This interview comes to us from Daniel Melvill Jones.

Josh Larsen is a rare film writer who effortlessly interacts with two distinct audiences. Josh is the co-host of Filmspotting, a public radio show and one of the most popular film podcasts. But Josh also is the editor of Think Christian, an online magazine associated with the Christian Reformed Church in North America that is dedicated to helping Christians appreciate God’s sovereignty in popular culture. Josh recently wrote Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings (IVP Books), which seeks to see movies as an expression of prayer to God. In this conversation, recorded in 2017, we talk about his career as a film critic, his purpose in writing his new book, and how Josh approaches talking to his diverse audiences. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

It’s a thrill to talk to you because over the years you’ve been such an important voice to me as a filmgoer. I think it’s because of your work with both Think Christian and Filmspotting: you wear these two hats equally comfortably and that’s really helped me appreciate both sides of that conversation.

Thank you! It’s been an interesting balancing act to grow into. [Laughs]

I want to talk about that and a little bit about your career up to this point, and obviously I want to talk about your book. Can you walk us through your story? How did you get into film writing and how did you end up where you are today?

Film writing was pretty much what I identified as the thing I would love to do when I got older. It started when I was middle school age, once I realize that people were being paid to write movie reviews in newspapers. In the Chicago area at that time Roger Ebert was working, Gene Siskel was with The Tribune, and of course they had their television show. But there were also alternative weeklies like The Reader that had intense film coverage. I just loved reading and writing as a kid, and I loved movies, so it was the natural place for them to come together. For me it was more natural than, say, screenwriting. It was the criticism element that really appealed to me.

So that is what I tried to figure out a way to do as I continued through high school and college. I took the newspaper route myself. This would’ve been in the late 90s, so papers hadn’t yet collapsed and there were still arts departments. I eventually found my way to do that for a Chicago suburban daily newspaper, The Naperville Sun, where I was a film critic for a number of years. Then, when papers did start to implode and our staff was reduced on an annual basis, I started to make the move towards digital media. The best opportunity was with Think Christian. I had started to write for them probably a year or two before I took the editor job as a freelancer.

That was the first time I had really seriously attempted to do any sort of theological writing on film. I dabbled in it here and there, just because I’d grown up in the faith. Growing up, one option was to go into the Christian media landscape. But when I was in school, the culture wars were such a heated debate that it just wasn’t an appealing option to me. The way that the loudest Christian voices were approaching film was not how I knew to approach film, even as a Christian. So it just didn’t seem like a good match. That’s one of the reasons I leaned more towards mainstream media. I worked comfortably there for a number of years. When Think Christian came along, it was the time for me to say, “Okay, if I’m going to do this, I know I don’t want to count swear words.” I knew what I didn’t want to do, but I didn’t quite know what the alternative looked like or how I should go about it.

So Think Christian was a learning process for me, and one that I’m still on, to be honest with you. I joined Think Christian in 2011, so it wasn’t all that long ago. Movies Are Prayers is probably my best attempt at doing a form of theological film criticism that I’m happy with. I think it offers other ways of looking at movies through the lens of faith that aren’t just fearful or defensive.

Then, how did Filmspotting come about?

Being in Chicago, which is where the show is based, I was a regular listener when it aired on WBEZ, the public radio station here. So I was familiar with the show, but hadn’t really interacted in person with Adam Kempenaar, the founder, or our producer Sam Van Hallgren. It was more a Twitter relationship. This is the irony of social media: you’re in the same city and doing the same work, but we had more of a Twitter awareness of each other.

At some point Adam was asking for people to be guest hosts or fill-in hosts, so I did that. Eventually the co-host at the time decided he wanted to move on and do other things, so that created an opening. Shortly after, I started filling in and that worked out. Adam and I both really enjoyed doing the show together, and he thought I’d be a good fit moving forward. I’ve been doing that since 2012—a year after joining Think Christian.

It was kind of a crucial year because in my mind I had completely removed myself from the mainstream media realm. There was a fearfulness at the time, that if I made this shift in my work I would never be able to shift back. That was a fear more of my own misperceptions of how the media world worked or how Christians were perceived in other circles. So when taking the Think Christian gig, part of me was excited about finally getting to do this theology and art thing that I’ve always been curious about and that had always been intrinsically a part of my life. I was excited to do that professionally, but I was also wondering what this means in terms of being a mainstream critic. I did keep up my own website, Larsen On Film, since back when I was at the paper. I would still continue to write for that but it was a personal blog. In terms of having a professional outlet, I kind of consigned myself to be being in this Christian media realm. So with Filmspotting I was excited to be able to move back, in some ways, to speak to a more mainstream audience.

But then came the question of, how is this going to go? How is this going to go for those who know me from Think Christian? How is this going to go for Filmspotting listeners? The show has more mainstream crowd. There are certainly Christians among them and, I learned, a good number of them. But there are also atheists and agnostics and people from other faiths. Cinema is the priority at Filmspotting, and that’s what people are mostly interested in from that show.

It wasn’t so much a worry on my end about how I was going to speak to that audience, because that was my natural voice. I wasn’t worried about being able to do it. I’ve always been cognizant of the audience that I am writing or speaking to, because you’re there to serve their interests and their needs. So a Christian audience is looking for one thing and a mainstream audience is looking for another and I have no problem meeting those specific needs. But it was more like, “What are Filmspotting listeners going to think when they find out this is my day job?” or, “What is a Think Christian reader going to think if they stumbled across me on Filmspotting and I’m not explicitly talking about faith at all?” But it has been much smoother than I ever could’ve expected or hoped. That was a big relief.

That’s interesting how you talk about how you’re serving their interests and their needs and keeping that in mind as you’re crafting what you’re going to say to them.

That’s the answer I gave myself on how to do it. It didn’t feel like I was changing personas. I still feel like I’m being me in both scenarios. I’m just speaking to different audiences. Maybe that’s where having the mainstream career first was a blessing. During all those years, it wasn’t like I was less Christian. It gave me a chance to exercise film criticism as a Christian who did film criticism rather than as a “Christian film critic.”

In your book you talk about how your parents and church supported your interest in film early on. For myself, it’s been the complete opposite, so seeing your example of having someone who is strong in their identity as a Christian and as a writer is encouraging. It’s an example that we don’t often see.

Yeah, my community was really key to that. Now, I did grow up in the culture wars, so there were some people who attended Christian schools and some families who had more of an antagonistic relationship to movies and to popular cultural in general and a certain fearfulness. So I was well aware that that was out there. But in general, the attitude was one that saw culture as a gift from God and understood that God was sovereign over all things and held all things in his hands. Therefore this wasn’t necessarily something we needed to police. That wasn’t our duty as Christians. It was absolutely something that we had to be faithful in and that we need to be discerning about, absolutely. There was an element of that too. But yeah, I was very fortunate to have an affirming community when it came to art and movies.

When you’re thinking of those two different roles—Think Christian and Filmspotting and their two different audiences—how do you switch between them and how do they strengthen each other?

I want to emphasize that it doesn’t feel like a switch in my mind at all. But that move, or whatever you want to call it, is really strictly a question of audience. It doesn’t matter how small your platform is. If there are 10 people reading your blog, they’re not reading you so much because you’re so great. It’s that they’re looking for something that you, for whatever reason, can serve. So the question then is: “How can I serve this audience?” It may be an audience of 10 on your blog or it may be people who follow you if you’ve created a film Facebook page. But what is this group that’s gathered interested in your work, and how can you serve them?

That’s the approach when I get behind the mic at Filmspotting, knowing that there’s a passionate, passionate core group of fans of the show who have been listening to it long before I even did. I feel like that’s the group that I need to honor. They expect thoughtful responses to current movies. They expect attention to the film form. And they expect knowledge of film history and the filmmakers that we’re talking about. So it’s my responsibility to make sure I deliver that.

It’s the same thing with Think Christian. There, people aren’t coming just to read about Spiderman because it’s the big movie that week. They’re coming because they like to think about the ways big blockbusters might echo God’s story, or resonate with us in our Christian walk, or challenge the way we look at the world as Christians yet make us think about how we might be able to offer a loving response. I’d be doing them a disservice if I didn’t address those things in a Think Christian piece.

It’s interesting that in both of those contexts you’re coming from a place of service and of knowledge of your audience. That’s a Christian attitude regardless of what you’re doing.

Maybe. Yeah. And maybe that’s why, when I was working for the newspapers, I was just doing the best work that I could. I didn’t feel like it was un-Christian work.

What’s the main thing you’d want someone who reads your book to come away with?

It’s really offering one way to look at films from a faith perspective and engage with them. But the ultimate takeaway, I hope, would be that it suggests how this is possible in the first place. It’s more like modeling a way to do something which I am encouraging Christians who are fans of film to do in a way that might be different than they usually do.

I’m not saying the only way to look at films as a Christian is to identify how they might operate as different forms of prayer. This is just one avenue that I found to be intriguing to me and an exciting project to take on and explore. But the ultimate takeaway, I think, would just be to watch films carefully and with a certain amount of grace. This means bringing our own worldview to the table last. First, let the film and the creative people who were behind it offer what they want to offer through this piece of art. Take it seriously as art and consider the decisions that were made in creating it that go beyond narrative or theme. Consider the aesthetic of the film and consider the form of the film. Then, after the movie has had its own say, at that point absolutely respond out of your own faith and your own worldview. But I think what I found is that if I let the movie speak first, my response is going to be more on point to what the movie’s doing. My response is going to be more graceful. Then we kind of sidestep this whole antagonistic relationship that has dominated too much of Christian engagement with film.

That’s great. You talk a lot in this book about how films shape your life and your prayer life. How do you yourself maintain that kind of approach when you’re watching films?

I don’t just stop watching a film and leave it be. I have professional obligations that require me to do more. So in a way it’s easy for me. We’re recording Filmspotting tonight, so I’ve got to be prepared with thoughts on the movies that we’re going to talk about. I’ve already written reviews of those films for my own website, so I’ve done that sort of reflecting. It’s similar with Think Christian. I saw Spiderman and found something worth writing about there for Think Christian. So not long after getting out of the movie I started processing what I saw.

For someone who is not engaging with film professionally in any way, maybe it does require something like a journal or a movie group, like a club of friends that you get together and do this with. Letterboxd, which is an online diary of what you’ve watch but also has space for rating and leaving notes about movies, is a great way to kind of give yourself an outlet for doing that. But again, you don’t want to cross over that line where it becomes a burden. Art, including movies and our creativity, is a gift of God and meant for enjoyment first. Part of that enjoyment can be deep reflection, but I don’t think you can force that on someone, or you’ll loose the joy that was there in the first place.

In your book you talk about the benefits of film, such as the way it increases your prayer life and your understanding of salvation in the world. Are there ways you have to be careful as you watch films? Are there ways that film can encourage sin?

This comes back to the discernment question we touched on earlier. Absolutely, we need to be mindful of the films we watch. And I would say we need to be less worried about the message or the agenda that is in them. I think that is sort of a misnomer that came from the culture wars. Instead, I think we need to be more aware of how the stories or the elements in the film might be affecting us as people of faith. The really difficult thing is that each of us struggles with our own things in our faith walk. 

The difficulty of movies is that there are no pure movies. They are fallen, like everything else in this world. So there may be things we want to affirm in the film right alongside something that, as a Christian, really saddens us or is harmful for us because of its temptation. But again, that’s different for everybody. So it’s really hard to say, “A Christian should not watch this movie.” But it may be exactly right to say I should not watch that movie because of something I’m struggling with that this film will, because of the potent power of cinema, only exacerbate.

So how do we handle that? It goes back to community. It’s important to watch and discuss films in community. In a community it is harder to deceive ourselves in our discernment. For example, if films tend to warp your view of women and that is something you struggle with, maybe your spouse is a good person to watch that film with. Or maybe a church movie group can catch some element of the film that you may have missed. This is why I really encourage forming a movie group with a really good group of friends. Discernment ought to take place in community.

I’m lucky that my wife does watch a lot of films with me. Maybe not as much as I do, but she does love all kinds of film. I think also that discernment comes through honest reflection. Having this be a professional responsibility makes me really ask myself what I have watched. That may not come out in the review, but it still helps me process what I see.

And the Filmspotting listeners are very much a community. They will call me out on my opinions. The same is true with the Think Christian audience. It is good to get pushback from my readers and contributors, especially when I write about sexually explicit films. I’ve received a lot of good, challenging pushback that has made me deeply consider the discernment process.

Where do you see the future of Christian film criticism? What encourages you and what are your concerns about the direction it is heading?

I think it’s been moving in an encouraging direction for some time now. If anything, I’m concerned about Christian writers who see a certain movie’s theme aligning with the Christian worldview and who then celebrate that movie. Such an approach tends to prioritize narrative and theme so highly that we don’t pay a lot of attention to the film’s form. Because of my experience in mainstream media, I try to pay attention to editing, cinematography, and production design. For example, in my book I try to understand how the black and white genre of film noir might apply to the Christian idea of lament. I really have enjoyed being able to do that and writing in such a way that pays attention to form and honors the art.

Thank you for sharing your insights and for telling us about your career. I am really encouraged by the way you care for each of your audiences.

My journey has been really encouraging. Ultimately, the members of our Filmspotting audience all share this deep passion for the movies. That passion for movies is the bedrock of our show. Once you have that point of connection, any other differences become somewhat secondary. And that’s why some of those relationships have grown and continue to be sustained. In the end, I don’t want to be left always talking to the same circle of Christians.