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Much has been written about Christian media criticism. First, I survey the field’s major works to identify four types of Christian media criticism. Next, I offer a critical perspective that puts the sacramental view of media and the concept of transposition in conversation. By reviewing the award-winning film Minari with this perspective in mind, I demonstrate that sacramentality does not rest in media products themselves, nor in critics’ technique. Rather, sacramentality is born of spiritual Encounter. Finally, I suggest that such perspective can function apologetically, in a limited sense, by equipping film/media critics to engage secular audiences in pop-culture spaces. A. Chase Mitchell is assistant professor of media & communication at East Tennessee State University.


For Christians, critiquing media is important because it is one way that we understand and share our faith. In his book, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue, Robert Johnston, senior professor of theology and culture at Fuller Seminary, writes, “Conversation about God—what we have traditionally called theology—is increasingly found outside the church as well as within it. One of the chief venues for such conversation is the movie theater with its adjacent cafés.”1 Discussing one’s new favorite movie, or what streaming show they are currently binging, has become a staple of American cultural discourse.

Whether the conversation happens at the water cooler, on social media, in popular publications, or in peer-reviewed journals, people spend a lot of their intellectual and emotional energy on “what’s playing.” How we perceive media, not just film and television but music, podcasts, audiobooks, etc., plays a major role in shaping individuals’ faith and religious discourse writ large.

Much has been written about Christian media criticism, variously defined. Here, I will first survey the field’s major works to identify four types of Christian media criticism. Next, I offer a critical perspective that puts the sacramental view of media and the concept of transposition in conversation. I then review Lee Isaac Chung’s award-winning film Minari2 by attending to that perspective. Finally, I discuss the perspective’s affordances (and limitations) in terms of media criticism and suggest how cultural artifacts’ sacramentality can function apologetically.

Types of Christian Media Criticism

There are at least four types of Christian media criticism. One is the critique of “pro-Christian media”—films, television, and other forms (e.g., music, literature, etc.)—that are intentionally and explicitly Christian. At the popular level, examples include Brett McCracken’s review for The Gospel Coalition, “‘A Hidden Life’ Is a Faith-Based Masterpiece,”3 and Chris Deville’s piece for The Atlantic about The Chosen, “Christian America’s Must-See TV Show.”4 In scholarly discourse, too, one finds critical analyses of Christian themes and motifs in overtly Christian media. Vander Stichele and Penner’s analysis of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, for example, examines sociocultural factors as they relate to its portrayal of the Crucifixion; they conclude that the film’s visual style—i.e., its emphasis on graphic violence—functions to portray a uniquely “American Gospel.”5 In such cases, the common trait is that the object of study, the media considered, is expressly and purposefully pro-Christian.

A second type of criticism is that which applies a Christian lens to “un-Christian” media. This kind of critique is analysis of media that is not merely non-Christian—that is, apathetic to Christian claims and values—but media, rather, that present themes clearly antagonistic to the Christian worldview. In such cases, the critic analyzes the artifact to juxtapose its un-Christian claims and values with what is specifically Christian. By foregrounding how the film or show is not Christian, the critic reinforces Christian views. Jessica Wilson’s review of Turning Red in Christianity Today is a good example. She writes:

We cannot become beasts or angels without it hurting or helping our families, friends, and neighbors. If you’re Meilin Lee in Turning Red, however, such wisdom of age-old philosophy is seemingly disregarded [ . . . ] the story shows a preteen discovering the benefits of capitalism, exploitation, and hedonism. [ . . . ] The film ends with a call for viewers to do like Mei and free their beasts within.6

After identifying the film’s clearly un-Christian themes, Wilson contrasts the film’s ethos with her own Christian worldview: “When I ask my children, ‘Whom do you want to be like when you grow up?’ I want the answer to be Jesus. Instead of liberating the messy beast within them, I hope that the films they see, the books they read, and the music they listen to will be pointing toward a higher end.”7 By drawing attention to anti-Christian themes, critics like Wilson make theological claims.

A third type of Christian media criticism is that which considers a-Christian media. Like critique that analyzes un-Christian media, criticism of a-Christian media considers cultural products that are not expressly Christian. The difference is that critique of a-Christian media is concerned with media that are not intentionally Christian but do reflect Christian themes. In a-Christian media critique, the movies, television series, music, etc. do exhibit Christian motif, but not on purpose. The critic perceives and articulates such themes. They tease out, if you like, the Holy Ghost in the machine. Such critics might be accused of “smuggling Christ” into media, but nevertheless provide compelling evidence to support their claims. Romanowski’s Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning, connects the dots between pop culture trends, movie-going, and faith to contribute to theoretical discussions in the field.8 Dark, as well, author of Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons, practices a-Christian media critique by finding God in these unexpected places.9 Downing writes, “Christian scholars have extracted spiritual insights from popular Hollywood movies in which Christianity has no apparent role. I have been enlightened and nourished by their theological perspectives.”10

Roy Anker’s work is useful in making the distinction between un- and a-Christian media criticism. The first part of his book, Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies, which he calls “Darkness Visible,” is comprised of three reviews: Michael Corleone’s descent in The Godfather saga, metaphysical evil in Chinatown, and violence in The Deer Hunter. In these essays, Anker focuses on the films’ un-Christian themes: personal, social, and cultural evil, respectively. The remainder of the book, however, including ten more reviews across three additional sections, takes a different approach. Instead of dwelling on films’ un-Christian themes, his analyses of subsequent works, such as Places in the Heart, Star Wars, and American Beauty, among others, portray God’s interactions with characters amidst life’s messy circumstances. Anker presents “how characters, through their experiences, ultimately move ‘toward Light,’ toward recognition of a loving, redemptive deity.”11 None of these films are intentionally or explicitly Christian, but each, according to Anker, do exhibit Christian themes to some degree and I suggest are examples of a-Christian media.

The fourth type of Christian media criticism considers themes in media that are intentionally Christian, but in ways that are not overtly apparent, in what I call meta-Christian media. Meta-Christian media is Christian on purpose, but its religious themes are subtle or implicit. In such cases, the media makers are most often Christians themselves, and their work is intentionally Christian, but their approach to communicating those themes requires closer attention on the part of the audience. Viewers who are not familiar with Christian theology, nor attuned to Christian symbolism and motif, are likely to miss or misunderstand the creator’s artistic choices, narrative significance, character arcs, and so on. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, for example, is a deeply Catholic work—“unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision,”12 wrote Tolkien to his close friend and Jesuit priest, Robert Murray—but in such a way that viewers unfamiliar with the Catholic worldview might not perceive. The critic who elucidates Christian and/or Catholic themes in Lord of the Rings (and other, similar artistic productions) is critiquing meta-Christian media.

Here, I suggest that by drawing on a sacramental view of media in our analysis and critique—and aided by the related concept of transposition—Christian media critics might perceive meaning that goes otherwise unnoticed and underappreciated in film, television, music, books, and so on. I show how this perspective uniquely informs, in particular, the critique of a-Christian and meta-Christian media. First, I draw on the work of sacramental theologian David Brown to establish that cultural products themselves (including media/film) have the potential for sacramentality. I then discuss how the sacramental view of media comports with Brown’s theses, and how its tenants can inform Christian media criticism. By reviewing the award-winning film Minari, and reflecting on the experience, I suggest that sacramentality does not rest in media products themselves, nor in the critic’s technique; rather, sacramentality is dependent on spiritual Encounter. Finally, I argue that such a perspective can function apologetically, in a limited sense, by equipping film/media critics to engage secular audiences in the pop-culture spaces where they spend time.

The Sacramental View and Transposition

The concept of sacramentality has been retrieved and reiterated by contemporary theologians and scholars like Hans Boersma, Edith Humphrey, and David Brown, among others.13 Much of the discourse about sacramentality has specifically focused on the relationships between faith, culture, and the arts. Brown’s work, especially, explores sacramentality as it relates to creation, beauty, and God’s revelation.14

James McCullough, author of Sense and Spirituality: The Arts and Spiritual Formation,15 is a foremost commentator on Brown’s theological aesthetics and helpfully distills Brown’s three primary theses.16 First, Brown asserts that the content of faith, as well as the experience of faith, are formed and reformed in a continuous dialectic between revelation and culture. The arts are a key component in this iterative process that manifests in what Brown calls ‘tradition.’17 McCullough observes that such dialectic results in the formation of ‘tradition’ when Christians adopt “‘secular’ concepts and images, instilling them with new content and meaning.”18 Christians then digest, reshape, and share that tradition in ways that influence wider culture.

Second, for Brown, the arts effect new emotional and imaginative experiences in the life of faith.19 McCullough notes that there is nothing new in affirming how the arts have the potential to impress hearts, but Brown is original in positing “the affective and imaginative domains as integral aspects of our rationality, that they are legitimate means of knowledge along with the cognitive dimension.”20 In other words, cultural artifacts move people emotionally and enliven the imagination, but such impact should not be understood apart from rational intellect. Just as faith is distinct from reason but not opposed to it, culture and revelation need not be set at odds. They do not necessarily collide, and sometimes do coinhere.

The third of Brown’s theses, according to McCullough, is that “the arts and culture provide opportunities for contact with God because they impart something of the grace and presence of God to the receiver [ . . . ] meaningful aesthetic phenomenon and experiences have an inherently sacramental quality to them.”21 That is, God reveals Himself in creation, and in human sub-creation, in ways that function sacramentally—as visible signs of an invisible reality. Such a claim is the focus of debate in the discourse surrounding “general” versus “special” revelation. Robert Johnston takes up this issue in God’s Wider Presence: Reconsidering General Revelation.22

In his book, Johnston suggests that discussions about general revelation would benefit from “a hermeneutic that includes not only Scripture and the tradition of the church [which, taken together, are referred to as ‘special revelation’] but also cultural receptivity and human experience.”23 Johnston is most concerned with pneumatology as it relates to people’s cultural experiences. That is, he is interested in how we think about, and, ultimately, encounter the Holy Spirit outside the boundaries of the institutional Church and/or when explicit reference to Jesus Christ is absent. Johnston argues that because the Western Church’s theological focus has been Christology—at the expense of pneumatology—much Christian discourse has omitted or at least downplayed the Spirit’s work in aesthetic (and even mundane) experience. Properly understood, though, “the Spirit is to be identified with the divine Presence in all of life.”24 To reclaim a Trinitarian perspective, then, Johnston posits that theological discussion about general revelation necessitates “the interlacing of various resources as we think Christianly.”25 I attend to Johnston’s call by drawing on two theological resources: a sacramental view of media and transposition.

Dennis Cali has written about the sacramental view of media and identifies “sacramental artists” in the realm of literature. In his article, “The Sacramental View of Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and James Carey”—which won the Media Ecology Association’s Top Paper Award—Cali suggests that writers like Tolkien, T. S. Eliot, and Flannery O’Conner were sacramental artists, because “[t]hrough narration, characterization, puns and paradoxes, they offered creative images in an effort to re-enchant the sensed world.”26 Such artists cultivate “an orientation towards reality that is anagogical, incarnational, anti-environmental, disruptive and revelatory as artistically expressed or mediated through signs and symbols.”27 Because sacramental artists produce cultural artifacts that are intentionally Christian, but their creations point to theological truths in ways that are not always overtly apparent to those uninformed by the Christian worldview, their work is best characterized as meta-Christian. Assuming the sacramental view, then, is suitable for those who critique meta-Christian media. The perspective I proffer here, however, goes beyond this natural compatibility to suggest that the sacramental view affords insight into other kinds of criticism, too—especially of a-Christian media.

Before making this argument, I must articulate the sacramental view. For my present purposes, I will discuss three of its five tenants—that sacramental media is anagogical, incarnational, and revelatory—and explore these tenants’ relationship to the concept of transposition.

Anagogical interpretation is a mode of criticism that “seeks to explain biblical events or matters of this world so that they relate to the life to come.”28 It refers to “modes of the consciousness that move at the literal and most outward level from awareness of the material reality—the ‘what’ of what Scripture says—to an anagogical level, the most interiorly experienced, acquired directly through supernatural experience.”29 In other words, the anagogical is concerned with how “things extend beyond themselves, even if incompletely or imperfectly, to an order that exceeds them.”30

In anagogical terms, Scripture exhibits distinct levels of meaning: the literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. The first three “lower” levels overlap and coinhere the anagogical, which is the “highest” level of understanding. This kind of fourfold exegesis is preserved in Latin doggerel, a mnemonic device used in medieval schools: Lettera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria, Moralia quid agas, quo tendas, anagogia (“The literal teaches history, the allegorical, what you should believe, the moral, what you should do, the anagogical, where you are going.”).31 The anagogical is concerned with a text’s teleological orientation, i.e., how it points to the consummation of all things—material and spiritual—in the fullness of time. The referent for Christian interpretations of anagogy is Christ’s consummated Kingdom in the new heavens and new earth.

Discerning such interrelatedness and proffering anagogical interpretation is only accessible to those guided by what Marshall McLuhan called percept: the ability to perceive spiritual truth in ways unguided by sense data alone, or through mere cognitive intellection.32 McLuhan discarded the Cartesian epistemology grounded in concept, and instead posited percept, a way of knowing that is attuned to and shaped by the eternal Word, the logos. Though the literal, allegorical, and moral interpretations of a cultural artifact inform and inhere (or resonate with) the anagogical, the anagogical cannot be derived by simply analyzing or even synthesizing these lower levels. Instead, anagogical epistemology is dependent on a driving force that—or more precisely, Who—draws the lower-level meanings “upward,” into Himself.

Anagogical perspective requires an acknowledgement that the world cannot be partitioned into objective “external” reality and subjective “internal” experience (as Cartesian dualism posits). Neither does it collapse the ontological landscape into a merely naturalistic framework in which personal experience is born from, and borne by, solely material processes. Rather, human experience is contingent on divine omnipresence: we are part of a natural creation in which the supernatural is present, always already, but we are only afforded knowledge of God’s presence whence He makes Himself known. In this sense, it is not even accurate to say we can discern anagogy; we must experience it as God’s inbreaking Presence. Such inbreaking is not an “imposition” on the natural world (as would be the case with a detached, deistic god who arbitrarily meddles in human affairs). Instead, the experience is a revelatory Encounter of what (or Who) is already there.

Johnston has acknowledged the difficulty of clearly identifying, and describing, this kind of spiritual Encounter. He observes that Scripture provides no definition of the Spirit, and cites Schweizer’s observation that, in the Bible, the Spirit is “narrated as an event—as happening.”33 Further, writes Johnston:

The Spirit becomes known as God reveals his personal Presence in creation and re-creation, in quickening and sustaining power and wisdom, and in in-breaking expectation. [ . . . ] In the Spirit’s activity as our creator, sustainer, redeemer, and finisher, we encounter God drawing us beyond ourselves.34

Like anagogy, transposition is concerned with how things extend beyond themselves. In Transposition & Other Essays, C. S. Lewis addressed the relationship between signs and symbols with the thing(s) signified. Lewis observed that the word symbolism is not always adequate to “cover the relationship between the higher medium and its transposition in the other.”35 Sometimes symbolism perfectly describes the relationship between a sign and the thing signified, such as the relation between speech and writing. In that case, “the one is simply a sign of the other and signifies it by a convention.”36 But Lewis suggested that other forms of media, such as pictures, are different. A picture is part of the visual field and functions to represent something else in the visual field. Images work as signs not by transforming information into another medium—as text does to speech—but instead by reconstituting the original in ways that are perceivable by the same sensory apparatus:

The suns and lamps in pictures seem to shine only because real suns or lamps shine on them; that is, they seem to shine a great deal because they really shine a little in reflecting their archetypes. The sunlight in a picture is therefore not related to real sunlight simply as written words are to spoken. It is a sign, but also something more than a sign, and only a sign because it is also more than a sign, because in it the thing signified is really in a certain mode present. If I had to name the relation I should call it not symbolical but sacramental.37

Transposition comports with McLuhan’s famous claim that “the medium is the message.”38 Like McLuhan, Lewis acknowledged the epistemic quality of communicative mediums, and suggested that this kind of mediation—signifying the archetype in ways that capture its essence but to some lesser degree—constitutes a sacramental relationship.

In addition to being anagogical, the sacramental view of media is incarnational.39 As Cali writes, “Those who assume a sacramental view find within the created world the presence of the Incarnate One.”40 In this light, Christ is truly present in the world, now. Christ’s spirit, which fills His body, the Church, illumines our spiritual senses when we encounter Him in creation. For those grafted into Christ, the Spirit recalibrates our spiritual sight. Because we see as yet “through a glass darkly,”41 we can never be too sure if what we perceive as individuals is entirely true. But as the body of Christ, we may fellowship together in a kind of resonant spiritual discourse, sure in the knowledge that the Holy Spirit guides those who seek His face. We encounter creation anagogically, that is if we proceed prayerfully and in Christian community—sacramentally and in transposition.

Such fellowship has guided the Church throughout history in her exegesis of liturgy, tradition, and most of all Scripture. A sacramental view of media does not discount Scripture’s or tradition’s unique qualities (as special revelation) as means to define and qualify doctrine; but it does afford Christians the awareness and call to seek God’s revelation in texts and media (such as film) that are not traditionally ascribed theological currency. It opens the door for seeing and sharing Christ in and through mediated platforms where we spend much of our time— not to speculate for its own sake, but to gratefully receive and reflect the Word in new ways. In confessing the risen Christ, we acknowledge His sovereignty over all things. Even though creation groans in sin and imperfection,42 because of this, not despite it, we should look for Christ in broken cultural spaces.

The sacramental view is also revelatory.43 In epistemological terms, revelation is knowledge that is dependent on God’s unveiling. A person cannot reveal the truth to herself any more than the moon can reflect light absent the sun. Revelation is necessarily given, always reliant on another (higher) source. Further, revelation cannot be fabricated by empirical observation or conceptual analysis. The literal, moral, and allegorical interpretations of a cultural artifact can function to prime a critic for receiving revelation, but only by being attuned to the right frequency, as McLuhan put it, is one equipped to encounter the Spiritual.44 Yes, but we are not the mechanics doing the tuning in this analogy. God Himself, rather, in and through the Spirit of Christ, breathes us into relational resonance with His Word, that we may abide in, and perceive, visible signs that point to invisible realities.

If the sacramental view is inaccessible sans revelation (which we cannot feign to conjure), how can we claim to perceive the sacramental? In Lewis’s words, “[ . . . ] who dares to be a spiritual man?” He answers himself:

In the full sense, none of us. And yet we are somehow aware that we approach from above, or from inside, at least some of those Transpositions which embody the Christian life in this world. With whatever sense of unworthiness, with whatever sense of audacity, we must affirm that we know a little of the higher system which is being transposed.45

In humility and with audacity, that is, we may affirm knowledge of the divine transposed in the mundane. Believers are equipped by the Spirit to do such work, however precarious and fallible our understanding. It is human nature, after all. Schultze cites Carey’s contention that “‘communication is less about the secular goals of sending and receiving messages per se than it is about the inherently sacred practice of responsibly establishing cosmos out of chaos.’”46

How do we do this, then: establish order out of chaos with our media critique? By considering the sacramental view in concert with transposition, I suggest, media critics might perceive anagogic, incarnational, and revelatory themes in films, television, and so on. The sacramental artist, writes Cali, “offers a mystical gaze, passing beyond—but not neglecting—what is grasped by the natural and intellectual faculty to what can be understood through more interior contemplation.”47 Building on Cali’s argument, my claim is that sacramental media critics can articulate our own experiences in perceiving media’s sacramentality, and in so doing we might function as instruments, in and through which God enlivens our readers’ awareness of divine resonance. Below, I review the critically acclaimed film Minari with this perspective in mind.

Sacraments of Grace in Eden, Arkansas

Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, which won Best Foreign Language Film at the 2021 Golden Globes, is a semi-autobiographical portrait of his early childhood years in 1980s rural American South. The story follows the Yi’s, a Korean American immigrant family that moves from California to rural northwest Arkansas. The family patriarch, Jacob, has purchased a tract of land near the Ozark Mountains, where the soil is suited to growing the kinds of produce used in Korean dishes. Jacob dreams of establishing a thriving farm that supplies the demand for such produce by the large and steady stream of Korean immigrants into urban American markets. The film chronicles the Yi’s struggle to survive—financially, culturally, and literally—as they work to accomplish their agrarian goals and adapt to rural American life.

Most of the reviews of Minari focus variously on the film’s treatment of immigration,48 race,49 intergenerational conflict,50 or some combination of these. The chorus of secular media critics have directed their attention, especially, to how these issues relate to the American Dream. Although some reference the film’s biblical themes, it is usually in passing or to inform the aforementioned subjects. Such observations are insightful, interesting, and important. But Minari is not primarily about race, immigration, or the rest. Nor is its deepest meaning a moral one, such as the dangers of pride, though that, too is present. Although the story affords various allegorical interpretations, neither are they the highest level of meaning. Rather, Minari is most truly a vision of Christ’s inbreaking Kingdom; it is a visible sign of that (as yet) invisible reality and, as such, a sacrament of grace.

The film opens with the Yi family’s move from California to the Arkansas farm that Jacob buys and moves into with his wife, Monica; son, David; daughter, Anne; and mother-in-law, Soon-ja. Once on the farm—what Jacob refers to in jest as Eden—it quickly becomes clear that at least two spirits are at work. Jacob is driven by the American (and immigrant) spirit of independence and entrepreneurialism. “We use our minds,” he tells his son David after mocking a dowser’s method for well-finding. When David asks his dad about the plume of smoke rising from the chicken-sexing facility where Jacob and Monica work to make extra income, Jacob replies: “Male chickens can’t lay eggs. They don’t taste good. So we have to be useful” (emphasis added). The implication is clear: we determine our own worth through effort and utility.

Whereas Jacob’s modus operandi is to pull himself up by the bootstraps, Monica, aptly named, is the Augustine mother whose faith is tested by her husband’s ambition, her son’s heart condition, and loneliness. She feels inadequate—“I’m not fast enough [at chicken sexing],” she tells her coworker—and doesn’t understand how their lives have become so far removed from her hopes and dreams. Though she tries to embrace Jacob’s vision for their farm and family, and to trust that God is in it, she doubts. What will they do if David’s heart fails so far from the nearest hospital? Who will buy Korean produce? What if we go broke? It’s not fair to the children.

Jacob tolerates Monica’s Christianity but does not embrace it. He is tolerant of many things: his farmhand Paul’s eccentricities; attending a country church, once, at Monica’s request; his mother-in-law. The only thing that Jacob does not do in concession, but embraces whole-heartedly, is work to see his plans to fruition. Blinded by pride, he is unaware of the biblical connotations that his name, well, and “big garden”—as Monica calls the farm—denote. When the well runs dry, Jacob continues to dig his own cisterns,51 51 revealing a stubborn self-(in)sufficiency. Instead of paying for water from the county, he follows his own advice to his son earlier in the film: “We don’t pay for things that we can get for free.” Ironically, the sentiment points to the Gospel of unmerited grace. The irony escapes Jacob, though; he is still wrestling.52

As Eve Tushnet observes in America: The Jesuit Review, “Where Jacob tries hard to project strength, Paul [Jacob’s Christian farmhand] is visibly broken.” A veteran of the Korean War, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and his erratic behavior and eccentricities disquiet Jacob (including carrying a large wooden cross down the area’s country roads). “Still, Paul offers to bless Jacob and his wife, having seen that they are struggling. Jacob replies brusquely: ‘No need. Come early tomorrow—lots of work to do.’”53 Despite Jacob’s claim that the farm has the “best dirt in America,” and his incessant work, the land will not produce through mere human effort. Jacob has not yielded to God’s provision.

Meanwhile, David grows closer to his grandmother Soon-ja—whose affection he at first rejects, even peeing in her “mountain water” (Mountain Dew). She teaches him card games, bandages his wounds, and soothes him to sleep. She also encourages him to be more physically active and calls him a “strong boy,” a welcome departure from the supposed fragility his parents assign him. In response to his dad’s plight, David’s newfound courage spurs him—heart murmur and all—to lug pales of water across the property from a creek that he and Soon-ja discover on one of their walks. Like his biblical namesake, David is stronger than his family knows.54

Soon-ja observes that the creek is well-suited to grow minari, an East Asian water-celery used in various Korean dishes. David ventures to the water’s edge and spots a snake on a tree limb. Soon-ja warns David not to disturb it: “With some things it’s better to see them than have them hide.” In Minari, as is so often the case, the snake-in-the-grass is hubris; we are often unaware of its presence, and in that ignorance are more susceptible to its malignant effects.

As the source of all sin, error, and deformity, pride is a spiritual condition of the heart. David’s physical heart condition hints at the totalizing spiritual effect that original sin has on humanity. David, a child, suffers its real wages—none are exempt—and can only be saved by sacrificial love. In the scene in which David expresses fear of dying, Soon-ja promises that she won’t let anything happen to him. She hugs him tightly as they fall asleep together, singing “Wonderful Minari.” That night she suffers a stroke, and although she survives is left with severe physical and verbal impairment. Sometime later, to Jacob’s chagrin, Paul performs a kind of cleansing ritual, or exorcism, in the Yi’s home. When Paul enters Soon-ja’s bedroom he finds her staring in quiet horror at the dresser at the end of the bed, at what Paul perceives to be a demonic entity.

The meaning of Soon-ja’s demonic visitation is not apparent until the family travels to Oklahoma City for David’s medical checkup. Preoccupied by his appointment with a potential Korean produce vendor, Jacob carries his basket of vegetables into the exam room. For Monica it is shameful, another act of familial neglect in favor of his work. But there is good news. To Jacob and Monica’s surprise, the doctor says that the hole in David’s heart is getting smaller. “How?”, Monica asks, “[ . . . ] the murmur has been getting louder.” The doctor explains that it is normal for that to happen as the cavity shrinks. He can’t explain, however, why the hole is shrinking, other than “it must be the Ozark water.”

The timing of Soon-ja’s stroke relative to David’s miraculous prognosis suggests that her protective oath functions in an atoning way—at least, that is, in a symbolic or typological sense. In her physical debilitation (stroke) she takes on his bodily affliction (heart condition) so that it begins to heal. Too, the dresser that Soon-ja fixates on during Paul’s exorcism is the same one that falls on and injures David earlier in the story. On the spiritual battleground, she now faces evil in David’s place.

Despite David’s unexpected and positive prognosis, Jacob and Monica continue to fight about the family’s future. She wants to return to California, and his obstinance remains: “Even if I fail, I have to finish what I started.” They realize that they can’t save each other and tacitly acknowledge the likelihood of a divorce. Monica and Jacob still do not recognize God’s grace in the healing of their son, much less think to receive it for the sake of their marriage, family, and farm.

But God is a consuming fire.55 When the Yi’s return home, their barn burns to the ground, almost killing Jacob and Monica as they try to salvage the crops. With no other choice, Jacob finally yields. In the final scene, in an act of trust and submission, he and Monica follow a dowser who marks a spot for a new well. David then accompanies his dad to the creek to harvest minari that Soon-ja planted. “It is a good place,” Jacob says.

In his review of the film for the Gospel Coalition, Eugene Park writes:

[Minari] accurately captures the lives and testimonies of those who fumble their way to Christ as living water. It’s often nonlinear and messy, full of relapses into searching for sustenance in the wrong things. At times we forget to water our gardens with truth from Scripture, or we even begin to doubt if God will sustain us. But it is through our errors, not our perfection, that grace breaks into our hearts [1 Tim.1:14–16].56

For those who refuse to acknowledge their folly, who reject His good gift, the road leads everywhere and nowhere—the outer darkness. But if we lay down our pride, if we give up our own will and submit to God’s purposes, we find abundant life, we recover paths that lead to Eden.

There are several allegorical interpretations of Minari. Some scenes and subplots—such as David’s heart condition, Soon-ja’s “atoning sacrifice,” and the resulting healing—typologically allude to biblical truths. The barn fire, too, can be read as a symbol for God’s judgement on those whose try and rebuff His will.

Other allegorical themes are more subtle. Minari suggests to the thoughtful viewer, for example, that God uses the smallest, most broken people to work out His good plans. If Jacob is prideful and Monica doubtful, the other family members suffer from other thorns. David is believed to be weak, soft, and not fit for the physical labor required for farm work. Soon-ja is old, unproductive, and a burden on the family. To Jacob, farmhand Paul is hyper-religious, wacky, a potential liability, and a constant reminder of Jacob’s unbelief. But God saves the hardworking, the intelligent, and the self-assured precisely by using the fumbling, the small, and the afflicted to fulfill His purposes. In the film, they do the faithful work that Jacob cannot.

Another biblical allegory that is present is that one cannot be at home until she is at home in God’s will. Jacob’s “big garden” is a farm in the rural American South. Its literal meaning—a physical place where the Yi’s set out to make their new home—also serves as the setting where Jacob’s pride leads to familial strain and economic hardship, and in so doing makes an ethical (i.e., moral) claim: stubborn persistence in one’s own way obscures the truth and destroys relationships. Allegorically, it demonstrates the futility of establishing and abiding in peace—of making a good home—unless and until we submit to God’s guiding hand. According to Stephen Beebe, this theme is elemental to all stories. He affirms C. S. Lewis’s claim that all stories are about finding home:

Where does the hero go after finding riches? Home. ‘Quest’ stories are ultimately about questing for what? Home. Voyage and return to where? Home. Where does the protagonist go after the monster has been vanquished? Home. Where do births and re-births happen? Home.57

Beebe concedes that although many stories do seem, on the surface, to be about something other than finding home—coming of age, lost and found, revenge, redemption, etc.—such themes are derivative of this other primary theme. He writes, “Conflict, the stuff of all stories, separates people from that which they seek—or, in Lewisian terms, that for which they long. What is the ultimate human longing? For home.”58 In Minari, home in the allegorical sense does not refer to a physical place, but a spiritual disposition of the heart. The Yi’s seek to establish a material abode, but they fail to do that until they learn to abide in the “spiritual home” that God provides.

In each case of allegory, the lower levels of interpretation inform and inhere the higher ones. The visible signs—setting, characters, plot devices—function at the literal level by moving the story along. In and through those signs the film makes moral claims about the dangers of pride. And in and through positing such claims, the film exhibits biblical allegory. But Minari is not allegory in the strictest sense. A strictly allegorical interpretation of the story would be disjointed, at best, because although certain, discrete instances of allegory do occur, they are not stitched together in ways that paint a unified portrait of the biblical story. The reason for this is apparent in director Chung’s interview with Paul Asay for

I didn’t want to set out to make a Christian movie, if that makes sense, like in the sense that I’m preaching to the choir, or just trying to preach the Gospel. I didn’t want this film to be that. I just wanted this film to capture a certain perspective and experience that I have of wrestling with God. The name of the main character is Jacob, and he’s wrestling with God in this film. So what you see play out—I ask for Christians to have some grace with me, because knowing the ways that I believe it might be unorthodox or people question me about how I portray different characters—it’s honestly just me working things out on a very personal level.59

Minari is not meant to be strict Christian allegory because its creator did not intend it. There are Christian themes that can be interpreted allegorically, but allegorical interpretation that exceeds this reads too much into the text.

The moral dangers of pride and Christian allegory are both present in Minari, but they both point elsewhere: to the incarnate Christ who reveals Himself in and through our foibles. The film’s teleological orientation—its eschatological claim—is that God draws us to Himself not despite our darkened minds, weak bodies, and twisted hearts, but by working through them. In other words, Minari’s anagogical revelation is that “where we are going” is determined not despite our weakness, disobedience, and failure, but rather precisely through them God providentially draws us to Himself. In this way, the film is a sacrament of grace.

For example, God continues to gently foil Jacob’s plans as he pushes forward in his own will, but in the end, He forcefully confronts Jacob’s hard-heartedness. The film’s climax—the barn fire—redirects Jacob’s attention to his own powerlessness by using visible, material signs (land, produce, fire) to signify invisible spiritual truth: God will will be done. Such chastisement appears on the surface to be punitive: God seems to be punishing Jacob for disobedience. By (literally) consuming the storehouse, God demonstrates—to the Yi’s and to the viewer— that “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”60 That is, in the face of our disobedience, God exudes His righteousness in might. He consumes our disobedience (the allegorical interpretation).

But Love does not chastise except to give itself away (the anagogical interpretation). Christ is Himself consumed so that we may live. God draws Jacob to Himself in the suffering of the meek and afflicted—in David, Soon-ja, and Paul— and it is in and through these characters that God saves. In the end, the minari that weak David and burdensome Soon-ja plant in the creek is what sustains the family and draws them into the “upward adducing way.”61 Paul’s prayers, and suggestion to use a well dowser to locate a water source, teaches Jacob to trust God’s provision, even when it comes from a “strange” source. In Minari, the weak characters are the ones who embody God’s strength. Through their afflictions, not despite them, God reveals His salvation. The apparently strong, too, though unsuccessful in their hard-heartedness, also function as instruments of Providence. After all, the Yi’s would not have settled in this “good place” were it not for Jacob’s initiative and pride. Providence orchestrates events, that is, in strength and in weakness, in success and in failure, in pride and in humility, and in so doing God’s inbreaking Kingdom is both revealed and made manifest.

To put it another way: the characters cannot escape God’s grace because all of creation is sacrament. Visible signs point to invisible reality, even whence that reality is not immediately discernible. David’s heart murmur, a physical affliction that is healed (visible sign) by self-sacrificing love, is ultimately testament to God’s inbreaking, grace-wrought spiritual Kingdom (invisible reality)—a Kingdom that is at once obscured by and revealed in the material. Anagogy perceives, that is, that in creation God is both wholly Other and Holy with us. Such incarnational Truth is not made visible through mere contemplation. Discernment functions at the level of morality and allegory, but anagogy is revealed by Encounter. Just as Jacob and Monica fail to discern God’s will and are only repentant after encountering Him in the consuming fire, Minari’s viewers perceive the film’s sacramental quality only by approach. This happens not by a burning away of the literal, moral, and allegorical dross, but by its spiritual transformation.

Ultimately, even “failures” to experience God’s presence are simply another form of grace because the Holy Spirit comes to us even (and sometimes most profoundly) in silence. As Tim Keller has aptly observed, in Christological terms, “A sense of Jesus’ absence might be a sign of his presence—a sign that he’s working already in your life.”62 In their floundering, the Yi’s encounter a supernatural grace that directs material events (and spiritual hearts) towards God’s good ends. They learn that weakness and affliction are at times the precise means that Providence requires. If we, too, can know this, we may abide in the many rooms Christ has prepared for us,63 no matter how unsuitable circumstance appears.

Tushnet’s description of Minari is illuminative: “This is what childhood is often like, as small moments teach us something we don’t quite understand.”64 Minari reminds us that we are all children—Davids and Jacobs and Soon-Jas— peering through a glass darkly65 at truth Whose power is made perfect in weakness.66 To enter the Kingdom we must be as children: dependent on God for all things.67

Media Critique in Sacramental Key

The sacramental view of media can inform all kinds of Christian media criticism, but I suggest it is most illuminative when considering a-Christian and meta-Christian media. Much pro-Christian media is allegorical; the same is true of un-Christian media. In such media, whether film, television, music, or literature, allegory is common because it is something artists and producers can control. Using signs and stories to point to other signs and stories, as allegory does, or even to make moral or ethical claims, is the sub-creator’s intent and purview. But the Creator reserves for Himself the ability to divine supernatural Encounter.

Minari is especially interesting because Chung does not tell an intentionally allegorical story. By his own admission, he approached the semi-autobiographical film as a space to explore his own experiences of Christian spirituality, even if the way he portrays that is “unorthodox.” Park observes that “It’s not a ‘Christian film’ in the buttoned-up, ‘wrapped with a redemptive bow’ sense. Instead, Minari chooses to portray the complexity and nuances of faith.”68 As a result, the film does not fit neatly into either the a-Christian or meta-Christian buckets. Some of its themes border on intentional Christian allegory (e.g., Jacob’s well, God’s consuming fire, etc.) but their fragmented-ness functions more like the kinds of storytelling characteristic of meta-Christian media. But some of the Christian themes that I identify in my review are not born from Chung’s intent; or, at least, I have no evidence to suggest (either from other reviews or Chung’s interviews) that my observations resulted from the director attempting to “embed” them into the story. For example, the notion that Soon-ja’s stroke symbolizes atoning sacrifice, on David’s behalf, is original as far as I know. In this instance, Minari functions as a-Christian media—the film exhibits Christian allegory in unintentional ways.

Other films or cultural artifacts are more easily characterized as specifically a-Christian or meta-Christian media. In any case, whether Christian allegory is intentionally rendered or unintentionally manifest, the sacramental view is more concerned with a cultural artifact’s anagogical interpretation, i.e., how both intentional rendering and unintentional manifestation function to reveal divine Encounter. Minari’s anagogical interpretation accounts for its literal, moral, and allegorical meanings, but goes further. Because the anagogic refers to “where you are going” in the spiritual sense69 (or “what you should hope for,” as some translations have it),70 the viewer’s perceptual orientation must be grounded in the teleological. Cali cites Schroeder, who writes that such interpretation “finds in all reality an intrinsic goodness straining beyond itself. The sacramental view “recognizes in the material reality in and of itself ‘something numinous, existentially satisfying, and divinely beautiful.’”71

Minari draws the viewer into such numinous Encounter by depicting characters that God saves, despite themselves, an act of pure grace. Critically, the power that does the drawing lies with God Himself. The viewer, like Chung’s characters, must respond by attending to the Spirit working in and through creation, but such attendance (and response) cannot be understood as the exercise of a merely human capacity. Rather, it is evidence of God at work in and through the viewer. In anagogy, the Spirit of the Incarnate and Resurrected Christ transforms the person’s epistemological equipment, so that she knows Christ’s presence as He abides not simply within the created order (as if a film could serve, for example, as a container that carries the Spirit along), but rather as He abides in her response to that order/film. In Waiting for God, Simone Weil writes of this Triune reality:

The beauty of the world is the co-operation of divine wisdom in creation. [ . . . ] God created the universe, and his Son, our first-born brother, created the beauty of it for us. The beauty of the world is Christ’s tender smile for us coming through matter. He is really present in the universal beauty. The love of this beauty proceeds from God dwelling in our souls and goes out to God present in the universe. It is also like a sacrament.72

This is good news. The prideful, the doubtful, the weak, and the wacky, we are each on our way to meeting the Christ who loves us into existence. By “hiding” in plain sight in the good-yet-fallen created order, and revealing Himself in grace, both God’s transcendence and His immanence—mixed as holy spittle73 —enable us to perceive the world sacramentally. Such vision is perceived in transposition, writes Lewis:

Our natural experiences (sensory, emotional, imaginative) are only like the drawing, like pencilled lines on flat paper. If they vanish in the risen life, they will vanish only as pencil lines vanish from the real landscape, not as a candle flame that is put out but as a candle flame which becomes invisible because someone has pulled up the blind, thrown open the shutters, and let in the blaze of the risen sun.74

It is true that, in meta-Christian media, “sacramental artists” seek to draw audiences into the upward-adducing way via “technique” (to pull open the blinds, to use Lewis’s language). Film directors deploy Christian reference and typology to make moral, allegorical, and anagogical claims. Even if a film’s Christian ethos is more subtle—if its Christian themes are disjointed, obscured, or even unorthodox, as is the case in Minari—the film may point to teleological Truth. Indeed, sacramentality often works in and through disjointedness, obscurity, and unorthodoxy, not despite it. But Encounter is never a rendering; it is always a revealing. Minari’s discrete allegories are conceptually discernible and they coinhere the anagogical, but its sacramentality, by definition, is a trinitarian point of contact: the Son’s invisible presence is met—in and through the Spirit—by the viewer’s gaze. Simone Weil wrote with penetrating insight about this kind of supernatural Encounter:

God is pure beauty. This is incomprehensible, for beauty, by its very essence, has to do with the senses. To speak of an imperceptible beauty must seem a misuse of language to anyone who has any sense of exactitude: and with reason. Beauty is always a miracle. But the miracle is raised to the second degree when the soul receives an impression of beauty, which, while it is beyond all sense perception is no abstraction, but real and direct as the impression caused by a song at the moment it reaches our ears.75

Encountering anagogical meaning in a-Christian media, then, too, is unhindered by the fact that such media does not intentionally point to Christian truth. Even whence an artist’s muse is something or someone else, God can reveal His face, not despite the sub-creators’ signs and symbols but precisely through them. To the Spirit-led, secular intent is no barrier to spiritual Encounter.

Mediating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful

I have articulated the sacramental view of media and put it in conversation with the concept of transposition to demonstrate how, taken together, they might inform our understanding of media critique. Briefly, and to conclude, I address the following questions: What, if any, apologetic function does this perspective afford Christian media criticism? Does the perspective provide some apologetic “utility,” or is it too nebulous or subjective to function in such a role? Or is apologetic beside the point? Space limitations necessitate that I only touch on these issues, here, but they are important because they point us in new directions as scholars, as critics, and as Christians.

As Viladesau has observed, “Aesthetic experience seems to play a major role—at least for some people—in the exercise of practical judgement for belief in God—perhaps a great deal more than the traditional ‘proofs’ of God’s existence set forth in apologetic theology.”76 Modes of criticism that attend to the sacramental view of media, and transposition, provide resources for reshaping dialogue between subcultures that abide in the same pop culture spaces—spaces that serve, for some, as arenas of theological discourse. Critics that are appropriately informed, and properly “attuned,” might mediate the good, the true, and the beautiful in film, television, music, and other media.

As I have argued above, the perspective that I have proffered cannot be “applied” hermeneutically by media critics in a top-down matter, i.e., as a tool or technique for discerning (or elucidating) a kind of inherent sacramentality—a sort of “holiness” that is carried along by a cultural artifact independent sub- jective engagement. Rather, my claim is that the sacramental view and transposition bring into focus an ontological reality in which sacramentality is always top-down. Although all true spiritual experiences are contingent upon God’s unveiling presence, it is not the case that media critics are then left “helpless bystanders,” in the sense that we play no role in teasing out cultural artifacts’ spiritual resonance. Instead, in His grace, God descends into our perceptual experiences as we encounter the artifact, forming and reforming not just our perception of the film or song, but breathing life into the ways we talk and write about that artifact to resonate in others. This kind of iterative spiritual fellowship, or mediation, if grace-wrought, is a dim—yet true—reflection of Trinitarian communion.

We must be very careful here. I am not claiming that we, as critics, have the innate capacity, on our own, to mediate the good, the true, and the beautiful in media. There is only one Mediator, and He delegates sub-mediating roles when and how He pleases. What I am suggesting is that by assuming the perspective which says that God, in new creation, does in fact reveal Himself in the created, material order, we may prayerfully seek to be transformed in our own media experiences, and thus to serve as instruments in and through which God reveals Himself to others.

Of course, humility is key for critics that assume this posture. In their book Prophetically Incorrect, Woods and Patton write that a critic “ . . . cannot be one who claims ‘unmediated access to God.’ Rather, the prophetic critic recognizes herself as a fallen vessel.”77 In Transposition, too, Lewis stresses the importance of remaining humble in our evaluations: “It is not only for humility’s sake . . . that we must emphasise [sic] the dimness of our knowledge. I suspect that, save by God’s direct miracle, spiritual introspection can never abide introspection.”78 Still, we may proceed if the process is grounded in (Christian) community, acknowledges our perceptual limitations, and is purposed to the glory of God.

If we begin where we agree with secular critics and audiences by affirming common ground—if we acknowledge and discuss, that is, our shared understanding of a film’s literal, moral, and perhaps even allegorical meaning—we can lay the groundwork for drawing them into the “upward-adducing way.” This type of “apologetic” converses with skeptics not, necessarily, by refuting them, but by mediating their experiences in ways that transform understanding. The Christian media critic does what she can to shape her interlocutor’s perception in ways that draws attention to a film’s teleological orientation—i.e., how it points beyond itself—and ultimately to the Mediator. In the case of Minari, we might direct viewers’ hearts to the One who is both visible and invisible, immanent and transcendent, wholly Other and Holy with us.

Too often we try and put God in the dock (i.e., to put God on trial), to use Lewis’s language.79 The appropriate response, rather, is to receive and perceive His good creation in fear and wonder. As Walker Percy put it in The Moviegoer, we experience wonder by “some dim dazzling trick of grace,”80 and it is always a gift that transforms.

Cite this article
Chase Mitchell, “The Sacramental View, Transposition, and Media Critique: Divine Encounter in Minari”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 53:1 , 23-43


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Chase Mitchell

Chase Mitchell is Assistant Professor of Media and Communication at East Tennessee State University.