Feature films were the artform and lingua franca of the 20th century, and they will continue to be popular well into the 21st century. However, their very existence inspired much fear within religious communities, who were suspicious of films’ nature, purpose and suspected deleterious effects upon viewers. Anton Karl Kozlovic (2003) had previously explored the religious film fears associated with satanic infusion, graven images and iconographic perversion, but such fears did not stop there. Using humanist film criticism as the analytical lens, the critical literature was again reviewed and the additional film fear of participating in immorality and sin was explicated herein. Biblically based counter-proposals and other rational defenses were proffered to address this tangible concern. It was concluded that popular films are not intrinsically bad, but they do require constant vigilance by faith communities to monitor, evaluate and protect their charges from (if need be). Further research into the exciting interdisciplinary field of religion-and-film was recommended.
In the July 2003 edition of Quodlibet: Online Journal of Christian Theology and Philosophy, Anton Karl Kozlovic (2003) explored the religious film fears associated with satanic infusion, graven images and iconographic perversion. It was argued that popular feature films were the artform of the 20th century, and because they were a significant cultural phenomenon, they had triggered the “Age of Hollywood” (Paglia, 1994, p. 12). However, they also inspired much fear within religious communities concerning cinemas’ nature, purpose and suspected deleterious effects upon viewers. It was also argued that before cinematic theology (aka religion-and-film, celluloid religion, theo-film, film-faith dialogue) could develop into the powerful pedagogic tool that it truly is, these film fears needed to be openly addressed instead of ignored, dismissed or subjected to knee jerk condemnations. Indeed, since movies are the lingua franca of our age: “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” (Maher, 2002, p. 5). Using textually based, humanist film criticism as the analytical lens (Bywater & Sobchack, 1989), the critical literature was reviewed to reveal the palpable fear of movie-watching as cinematic sinfulness. Copious historical examples were used and integrated into the text to enhance narrative coherence (albeit, with a strong reportage flavour). The following is an introductory explication of this significant film fear, plus some practical strategies and arguments to counter the concern.
The Fear of Participating in Immorality and Sin
Many religionists considered movie-watching a sin or a sensuous temptation dangerous to the faithful and the faith. For example, Christianity Today editor Philip Yancey (1997, p. 30) reported that, during the 1960s, his church prohibited many vices: “At the top were smoking and drinking…Movies ranked just below these vices, with many church members refusing even to attend The Sound of Music.” For other believers, it was akin to participating in immorality. This was dramatically brought to American national prominence during the 1920s Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle rape and manslaughter trial. This famously fat silent film star became the reluctant symbol of the corrupting power of film, and he prompted many religious groups to attempt the elimination of Hollywood altogether. During the resultant tumultuous campaign to subdue this newly perceived modern Babylon:
A Presbyterian minister in Pittsburgh, Dr. Allen, said, “The moving picture is poisoning the youth of America and they are slipping away from Sunday school, the Christian endeavor and the Church.” He felt that Roscoe and his like were to blame for the fact that “there have been over one million divorces in the past twenty years” (Yallop, 1976, p. 182).
Similar concerns existed on the other side of the world in Australia where the movies were also considered a celluloid menace. For example, a 1924 Bulletin magazine article argued that feature films were just:
…prurient rubbish…calculated [to] appeal to the imaginations of the young. Australian girls and lads are clean-minded, as a rule, but youth is receptive and imitative, and this persistent propaganda of lubricity and ruffianism, the increasing inculcation of the idea that it is the whole duty of young women to be idle, inebriated and over-dressed, and of a young man to be a sex-obsessed loafer, cowboy or criminal must have its effects (Collins, 1989, p. 112).
During Germany’s depression, the interface between religion and film was likewise viewed unfavourably, despite substantial financial enticements from Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959), the “King of the epic Biblical spectacular” (Finler, 1985, p. 32) and the “high priest of the religious genre” (Holloway, 1977, p. 26). For example:
In 1922 Hollywood’s movie moguls dangled large sums of money ($500,000) before the villagers for the rights to film a special version of the Passion. Although some of the younger residents in Oberammergau weakened, the traditionalists were adamant. Said one, “If this play is allowed to be filmed, I will go up to Ludwig’s monument and with chisel and hatchet efface the inscription from it.” Others vowed to shear off their beards before participating in such a venture…In a letter to Janet Swift, the man who personified Christ declared, “The play has not been commercialized and never will be.” Ten years later, in the midst of the worldwide depression, Oberammergau again resisted the overtures of Cecil B. De Mille (Friedman, 1984, p. 150).
Even DeMille’s American financial bosses were not keen in supporting his silent version of The Ten Commandments claiming that: “the public had shown a decided preference for religion in churches rather than in movies” (Lasky & Weldon, 1957, p. 168). When DeMille went ahead and made the film regardless of the complaints or hefty cost involved, his financiers wanted to cut back his spending but “Cecil’s eyes blazed. “What do they want me to do,” he snapped, “stop now and release it as The Five Commandments?” He stomped out in rage…” (Lasky & Weldon, 1957, p. 168) and into the history books and Hollywood legend.
However, DeMille had significantly helped assuage the religious wrath against Hollywood triggered by the Arbuckle sex scandal by putting the Good Book onto the silver screen. While saving Hollywood, which some had called “The Sodom of the Twentieth Century” (Revd. Edwin P. Ryland quoted in Lindvall, 2001, p. 282), DeMille demonstrated that the popular cinema could be used as an instrument for preaching the divine word, as well as teach moral lessons to a wayward nation caught up by the frivolity of the Jazz Age. Indeed, during the centenary celebrations of the birth of cinema, when Vincent Sherman was asked: “what is the greatest gift or the worst legacy of the movies?” he answered:
About this time , Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments  appeared, with Rod La Rocque, Richard Dix, Estelle Taylor and a great character actor, Theodore Roberts. Along with its success, it achieved a little-known or recognized result: it made moving pictures respectable in the small towns of the south. Prior to this, the churches and their ministers regarded films as evil and the work of the devil. But this film, which condemned greed and extolled morality, was the catalyst (quoted in Boorman et al., 1995, pp. 23-24).
If the outraged church members of the day had but eyes to see and ears to hear (Ezek. 44:5)1, ministers were incorporating popular films into their worship, preaching and teaching for decades (see Lindvall, 2001). However, it took DeMille-the-biblical-epicist-and-Hollywood-saviour to ram home the point to the professional religionists, Hollywood financiers and the public.
Worldly Amusement as Wickedness
Despite DeMille proving that some movies were wholesome and educative, there was still a prevailing feeling of wickedness surrounding this popular new artform throughout the decades. For example, the 1928 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) considered that movies were a wrong form of worldly amusement (alongside card playing and dancing). For example, they argued that: (1) attendance at theaters may cause a brother to stumble; (2) no one knows whether a play or movie is good or bad until one sees it. And, if it is bad, the damage is done; (3) some so-called good movies are worse than the bad ones; and (4) that occasional theater attendance may develop in a person a taste for movies with the result that the Christian may become movie-addicted (Hanko, 1998, p. 2)! This anti-film attitude continued well into the 1960s when the Christian Reformed Church were adamant about disassociating the profit and entertainment motive from biblical films, especially those by Cecil B. DeMille. Indeed:
CRC standards made it virtually impossible for any film to qualify as worthwhile viewing. Writing about Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments , a Banner columnist said “unless the producers are genuinely Christian, have due sensitivity for the holy and sacred, understand the dominant thrust of the Bible in its revelation of salvation in and through the crucified and resurrected Christ, and shed all entertainment and profit motives in connection with its production, we cannot expect a valid, reverent and trustworthy portrayal of the Bible” (Romanowski, 1995, p. 55).
Nor has this negative perception of movies-and-sin abated within the Christian Reformed Church in the 1990s for Herman Hanko (1998, p. 4) argued that movies involved drama which is itself a “sin in the sight of God.” Why? Because:
…if an actor assumes the personality of a sinner, he must, in the nature of the case, assume all that person’s sin. He must think his evil thoughts, experience his evil emotions, will his evil desires, speak his evil words, and do his evil deeds. He must assume all those sins and make them his own in a very deep and intense way (p. 5).
Indeed, if one role-plays religious personalities, then according to Prof. Hanko (1998), one has also committed another type of sin. As he argued:
…can any child of God, sensitive in even a little way to the profound mystery of the incarnation - God become flesh to dwell among us - fail to recognize this as the grossest blasphemy?…To enact (and that for purposes of entertainment) the trembling fear of [Martin] Luther before a holy God, to present dramatically the spiritual conquest of Luther’s heart by sovereign grace is a wicked parody of that which is most sacred. The judgment of God rests upon sins of this sort (p. 5).
Prof. Hanko (1998) also considered that persons were being spiritually damaged by watching films. As he argued:
While we laugh and howl, while we weep and cry, impressions are being made on our souls. Evil propaganda is eating, cutting, destroying, eroding, forming, twisting our souls and our lives. A whole set of values is being instilled in our minds and the minds of our children which are wholly contrary to the Word of God. It is all happening while we are having a good time, enjoying ourselves, being entertained. Drop by poisonous drop there seeps into our souls, the world and life view of ungodly men (p. 7).
In short, popular films “seemed to have become the eighth deadly sin of the twentieth century” (Skinner, 1993, p. 130), and yet, Prof. Hanko has ignored an obvious fact. Namely, that: “We should not wilfully sin for the sake of our ministry to sinners. But it has never been a sin to listen to lies or to observe sin. The sin, rather, occurs in our response to what we see and hear” (Coppenger, 1981, p. 300). As King Solomon advised: “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7) which implies that accepting sin is the only real sin; not exposure to it, whether in cinematic form or not.
Ministers Versus the Film Menace
Of course, it would be wrong to think that only the Christian Reformed Church was concerned about the effects of movies upon the public. Other faiths have also been suspicious of engaging the “Tenth Muse” (Vidal, 1993, p. 2). For example, contemporary Australian Christadelphians advised their youth against movie-watching by arguing as follows:
Almost every film shown on television or at the theatre will not only waste your time, it will actually harm you. They turn your thoughts to sin, and away from the mind of Christ. Sinful things are always sinful, and godly people will do their best to keep away from sin -- to stay with Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5:22; 2 Timothy 2:16). Countless hours can be spent watching things which can only lead your mind away from godly thoughts. Time which can be far better spent doing other things. So when considering whether to watch a video, or a television program, or whether to go out to a movie, always ask yourself if it is something worth seeing. If you have any doubts, ask yourself “Would this be something Jesus would be happy watching?” Almost always, the answer will be “no” (Hyndman, 1997, p. 1).
This was a good introspective question, but a bad theological answer. Logically speaking, there must be appropriate moments for film-watching just as there must be inappropriate moments for film-watching. The skill is in determining what is what. For if the nominated film was worth seeing then the answer must always be “Yes! Jesus would be happy to let us watch movies.” Historically speaking, this very point was made by the Revd. Dr. Percy Stickney Grant in 1920. He argued:
Were the Lord to descend upon the earth today can we doubt His approval of this form of education [the cinema] when we consider His own method of pictorial teaching [“Picture” Parables e.g., the Prodigal Son]? If Christ went to the movies would he not say, “Let my people enjoy this thing. Let my Church employ it. Blessed be that which uplifts, restores, and refreshes the weary souls of men” (quoted in Lindvall, 2001, p. 234).
One is tempted to say a resounding “Yes!” One imagines that Jesus would employ anything that would advance the spiritual development of humanity, and that he would sanction the dominant communication mediums of our day to do it.
Surprisingly, this anti-film attitude of almost Dark Ages complexion is present in contemporary society. For example, the American minister Dave Christiano (2001) gave a talk at the Get Real With Jesus rally held on 24 April 1998 in Jonesboro Arkansa. He was very concerned about poisonous film images affecting Christian minds, and so he used a hypothetical illustration about a cursing speaker and a stripping couple who were passionately kissing to demonstrate his point. As he argued:
I believe that your congregation would put a stop to it immediately. They would not allow anyone to curse the name of Jesus from the pulpit and they would certainly not permit a young couple to come up on stage and kiss and take off their clothes. Not at all. That would be detestable! And then the preacher would say, “On Sunday morning in church this is a detestable act. But less than 24 hours earlier, on Saturday night in the movie theater, when the exact same thing occurs, it’s entertainment???” Friends, says the preacher, this is pure hypocrisy. We must make up our minds. It’s either a detestable act on Sunday morning and on Saturday night, or it’s entertainment on Saturday night and Sunday morning (p. 1).
Yet, by stating this hypothetical problem in this thought-restricting, bipolar fashion, Christiano had devalued the notion of films’ nature, context, seriousness and the associated behavioural appropriateness of these acts. In short, he had misunderstood the essence of human communication. After all, it is an accepted axiom that: “communication is different in a discussion among close friends at a favorite watering hole, at a funeral home where a memorial service is being held for a loved one, or at a rowdy New Year’s Eve party in a friend’s home” (DeFleur, Kearney & Plax, 1993, p. 23). It is also common sense that:
People do not talk the same way in a night club and a church; the style and topics of talk at a formal dinner are very different from the forms of talk and topics in a university refectory. The intended audience is also an important factor -- the way you talk with a friend is not the appropriate way to talk to a professor (Lewis & Slade, 1994, pp. 10-11).
Therefore, judicious use of the media seems the more rational and practical course of action to take with the children of the media rather than adopt a policy of cinematic separatism. Indeed, popular films can even be the handmaiden of religion. While temporarily accepting the religious sincerity of Dave Christiano’s (2001) intent, he could more profitably use his time to wrestle the cinema away from the Devil and convert it to God’s purpose. Not as a crutch for the Church to limp their way into heaven, not as a substitute for the Bible, but as an audio-visual tool proactively put to work. A tool that expands the imagination in the spirit of Romans 12:2: “And be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”
Film Fear as Paranoia?
Some contemporary Christians sincerely believe they are being surreptitiously attacked through the medium of popular films. For example, thirty-seven year old Libby watched the SF blockbuster The Matrix and then complained:
…at first I was excited, while watching it, at the biblical imagery but as the movie progressed I found myself praying for Jesus’ protection and His wisdom and discernment. What had started out as a picture that was drawing me in as I let down my defenses became extremely new age and eastern religion like. It turned completely anti-christian [sic]. I think the film was very deliberate in it’s message including the woman in the kitchen being a “gatekeeper” (a term used in spiritualism and other ocultic [sic] things) as well as the bending of spoons with the mind. I would urge those who gave glowing reports to possibly see it again and pray for God’s discernment and I would urge those who have not seen it to stay away and to especially keep your teenagers away… (Christian Spotlight on the Movies, 1999, p. 5).
Interestingly, this incident was the modern equivalent of a complaint Cecil B. DeMille received during the 1920s. A small town woman from the Deep South telephoned him wanting to confirm something regarding his Jesus film The King of Kings. She claimed: “I am a preacher. I’d have nothing to do with the sin that you’re in in Hollywood. I’ve never seen a moving picture and I never will” (DeMille & Hayne, 1960, p. 257)! Regrettably, even some people today claim not to own a TV set, or watch television, or go to the movies, as if proudly declaring their perceived cultural-cum-moral superiority; rather than demonstrating their lack of cultural awareness and media inclusiveness. Indeed, film paranoia could be so intense and narrow-minded at times that it can quickly lead to foolishness. For example, during the 1920s, the State censorship board in Illinois:
…decided that no film subtitle could carry the word “sin.” When DeMille’s [The] King of Kings came along with Jesus saying “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” [John 8:7] the Illinois board censored the Saviour’s admonition. It was miraculous that any film ever reached a theatre with enough left to make up a normal show time (Card, 1994, p. 6)!
Similar anti-film sentiments were abundantly self-evident during the 1920-30s, especially within the book provocatively entitled The Devil’s Camera: Menace of a Film-Ridden World. Although its authors, Burnett and Martell (1932, p. 11) praised the moral tone and superlative merit of The King of Kings, Ben Hur and Disraeli, they were vigorously opposed to “the prostitution of it by sex-mad and cynical financiers.” Its racist overtone were further entrenched by its dedication, namely: “To the ultimate sanity of the white races” (Burnett & Martell, 1932, p. 5)! Indeed, the association between sex, sin and film became an industry in its own right with the formation of the Legion of Decency (aka National Legion of Decency) in 1934. This censorial organisation was an agency of the Catholic Bishops of the United States. They had assumed the burden of safeguarding the morals of an entire nation via querying, classifying, suggesting changes or totally banning numerous films (Black, 1994, 1998; Leff & Simmons, 1990; Skinner, 1993; Walsh, 1996). Regrettably, during this vetting process, it also approved “120 Nazi films submitted between 1936 and 1937…[and refused] to condemn films on the grounds of anti-Semitism” (Slide, 1990, p. 238) which itself suggests that another racist agenda was operating here.
In fact, “the Catholic church became the most successful pressure group in the history of the movies” having classified, along with its successor, the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, some “16,251 feature films” (Walsh, 1996, p. 2). For example, its 1952 report had tagged as controversial such film classics as Detective Story, Monkey Business, Rashomon and Singing in the Rain and it had condemned numerous other less well-known films (see Skinner, 1993, pp. 191-193; Appendix 3). This style of cinematic censorship was wonderfully portrayed in a lovingly self-reflexive manner within Cinema Paradiso:
…a little boy peeks from behind a curtain as the local priest sits alone in the orchestra of the small Italian town’s only movie house. The priest tenses as the couple on the screen move to embrace; his fingers toy with the bell at his side. Then, as they start to kiss, he sounds the alarm, and the projectionist dutifully attaches one more sticker to the reel of film. After the priest leaves, the boy watches as his friend the projectionist carefully eliminates the objectionable frames, splicing together what remains of the story. Later that evening, one audience member complains after an especially obvious cut: “Twenty years I’ve been going to the movies, and I’ve never seen a kiss.” By the end of the film, the little boy has gown up to be a successful director, who returns to his hometown for the first time in thirty years to attend the projectionist’s funeral. With the old movie house torn down, all he has left of his boyhood is a reel of film bequeathed to him by his friend. As he views the clips in his studio, the screen fills with a montage of screen kisses: Rudolph Valentino, Agnes Ayres, Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, and dozens of other stars enjoying a seemingly endless series of embraces, lovingly saved over the years from the accumulated cuts ordered by the village priest. Working in the national office of the Legion of Decency in New York, a small group of priests and laywomen performed a task very similar to that of the lone cleric… (Walsh, 1996, pp. 1-2).
Sex and Religion, Cinema and Sin
The association between sex and film, and its detrimental effect upon the young was also a concern to the American Catholic laity during the 1960-70s. For example, a mother of four, Mrs Mary Ann Hamilton, asked:
Won’t these movies with sensational themes subtly chip away our children’s innocence and mar this generation’s morals? Movies I saw during my impressionable years never questioned society and too carefully protected our view of humanity. Today’s films, however, question everything, scrutinizing each problem known to man, no matter how degenerate. Will it help my children to learn about lesbianism from films like The Fox and The Killing of Sister George? The casual tossing around of the pill in Prudence and the Pill is a big joke, but what’s so funny about contraception? Catholic couples find the subject very serious. I object to the filthy gutter language spouted by supposedly educated characters in films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Arnold, 1972, p. 20).
It was a sincere, heart-felt complaint, and so Christian critic James Arnold (1972, p. 30) responded to Mrs Hamilton’s concerns in detail. In conclusion, he argued that by the time his children became adults: “they will have learned two things. They will not be afraid of the truth, and they will not build any ramparts around the faith or fences around God, for they know they will find it, and Him, in the most surprising places. Like, perhaps, the modern cinema.”
Besides, as the Very Reverend Dr. James A. Pike, Dean of the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York once argued: “Those who do not want the sexual aspect of life included in the portrayal of a real life situation had better burn their Bibles, as well as abstain from the movies” (Black, 1998, p. 170). Why? Because the holy book is not always an innocent or uplifting document. As Elizabeth Wurtzel (1998) pointed out:
And when we are done studying up on the fascist ways of the Lord, there are mainly just stories involving rape, incest, whoring, lust, coveting thy neighbor’s wife, deflowering one’s teenage daughter. Anyone who has taken the time to figure it out knows that the Bible is kind of like a dictionary in the hands of a ten-year-old who can while away the hours looking up “sex” and “prostitute” at an age when just the individual words have the power of vulgar electricity. Find Tamar and Judah, find David and Bathsheba, find Tamar and Amnon--and find the story of sexy stories, Samson and Delilah: stick with these and it is always an entertaining and sacred scandal sheet (p. 38).
Why a scandal sheet? Because the Bible dealt with many disturbing sexual subjects that were unfit for the pulpit, let alone Sunday school and young children. For example:
· Adultery: King David spied upon Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite washing herself. He was aroused, sent for and then laid with her. She conceived a child. David tried to trick Uriah into sleeping with his wife but he refused (2 Sam. 11:2-5).
· Bestiality: Neither a man or a woman should lie down with any beast, and if so, the man, woman and the beast involved should all be put to death (Lev. 18:23; 20:15-16).
· Cannibalism: During a famine, a woman made an agreement with another woman to boil her son for food and share him with her, which she did (2 Kings 6:28-29).
· Child Abuse: “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell” (Prov. 23:13-14).
· Child Murder: Moses ordered that all the Middianite male children be killed (Num. 31:17).
· Concubinage: King Ahasuerus was serviced by multiple maidens who were his official concubines (Esth. 2:12-14).
· Dismemberment: When the Levite’s concubine returned home after being gang raped she was subsequently cut up into twelve pieces, including bones, and her bits were distributed throughout Israel (Judg. 19:26-29).
· Excretory Fun: Rabshaketh complained that his master had sent him to speak words to “the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you” (2 Kings 18:27; Isa. 36:12).
· Foreskin Collecting: Saul commanded David that instead of a dowry he desired a hundred foreskins of the Philistines, but David returned from the task with two hundred foreskins (1 Sam. 18:25, 27).
· Genital Bragging: The Babylonian clients of the harlot Aholibah had flesh which was like “the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses” (Ezek. 23:20).
· Genital Mutilation: Moses’ wife Zipporah cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses feet with it (Exod. 4:24-26).
· Homosexual Lusting: Their “women did change the natural use into that which is against nature. And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the women, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly” (Rom. 1:26-27).
· Incest: “Thus were both the daughters of Lot with child by their father” (Gen. 19:36).
· Necrophilia: The Lord commanded that no one should “go in to any dead body, nor defile himself for his father, or his mother (Lev. 21:11).
· Paedophilia: Moses ordered that of all the women children that did not know a man by lying with them, that they be kept alive for use by their officers (Num. 31:17-18).
· Public Nudity: God commanded Isaiah to loose the sackcloth from his loins and the shoes from his feet and walk naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and wonder (Isa. 20:2-3).
· Rape and Incest: King David’s eldest son Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar (2 Sam. 13:1-15).
· Sodomy: “And there were also sodomites in the land: and they did according to all the abominations of the nations which the Lord cast out before the children of Israel” (1 Kings 14:24).
· Transvestitism: “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garments: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God” (Deut. 22:5).
· Whoring: Samson visited the harlot of Gaza “and went in unto her” (Judg. 16:1).
All of this salaciousness lends considerable weight to Colin Bowles (1990, p. 8) satirical definition of the Bible as “a prophet and lust account.” If Mrs Mary Ann Hamilton complained about popular films for its potentially lewd subject matter, should she not then ban the Bible and Scripture-reading for its extremely prurient and perverse subject matter? This is clearly an untenable position, as is the unthinking banning of popular films because they might deal with the same subject matter. In fact, the same discretion that the minister exercises in his choice of Bible-readings before his congregation also applies to the use of popular films in similar theological and educational contexts.
Ecclesiastical Double Standards?
At times, subtle religious hypocrisy was actively demonstrated by organised religion. For example, John-Michael “Hollywood” Howson (1985) fondly recalled a worrying concern about religious education (R.E.) teachers in the Australia of his youth. As he reported:
At primary school my teacher was Sister Mary Annunciata. She didn’t approve of my rapturous accounts of the latest movies and she would eye me suspiciously, as I directed the rest of the grade during a playtime re-enactment of a Tarzan epic. What usually followed was a diatribe, during religious studies, against the wickedness and wantoness of the cinema and the much married and loose living stars it spawned (p. 110).
And yet, at the very same time:
While Sister disapproved of the garishness of the Hollywood product, she delighted in reading us long and bloody tales about what the martyrs had to endure. Eyes were gouged, tongues were cut out, bodies were branded, limbs were dismembered, backs were lashed, and salt put in the wounds. There was more blood and gore in one of Sister Mary’s catechism classes than the entire horror output from Universal pictures (p. 110)!
Indeed, R.E. prompted horror stories were sometimes physically rewarded in class, as Michael Garvey (1996) reminisced about during a:
…wonderful day in the second grade at Christ the King School when I imagined, drew, and colored a lurid depiction of the martydom of Saint Lawrence, toothily smiling as the coals roasted his flesh. Sister Mary Antoinette praised my picture to the skies, displayed it on the bulletin board, put a gold star on it, and gave me a Hershey Bar before I went home (p. 23)!
Sometimes R.E. was backed up with corporal punishment, as Billy Bob Morris (1999) reported:
The last time I read the Book of Exodus was about forty years ago. To inspire me, a nun with a dark mustache and a metal-edged ruler hovered nearby, ready to whack my knuckles if I so much as tried to think about anything other than the trials and tribulations of holy Moses (p. 1).
As he later confessed, “all I know for sure is that I wish I’d been introduced to Moses and Co. [in The Prince of Egypt] by the Dreamwork animators -- and not by that nun with a mustache and the metal-edged ruler. The movie is a lot prettier -- and a lot more fun” (Morris, 1999, p. 3). This was not an insignificant academic aside. As Ian Maher (2002, p. 9) argued: “With film woven into the very fabric of our society, it is difficult to see how Christians can remain aloof.” The short answer is that they cannot! Nor should they ignore this reality if they do not want to be accused of professional-cum-cultural neglect.
Refusing God’s Flickering Light?
Rather than being fearful about cinematic sin or the concomitant fear of participating in immorality via films, one should be more concerned about not addressing these important issues. As Ian Maher (2002, p. 9) put it: “Surely it is better for the church to be involved in an ongoing dialogue with popular film, challenging where appropriate, rather than condemning from the sidelines?” One would argue that this is an appropriate cultural response for today. As Michael Ward (1999) wisely counselled:
The Christian who wishes to engage with or contribute to his culture recognizes, along with the writer of Psalm 87, that all the springs of artistic expression are in Zion, for the Christian and the non-Christian alike. His special knowledge of the source of those springs must not blind him to its presence in pagan art, for God works there too, incognito. Just as Christ came into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save it, so the Christian must try to save the stories told in our culture. The Christian must take captive every story presented to him and allow it to be embraced by Christ’s greater story. He must listen before he responds. If the story is deficient he must say so, and sublimate it after the manner of Paul. Preachers must take such stories and make up the deficit in their sermons; reviewers must diagnose the narrative weaknesses; movie-goers must deter or warn in word-of-mouth recommendations. But if the story is sufficient, the Christian must admire it, give thanks for it, and worship the God whose story echoes within it, taking care not to deserve the rebuke that came to the Emmaus road disciples: “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (p. 217).
Just as importantly, as O’Keeffe and Waller (2003) argued:
…the movie industry is certainly an intellectual challenge that we ignore at our peril. We must respond to the intellectual challenges of our day, regardless of how unlikely the source, if we are to equip the next...generations of believers to carry on the message of Jesus’ God. Not to do so cripples our students and hampers our efforts to foster religious and cultural literacy (p. 108).
From a spiritual perspective, there is even a greater drawback by not engaging the popular cinema, namely, not finding God in unexpected places. As Marilyn Gustin put it:
In our recreation, as in all areas of our life, we offer our participation to God. He is there anyway. Do we imagine than when we step onto a sailboat, God stays ashore? Or that when we enter a movie, God waits on the sidewalk? Or that when we’re in the heat of a tennis match, God is waiting in the church pew? (quoted in Brussat & Brussat, 1996, p. 537).
Or as the Bible expressed this essential point:
Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me (Ps. 139:7-10).
Rather than refuse the flickering light of God, one should wait for it, even proactively hunt for it. Why? Because “God may well be speaking into contemporary culture through the medium of film if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear” (Maher, 2002, p. 10). As Robert Thompson, the Christian owner of a video store confessed:
Today, movies are a significant way most people can still get the mystical message…For me, there’s a magic in film -- magic that people like [Steven] Spielberg know about. And [Frank] Capra. I’ve never felt this magic was totally under the control of the director, but rather that it came from a higher source. During my life, I’ve looked for the message (from the Creator?) through the medium of film (quoted in Sinetar, 1993, p. 6).
Minister Fred Brussat came to a similar theological conclusion:
I take this [film recommender] approach on the counsel of the writer of Hebrews [13:2] in the Bible who suggests that it would be a very good thing to show hospitality to strangers just in case I might be entertaining angels unaware. Over the years, an amazing number of movie strangers have turned out to be angels bearing spiritual meanings (Brussat & Brussat, 1996, pp. 286-287).
Not surprisingly, many Churches are now offering a cinematic ministry because of such possibilities. For example:
In New York City, a nondenominational evangelical church called Journey Church of the City screens mainstream summer blockbusters like The Matrix Reloaded, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and Seabiscuit, and then holds discussions on the movies from a Christian viewpoint. “A lot of people have the idea that you can only find God in the church,” says Nelson Searcy, a teaching pastor with the church. “We believe that if you seek God you’ll find him, even in the movies” (Libaw, 2003, p. 5).
Indeed, Jesus Christ had no problem associating with thieves, murders, prostitutes and tax collectors. Saint Paul had no problem hammering out his theological in secular environments like tent-shops, public squares and the Athenian Areopagus. Surely, film-watching is a far less hazardous location or search site for religious enlightenment. Indeed, one can get a fresher look at the Scriptures and life by taking students out of the seminary and into the cinema. Why? Because Saint Paul was “the apostle to the Greek and the barbarian, to the educated and the uneducated, the weak and the strong; he desired to become “all things to all people” that he might “by all means save some” (I Cor. 9:22)” (Russell-Jones, 1995, p. 364). On an interpersonal level, popular films are a safer means of exploring the darker side of life without the immanent danger of the real thing, especially within a caring and supportive pedagogic environment.
Popular Films as Personal Counselling and Theological Exploration
Ian Maher (2002, p. 16) pointed out how a film-faith encounter gave one an ‘arms-length’ advantage in dealing with difficult questions and uncomfortable issues via screen identification from afar. And how it was only a short step from exploring responses to a film to exploring questions of personal faith and identity. So, it is not too surprisingly to find that this approach has being wonderfully utilised in the recent past. For example, the Kairos Ministry at Falls Church USA used popular films to encourage Christian fellowship. “Bimonthly film forums provide the chance to hang out and discuss movies like Dead Man Walking, Romero, and The Shawshank Redemption” (Haley & Edwards, 1998, p. 44). Catholic priest Prof. Fr. Andrew Greeley (1995) adopted the same practical approach in an academic setting. He wanted to open his students to the possibility of God lurking within popular films such as All That Jazz, Always, Babette’s Feast, Flatliners, Ghost, Jacob’s Ladder, Mr. Destiny, Oh God!, The Rapture and Truly, Madly, Deeply. Then he posed the following questions to them:
What does God think about the portraits of Himself in these films? Is God pleased with being compared to Jessica Lange and Audrey Hepburn? How could He not be, having created these beings in His own image and likeness and therefore as hints of what he must be like? If God is truly pragmatic and improvising, She might well say that we should seek Her grace where we can find it, and, if grace is to be found in pop culture, we are fools not to look there because she [sic] just might be lurking in these films. She might add that, hindered in her self-disclosure by homilists and hierarchs and liturgists and religious educators and theologians. She has found in pop culture a way to disclose Herself so that people will know what She is really like and love Her more. Audrey Hepburn, Danny Aiello, Michael Cain, Jessica Lange, George Burns, Stephane Audran may well be another trick of Herself, a way of escaping the monopoly that those who are involved in Catholic intellectual and cultural affairs might think we have on Her, to say nothing of a monopoly that our ecclesiastical leaders assume they have (pp. 60-61).
Mary Ann Glendon (1995) had in essence reiterated Fr. Greeley’s stance when she said:
…if God wants to use modern media to communicate with people, She is not likely to let a filmmaker’s idea of what she is doing get in Her way. She can even arrogate starring roles for Herself whenever She wishes, sometimes looking like Audrey Hepburn, sometimes like George Burns…the movies pay more tribute to the spiritual dimensions of the human person than is commonly supposed (p. 3).
Indeed, this theological idea was delightfully portrayed in the foreign film Que la Lumiere Soit (aka Let There Be Light). God decided Earth needed an update of His divine message and so this time he wrote the perfect film script, and then repeatedly visited Earth before finding someone to make the movie for Him. The resultant film was so successful that even the Devil was impressed by what he saw! Theologians Sung and Peace (1998) went as far as to demand that good films were a pseudo-right and an owed evangelical aide. They argued that:
Christians have every right to ask for movies that ask the right questions, the tough questions, the real questions of life. We have the responsibility both to deal with the underside of life and face problems honesty, not settling for less. We also have the responsibility to present Christ’s hope and to portray the ultimate human failure or triumph resulting from different people’s responses to that hope. As Christians committed to spreading the Good News, we have a huge playing field, measuring the height and depth and width of the cross. Therefore, we can approach the world of films and other media with the confidence of those who have been given the keys of the kingdom (p. 147).
Discernment Not Denial!
Of course, films for public viewing and discussion have to be chosen with discernment, particularly in parish and educational contexts. As Jim Killam (1998, p. 23) colourfully put it: “A trip to the video store is a little like searching for a diamond in a vat of pig slop. You know there’s something good in there somewhere.” For example, Brussat and Brussat (1996) suggested starting the cinematic quest with morally uplifting films. They advised their readers to:
Rent one or more of the following video portraits of moral mentors: Cry Freedom, the story of South African freedom fighter Stephen Biko and newspaper editor Donald Woods; Gandhi, the Academy-Award-winning film about the Indian peace activist; King, a rounded look at the Christian nonviolent advocate for the rights of African-Americans; Mother Teresa, a documentary about the Catholic nun’s work; Romero, a film about the Catholic archbishop who fought for justice in El Salvador; and Sakharov, a drama about the Russian physicist who spent his last years crusading for human rights (p. 363).
From there, one could then explore more challenging films as the need, interest and maturity of the viewers increased. As biblicist Robert Jewett (1993) argued concerning popular films:
The willingness to become “all things to all people” need not entail an abandonment of intellectual discipline or a critical loyalty to the tradition...there is ample reason to be loyal not only to the classical, theological tradition but also to the new cultural traditions embodied in these movies. It makes sense to become “a slave of all,” so that the power of the gospel to transform the world is allowed its full range (p. 18).
Popular films are not intrinsically bad, but they do require constant vigilance by faith communities to monitor, evaluate and protect their charges from (if need be). One should also allow film, as a legitimate cultural artifact, its full theological range. This can be done by proactively engaging with screen culture in both the classroom and the pulpit; deftly handled, pedagogically designed and administratively integrated into normal educational and religious services as appropriate (see Bausch, 2002). It is concluded that a closer, more sympathetic examination of the religion-and-film genre will continue to yield many more religious insights and delights unappreciated to date. Moreover, who knows what other spiritual revelations as one encounters another face of God hidden within? Additional research into this exciting interdisciplinary genre is therefore highly recommended. It is certainly warranted, not possible to ignore and thus needed more than ever before, especially in this post-Millennial age.
1. The Authorized King James Version of the Bible (KJV) will be used throughout.
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All That Jazz (1979, dir. Bob Fosse)
Always (1989, dir. Steven Spielberg)
Babette’s Feast (aka Babette’s Gastebud) (1987, dir. Gabriel Axel)
Ben-Hur (1925, dir. Fred Niblo)
Cinema Paradiso (aka Nuovo Cinema Paradiso) (1988, dir. Giuseppe Tornatore)
Cry Freedom (1987, dir. Richard Attenborough)
Dead Man Walking (1995, dir. Tim Robbins)
Detective Story (1951, dir. William Wyler)
Disraeli (1921, dir. Henry Kolker)
Flatliners (1990, dir. Joel Schumacher)
The Fox (1968, dir. Mark Rydell)
Gandhi (1982, dir. Richard Attenborough)
Ghost (1990, dir. Jerry Zuker)
Jacob’s Ladder (1990, dir. Adrian Lyne)
The Killing of Sister George (1968, dir. Robert Aldrich)
King (aka King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis) (1970, dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz & Sidney Lumet)
The King of Kings (1927, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
The Matrix (1999, dir. Andy & Larry Wachowski)
The Matrix Reloaded (2003, dir. Andy & Larry Wachowski)
Monkey Business (1952, dir. Howard Hawks)
Mother Teresa (1986, dir. Ann & Jeanette Petrie)
Mr. Destiny (1990, dir. James Orr)
Oh God! (1977, dir. Carl Reiner)
The Prince of Egypt (1998, dir. Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner & Simon Wells)
Prudence and the Pill (1968, dir. Fielder Cook & Ronald Neame)
Que la Lumiere Soit (aka Let There Be Light) (1998, dir. Arthur Joffe)
The Rapture (1991, dir. Michael Tolkin)
Rashomon (1950, dir. Akira Kurosawa)
Romero (1989, John Duigan)
Sakharov (1984, dir. Jack Gold)
Seabiscuit (2003, dir. Gary Ross)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994, dir. Frank Darabont)
Singing in the Rain (1952, dir. Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen)
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003, dir. Jonathan Mostow)
The Sound of Music (1965, dir. Robert Wise)
The Ten Commandments (1923, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
The Ten Commandments (1956, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991, dir. Anthony Minghella)
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, dir. Mike Nichols)
ANTON KARL KOZLOVIC BA, BEd, DipEd (Adelaide), BA (Deakin), GradDipEd(RelEd) (SACAE), GradDipMedia (AFTRS), MA, MEd, MEdStudies (Flinders) is a PhD candidate in Screen Studies, School of Humanities, The Flinders University of South Australia. He is interested in Religion-and-Film, Interreligious Dialogue, DeMille Studies, Computer Films, Popular Culture, and is currently writing a doctoral dissertation on the biblical cinema of Cecil B. DeMille. He has published articles in Australian Religion Studies Review, Compass: A Review of Topical Theological, Counterpoints: The Flinders University Online Journal of Interdisciplinary Conference Papers, Effective Teaching, Journal of Christian Education, Journal of Contemporary Religion, Journal of Mundane Behavior, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Journal of Religious Education, The Journal of Religion and Film, Kinema: A Journal for Film and Audiovisual Media, Labyrinth: An International Journal for Philosophy, Feminist Theory and Cultural Hermeneutics, Marburg Journal of Religion, Metaphilm, Nowa Fantastyka, Organdi Quarterly, Quodlibet: Online Journal of Christian Theology and Philosophy, Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture, Religious Education Journal of Australia, Science as Culture, Teaching Sociology and 24 Frames Per Second. His latest critical entries and book chapters have been published in The Wallflower Critical Guide to Contemporary North American Directors (Allon, Y., Cullen, D., & Patterson, H., 2001) and Sex, Religion, Media (Claussen, D. S., 2002).