Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Dr Carl Plantinga of Calvin University Senior Research Fellow Is…

Posted on

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Dr. Carl Plantinga, Calvin University Senior Research Fellow Is Helping To Change Our World

Don’t listen to the naysayers, the cynics, and the mean-spirited. You will always have people around you who seem to enjoy complaining. Sometimes this is necessary and warranted. But limit your time with people who constantly project cynicism, continual discontent, or who careflessly speak ill of others. You don’t need that perspective to rub off on you.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Carl Plantinga.

Dr. Carl Plantinga is Senior Research Fellow at Calvin University and Templeton Religion Trust grantee. Among his books are Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience and Screen Stories: Emotion and the Ethics of Engagement.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your research?

You’re much more likely to see detectives, lawyers, cowboys, and astronauts in movies and television than you are to see academics and researchers. To much of the public, gunfights, murder mysteries, battles, and even domestic life are more interesting than academic research. I’m like Burt Fableman (played by Paul Dano) in Spielberg’s The Fablemans (2022). I know a lot about my specialty but in talking about it, if I go beyond the surface, people’s eyes may glaze over. The most exciting stories to me often occur behind a desk and in my head, when I make a realization or find corroboration for a startling idea. The world of ideas has always interested me.

But not everything interesting to me has occurred only in the head (thank goodness). Professional highpoints also occur when I travel to interesting places to share my work and meet other scholars. I’ve given talks all over the U.S., but also in Sydney, Edinburgh, Barcelona, Hong Kong, Beijing, Copenhagen, and Budapest, to name a few places.

One of the most exciting bits of professional travel for me was learning that my uncle, Leon Plantinga, emeritus Yale University musicologist, just happened to be giving a talk in Shanghai at the same time that I was. One of our hosts took us on a lovely boat ride together on one of the city’s beautiful lakes.

Can you share the “ah ha moment” you had while conducting your research? What lessons did you learn from that?

My research recently has centered on how stories on screens have an impact on us, how they work to influence individuals and make culture.

Discussing the recent film Living (2022) over beers with friends recently, it was clear to me that we had very different experiences of the same film. One thought that the movie was boring. Two others were fascinated by it, but had very different interpretations of its themes and significance. We also disagreed about the actions of the protagonist. Did he make his life meaningful by taking the actions that he did? Or was it too late to make amends for the inertia that had characterized his life before he receives his terminal diagnosis? Knowing beforehand that Living was a remake of the classic Japanese film Ikiru (1952) would seriously influence one’s response. A toleration for subtle dramatic stories that skip the usual “run-fight-rest” repetitions of many blockbusters would also influence one’s response.

The “ah ha” moment is realizing that we all come to stories — film or literature — from differing perspectives. We have different tolerances for a slow pace, or nonstop action, or of genres such as the horror film or Western. This means that we will respond to films in very different ways, understand its themes differently, and take various things away from it — or nothing at all. Its almost as though we don’t even see the same film!

For that reason, the way that a film sparks discussion and reflection, during but especially after the screening, can be as important as what it “says” or implies. The philosopher Peter Kivy called this the “reflective afterlife” of a work of art.

For a film to spark discussion or reflection, it has to connect with its audience. That is a prerequisite to a film making a difference in anyone’s life. If we disengage, the film loses its emotional power and becomes irrelevant.

Much of my research has had to do with exploring the kind of engaged experiences movies offer us, and the strategies and techniques filmmakers use to move and fascinate us.

Can you describe how you or your research is making a significant social impact?

My research, I would hope, has contributed to our understanding of storytelling on screens, and the means by which such stories move us and affect our lives. Whether on screens or in books, the stories that move us the most also have the capacity to influence our response patterns and become a part of our thinking.

My research has encouraged scholars, most of whom are also teachers, to think and teach about these issues. It has drawn attention to an important research program of which my research is just a part. It has encouraged more scholars to attend to these issue. My writing and research are often used in college courses and by for their own research.

That these scholars are also teachers leads me to hope that the ideas influence generations of students.

I hope that someday the research will have an impact on screenwriters and filmmakers, but any such impact will be indirect. Filmmakers don’t typically read about the kind of research my colleagues and I are doing. But if studies about what sorts of films and film techniques elicit reflection, rumination, and learning gradually becomes a part of the cultural mainstream, I would be very pleased of course.

Can you provide an example of a recent film with a strong moral message and why?

To me, the most beneficial films are not necessarily those that beat you over the head with a moral message. Morally clear and persuasive films can be powerful and useful, don’t get me wrong. I prefer films that stage moral dilemmas in such a way that the dilemma becomes a part of our lives and a source for further reflection. The dilemma isn’t necessarily resolved. The point is to get the audience to consider it rather than to tell the audience what they ought to do.

One example of this is CODA (2022). Ruby (Emilia Jones) is a 17-year-old girl with hearing impaired parents and a hearing impaired brother. Her family depends on her in their social interactions, as in social situations she translates their sign language into spoken English. There develops an inevitable conflict between Ruby’s need to become independent as she matures, and the family’s need for her help. Ironically (given her hearing impaired family), she is a fine musician and has the opportunity to audition for the Berklee College of Music. Should she honor her dreams, or should she stay behind and devote herself to her family, who need her? In the end she auditions, but only because her father insists on it. In one sense the problem of conflicting commitments — to the self and to family — is resolved for her. But in another sense it is not. Ruby will forever wonder. Should she have followed her dreams, attended Berklee, and left her family to find a new way to communicate with the hearing world? Or should she have committed herself to helping her family? There are no easy answers to this question.

How do you define “moral Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

A moral leader leads by example. Some people think of a leader as one who is capable of influencing others, through fiery rhetoric, for example. But to be a moral leader, one needs to act in laudable ways, of course, and also exhibit a certain strength of character. Moral leadership becomes apparent only over time. It consists in the way one thinks of one’s work, its ultimate goals, and the contriubutions it might make for the broader good. Moral leadership becomes apparent over time in the way that the leader treats those around her or him, in the way that the leader reacts to crisis situations, in the general comportment of the leader in many different situations.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  • Don’t discount your belief that the practices of your institution may need to be changed, but be circumspect about how you communicate that to others. When I began graduate school, I was disappointed with the program. But I was not thoughtful enough about how I communicated that to my peers. Even when things aren’t going well, as long as you are a part of the institution, you have a responsibility to help improve it or to preserve whatever good it does have.
  • It is possible that your teachers and mentors are as confused as you are. When I started out as a graduate student and then as a young professor, I lacked confidence. One way to gain confidence is with experience and success. Another way to gain confidence is to understand that we all practice our professions by the seat of our pants, in some regards, and that no one has a corner on truth. You aren’t the only one.
  • Improvements often come slowly, but that is no reason to be a pessimist. Work every day to improve yourself, your institution, and things for the people around you. Small changes can eventually make a big difference.
  • Develop a long-term strategy to reach your goals. Think about your goals, whether for yourself or for the institution you work for. Have a plan to move toward achieving those goals. It is sometimes too easy to assume that change and improvement will occur naturally, simply as a result of doing one’s everyday work.
  • Don’t listen to the naysayers, the cynics, and the mean-spirited. You will always have people around you who seem to enjoy complaining. Sometimes this is necessary and warranted. But limit your time with people who constantly project cynicism, continual discontent, or who careflessly speak ill of others. You don’t need that perspective to rub off on you.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d like to spark a movement to wean audiences away from movies that feature non-stop violence and simplistic dichotomies between good guys and bad guys. If people would demand dramas and comedies that deal with human issues in a more complex and subtle fashion, filmmakers and studios would respond.

Simplistic dichotomies between good and evil encourage a kind of narcissistic blindness in people. Life isn’t so simple, and your enemies have their own perspective, which we often ignore to preserve a sense of our own pristine goodness.

Solving problems through violence is all too common in our culture. Could it be that stories with more realistic and throughful ways of working through conflict might influence our culture generally? Could it be that recognizing moral complexities might temper our tendencies toward self-righteousness? I would hope so.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.”
George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah

This quotation gets the heart of my research, which is how one particular art form, narrative film, can reveal and influence what George Bernard Shaw calls “the soul,” and what I might call “our deepest selves.”

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’d like to have lunch with the American filmmaker, Terrence Malick, who directed Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, Badlands, and The Tree of Life (among other films). I’ve always admired the great beauty of his films. But more than that, the kind of thinking they embody is subtle and intriguing, most likely representative of the way that his mind works, and of his interest in the ultimate meaning of our existence here on this Earth. I’d like to talk to him about that.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can learn more about my research at Templeton Religion Trust and Calvin University. Look me up with a google search, then read my books and articles. They are available at libraries or can be purchased online. Online one can also find filmed interviews with me about my work.


This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Dr Carl Plantinga of Calvin University Senior Research Fellow Is… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.