Finding Hope—and Leadership Examples—In the Movies

Christian hope can be found throughout the media, even in pop culture, says Nathan Baxter, associate professor of communication arts. This semester in his selected topics course called, “Group and Leadership Communication,” Baxter and his students have explored theories and examples of leadership in various media. In one section of the class, they’ve looked at specific films that reflect the issues they’ve studied, and then developed three panel discussions for this year’s Symposium. The series, “Titans, Teens, & Tiaras—Cinematic Glimpses of Christian Hope” examines such issues in the films, “Remember the Titans,” “Mean Girls” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” Here’s how Baxter describe the series:

“Pop culture provides windows into a culture’s soul—at least for those with eyes to look through, and not merely at, those windows. And the soul is a home of hopes—horizons of the possible and impossible, dreams of how to move toward those horizons. Some of those horizons move in the directions of Christian Hope, some dream us along (often) well-intentioned paths that lead toward destruction. Whatever their direction, dreams grow—and die—in community, nourished and energized or stunted and polluted through countless acts of communication.

Christian media literacy in part involves learning to look through those windows into our cultural soul—to move beyond merely “consuming” or merely “critiquing” pop culture (see Andy Crouch, Culture-Making). If Josef Piper is right that humans thrive when hopes sustain the tensions that keep us “on the way” toward God’s coming kingdom (On Hope), and if part of faithful ministry means building on aspects of culture that move in the direction of God’s calling and purposes, then faithful media literacy looks through “windows” to notice horizons of hope and to cultivate life-giving tensions. These cultural hopes are what N.T. Wright calls “echoes of a Voice” (Simply Christian): richly poignant variations and blends of longings for Justice, quests for Spirituality, hunger for Relationships, and delights in Beauty.The company we keep on the way can make and break the journey (a major theme of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress). The involuntary company of family, the partly voluntary company of friends, the highly intentional company of teammates—all shape our horizons and guide our dreams, influencing how we respond to the “echoes of a Voice.” Not only the company we keep, but the stories we follow can make a difference on the journey. The films that fire our imaginations can also helps us reflect on the hopes learned and lost, dared and discarded, revived and reframed.

Three teams of students studying Group and Leadership Communication (COM 371) have selected three cinematic windows into cultural hopes. We long for good leaders and meaningful teamwork and find ourselves frustrated. Remember the Titans gives glimpses of hopes for justice and relationships revived and reframed through wise leadership and courageous teamwork. We dream of belonging with friends who help us become our better selves, yet the company we seek or get stuck with can subvert security and integrity. Mean Girls offers surprisingly insightful comedic glimpses of the shifting horizons of identity-formation that resonate with the echoes of beauty and relationships. For better or worse our families teach and torture our early and later dreams. Little Miss Sunshine’s dark comedy shows hopes renewed despite deep inter-generational dysfunctions, portraying a surprising synergy of longings for justice, beauty, relationship, and even spirituality.

Titans, Teens, & Tiaras: Cinematic Glimpses of Christian Hope will be a three-session series exploring how hopes take shape through communication within the groups in which we find ourselves “on the way.” Each session will provide film-clip-based opportunities wrestle with communication practices that help or hinder hopes that we can see “through” the windows of film.

Each team has submitted an application for their session. Ideally, we’d like to offer them as a series of hour-long sessions, sequenced to allow symposium attendees to start with the session on Remember the Titans, to continue later with the session on Mean Girls, and to conclude the series with the session on Little Miss Sunshine. Each session is designed to work well independently. Additionally, though, each team is developing ways to encourage session participants to notice connections among the sessions. Ideally, we would have the first session mid-morning, the second session late morning or early afternoon, and the final session in the late afternoon.”

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