Home > Art > Religion and Film: An Introduction

Religion and Film: An Introduction

  • Author: Melanie J. Wright
  • Publisher: I.~. T~ (2007)
  • Language: English
  • Pages: 253
  • ISBN-10: 1850437599
  • ISBN-13: 9781850437598
  • Format: PDF

Studies of religion and film have long been dominated by the question of a film’s fidelity to a religious text or worldview, or its value as a tool in ministry and mission. Religion and Film seeks to redress this balance, and will have strong appeal to students as well as general readers interested in all aspects of the inter-relationship of religion and the cinema. Drawing on cultural studies approaches, and focusing on such films as La Passion de Jeanne D’ArcLagaanMy Son the FanaticThe Wicker Man and The Passion of the Christ, Melanie Wright looks at varied screen representations of religion; at films shaped by strong convictions about the place of religion in society; and at the roles that people play as consumers of film.

The cinema – meaning not just films, but also the institutions that produce and distribute them, and the audiences who are their consumers – has been in existence for just over a century. From early beginnings as a travelling fairground attraction it quickly developed, as both art form and industry. Within a couple of decades, the making and exhibiting of moving images was a worldwide business. In the mid-twentieth century, going to ‘the pictures’ was the social pastime in the West, a status it would soon enjoy globally until challenged, but not eclipsed, by other forms of mass entertainment and communication like television and the Internet. Whilst cinema attendance in the West has declined since the 1950s, India (the world’s largest manufacturer of feature films) still has a weekly film going population of 65 million people. In the UK, there has been an upward trend in cinema admissions in recent years: 2002 saw a high point of 176 million admissions (2.6 per person, compared with 5.4 per person in the USA). The rise of home video, and latterly DVD, has bolstered the status of film viewing as one of the most ubiquitous of leisure activities. In short, film is an enormously popular medium. It shapes and reflects a range of cultural, economic, religious and social practices and positions in modern society.

As old as the cinema itself is its relationship – or more accurately, relationships – with religion. Book titles like The Seductive Image: A Christian Critique of the World of Film, or even Religion and Film: An Introduction, perhaps imply that ‘religion’ and ‘film’ occupy realms that are distinct from, or even at odds with, one another. Just as Jurgen Habermas associates the growth of print culture in early modern Europe with a rise in discursiveness and reason and a shift in the Church’s status from that of feudal power to ‘one corporate body among others under public law’, so for some the expansion of film as a medium is linked to a crisis or decline in religious authority and commitment. This view has weighty antecedents. For Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, writing during the Second World War, film typified the ‘culture industry’. Its reliance on rationalistic, technocratic forms of organization meant that it embodied the modern drive to system and unity – responsible for the death of ‘local mythologies’, and implicated in the advancement of totalitarian ideologies. Accounts of cinema as an agent of secularization are, however, misplaced. Religion has not been displaced by a new medium: it has colonized it, and has found itself challenged and altered in the course of the encounter.

Religious ideas, rituals and communities are represented or alluded to in a dizzying number of films. In early twentieth-century North America and Europe significant resources were channeled into films that re-presented biblical or moral stories and drew on existing practices of religious dramatization, including passion plays and (in the case of Yiddish cinema) Purimspiels. Raja Harishchandra (Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, 1913), based on a Hindu epic (the Mahabharata), is widely credited as the first feature film made in India, where entertainment had for centuries been associated with the temple and religious activity. (Interestingly, plans for the new Swaminarayan Mandir to be built near Delhi – intended to be the largest temple complex in the world – include an Imax cinema.) Worldwide, a significant number of films continue to rely explicitly on religion for the development of narrative and character. A glance at the list of features released in any given year yields many examples.

Thus, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Andrew Adamson, 2005), released during the final stages of this book’s preparation, was based on the similarly named novel by Christian apologist C.S. Lewis and was marketed heavily amongst faith-based audiences in the USA; and the top-grossing film of 2006 is widely expected to be The DaVinci Code (Ron Howard, 2006) in which two academics pit themselves against clandestine Catholic groups and unravel clues to discover the ‘holy grail’. Countless other productions, whilst not explicitly concerned with religion, have explored themes commonly associated with religion, such as forgiveness, hospitality, redemption, sacrifice or tradition.

Providing a counterpoint to the on-screen treatment of religious themes and subjects are a host of public and private off-screen encounters. In the mid-twentieth century, American Christians figured amongst the harshest critics of the cinema. The morality code that regulated Hollywood film content from the 1930s to the 1960s was drafted by a Catholic priest, and first implemented by a Presbyterian Church elder. In present-day Iran, a country governed by sharia (Islamic religious law), film-making is a highly regarded profession. Yet in the late 1970s it was one of the revolutionaries’ favorite targets, and arsonists, stirred up by religious rhetoric, destroyed over 180 cinemas.

However, the relationship between religion and the film industry is not always an oppositional one, and has more often been characterized by ambiguity or positive symbiosis: when Anglican authorities at Westminster Abbey refused to allow their building to be used for the filming of The Da Vinci Code, those at Lincoln Cathedral granted permission, seizing an opportunity to boost church finances (directly through the film-makers’ £100,000 donation and indirectly through increased tourism) and raise their profile, whilst also issuing a statement emphasizing the story’s fictional nature.

There is also a long history of communities and individuals thinking religiously about and around film – of film being perceived and used as a means to reflection and spiritual experience. Those occupying positions of leadership or authority sometimes encourage such activity, identifying and promoting films that are considered to accommodate particular religious sensibilities. In Britain, the Bible Society’s ‘Reel Issues’ project and its sponsorship of The Miracle Maker (Derek Hayes and Stanislav Sokolov, 2000), an animated feature of the life of Jesus, evidence a conviction that film can provide a launch pad for discussion and can function as a tool for mission. Many religious newspapers and websites carry film reviews.

In Turkey, Islamist parties have promoted beyaz sinema (‘white cinema’), a genre that champions the cause of devout Muslims within the secular state. Conversely, audiences themselves may seize upon a film as being expressive of religious sentiments and needs. The example of Jai Santoshi Maa (Vijay Sharma, 1975), discussed further in Chapter VIII, illustrates the capacity for religious adherents to experience images as embodiments of the divine, and even for film to ‘create’ or ‘manifest’ a deity. Some Indian audiences responded to this film with acts of devotion, entering cinemas barefoot and showering the screen with flower petals, rice and money. At times, then, film can assume a sacramental quality.

Several disciplines attempt to grapple intellectually with the diversity of religion–film relationships. A small number of filmmakers and academic film critics have asked how film might move from trying to depict religion to ‘doing’ it. Underlying this quest is an assumption that religion, like film, is in part an aesthetic discourse – a view akin to Rudolf Otto’s ideas about the human need to articulate thoughts and feelings in metaphorical and symbolic forms. In other words, religion is (amongst other things) a narrative producing mechanism, and in this respect can be likened to both literature and the cinema. Reading the discourses of religion and film against each other can, therefore, be fruitful, given that both seek in differing ways to make manifest the unrepresentable. For Paul Schrader, who straddles these two worlds uniquely – as writer of one of the most influential studies in the field, and screenwriter of The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988) – religion and film both attempt to bring people ‘as close to the ineffable, invisible and unknowable as words, images and ideas’ can take us.

Similar convictions have prompted some practitioners of Christian theology to move into the field of ‘theology and film’, although a pragmatic, instrumental approach – akin to that associated with mission and ministry – is frequently a central motivation. Many writers in theology and film locate their work in a wider context of responses to the challenges posed to traditional faith by the concerns of a modern, apparently secularized culture (see Chapter II). However, the trend is gradually towards a more self-reflective stance, which holds the writer’s faith position in dialogical tension with the content of particular films.

Approaches to religion and film that emerge from the context of religious studies are not identical to any of those outlined above. (There is some truth in Brian Bocking’s wry observation in relation to theology and religious studies: ‘if you don’t know the difference, you’re a theologian’ . 9) However, they may include a critical examination of any or all of them within their remit. Classically, religious studies does not assume a particular faith stance, and is instead interested in religion as a significant phenomenon of human consciousness and society. In the best sense of the word, it problematical religion, which, in simple terms, individual scholars may define substantively (focusing on the substance or ‘content’ of religion, particularly visa- vis conceptions of the divine) or functionally (focusing on the contribution religions make to meeting the essential prerequisites of society by fostering value consensus and group solidarity), or they may identify it with reference to a number of forms or dimensions (such as community; ritual; ethics; social and political involvement; myth; concept; aesthetics and spirituality). Studying ‘religion and film’ provides a route into the examination of various topics of interest to religious studies, including the interpenetration of religious and cultural ideas and forms, and the processes at work in mythopoeia and meaning-making.

Despite the many connections between the worlds of religion and film, relatively few extended studies try to tackle the topic systematically. Some works tackle only one aspect of the religion– film nexus, looking at, say, biblical epics or films dealing with other explicitly ‘religious’ content, such as sainthood. Other studies (typically, edited collections of essays) are broader, but rarely do much to present and defend clearly the approach being taken to a sometimes bewilderingly diverse range of films. It is also accurate to say that, for the most part, existing literature on religion–film relationships shows little or no awareness of critical approaches in film and cinema studies, although it routinely professes interest in these fields. Religion and Film aims to fill this gap. It attempts to offer an informed understanding not just of specific films but also of key concepts, questions and themes that can be applied more generally. As the book’s title implies, the discussion does not assume or argue for a particular faith position but seeks to move towards an interdisciplinary approach, drawing from the practices both of religious studies and of film and cinema studies.

The first section of the book gives an account of the approach used later on to interpret the films. Chapter II highlights some trends in the analysis of ‘religious films’ (variously defined by different writers), touching on the theories and methods in the work of those approaching film from the contexts of theology, religious studies and film studies. Readers who are not particularly interested in theory may prefer to skip this chapter; others will no doubt find it the most important one. I have tried to present a range of positions fairly and to resist canonizing certain films or interpretations although, inevitably, the discussion is not neutral. I find some theories more amenable than others and I will suggest that, particularly as far as academic writing on religion and film is concerned, many basic issues remain to be addressed adequately. The chapter therefore functions as an argument for my own perspective, and, for those who want to follow up other ideas, as a kind of ‘user’s guide’ to selected approaches in religion (theology) and film.

The main section of the book is concerned with the detailed analysis of particular films. The choice of films has been shaped by a number of criteria. First, all the films selected are available on DVD. Although most films are made for cinema and acquire their reputation through theatrical release, the small screen is now intrinsic to our relationship with film. It is not in the multiplex or art cinema, but in the living room, that viewers typically have the chance to enjoy both an introduction to the breadth of what cinema has to offer and repeat screenings of old favorites. The availability of the films means that they have figured or continue to figure in public and/or popular discourse. Accordingly, the accounts given in this book may be read against those offered elsewhere – online, in print, or in conversation.

This matters because, as discussed in Chapter II, the complexity of the film medium itself requires that we view it through multiple lenses. Above all, I hope that readers will be interested to view some or all of the films for themselves. This study tries to bring a number of critical ideas to the fore, but it is for others to make up their own minds about the credibility of my arguments.

Second, all the films discussed are ones in which religion is a dominant or significant feature. The definition of ‘dominant or significant’ is clearly open to debate. This book adopts a deliberately cautious position. The Bible was foundational for the Western literary canon, and so persists, post-Christendom, as the text that is most widely alluded to in Western literature. Likewise, it is virtually impossible to conceive of a narrative film devoid of any trace of the religious impulses that underpin the cultural construction of feelings, institutions, relationships, and so on. However, in a more direct fashion the films in this book deal extensively with religious characters, conflicts, or texts; are dependent upon religious narratives or traditions for plot or narrative; and/or make use of religion for character definition; or are set in the context of a religious community or communities.

Finally, the films have also been chosen to represent something of the range of works that constitute cinema worldwide. Approaching more than one tradition is, as Ninian Smart describes, a feature that distinguishes religious studies from theology.10 More specifically, it serves the purpose of this book, since the chapters are intended to function cumulatively as an argument for the use-value of the approach outlined in Chapter II. Comprehensiveness is impossible,11 but I have included features produced by big Hollywood studios, and art films (sometimes called ‘Second Cinema’) and the author also discuss ‘Third Cinema’ – usually defined as films that are independently made and political in content and practice. Because the films vary, they demand different emphases of analysis, thereby demonstrating something of the approach’s flexibility in dealing with the cinema and religion.

Download this book

Categories: Art
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: