by Joel Mayward, PhD Candidate in St. Mary’s ITIA
In Joel and Ethan Coen’s film Hail, Caesar! (2016), a hilarious scene unfolds around a boardroom table at a fictional 1950s Hollywood film studio. Producer and “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) has invited four clergy from different traditions to offer input on the studio’s upcoming biblical epic, a prestigious tale of the Christ in the vein of Ben-Hur. As Mannix declares that this “swell” adaptation might be the audience’s primary reference point for the Christ narrative, he entreats upon the clergy: “I want to know if the theological elements of the story are up to snuff,” whether this cinematic portrayal of Jesus Christ will “cut the mustard.”
The satirical scene echoes a longstanding question in theology and biblical studies: can film truly do theology, not merely depict it? As both a theologian and a film critic, I am inclined to argue in the affirmative, yet I imagine my systematic and historical theology colleagues may have some doubts as to whether there is much of a link between the history of cinema and theology (there is!) or if film theory and criticism has anything distinct to offer theology (it does!). So, I want to trace the historical origins of the question, as well as explore postures of dialogue between theology and film, ultimately suggesting a sort of cinematic theology.
A Brief History of Film and Theology
The dynamic relationship between film and theology has existed since the medium’s inception. In Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (Great Art of Shadow and Light) from 1646, Jesuit monk Athanasius Kircher describes his “magic lantern,” an apparatus utilizing mirrors and a light source to project images on a monastery wall or onto billows of smoke. This precursor to cinema, which included Kircher conjuring up visions of angels and demons, nearly got him killed as a heretic. Yet this connection between clergy and cinema continued in 1887 with American Episcopal rector Hannibal Goodwin’s patent of a celluloid roller film, later to be used in Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope; Goodwin posthumously won a huge lawsuit against the Eastman Kodak company for his patent of celluloid film. Continue reading