his previous Quodlibet articles,
Anton Karl Kozlovic explicated the religious films fears associated with: (a)
satanic infusion, graven images and iconographic perversion, (b) cinematic
sinfulness, and (c) being sacrilegious, criticising or devaluing the faith. In
this latest instalment, he explores the religious film fears of abandoning
orthodoxy, paganisation and the ascendancy of post-Christian culture. Utilising
humanist film criticism as the guiding analytical lens, the critical film and
religion literature was briefly reviewed and the popular
Introduction: Film, Fear and Futurity
This is the second century of the “Age of Hollywood” (Paglia, 1994, p. 12) during the ascendancy of moving image culture wherein movies1 have become “the lingua franca of the twentieth century” (Vidal, 1993, p. 2) that will continue to dominate throughout the post-Millennial period. Unfortunately, they have also generated intense fears within Christian communities throughout its history because of their potential to corrupt morally, socially and doctrinally, as self-evident by the many provocatively titled books against the media, such as: The Devil’s Camera: Menace of a Film-ridden World (Burnett & Martell, 1932), What is Wrong with the Movies? (Rice, 1938), Hell Over Hollywood: The Truth about the Movies (Gilbert, 1942), What’s Wrong with the Cinema? (Derham, 1948), Hollywood Cesspool: A Startling Survey of Movieland Lives and Morals, Pictures and Results (Sumner, 1955), The Menace of the Religious Movie (Tozer, 1974) and Evil Influences: Crusades Against the Mass Media (Starker, 1989).
These film fears were sometimes justified and sometimes exaggerated, but whatever the intrinsic merits of their arguments; they are legitimate concerns that can dramatically impact upon congregations, the discipline of religion studies2 and its teachers, thus warranting serious consideration. Consequently, the film fears associated with satanic infusion, graven images and iconographic perversion (Kozlovic, 2003a), cinematic sinfulness (Kozlovic, 2003b), and being sacrilegious, criticising or devaluing the faith (Kozlovic, 2004) were investigated. However, there are still many more fears to deal with to assuage the anxious and smooth the pathway for the exciting and emerging interdisciplinary field of religion-and-film (aka sacred cinema, spiritual cinema, holy film, cinematic theology, cinematheology, theo-film, celluloid religion, film-and-faith, film-faith dialogue).
To aide its growth into an even more powerful pedagogic tool, such fears have to be acknowledged, examined and rationally addressed. Not only is this important for the future of the field, but as Robert K. Johnston (2001, p. 15) appreciated, the dialogue between theology and film is a valid contemporary means of revitalising religion studies itself, otherwise: “the church risks irrelevancy without its walls and complacency within. We have boxed in God and the results are proving disastrous. New eyes are called for as we attempt to see God anew.” Indeed, “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). Besides, such “is the power and influence of the modern mass media, that to a large extent it has replaced the church as the major institution in society which informs public opinion, constructs our values and provides us with the stories that will shape our outlook on life” (Jenkins, 2003, p. 21). Therefore, it strongly behooves the religion professions to look seriously at this extra-ecclesiastical resource rather than just lament films’ existence and its supposedly deleterious influence upon our youth and society.
The writer argues that one should employ the popular Hollywood cinema3 as an essential component of a 21st century theology that proactively embraces rather than rejects our media-saturated society, especially if it wishes to remain culturally relevant to our film-savvy youth, and allow the profession to thrive in our increasingly post-print, postmodern and post-Christian world. As Bob McKinney (2003, p. 13) advised his teaching staff: “Learn to use the trends and current events displayed by the media as resources for connecting faith with the real world and thereby teaching biblical truths. Develop the ability to see God at work in all things” including the popular cinema because as Marilyn Gustin put it: “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?” (Brussat & Brussat, 1996, p. 537). Of course not! Indeed, seeking out the flickering light of God in the popular cinema is nowadays a necessary part of ones’ Christian duty to “discern the signs of the times” (Matt. 16:3).4
Utilising humanist film criticism as the guiding analytical lens (i.e., examining the textual world inside the frame, but not the world outside the frame—Bywater & Sobchack, 1989), the critical film and religion literature was briefly reviewed and the popular Hollywood cinema selectively scanned to reveal the film fears associated with abandoning orthodoxy, paganisation, and the ascendancy of post-Christian culture. The following is an introductory explication of these fears interleaved with pro-film justifications, defences and other counter-arguments for utilising feature films for religion studies. Copious inter-genre exemplars were employed to demonstrate the range, relevance and diversity of the phenomena.
Popular Films as a Source of Extra-canonical Insights
Popular feature films can provide valid extra-canonical insights, but whose non-traditional sources are potential concerns for some religionists. For example, Edward Fischer (1977, p. 56) reported how a “priest said that when he saw, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter he came away feeling that it had done more for him than a spiritual retreat, an admission he made with some embarrassment because things are not supposed to happen that way.” Pastor Edward McNulty (1998) confessed:
I first became aware of the spiritual effect of film
almost thirty years ago while watching Franco Zeffirelli’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.” For its two
hour duration I sat in the darkened theater with a group of strangers and was
totally mesmerized as the story of Francis of Assisi transported me to another
time and place, the effect strongest in the scene in which Francis was joined
by former friends and poor villagers in restoring the ruined church where
Christ first had called him.
The lush photography, fine performances of the actors, and lilting musical score by Donovan all contributed to an experience in which my own calling to serve God through the church was reaffirmed and renewed. I left the theater feeling lifted high, but was unable to explain the feeling the next day to my wife or anyone else who had not seen the film. Many years later, when I visited Assisi itself and sat quietly for a while in the little church of San Damiano, I felt a peace and a gentle presence, but no more strongly than I had felt at the movie theater. This feeling of Presence, of receiving a glimpse of the Holy, has occurred at a number of other film viewings, including “The Pawnbroker,” Diary of a Country Priest,” “Babette’s Feast,” “Romero,” “Eleni,” “Field of Dreams,” “Grand Canyon,” “Jesus of Montreal,” “Places in the Heart,” “The Fisher King,” “The Bagdad Cafe,” “Rhapsody in August,” “Tender Mercies,” “Secrets and Lies,” and “The Spitfire Grill” (pp. 1-2).
These heart-felt confessions proved that popular films can indeed be “pearls of revelation” (Verbeek, 1997, p. 172), and that finding “a film that which seeds true nourishment for our soul is better than gold” (Sinetar, 1993, p. 5), if not the Bible itself, which film can never replace, only buttress. However, if one watched the French comedy Let There Be Light, it showed the possibility of film being the revelatory medium of the Divine in the future. God had decided that humanity needed an updated version of His holy message for modern times, so he wrote the perfect film script and through various human intermediaries, had the movie made. It impressed everyone who saw it, including the Devil!
That playful scenario is not as far-fetched as it may at first appear. As Anglican Christian, Sally Cloke (2003, p. 5) lamented about the Bible: “God could have chosen any art form—as the religious ‘stories’ of other traditions make extensive use of dance, painting and theatre. But we’re stuck with the book—and at the mercy of the writer,” but not necessarily for eternity. Of course, film technology did not exist in Jesus’ time, yet, is it too outrageous to consider that when Jesus eventually returns at the Second Coming that he, his followers and the media, would not use the communications tools of the day to transmit, document and disseminate his sacred words and images? Let alone preserve that archival material for posterity and repeated showing during religious instruction? One would suggest a resounding ‘No!’ After all, Jesus was a man of the people whose teaching strategy was to go to the people, speak to them in their language about their concerns so as to teach them his desires.
Popular Films as a Source of Turf Wars
For religionists suspicious of film per se, these extra-canonical insights can manifest as turf wars, especially when they see filmmakers as professional rivals who should not be doing their sacred work. This source of anxiety may manifest as a concern over getting the theological/religious/biblical “facts” wrong (i.e., monitoring the scholarly sins of omission and commission), or worries about distorting “the true meaning” (i.e., their specific interpretation of scriptural passages, meanings and intent), or qualms about promoting sectarian views anathema to their own religious stance (e.g., rejecting any suggestion that God is dead).
Therefore, such fearful religionists would desperately need to control the cinema as a form of religious/moral/ideational quality control (i.e., the traditional gatekeeper function). The most obvious historical manifestations of this film fear were the genesis of the Legion of Decency, the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, and the many other associated censorial organisations-cum-name changes (Black, 1994, 1998; Skinner, 1993; Walsh, 1996). These religious bodies were deliberately designed to regulate films’ content, public distribution, and audience viewing habits, with varying degrees of influence and impact.
In other quarters, popular films were seen as a pagan challenge to the authority of the Church itself, and thus another major turf war in the making. For example, during the 1930s, the Most Revd. John Cantwell (1936, p. 21) was concerned that seventy-five per cent of scriptwriters were pagans who practised infidelity and cared nothing for decency, good taste, refinement, respect for religion or spiritual values. As he claimed:
So great is the power of the motion picture to impress the youth of the land that one hour spent in the darkness of a cinema palace, intent on the unfolding of a wrong kind of story, can and frequently does nullify years of careful training on the part of the Church, the school, the home. So great is the problem suggested by the wrong kind of talking picture that drastic efforts must be launched at once if we are to stave off national disaster (Cantwell, 1936, p. 25).
Similarly, Dan Gilbert (1942, p. 11) argued in Hell Over Hollywood: The Truth About the Movies that Tinsel Town had “established a sort of uncrowned and unofficial dictatorship” over manners and morals, standards and tastes, modes of dress and speech, and the ways of thought and personal conduct. In short, societal influences that the Church considered were its professional domain. Furthermore, Gilbert argued that:
These comments were a heart-felt attempt to character assassinate the cinema, albeit, for good and pious reasons. They were designed to put the fear of God into the religious community by evoking God’s traditional enemy, Satan (aka the Devil, the great dragon, old serpent, Lucifer—Rev. 12:9; Isa. ), and conjure up the fear of political manipulation within society via Communism—the secular Satan. A.W. Tozer (1974) attacked the cinematic artform within Menace of the Religious Movie by positing seven arguments against it, namely:
It violated the scriptural law of hearing.
It embodied the mischievous notion that religion is, or can
be made, a form of entertainment.
Religious movies are a menace to true religion because they
embodied acting which was a violation of sincerity.
The filmmakers owed it to the public to give biblical
authority for their act which they have not done.
· God only ordained four methods by which truth should prevail, and the religious movie was not one of them.
Religious movies are out of harmony with the spirit of the Scriptures and contrary to the mood of true Godliness.
They have harmful effect upon everyone associated with them.
Although each of these propositions are defendable historically, scripturally, logically, theologically, philosophically, spiritually and pragmatically (Cosandey, Gaudreault & Gunning, 1992; Ludmann, 1958), it is an important cultural indicator of the strength of anti-film feeling that is only three decades old. Nor is such anti-film prejudice out-dated today. As Margaret Miles (1996, pp. xiii-xiv) reported: “many people, including some of my academic friends, believe that one should not study popular films because one will--at best--become tainted with their triviality, their invidious superficiality; at worse, one will absorb their highly questionable values,” or as Revd. Larry J. Kreitzer (1999, p. 30) heard when a colleague found out he was working on another volume in his fiction and film series: “When are you going to do some serious New Testament work?”
Films were frequently cast as the boogeyman in many a mother’s warning to her child. For example, Paul Crouch, executive producer of The Omega Code reported within his DVD special feature Behind the Codes: The Making of the Feature how his mother filled him with fear over the incompatibility of feature films and Jesus Christ. When he disobeyed her and watched a Roy Rogers and Dale Evans movie, he was miserable throughout because he expected Jesus to catch and punish him for his transgression. Clive Marsh (1997, p. 33) suggested that anti-film prejudice occurs because: “Theology which takes film seriously reminds itself of its own ephemeral character.” After all, when all the holy prophecies are fulfilled, the Second Coming came and went, and the priests’ religious care-takers roles were fulfilled, what is left for this professional class of sacred devotees now out of work?
Dabbling with Non-Orthodox Religion
disturbing possibility is that the popular cinema can showcase non-orthodox
Christianity and foreign religious traditions. For example, Michael Medved
(1993) was deeply concerned with
They follow the Tibetan
Book of the Dead and the spiritual guidebooks of L. Ron Hubbard far more
closely than they follow the Bible; they reflect
without any statistical evidence, one suspects that more Christians and Jews
…three popular films have been released which feature
explicitly Gnostic themes, evidence that the myth is alive and active in the
imaginations of Xers. The Truman Show,
This feature hints at a post-Christianity metamorphosing into a pre- or parallel-Christianity that has already accepted the fusion of sound and image, text and screen as normal and their cultural birth right. Indeed, for the American writer John Updike, movies were a secular church. As he confessed:
…the cinema has done more for my spiritual life than the church. My ideas of fame, success and beauty all originate from the big screen. Whereas Christian religion is retreating everywhere and losing more and more influence; film has filled the vacuum and supports us with myths and action-controlling images. During a certain phase in my life film was a substitute for religion (Herrmann, 2003, p. 190).
MacNicol similarly claimed: “No priest or homily so calibrated my moral compass
as did movies. No classroom lecture so humanized me as did
Therefore, the religion professions should take more seriously the possibility that the popular cinema can act as a substitute for organised religion, as well as be a significant shaper of human consciousness and values, let alone be a phenomenal technological medium for transmitting religious ideas worldwide. In fact, Christians in this post-Millennial age increasingly want the cinema as part of their regular theological diet. As Robert K. Johnston (2001, p. 14) noted: “With attendance at church stagnating and with movie viewing at theatres and through video stores at an all-time high, Christians find themselves wanting to get back into the [God/theology] conversation.”
This is surely one of those “signs of the times” (Matt 16:3) that warrants further investigation, in addition to being a powerful pedagogic tool with which to explore religion, theology and Scripture, whether in the classroom, home or pulpit. However, before this cinematic tool can become a practical reality, a necessary first step upon its developmental path is to acknowledge the sacramental dimension of film itself. That is, to appreciate that a secular medium can legitimately give lessons in spirituality to an audience composed of believers and non-believers alike.
Eschewing Myopia and Acknowledging Films’ Sacramentality
As Fr. Andrew Greeley (1988, p. 248) argued: “film is a sacramental art form par excellence. Sacramental films are not for the Church a luxury or a utility but a fundamental and essential necessity.” Why? Because “either as a fine or lively art nothing is quite so vivid as film for revealing the presence of God. Film in the hands of a skilled sacrament-maker is uniquely able to make “epiphanies” happen” (pp. 245-246), and thus a hierophanic medium for revealing theological truth (Kozlovic, 2000). Fr. Greeley (1988, p. 254) also warned that because “we ignore it when we are not condemning it is sad proof of how much we are cut off from our own traditions.” Yet, in “the contemporary postmodern situation, it is precisely the film image that has the power to signal, in a manner accessible and reliable for everyone, that religion is not a dried-up existential and historical source” (De Bleeckere, 1997, p. 101). Film really can make religion live anew, just as Robert K. Johnston (2001, p. 15) claimed.
this film diet deficiency is slowly being corrected within the scholarly
community, as evidenced by Peter Fraser’s (1998) Images of the Passion: The Sacramental Mode in Film which explored
sacramentalism as a religious film style in such diverse features as: A Farewell to Arms, Andrei Rublev, Babette’s
Feast, Black Robe, Diary of a Country Priest, Gallipoli, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Hardcore, Jesus of Montreal,
The Mission, On the Waterfront, Rome, Open City, The Word and You Only Live
Once. Not surprisingly, Presbyterian Charles
It seems to us an essential calling of the church, synagogue, temple or mosque to help people interpret the “signs of the times.” And when you think about it, movies are one of the most revealing signals of what is happening in American [and Western] culture. Our movies often reveal the central hopes and fears of people who are trying to make their way through these confusing times (p. 6).
Interestingly, Raymond Schroth (1995) saw the screen character of Fr. Leclerc (Gilles Pelletier) in Jesus of Montreal as a living embodiment of the Roman Catholic Church’s fear of change. As he argued:
The film’s most pathetic, though poignant, character is the shrine priest, who first orders the play renewed but backs off in fear when it succeeds and church authorities protest the play’s disturbing content. Leclerc joined the priesthood as a boy, hoping to use his theatrical talent. Now he trembles in fear of his religious superiors, but lacks the courage to leave the priesthood. Though his woman friend would marry him, he wobbles in face of the “outside” world and marriage’s risks and responsibilities. Clearly, he symbolises the post-Vatican II church--intimidated by the forces let loose by renewal, and lacking the religious faith and emotional resources to ride the rough seas of change (p. 109).
Other religionists objected to the popular cinema because they considered that sacred subject matter was just too complex to vulgarise in feature films, or when it came to filming the life of Jesus Christ, it was “un-do-able” (Tatum & Ingram, 1975, p. 471), even if his message was filmable. Others were more concerned about religious authenticity, accuracy and the attendant fear of incompleteness. For example:
In 1921 a priest had written to the Ecclesiastical Journal asking if it
would be appropriate for the clergy to play themselves in the movies. The
answer was definitely not; “those finer qualities of the true priest” were too
subtle to be captured on the screen, and anything
Christian, Christian Films: Possible?
While accepting popular films as potentially worthy of aesthetic consumption, some viewers only wanted to see “good/wholesome” films, thereby establishing a de facto religious film orthodoxy. Yet, even this simple desire is fraught with complexities. For example, Peter Fraser railed against the evoking of simplistic, pro-Christian rules that may not be effective when it comes to watching films in the real world. Consider:
…“I won’t allow my young kids to see a PG film, but
all Disney films are fine.” But are all Disney films fine? Have Christian
parents watched all of The Little Mermaid
or Aladdin or Pocahontas and given thought to the messages of these films? One
suggests that a sixteen-year-old should be defiant of her father and pursue the
person most incompatible with her. One implies that all first dates should end
in a kiss. One distorts American history beyond recognition in an age when
students a need prompting to name the man who discovered
Christian filmmaker Lloyd Billingsley (1989) encountered even greater difficulties when he recommended Chariots of Fire to a Christian friend who wanted assurances about its “Christian” nature before watching it:
I replied that I didn’t know if Chariots of Fire was a Christian film, but that one of its major
characters was a committed Christian. I thought this explanation would suffice,
but it did not. One Christian character, my friend insisted, did not a
Christian film make. As the discussion unfolded, I raised the question whether
there was any such thing as a specifically Christian movie. My friend was a
still photographer of considerable talent. I asked him if the photos he took of
trees and rock were “Christian” pictures. If the subject of one of his
portraits was a faithful pastor, would this automatically make it a Christian
photograph? What if a Zoroastrian priest or atheist had taken the same
photograph? Would it still qualify as Christian? Did he perhaps use Christian
film or a Christian camera? Or, if a picture of the
Conversely, how about a picture of, say, Billy Graham, with his face cropped just above the eyebrows? What about an overexposed, out-of-focus shot of Chartres Cathedral, with a garbage truck parked in front? Would these poor efforts qualify as Christian pictures, even if a Christian took them? No clear answers to the questions emerged. I then applied this line of reasoning to Chariots of Fire. I didn’t know the religious beliefs of those who made the film, but I assumed they were not Christians, since few in the film business are. Nor were all the characters in the story Christian, and no one gets converted. Moreover, it is made clear that the Christian character meets an untimely demise. My photographer friend was still not satisfied, but his sole answer to these arguments was to repeat his original question. I believe that at one point I asked if The Ten Commandments was a “Jewish film.” We eventually called a truce (pp. ix-x).
These debates are intriguing and worthy of further philosophical analysis, but beyond the scope of this paper. Fortunately, Fr. Andrew Greeley’s argument concerning cinematic portrayals of God can be fruitfully applied to these issues and other religious film debates. Namely:
Is any image adequate and accurate? I would rather
say that it is surely not adequate because no metaphor for God, no collection
of metaphors is adequate to describe the ineffable, but that it is accurate as
far as it goes--and perhaps a good deal more accurate than that presented in
most Sunday homilies or theological tracts. But does not this image
anthropomorphize God, a certain kind of intellectual will ask? Surely it does,
but is there any other way of speaking about God except through metaphor?
Or as the Lebanese mystical poet Kahlil Gibran (1972, p. 66) succinctly put it in The Prophet: “Say not, “I have found the truth,” but rather, “I have found a truth” [my emphasis]. After all, no one person, book, image, medium or institution has a monopoly on truth, and there is also a very thin line between religious fact and religious fiction, regardless of the intentions of the author. As William Telford (1995) explained:
The representation of Christ in fiction and film is based on the representation of Christ in the Gospels, as is the scholar’s Christ. Indeed it is based on no less than four such representations. Is the Markan Christ, or the Matthean Christ, or the Lukan Christ or the Johannine Christ to be considered any less a ‘construction’ than the Kazantzakis Christ? Even when the search for ‘the Galilean’ is conducted with all the scholarly precision of a Gerd Theissen, the fact that our knowledge of Jesus is after all based on such literary sources and representations should give us pause when seeking the answer to historical questions, and make us consider all the more keenly the part played by the imagination in the creation of so-called ‘historical tradition.’ Indeed, recognizing the power of the literary and religious imagination, as these studies lead us to do, serves to expose the relative subjectivity of all our efforts to secure facts in areas like religion (p. 385).
Notwithstanding this argument, Stanley Grenz (1996) posited that the popular cinema is the new cultural foundation of our society, and should be respected because:
Living in a postmodern society means inhabiting a film-like world -- a realm in which truth and fiction merge. We look at the world in the same way we look at films, suspicious that what we see around us may in fact be illusion. Despite a film’s disjunctions, however, the viewer can at least be certain that it expresses something about the minds that produced it; the filmmaker provides an often unattended center to the world the film creates (p. 33).
is this directorial input necessarily a bad thing, for as Bruce Stewart (1972,
p. 43) argued: “the cinema has given us Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, as profound a bit of Christianity as
you could hope to encounter in months of churchgoing.” One suspects that in most
cases, a film will be remembered longer than any specific Sunday sermon! Just
as importantly, one should not overlook the fact that mere exposure to the
cinematic Christ can prompt (if not actually cause) radical religious
conversions. For example, Geoffrey Macnab (1993, p. 14) reported, that The Mastership of Christ was shown in
Popular Film as Kitsch Art and Pretentious Piousness
Some religionists were concerned that even if a religious film was made, its quasi-religious power was prone to being transformed into something tawdry—the dreaded kitsch art, that is, pretentious piousness wrapped in kitsch reverentiality (Brown, 1975; Dorfles, 1968). For example, Lotte Eisner (1968) claimed that:
In Cecil B. de Mille’s first [The] Ten Commandments
(1922) there are grandiose sequences such as the pursuit of the Jews by the
Egyptians and the crossing of the
Yet, the “chief aim of religious kitsch is to justify the ways of man to man by making him Feel Good, all safe and snug deep down inside” (Brown, 1975, p. 44). This is what DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) was partially designed to do, in fact:
…religion as spectacle is the longest-running road
Therefore, it is not too surprising to find that the supposedly kitsch The Ten Commandments (1956) was considered virtuous by Steve Simels (1993, p. 75) who claimed: “Cecil B. DeMille’s kitsch-run-riot sensibility makes this biggest of Fifties blockbusters something to marvel at even now. Bernstein’s wonderfully overripe score matches it note for grandiose note.” In fact, watching DeMille’s Technicolor Moses movie was part of the Passover festivities (and associated Seder rituals and Pesach stories) for at least one Jewish elder—Ted Roberts. As he playfully reported:
Around Passover I spread the word to the kids and grandkids. “Channel 10, Tuesday night - don’t miss it.” Then I inform each of my young dependents that afterwards I’ll call and ask a few simple questions. And who knows? If they answer accurately and comprehensively, there may be a surprise in the mail the next day. And if it’s a box of candy - you can bet it’ll be kosher for Pesach…Does the Bible not instruct us to tell the story of Exodus from slavery to our children?…And does it confine the tale to the Haggadah - the book we read at the Seder table? Show me one place - even in the Talmud - where instruction from C.B. Demille [sic] is prohibited…When they are present [kids and grandkids], all I can do is tell the story over the Seder table with a bowl of soup standing in for the Red Sea and a couple of dips of mashed potatoes dividing the miniature soupy sea. After that, I’m at the mercy of the kids’ imaginations. But C.B. does it all with Technicolor moving pictures featuring Charleton [sic] Heston, Yul Bryner [sic], Yvonne De’Carlo [sic], and Edward G. Robinson (Jewish Outreach Institute, 1999, pp. 1-2).
Not only is religious showmanship a prime site for kitsch religiosity, but the very nature of filmmaking itself can contribute to it. As George MacDonald Fraser (1996) argued:
…more than ordinary films, they [historical filmmakers] are liable to strike a false note. Those who make them know that while millions of dollars’ worth of planning and building, and painstaking research beyond the dreams of many academics, and sheer technical brilliance, can pass without much notice, one bad line (and it doesn’t even have to be a bad line, it just has to sound amiss), or one visual anachronism, or piece of unhappy casting, or directorial slip, will have the customers falling about. There have been enough of these - as well as more culpable commissions of bad taste, wilful philistinism, and sheer ignorance - to give costume movies, if not a bad name, at least a patronised and faintly derided status. My history teacher was reluctant to see The Sign of the Cross because he feared he might be offended by the sight of gladiators who chewed gum and talked like gangsters (pp. 5-6).
Interestingly, Fr. Daniel Lord complained that DeMille’s religious film The Sign of the Cross was not immoral, just uninspiring. As he reported:
We had been waiting so eagerly for this picture; we hadn’t had a religious picture for so long; we thought this would be a magnificent story of the martyrs…and the martyrs played a secondary part to the pomp and circumstances that was Pagan Rome. The Jesuits of the city saw the film just yesterday. I’ve only seen a few of them. Those that I saw took pretty much this attitude: “Morally, there is really not much to object to. The dance is bad; the bath is unnecessary; the undressing of the girl who joins the empress indelicate; but in the main it is not nearly as objectionable in those parts as the advertisements and the criticisms had led us to expect. But it is ethical rather than Christian in the motivation of the martyrs. They seem in general a rather sorry lot compared with the pagans who rush triumphantly in power and pleasure through the scenes. Their martyrdom lacks the elements that would inspire others with the same idea; Marcus plainly does not believe and simply dies, except for a brief flash of possible [God?] light, to be with the girl. There is a feeling that many of the group go out to die under the lash rather than voluntarily. We were not inspired by the Christians’ going to death (quoted in Winters, 1996, p. 90).
It was an assessment cynically confirmed by Roger Dooley (1981, p. 279) who said: “except by implication [it was] no more a tract for promoting Christianity than the anti-Nazi films were propaganda for Judaism.”
Popular Films as a Source of Evil and Anti-Education
For some, the kitsch potential of films came a poor second to their alleged evil impact, particularly its anti-literacy, anti-education and anti-cultural influence upon society. As Steven Starker (1989) argued in Evil Influences: Crusades Against the Mass Media:
…literacy and intelligence also were at risk. The
power of their attraction was equated with a surrender of the will, which
transformed human beings into passive repositories for all manner of
suggestion…Intellectuals of all persuasions…found that movies represented a
distinctly unwelcomed break from the primacy of the written word. Even a “bad”
novel maintained some baseline of literacy in readers, providing an avenue of
eventual improvement through “better” readings. Movies, on the other hand,
offered sensation, emotion, and entertainment through mere images, without
requiring or sustaining literacy. This seemed a return to a more primitive
pre-alphabet form of communication. Some feared the death knell of culture and
the written word had sounded in
This is still a prominent fear today, as evidenced by John Davies (1996, p. xii) who argued in Educating Students in a Media-Saturated Culture: “Television, video, film, and popular music require no particular skills to be used. Listening/viewing can be done by anybody at any time!” Even Christian filmmaker Lloyd Billingsley (1989, p. 205) argued that a “cinematic culture, practically speaking, amounts to no true culture at all” because “the language of cinema narrows our imagination by substituting its images and memory for our own. Perhaps that is why Christians have historically been people of the word more than people of the image.” Yet, this is not strictly true, even if a historical excuse for eschewing feature films in pedagogic contexts today. As Commonweal film critic Richard Alleva (1999) passionately argued:
All my life I had been told by teachers that reading was greater than movie-going because you had to work at reading, had to decipher the words, turn them into images in your mind, had to work at understanding what the author had to say, and it was the work of reading that consecrated that activity and made literature a greater form than film, which was scarcely art at all, since movies just flowed in front of your eyes and did all your imagining for you. [Not so!]…To truly watch a movie was to read it, i.e. to see all that was put before you and to question yourself about what was shown (p. 468).
Or as Richard M. Gollin (1993) put it:
Supposedly a passive medium but in fact highly interactive, films require subtler acts of perception and discrimination than we like to acknowledge. Their narrative, visual, and aural intricacy should not surprise us, since films include the expressive and persuasive conventions of virtually every earlier art form, as well as some unique to themselves (p. 391).
This is presumably the underlying reason why S. Brent Plate (2003, p. 159) lamented the fact that a serious cinematic theology had to take a more critical stance toward the re-creation of the world by film. His prescription entailed learning the art and science of cinema to more fully understand, deploy and appreciate the true value of the medium, and because: “Unless theologians and religious leaders can critically examine the formal nature and modes of production of film itself (everything from cinematography to mise-en-scene to editing), they will do little to build a bridge between theology and culture.” It was sound advice and the basis for a second strand of religion-and-film studies.
…I have found that inter-disciplinary studies such as those offered here have proved to be enormously rewarding professionally, as well as immensely enjoyable personally. I am more than excited than I have ever been before about the relevance of the New Testament for the contemporary reader, and find again and again in teaching situations that biblical stories suddenly spring to life for students when they are approached through more familiar subjects, such as those contained in literature and film. I remain confident that inter-disciplinary hermeneutics is a sign of the future (p. 30).
One can only agree with him. Further research into the emerging and exciting interdisciplinary field of religion-and-film is warranted, recommended and is already long overdue.
1. Although there are real ontological differences between “movies,” “film,” “cinema,” “video,” “TV movie,” “DVD,” “VCD,” “MPEG-4,” “Internet movie” etc., they all deal with audiovisual images, and so will be treated herein as essentially interchangeable.
2. The term “religion studies” will be used herein as an umbrella term to cover the professional disciplines of “religion,” “studies in religion,” “religious education,” “theology,” “faith education,” “new religious movements” etc., thus avoiding needless repetition and boredom for both reader and writer.
3. The term “
4. The Authorized King James Version of the Bible (KJV aka AV) will be used throughout, unless quoting other translations, because most of the biblical phrases that are embedded in Western culture are from the King James Version, which is the most widely used English translation of the Bible today (Taylor, 1992, p. ix, 71).
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Let There Be Light (Que la Lumiere Soit) (1998, dir. Arthur Joffe)
The Little Mermaid (1989, dir. John Musker & Ron Clements)
The Mastership of Christ (1934, dir. Aveling Ginever)
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The Omega Code (1999, dir. Rob Marcarelli)
On the Waterfront (1954, dir. Elia Kazan)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer)
The Pawnbroker (1965, dir. Sidney Lumet)
Places in the Heart (1984, dir. Robert Benton)
Pocahontas (1995, dir. Mike Gabriel & Eric Goldberg)
Rhapsody in August (1991, dir. Akira Kurosawa)
The Robe (1953, dir. Henry Koster)
Romero (1989, dir. John Duigan)
Secrets & Lies (1996, dir. Mike Leigh)
The Sign of the Cross (1932, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
The Spitfire Grill (1996, dir. Lee David Zlotoff)
The Ten Commandments (1923, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
The Ten Commandments (1956, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
Tender Mercies (1982, dir. Bruce Beresford)
The Truman Show (1998, dir. Peter Weir)
The Word (aka Ordet) (1957, dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer)
You Only Live Once (1937, dir. Fritz Lang)