universe.

TEACH US TO DISCERN

Seeing film with the eyes of faith is essential if we are to find, often in spite of the directors intent, its deeper meaning and implications for us as Christians. A film doesn't need to be a "Christian" film—in the narrowest sense of the term—in order for us to discover its relevancy to our lives. Some of us have a measure of faith that gives us a liberty in our viewing habits that, while tempered by wisdom and con-strained by discernment, encompasses a wide range and variety of film. Others may be more easily "stumbled" by certain films or perhaps even repelled by the whole idea of going to the movies. Whatever our measure of faith, the fact is that film exists. It is my personal belief that we as pastors, youth leaders and parents must not ask our young people to simply ignore film, nor narrow their choices down to a paltry few we consider "safe," nor separate movies into neat little categories marked "secular" and "Christian."To do so would only be a vain attempt at placing limits on a sovereign God while at the same time depriving our kids of an enriching film experience by means of excessive restriction. I have often gone to see a film first before I allowed my children to see it. I have also found that viewing and then discussing film with my children can be an insightful, as well as an exciting and enriching experience for us all.

Let me say at this point that in regard to our Christian young people, the Church community has been scandalously lax in encouraging them in the area of the arts. We are no doubt the poorer for it. Who knows? Perhaps seated in our pews right now is a young man or woman who just might be, with the proper encouragement and support, the next truly great director. Imagine a Christian film director with the craftsmanship of a Spielberg or a Scorcese who not only knows the Lord, but also desires to serve and honor Him through the medium of film? Will we encourage that person or debilitate them with faith-less and pious restrictions that serve only to boost pride in our own supposed virtue? God forbid.The very least we owe them, as well as to all our young people, is the dis-tinctive difference between good and bad film. Bambi, for instance, isn't better than Pokemon, the Movie because it's more "Christian" in content, but because Bambi's artistic vision and craftsmanship shows up Pokemon for what it truly is: a cheaply ren-dered, extended plug solely created to cash in on a passing fad.

It's extremely important that we teach our young people the difference, and that we equally point out to them the difference between the "art" of Disney and that of a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh. To be great we must be inspired to greatness. I cannot be a great artist if I can't draw the distinction between say a film like the original Rocky and the recent Carman film attempt The Heart of a Champion, which is basically a pal-try imitation of Stallone's great movie that, fortunately or unfortunately (depending how you look at it), took the big nose dive at box office despite it being a "Christian" film. If the Christian young person desires to be a filmmaker, then he or she is impelled to study a wide variety of film, especially those that are universally esteemed.

CHRISTIAN ENCOUNTERS OF THE MISGUIDED KIND

I'll never forget the outcry in some Church circles over the "nudity" in anoth-er Steven Spielberg classic, Schindler's List.I was absolutely stunned by what can only be described as a knee jerk reaction by well meaning but blindly sanctimonious brethren. When we as God's people cannot draw a distinction between the heart wrenching, utterly devastating kind of nudity depicted in Spielberg's masterpiece and the common pornographic nudity found in many modern films, then we have lost not only our heads, but our hearts as well. If Spielberg's historically accurate portrayal of Nazi cruelties doesn't break the Christian's heart to bits and cause him to bow his head in shame at man's inhuman-ity to man (which includes his own inhu-manity) then he has no right to wonder why the world will not listen to us when we speal about such things.

Such attitudes are more lewd than the crudest pornography, and to offer them to the world as a fruit of righteousness is to degrade not only ourselves, but also the memories of those who suffered through those very humiliations. This distorted sense of Christian 'decorum', which is nothing more than the sin of pride, is essentially what Jesus was referring to when He said, "you strain at a gnat and swallow a camel."

Great films like Schindler's List some-times require that we courageously look into the abyss of our own nature. The Christian, of all people can do so with great courage, because this is what he has been saved from. Film reminds him that we must, even as Christians, fight with all dili-gence "the good fight" because our natur-al propensities, like all of mankind, is to commit great evil in the world. Film is a reminder to me that I am indeed in the world but not of it…in the culture but not of it.

To ignore film is to essentially ignore our culture. We as Christians must speak to our world with the authoritative voice of relevance, and I believe that viewing film is one way in which we can be fully equipped to do so. The few "Christian" films that exist—those made specifically by Christians—are essentially poorly written, directed and acted because all that we may require of them is that they "present the Gospel message." I would equate this atti-tude with that of a Christian tailor who sells poorly-constructed suits but sews a label into the collars of his suits that have John 3:16 printed on them. The result of his actions will be lots of returns and com-plaints, zero clientele in the end, and a tai-lor considered by those in the know to be little more than a third rate hack.

Of course having faithfully sown his "Christian witness" into the collar of the suit, our tailor will be convinced of his own piety and will conclude that the com-plaints and loss of his customers means he is suffering for his faith. A Christian fish placed on a junk pile doesn't transform a garbage heap into a mountain of gold. The present spate of "Christian" films like Omega Code and Left Behind are a sub-par sci-fi flick with questionable "end-times" theology— the cinematic version of the junk pile with the Christian fish. I understand that many in the Christian church are excited over it. The producers claim it's the flagship that is going to rescue the movies from "those pagans in Hollywood." Lord save us from ourselves.

GOD'S FINGERPRINTS

The truly great movie possesses the power to stir our imaginations, give us hope, challenge us, inspire us to greatness, inform, amaze and bedazzle us beyond our own expectations. Because they are made by fallen people, film can also effect us in countless unbeneficial ways celebrating as they do both the sublime and the ridicu-lous. To be honest, most film has the nutri-tional value of junk food, which may be fine from time to time, but it can also cause clogged arteries and heart failure if con-sumed without restriction. While the occa-sional candy bar can't hurt, we must be determined to steer our kids, as well as ourselves, away from its addictive allure and eat a well-balanced meal whenever possible. Great cinema can be such a meal.

Of course I believe that "one man's meat is another man's poison" which brings us back our dear little talking faun. Despite my initially negative childhood experience, I believe that even Bambi, just like My Dinner With Andre, can speak to the human heart something of the truth about love, death, and art and can articulate to us something of who we are and of Who God is as well. In the sense that all men and women have a buried likeness to their Creator, that we are all dressed in a kind of tattered glory and wear, as it were, "rags of light," that image is manifested in the work and art of all of us. The great directors, while often embracing man's depravity, cannot override the Christian's uniquely heightened sense of discernment or negate their spiritual sensibilities. "Greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world." Christian moviegoers must not resist the liberating Spirit of Christ within them, which allows them to see film through the eyes of their faith. Both Bambi and My Dinner with Andre are essentially stories of redemp-tion pointing, however subtly, to the One who is both the writer and director of the greatest act of Redemption ever performed on the human stage.

So go ahead if you have a mind to, enjoy Uncle Walt's favorite.Who am I to tell you what meals to eat or where the wind of the Spirit may blow? Bambi may in fact be your epiphany. If the liberty God has given you allows you to delight in the movies, then you will know that they are truly a gift from the One who promised His children an abundant life: "Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves" (Romans 14:22). Just remember to choose well and look for the finger-prints of God on the screen the next time you attend the movies. Listen for that still small voice whispering between the lines spoken by its actors.You never know what, or Who, you might find.

Terry Scott Taylor has been a musician, producer, and songwriter for most of his adult life and is the found-ing member of the band Daniel Amos. He is current-ly writing a non-fiction book due for release next year. Mr.Taylor may be contacted at danielamos.com.