Popular films were the artform of the 20th century and they will continue to be significant in post-Millennial culture. Despite its incredible popularity, films have inspired much fear within religious communities who were suspicious of its nature, purpose and suspected deleterious effects. Using humanist film criticism as the analytical lens, the critical literature was reviewed and the fears of Satanic infusion, graven images and iconographic perversion were documented and explicated. Selected film exemplars, religious defences and biblically based counter-proposals were also proffered. It was concluded that films are not intrinsically evil, but they can be used for nefarious purposes if desired. Movies thus require constant vigilance from faith communities to monitor, control and protect, rather than resorting to cinematic abstinence or film-faithful separatism. Further research into this exciting interdisciplinary field was recommended.
Popular feature films are the art form of the 20th century in this undoubted “Age of Hollywood” (Paglia, 1994, p. 12). As Gore Vidal (1993, pp. 2-3) put it: “Movies are the lingua franca of the twentieth century. The Tenth Muse...has driven the other nine right off Olympus - or off the peak, anyway,” and no doubt they will continue to be significant in post-Millennial culture in the foreseeable future. Despite its incredible popularity throughout its comparatively brief history (1895 onwards), popular films have inspired much fear within religious communities. At some point or another, one or more faiths have been suspicious of cinemas’ nature, purpose and suspected deleterious effects upon the spiritual, socio-economic and physical aspects of humanity. In fact, these fears still haunt religious communities today, albeit, sometimes suppressed, transmuted or distorted behind rationalistic rhetoric and unthinking God-talk.
Before a true cinematic theology (aka religion-and-film, celluloid religion, theo-film, film-faith dialogue) can develop and grow into the powerful pedagogic tool that it is, these fears have to be brought out into the open and addressed. If these fears are not identified and dealt with, then they will eventually manifest in even more undesirable ways and cause greater grief in the future. Feature films are a fact of contemporary life, and the profession must deal with that fact; not hide from it or automatically resort to knee jerk condemnations. As Ian Maher (2002, p. 5) put it: “Christians cannot afford to be out of touch with popular films if they are to remain in touch with the swirling currents of contemporary society.” Using humanist film criticism as the analytical lens (Bywater & Sobchack, 1989), the critical religion-and-film literature was reviewed and integrated into the text to enhance narrative coherence (albeit, with a strong reportage flavour) to reveal the palpable fears of Satanic infusion, graven images and iconographic perversion. The following is an ad hoc introductory typological (i.e., not historical) explication of these significant film fears and some counter-proposals to deal with them.
‘Worldly Amusements’: Film as the Devil’s Work and the Need for Cinematic Abstinence
In America, movie theatres were frequently viewed with suspicion by religionists who considered the industry “an evil institution” (Lane, 1923, p. 217) and an undeniable source of sin. It was sincerely believed that: “Hollywood has been the follower of gods other than Yahweh. Hollywood has been the adulterous bride, the target of the wrath of the prophets” (Steele, 1972, p. 188). Indeed, as “late as 1913, no movie theatre was allowed within two hundred feet of a church” (Gianetti & Eyman, 1996, p. 23)! Such prejudice had deep historical roots. For example, “Athanasius Kircher, a German Jesuit priest, was charged with necromancy and working with the devil after inventing the Magia Catoptrica, the first workable projection device for black-and-white images” (Larson, 1966, p. 458). At other times, popular films were viewed by the clergy as a control rival because of their Pied Piper-like capacity of seducing viewers away from the Church and their control. As Fr. Daniel Lord (1956) humorously reported:
Summer after summer I returned to find my mother and father more and more addicted to the movies. Two places claimed their pilgrimage: the parish church of a morning, the neighborhood theatre of an evening. Many a fellow parishioner was inclined to genuflect on entering the local movie house and noticing my parents ahead of him (p. 274).
Less humorously, three churches in Nebraska, the First Christian Church, the West Nebraska Memorial Brethren, and the Ministerial Association in Hastings, considered the showing of movies on Sunday as scandalous and tantamount to desecrating the Christian Sabbath, violating their purity oaths and corrupting the youth of the country. Consequently, for sixteen years between 1913-1929 “the conservative elements within the town led by the clergy successfully resisted all efforts to change a fifty-year ban on any Sunday amusements” (Schneider, 1988, p. 61). However, after concerted efforts by the local business community, Sunday piety was eventually defeated by Sunday amusements when the ban was removed never to return to its former censorial glory again.
The fear of films’ ability to befoul the faithful was so great than in the early 1920s many draconian regulations were imposed upon the fledgling movie industry and proposals for even more restrictions were proffered. For example, one religious group suggested that: (a) picture theatres had to be closed on Sundays; (b) movies had to be made more fit for the youthful mind; (c) films should be censored to eliminate all reference to wickedness; (d) a better type of photoplay was to be presented to stop the rapid decrease in attendance at the theatres; (e) movies should cease being sacrilegious and hold the clergy up to ridicule; (f) only moral individuals should be allowed to play in the films; (g) all immoral persons be driven out of the movie business; and (h) a Government investigation be made into the causes for the immoralities of the members of the motion picture profession (Lane, 1923, p. 217).
These were significant burdens, but not to be out-done, the film profession fought back and counter-proposed the following impositions upon the ministry, namely: (a) churches be closed on Sundays; (b) sermons be made more fit for the youthful mind; (c) sermons be censored to eliminate all reference to wickedness; (d) a better type of service be delivered to stop the rapid decrease in the attendance at the churches; (e) the clergy cease being sacrilegious and holding the clergy up to ridicule; (f) only moral individuals be allowed to preach from the pulpit; (g) all immoral ministers be driven from the church; and (h) a Government investigation be made into the causes for the immoralities of the members of the clerical order (Lane, 1923, p. 221)!
Such filmmaker-religionist clashes continued for decades with a variety of surprising outcomes. For example, Cecil B. DeMille’s Jesus film The King of Kings “had to have a special licence to be shown in England, and then not at a cinema” (Herring, 1936, p. 76). When DeMille made The Sign of the Cross, Fr. Daniel Lord tried to get C. B. to cut three to five hundred feet of film from it containing the now notorious lesbian dance, however, DeMille was so stung by the censorship suggestion that he bitterly complained:
Noting that the [perverted] dance scene accounted for only 148 feet in 11,000 feet of film, he reminded them that sexual irregularities did not originate in Hollywood. “I seem to remember in the Bible,” he said, “a story of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Yes, wrote Martin Quigley in response, “and as for Sodom and Gomorrah we seem to remember from that same Bible that they got hell and lots of it” (Walsh, 1996, p. 80).
The erotic sequence stayed and generated further discord between the worlds of film and faith.
Shooting the Messenger: An Occupational Hazard
In contemporary times, such anti-film “hell” still existed and resulted in a variety of micro punitive retaliations, despite the perpetrators being religious professionals with good pedagogic intent. For example, Raymond Schroth (1995) reported that:
In 1988, when I made Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ an (optional) assignment for my communications class, a local woman, who didn’t even get my name right, wrote in protest to Archbishop Philip Hannan, who replied, without looking into the facts, that she was absolutely right (pp. 104-105).
Christian filmmaker Lloyd Billingsley (1989) similarly reported that:
I once had some good things to say about Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander and was taken to task by a Christian lady who said that even a “secular” newspaper had been more critical of the film’s antireligious overtones than I had. (Curiously, thus warned, she went to see it anyway.) On another occasion, I rapped Footloose for its caricature of Christians, only to find that my piece touched off hate mail from, among others, a minister’s daughter (p. xi).
Likewise, Frederic Brussat (1996) reported:
When I was a young assistant minister in a suburban parish in the late 1960s, I decided to discuss short films with the women’s group. I started with Polish director Roman Polanski’s Three [sic Two] Men and a Wardrobe since it was a parable about the treasures in one’s life. The political makeup of the congregation was very conservative. After showing the film, I asked if anyone would like to share her response. One woman leap to her feet, screamed “How could you bring a film by a Communist into the sacred halls of this church?” and stormed out, presumably on the way to see my superior (Brussat & Brussat, 1996, p. 288).
Religious film academic Fr. Lloyd Baugh (1997) reported a similar dismissive treatment when he tried to teach moral lessons using the popular cinema:
More than once, in public film-forums using A Short Film About Love, I have seen members of the audience walk out of the hall before the discussion even began. Sometimes members of the public have criticized me for including such a “perverted” film in a cycle of religious cinema. For some, even the erroneous Italian title, Do Not Desire the Wife of Another, is already too much (p. 293).
Regrettably, this denouncing practise has had a long history. As William Romanowski (1995) reported:
In the spring of 1927, a layperson saw Calvin seminary professor, B.K. Kuiper exiting a movie theater. Kuiper’s excuse, that he had stopped in to adjust his new dentures, did not appease the church member. Despite a lengthy defense and promise that he would not attend movies in the future, Kuiper was terminated by an overwhelming majority vote during Synod 1928 (p. 52).
Nor is it just religious communities that can trigger antagonisms or vituperative responses. The American Association for the Advancement of Atheism got short shrift when it complained about the prejudicial treatment of atheism in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Godless Girl. Because of this film, the American Association of Social Workers was invited in 1929 to advise the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) on all stories that dealt directly or indirectly with the social work profession (Vasey, 1997, pp. 55, 197). In other instances, real world film incidents were characterised as biblical lessons. For example, a Billy Graham-Cecil B. DeMille encounter was recast as Jesus being tempted by the Devil/Satan (aka Matt. 4:8-10) to illustrate the lessons of Ephesians 3:1-13:
He [Grady Wilson] spoke to these young theologues about why he believed God had used Billy Graham so effectively. One of the reasons he gave was that Dr. Graham believed beyond any doubt that God had called him to the ministry. He told the story of the great Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille asking the young Billy Graham to come to see him. When Mr. Graham sat down across the huge mahogany desk from DeMille, the famed director said in effect, “Billy, I want you to star in every move that I make about the Bible.” He then slid across the desk a check, signed and made out “Paid to the order of Billy Graham.” “The only thing not filled on that check is the amount,” DeMille continued. “Fill it out for any amount you want. Just agree to star in my pictures.”
Grady Wilson said that without a moment’s hesitation Billy Graham slid the check back across the desk to DeMille and said, “Thank you for your confidence, but God has called me to preach.” Charles Haddon Spurgeon said that there was no greater calling than the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. He told young preachers, “If God calls you into the ministry, don’t step down to become a king” (Johnson, 1996, p. 1).
Or apparently a biblical movie star. Nor is religious hostility towards film per se just a curio from the historical past. In a Get Real With Jesus rally held on 24 April 1998 in Jonesboro Arkansas, Dave Christiano (2001) told an illustrative story about Evil’s use of screen culture. The Satan of his teaching story claimed:
We’re working through Hollywood and the entertainment industry. We have 99.9% of all the people in America deceived! The average household in America watches television 7 hours a day. The average household in America does not read one word from the Bible a day. And they say Jesus is God? Ha! Entertainment is their god they spend so much time with it. Through movies, videos and television, we’ve increased every evil in America five hundred fold! Even more! Crime, abortion, fornication, adultery, drugs, alcohol, and pornography have all gone way up ever since we started the entertainment approach....And remember demons... Hollywood Rules!” (p. 2).
Such an unreasoned, scare-mongering hermeneutic of suspicion is worrying, anti-enlightenment, and in need of basic etiological understanding. Closely associated with the fear of Satanic infusion is the fear of breaking the biblical prohibition against graven images – the second of the ten commandments written by the finger of God himself (Exod. 31:18).
‘Thou Shalt Not Make Thee Any Graven Image’: The Fear of Idolatry and Iconographic Perversion
The fear surrounding graven images is an old one, well known and interreligious in character, particularly amongst the religions of the book:
The power of the recorded image and the fear with which it was held in is, of course, reflected in both the Hebraic tradition where no material image of Yahweh was permitted, and in the tradition of Islam where the figure of the Prophet, or his family, may not be portrayed on the screen, although “symbolic” figures are allowed (Wagner, 1970, p. 129).
For Muslims, not only does Islamic law forbids any attempt to show a representation of their prophet, but the sacred command to ban images even mandated that his shadow be out of bounds. Regrettably, this ancient image fear was translated to the modern cinema with devastating results at times. For example, religiously inspired film prohibition amongst Muslims was so intense that in September 1978, the Rex Cinema in Abadan, south of Iran was set alight by fundamentalist supporters of Imam Khomeini. They “had locked all the exits of the cinema which contained an audience of over 400 people. Three hundred and seventy-seven men, women and children, who had come to watch an Iranian film were burned alive” (Allamenhzadeh, 1997, p. 129). However:
After taking power in 1979, Imam Khomeini consented, on the recommendation of his close advisors, to watch two films by Mostafa A’ghad, the US-based Arab film director. Both these films, The Messenger [sic] and Omar Mokhtar, are specimens of Hollywood big-budget commercial productions, which deal with Islamic subjects (Allamenhzadeh, 1997, p. 129).
The first film was about the historical prophet Mohammad and the founding of the Muslim faith and the second film was about the Islamic guerrilla leader who stymied Italian forays into Libya between 1911 and 1931.
Within some iconoclastic branches of Christianity, the image of Christ was similarly prohibited. Its rejection being rooted in the numerous biblical injunctions against graven images, such as: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exod. 20:4; see also Deut. 4:16, 5:8; Num. 33:52; Isa. 42:8). Naturally, feature films were viewed suspiciously, even feared, and their idolatrous sin was to be promptly avoided before it lead to iconographic perversion in the Aaron(eous) tradition of Golden Calf worship (Exod. 32:2-6). This fear of film as a contemporary manifestation of graven images was also exacerbated by contemporary theologians like Harvey Cox (1962). He claimed that:
To the vast majority, for whom film-making is a way to make money, the response of the biblical faith is clear. Such people cease to be artists and become charlatans. They are ordained in the cultural priesthood. To make money by lying to people when one is in the consciousness business is a particularly serious perversion. It constitutes the breach of a whole handful of commandments. To lie with an art form is all at once to have another god, to make graven images, to steal, and to bear false witness. The theological judgment on such efforts as Ben Hur and the Ten Commandments should find its inspiration in the reaction of Moses to the Golden Calf (p. 31).
That is, condemnation, death and destruction! In a similar vein, educationalist Harold Loukes (1965, p. 167) warned that popular films, “like all religious images must be under continuous scrutiny, or they will turn into idols. A teacher showing a film has turned, for the moment, into a projectionist, and withdrawn from the human situation.” And if not withdrawn from the human condition then in the company of a disreputable Other. For example, John Sailhamer (1994, p. 70) reported that, as a child in an evangelical environment, his youth director would gravely say: “Would you like to be in a movie theatre when the Lord returns?” thus strongly implying that movie-watching was sinful. Christadelphian Rob Hyndman (1997, p. 1) posed a similar damning question to his congregation. This fear of film-watching can be seen as the technological equivalent of supersessionism, that is, where film (i.e., ocular-centrism) rivals the written word (i.e., textual-centrism) as God’s chosen revelatory medium.
Nor was this idolatrous fear limited to overtly Christian groups. In 1913, the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) cited a ban on the materialisation of Christ as a reason for rejecting From the Manager to the Cross. In fact, the BBFC only allowed the materialisation of Christ in 1961, nearly half a century later, when it passed Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (Robertson, 1989, p. 33)! Such British religious restrictions also applied to representations of Christian ceremonies. As Ruth Vasey (1997) reported:
Certain parts of church services were invariably deleted, no matter how respectful they were treated. These included the Lord’s Prayer, the sacramental elements of Communion and absolution, and the blessing “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Any ceremony taking place in a church had to be treated in a reverent manner, although comedy was allowed to pass in civil marriages, such as those in It Happened One Night (Columbia, 1934) and The Bride Comes Home (Paramount, 1935) (pp. 146-147).
Gene Edward Veith Jr. even argued that: “Today the images are graven by electrons on cathode ray tubes” (quoted in Blades, 1995, p. 39)! Therefore, since:
...visual images of television dominate our popular culture...Christians, who must be centered on the Word, must be cautious lest they surrender language to the graven images of the mass culture and the neopagan thought forms that they breed. The new graven images must be recognized and understood (Veith Jr, 1991, p. 24).
With such negative views and its latent iconophobia abounding, it was difficult for some ecclesiastical institutions to see popular films as vehicles for entertainment, let alone accept them as educational tools or holy transmission mediums for the divine! However, such fears concerning graven images on cathode ray tubes or in cinemas is erroneous. As Margaret Olin (2000, p. 10) pointed out: “the Commandment against graven images does not straightforwardly aim at any and all image-making. The injunctions against idolatry that precede and follow it show that its true target is idolatry.” Therefore, only when feature films are worshipped as idols does this biblical injunction start to come into effect. Frequently overlooked is that images, including cinematic ones, can be used proactively for wholesome spiritual reasons. As David Ridgeway (2002) pointed out:
Human beings gain insights and information about the world via the five senses. By being born into the material world as a human being, God through Jesus Christ opened the way for material objects to convey spiritual truths as long as they are used appropriately. The important thing for those who use images as aids to spiritual growth is that they have a proper understanding of the relationship between the image and its prototype. The two must not become confused. To worship an image in the same way that one worships God is to succumb to idolatry. However, to venerate an image and use it as an aid to prayer and meditation can help Christian people to gain spiritual insights. It is clear that, throughout the history of the Church, images used in a proper way have helped Christian people to grow in faith. This is because images have provided points of encounter between the material world and the spiritual. They have given the faithful nothing less than glimpses of the divine (pp. 155-156).
Popular films can serve this very same God-glimpsing function (Kozlovic, 2000).
‘Ye Shall Know Them by Their Fruits’: The Revenge of the True Believers and the Ignoring of Sacred Art
When the Italian film The Miracle was shown in America, Cardinal Spellman called it vile, harmful and blasphemous. In Paris:
Picketers carried signs reading, “This Picture Is an Insult to Every Decent Woman and Her Mother,” “Don’t Be a Communist,” and “Don’t Enter the Cesspool.” They also hurled insults and epithets at those who attempted to buy tickets...Even a series of bomb threats... (Black, 1998, p. 95).
No doubt because the audience found very distasteful the story line of a wandering “Saint Joseph” (Federico Fellini) who villainously impregnated a disturbed goatherd, Nanni (Anna Magnani) who later claimed she was “in God’s grace” (i.e., pregnant). The film’s salacious reputation was not helped by Nanni “writhing so continuously at one point that the viewer assumes momentarily that she is actually having sexual intercourse--which must have been an exciting moment in 1948” (Brunette, 1987, p. 100). Spin doctor attempts to interpret the film as a “naive Golgotha” that marked Rossellini’s taste for “the drug of Christian lyricism” (Brunette, 1987, p. 95) did not assuage the animus directed towards the film, cast or crew. Somewhat ironically, the controversy over The Miracle triggered the decline of motion picture censorship when American courts deemed film a significant medium for the communication of ideas and therefore censorship was a violation of the constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression (Jowett, 1996).
Similar animus was directed towards the British film Monty Python’s Life of Brian when it opened in the United States with an “R” rating and was immediately attacked by religionists. An organisation called Citizens Against Blasphemy was formed and attempted to prosecute the filmmakers, while the Bible Belt States of America caused this scandal film to be banned or terminated mid run. The Festival of Light in England bought pressure to bear by lobbying local authorities to ban the film, but in some parts of Britain they only succeeded in getting it uprated to an “X” certificate. Actors John Cleese and Michael Palin were vigorously attacked by the Bishop of Southwark and Malcolm Muggeridge over its supposedly blasphemous intent (Perry, 1983, pp. 170-172), but ironically, nowadays it is seen as a masterful religious parody and is used in mainstream biblical research (Davies, 1998)!
Similar protests followed the opening of Hail Mary. It included scenes of Marie/the Virgin Mary (Myriem Roussel) in the nude, and a sexually inquisitive child Jesus (Malachi Jara Kohan) examining her groin, plus other liberties. Consequently, hundreds of Spanish Roman Catholics clashed with the police and one theatre was cleared because of a bomb threat (Anonymous, 1985). Comparable outrage was also experienced over The Last Temptation of Christ that offended so many Christians that it precipitated gross acts of violence from them. For example, in Athens, Greek demonstrators broke into a cinema, tore down the screen and smashed the sound speakers, forcing cancellation of the film’s opening (Anonymous, 1988a, p. 10). Similar disruption occurred in Adelaide, South Australia when an anonymous caller made a bomb threat to the Hindley Street cinema (Anonymous, 1988b, p. 5). Ironically, Scorsese claimed that: “We’re not looking to do a Hail Mary like Jean-Luc Godard or any of that stuff. We’re looking to make a film that will make people think” (Occhiogrosso, 1987, p. 101). Scorsese did succeed in this stated goal, but obviously not in the way that he had imagined. At least he did not experience the same aggressive response when ten years later he explored the Buddhist lifestyle of the 14th Dalai Lama in Kundun, another religious film about holy pacifism.
Violent reactions also occurred within the Jewish community concerning their cinematic representations. For example, in “Brooklyn, residents angry about the depiction of their ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in “A Price Below Rubies” chased the film crew...All it took was one look at the sets and wardrobe; no one had actually seen a script” (Elber, 1997, p. 2). Less dramatic, but nonetheless disturbing was the reaction to The Spitfire Grill. It had won the Audience Award for drama at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival:
Then chaos erupted. Sundance attenders found out that the finance, production, and marketing of the movie came from Gregory Productions, a company owned by a Roman Catholic order of priests...with its Catholic backers, Protestant characters and Jewish director...It has been attacked for its “hidden messages,” and its “outside agenda.” Castle Rock has been castigated for buying the film, and Disney, which initially showed an interest in distributing Spitfire Grill, dropped it like a hot potato (Sweet, 1999, p. 44).
Ironically, the putatively non-religious wanted to play a religious censorship role in a country that decreed film to be a legitimate communication medium!
Not surprisingly, many important religious scholars and commercial filmmakers were hamstrung in their youth by parents who had anti-film biases. For example, Margaret Miles (1996, p. xi) candidly admitted: “My immigrant fundamentalist parents forbade moviegoing. My childhood was spent visualising the scriptural stories I read and acted out with my sisters.” Calvanist Paul Schrader, the scriptwriter for The Last Temptation of Christ and a pre-seminarian reared on the catechisms of the Dutch Christian Reformed Church was not allowed by his parents to watch a film until he was seventeen years old (Graham, 1997, p. 93; Lloyd, 1997, p. 1; Thompson & Christie, 1989, p. 53). John Sailhamer (1994, p. 70) had an evangelist father who also forbade moviegoing, except for The Ten Commandments, David and Bathsheba and old movies on TV. Within the Christian Reformed Church today, parents still “frown upon theater attendance and prohibit their children from attending movies” (Hanko, 1998, p. 1). Is such blanket film-faithful separatism justifiable?
God: The Divine Source of Art
Ironically, all these devout protectors of youth against film have overlooked the God-sanctioned pro-art precedents established within the Bible long ago. For example, the Divine thought it not inappropriate to sanction the following art forms. Namely: Architecture & Interior Design (Exod. 25:9-40; 31:1-11; 1 Kings 6:2-27; 1 Chron. 28:9-19); Dancing (Exod. 15:20; 1 Sam. 18:6; 2 Sam. 6:14; 1 Chron. 15:29; Ps. 30:11, 149:3, 150:4; Jer. 31:4,13; Lam. 5:15); Literarature & Linguistics (Gen. 2:23; Judg. 9:7-20, 14:12-18; 2 Sam. 12:1-4, 14:1-17; Job; Psalms; Isa. 40; Ezek. 17:1-10; Luke 1:41-55, 8:4-8, 10:30-37, 12:16-21, 15:3-32, 16:19-31, 20:9-15); Music & Singing (Exod. 15:20; 1 Sam. 10:5, 16:23, 18:6; 2 Sam. 6:5,15; 2 Kings 3:15; 1 Chron. 15:16-28,42, 25:1,3,6; 2 Chron. 5:12-13, 29:25-28,30, 35:15; Neh. 12:45-46; Ps. 81:1, the note before 88, 149:1,3,5, 150:3-5; Isa. 30:29; Acts 16:25; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16); Sculpture & Metalwork (Exod. 25:17,18, 31:1-4, 35:5, 39:25,30; Num. 21:8-9; 1 Kings 7:13-22); Tailoring & Engraving & Jewellery Making (Exod. 28:2-34, 31:5,10, 35:19, 39:22-29, 36:8-17). Indeed:
The whole world is God’s art, a continual proclamation of God’s invisible eternal power, divine nature, glory, and goodness. Humans too are God’s artwork, and because they are made in the image of the great Creator-Artist, they are also creative artists. Therefore, art is a natural part of life, a necessary nourishment for humans, a mirror in which we can catch glimpses of God in our human attempts to fathom eternity and in the quest for meaning (Spencer, 1998, p. 13).
Or as Leonard Sweet (1999) put it: “The Christian life is a work of art. Ministry is a work of art. The self is a work of art. The Creator chose creation as the artistic medium for the divine to become human--a medium of wood, stone, color, and texture.” Indeed, one can see man as a symbol-making creature, an animal symbolicum. As Jesuit Philip C. Rule (1977) put it:
In Genesis we read: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (1.21). Thus man himself is somehow a symbol, a sign revelatory of the divine. In a unique way, through the Incarnation, divinity is revealed through the humanity of Jesus Christ who is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians, 1.15) (p. 50).
So where does that leave the popular cinema?
The Popular Cinema as Contemporary Sacred Art: God as the Divine Projectionist?
The cinema is just the latest manifestation of this God inspired, pro-biblical art trend. Film uniquely brings literature, poetry, song, hymn, music, dance, architecture, painting sculpture, costume and jewellery together to create a new art-form not formally identified previously; precisely because of its unprecedented 20th century technological uniqueness. As Philip C. Rule (1977) argued:
...man, the artist is justified in his efforts to explore and represent the experiencing of the sacred; for we have, as William Lynch so beautifully puts it, a God “who has always worked through the mud and actuality of history.” Michaelangelo with his Etruscan marble, Bach with his musical scale, Raphael with pigments and canvas, Federico Fellini with celluloid and soundtrack, in manipulating and reshaping the “mud and actuality” of life, will ever try to grasp the transcendent God who is at the same time immanent in His creation (p. 50).
David Tlapek (1998) went one step further and argued that cinema was the most complex and the most capable means of achieving transcendence:
No art form is more complex or collaborative; and no art form offers greater potential for reaching toward transcendence. It is that act of reaching - into the unknown, into the unknowable - that, for me, defines the spirituality of film. No single cinematic element can convey it, no brilliantly conceived lighting design, no inspired acting performance or beautifully written script. It is, rather, the convergence of every single element into a unified, and unifying, whole that touches the depths of the soul with a nuance beyond colors and words and structured thought. It informs us as to the nature of humanity, the nature of divinity, and the realization that these two states don’t merely intersect but are invariably intertwined (npn. leaf 4).
Indeed, as Robert Jewett (1993, p. 6) claimed: “I believe Paul would have been a discerning partner in discussing secular movies, had they been available in his time” and “If Paul were living today, it would even include the gift to interpret the movies that many movie lovers possess” (p. 153). Presumably, just like the biblical Joseph who was a master interpreter of dreams (Gen. 41:15).
Some Roots of Ecclesiastical Reluctance and Non-Responsiveness Towards the Popular Cinema
The ecclesiastical reluctance to embrace popular feature films is not unexpected. The history of the Church has been full of “movements against new artistic media, from the theatre to verse, the novel and new forms of music, and now to film” (Fraser, 1998, p. 12). Historically speaking, such institutional reticence is on track according to Fr. John Culkin (1969) who argued:
Even sleeping giants like the schools and the churches are overcoming sixty years of lethargy or active hostility to search out the positive aspects of the media. The timetable is right on schedule. A couple of generations is just about the stimulus-response pattern of traditional and established groups to innovation. There is little fun, however, to be had in warming-over the tedious facts of the communications gap between the churches and the media (p. 201).
Christian minister James Wall (1998) was also concerned about the lack of institutional responsiveness towards the cinema:
In spite of the fact that this uniquely 20th century art form has the dual capacity to both reflect and see into our lives, far too many of us still dismiss commercial films as mere entertainment, diversions rather than companions with the ability to both influence and inspire us. This is especially true in academic and religious circles, which is ironic, since these communities should be especially alert to any medium which enhances wisdom and insight (p. 35).
Part of this problem is rooted in viewers’ mis-perceptions. For example, Raymond Schroth (1995, p. 108) suggested that the fury over The Last Temptation of Christ was “not what it actually says, but in the ideas it lets loose which don’t correspond to the popular stereotype of the Jesus canned, jellied, bottled and promoted in pageants, dull sermons, cheap stained glass windows, and holycards.” Particularly sex-related, as it was supposedly “the most explicit statement of Jesus’ heterosexuality that has ever gained popular attention” (Driver, 1988, p. 339). Despite popular films poor reputation amongst many religionists to date, Peter Fraser (1998) predicted that many films:
...will be recognised as masterpieces of Christian art for at least the next 100 years. Despite the shortsightedness of the messengers of faith, there is an abiding power in the Christian religion which finds a way to express itself regardless of time, place or voice (p. 12).
Or technological medium for as Marjeet Verbeek (1997, p. 163) argued, the “new images of film are obviously very much able to discover and articulate the religious sensibilities of our time...This phenomenon is even more important because the institutional church is no longer a major interpreter of culture.” Indeed, a “theology that takes human history and human experience seriously is one that needs to embrace film as a privileged witness in today’s culture” (Gallagher, 1997, p. 156).
Film as Sacred Identification and Secular Exploration
For other religionists, the potentially idolatrous screen images of biblical personages were not forms of evil incarnate, but rather, a source of sacred identification and comfort. How? Because textually-based holy characters require an active imagination to visualise before giving them garments of flesh-and-blood. In that very process, actors unavoidably imprinted themselves on viewers’ minds and became visual mnemonics so powerful that viewers saw them as the biblical characters. For example, journalist Phillip Lopate (1987) was so impressed with Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah that he claimed:
...by that familiar phenomenon that makes it difficult to picture a story’s characters afterwards except in the physical shape of actors who played them on-screen, however miscast they may have been, the past-her-prime Lamarr and the stalwart ham Mature will always remain in my imagination the quintessential, the actual, Samson and Delilah (p. 74).
He also claimed that: “I am still waiting to encounter Hedy Lamarr’s Delilah, with the headband around her forehead and her many teases” (p. 93) and “I suspected the Samson-and-Delilah dynamic had helped to shape me as a man” (p. 71). High praise indeed!
Academic biblicist J. Cheryl Exum (1996, p. 13) likewise argued that: “Hedy Lamarr, with all of her trappings, is Delilah for me” While Sung and Peace (1998, p. 146) noted that in “the minds of a lot of folks, John the Baptist look and acts just like Charlton Heston” from The Greatest Story Ever Told. And as Revd. Larry J. Kreitzer (1994, pp. 13-14) stated: “I have little doubt that for a great many people than we might care to admit, Charlton Heston is the dominant mental picture of Moses” as depicted in The Ten Commandments, and many agreed with him (Buskin, 1985, p. 17; Gambotto, 1997, p. 153; Laird, 1991, p. 302; Pavelin, 1993, p. 25; Spong, 1998, p. 150). Indeed, H. B. Warner played Jesus Christ for Cecil B. DeMille in 1927 and it so impressed a minister that he confessed: “I saw you in The King of Kings when I was a child, and now, every time I speak of Jesus, it is your face I see” (DeMille & Hayne, 1960, p. 253). Although overt anti-idolatry film rhetoric is becoming scarce today, the argument can still be found hidden in postmodernist liberal rhetoric. For example:
Most of our movies’ “articulation of reality” remains too racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic to answer the question “How, then, shall we live?” with much promise of health and wholeness. We lack enough movies that picture religious, racial, sexual, and cultural diversity as irreducible and delightful. Much of the religion at the movies (with some gracious exceptions) is idolatrous insofar as the movies privilege the perspective of our currently over-privileged few and do not articulate a full human relatedness for all of us (Lee, 1997, p. 18).
However, this view confuses the issue of idolatry with ideological parochialism of the politically correct sort. At least this “sin” is easily avoided by further therapeutic filmmaking. Indeed, film can have a very helpful effect by allowing one to discuss their personal problems in a safe, third person way. As Capuchin Fr. Michael Scully (1997) argued:
Perhaps most importantly, movies tend to promote participation. Young people may have a difficult time talking about their individual problems, but it is relatively easy for them to talk about other people’s problems that resemble theirs. Working with films supplies such an opportunity (p. 8).
Or as Ian Maher (2002) more articulately put it:
There is also an ‘arms-length’ advantage in a faith and film encounter. Difficult questions and uncomfortable issues can be tackled initially through the safe distance of identifying with characters and situations on-screen—guilt and the need for forgiveness; the painful reality of broken relationships and the joy of restoration; despair and hope; fear or faith for the future, and the list goes on. These things are the very stuff of life and are not always easy for people to face. However, most people will have an opinion about the behaviour of a character that they have observed in a film. The opinion will often reflect something of the viewer’s own outlook on life. Sometimes, it can be a short step from exploring responses to a film to exploring questions of personal faith (p. 16).
Movies thus become a form of “personal meditation” (Scully, 1997, p. 9). Indeed, for Sr. Helen Prejean who inspired the making of Dead Man Walking, the film was a “sustained meditation on love, criminal violence, and capital punishment. In a larger sense, it is about life and death itself. Are we here to persecute our brothers or bring compassion into a world which is cruel without reason?” (Bruno, 1999, p. 1).
In other instances, some film viewers were troubled simply because the director’s conception of God differed from their own religious indoctrination or imaginings. However, even this sort of religious angst was used in a positive fashion by Fr. Andrew Greeley (1997) in his Sociology of Religion in Popular Culture course:
I first ask my students to describe the images of God found in a variety of contemporary popular movies. My students find this difficult because they believe that the images of God which they already have are the correct images. The images of God in the movies, then, are often very different and even contrary to the images of God that my students have before taking the class. Showing that there are many different images of God, however, enables me to make the point that there is no literal or correct way to talk about God, that all God-talk is metaphorical, even the talk with which my students are already familiar (par. 3).
And as Pastor Edward McNulty (1998) argued:
Every film may not be a channel for the spirit to touch our hearts. And not everyone will be touched by even a visual parable film. There always is the matter of the right (or kairos) moment which might be different because of our unique backgrounds and personalities. But for those who have “eyes that see and ears that hear,” [Matt. 13:16] who are open to the gentle stirring of the Spirit, film viewing can become a time of spiritual enrichment (p. 5).
Popular feature films are not intrinsically evil, Satanically infused, modern forms of graven images or automatic sources of iconographic perversion, but they can be used for nefarious purposes if so desired. This fact alone means that the profession must be constantly vigilant in monitoring, controlling and protecting their students and congregation from these negative influences. However, this quality control work must be done through understanding and a technical knowledge of screen culture; not ignorance rooted in cinematic abstinence or film-faithful separatism of the unthinking censorship kind. As Todd Kappelman (1997) argued:
Christians have an opportunity to influence their culture by entering the arena of dialogue provided by film and contending for their positions and voicing their objections with sophistication, generosity, and a willingness to hear from those of opposing beliefs (p. 3).
But if “Christians do not make their voices heard then others, often non-Christians, will dominate the discussion” (Kappelman, 1997, p. 8) and take society down a path even less desirable than the believers perceive today! Discernment not denial is the key to success. A closer, more sympathetic examination of the religion-and-film genre will yield many insights, delights and defences unappreciated to date. In due course, the palpable film fears will evaporate like the proverbial drop of water in the desert air. And when a film truly deserves to be censored, it will be for all the right reasons and not the wrong reactions! Further research into this exciting interdisciplinary genre is warranted, highly recommended and certainly long overdue.
1. The Authorized King James Version of the Bible will be used throughout.
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A Price Below Rubies (1998, dir. Boaz Yakin)
A Short Film About Love (aka Do Not Desire the Wife of Another) (1988, dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski)
Ben-Hur (1959, dir. William Wyler)
The Bride Comes Home (1935, dir. Wesley Ruggles)
David and Bathsheba (1951, dir. Henry King)
Dead Man Walking (1995, dir. Tim Robbins)
Fanny and Alexander (1983, dir. Ingmar Bergman)
Footloose (1984, dir. Herbert Ross)
From the Manger to the Cross (1912, dir. Sidney Olcott)
The Godless Girl (1928, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965, dir. George Stevens)
Hail Mary (aka Je vous salue, Marie) (1984, dir. Jean-Luc Godard)
It Happened One Night (1934, dir. Frank Capra)
The King of Kings (1927, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
King of Kings (1961, dir. Nicholas Ray)
Kundun (1998, dir. Martin Scorsese)
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, dir. Martin Scorsese)
The Message (aka Mohammad, Messenger of God) (1977, dir. Moustapha Akkad)
The Miracle (1948, dir. Roberto Rossellini)
Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979, dir. Terry Jones)
Omar Mokhtar (aka Lion of the Desert) (1981, dir. Mostafa A’ghad; aka Moustapha Akkad)
Samson and Delilah (1949, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
The Sign of the Cross (1932, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
The Spitfire Grill (1996, dir. Lee David Zlotoff)
The Ten Commandments (1956, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
Two Men and a Wardrobe (aka Dwaj ludzie z szafa) (1958, dir. Roman Polanski)