With a deft touch, Stephen Spielberg’s autobiographically inspired film The Fabelmans (2022) shows us different functions that art can serve. Young Sammy Fabelman (the fictionalised Spielberg) feels compelled to reconstruct the train crash from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth because he “needs to see them crash.” His mother, Mitzi, interprets this urge for his father: “he’s trying to get some kind of control.” She offers him his father’s Super 8 camera, so that he can capture the crash and return to it at leisure. Sammy projecting the end result onto the palms of his hands provides a blunt but beautiful image of that control. Art can serve as ‘catharsis’, as Aristotle claimed tragic drama does: allowing us to see and experience that which we dread, and so purge it from our experience. Interestingly, for Sammy it is not merely watching film, but making film that contributes to this process. This early creative act serves as a symbol for all of Spielberg work, including this intimate film, talking about how the relationships in his school life, and especially his nuclear family, ‘crashed’.

Further on in the film, after being bullied by antisemitic jocks at school and fighting with his parents, teenage Sam lies in bed, holding a running camera against his check, soothing himself with its rhythmic ticking. Art can also be a comfort. Although, once again, in this case it is process of making art, rather than the finished product which is presented as comforting—or more accurately, the machinery of production itself, serving as a talisman of the creative process.


Concealing and Revealing

We also see the way in which film can reveal things. “It’s so beautiful what you made, darling. You really see me”, Sam’s mother says after watching a family movie of a recent camping trip, which concludes with his mother dancing, illuminated by car headlights. In another blunt but beautiful symbol, the silhouette of Mitzi’s body is revealed through her thin nightgown by the headlights. Film can serve as a window to see the world, or as a mirror to show us ourselves—for good or ill. In fact, film can also show us truths we would rather not see. Sam discovers a family secret in the background of the camping trip footage as he edits it together. So also one of the bullies is revealed in an embarrassing light by Sam’s footage of a school beach trip.

But film is not merely an objective record. The final scenes of the film reinforce the importance of perspective in making an interesting film. Fictional films by their very nature are illusory to some extent. It is wonderfully ironic to watch Sam’s striving for technical mastery, so that his cowboy and war films might not appear “fake, totally fake.” Even his more documentary efforts include editing decisions which create an illusion, such as excising the aforementioned secret from his family movie.[1] In one of the most intriguing scenes of the film, we discover that art can expose and confront its audience even by what it leaves out. An audience member who with insecurity or a tender conscience might be provoked and condemned by an illusory, idealistic portrayal—“Why’d you make me look like that?” complains one character, tormented by their idealised portrayal in one of Sam’s films.


Art, Scripture and Bible Teaching

In these reflections on the purposes of art, The Fabelmans gives us a range of ways that we might approach films, novels and documentaries—what purposes are they serving? In what ways is this work of art a means of catharsis or comfort? How does it reveal truths to us about ourselves or the world? In what ways does it distort or conceal the truth—and how can this tailored truth itself exposed realities? How noble are the purposes of this particular work of art? How effective is this or that work of art at achieving those purposes?

Some of the same questions could even be asked of the different parts of Scripture. Careful exegesis does consider rhetorical function and aim to even tentatively draw conclusions from editorial decisions of the human authors of Scripture. Is catharsis/control ever one of the purposes of Scripture? Perhaps the stylised form of apocalyptic literature, or the heroic tales of Daniel, Jonah and Esther might in part be seen as functioning in that way to some extent?

What is true of Scripture itself may also be true of our efforts to teach Scripture, whether in a sermon, Bible study, conversation or article: are we comforting? Are we granting our audience some sense of control by naming an object of fear or guilt? Are we showing something about the world or about ourselves? What are we leaving out? What is revealed in the background without our even intending to? In what ways might God comfort or confront our hearers, even against the grain of our choice of words? As imperfect human authors and audiences, we need to be aware of the faults in ourselves and our work, and ask that God do his good and perfect work through us and sometimes in spite of us.

[1] Other reviewers note that The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance, that features throughout the film, also includes a decision to conceal the full truth.