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The Seventh Art: Considering Film as Theology

Wednesday 27 March 2019

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.

Upon its advent via the Lumière brothers’ first public screening of a motion picture in December 1895, both filmmakers and film critics quickly discerned theological and religious connections to cinema. In 1897, a French filmmaker made the first motion picture passion play, likely the first film based on the Bible, now lost to time; that same year, The Horitz Passion Play screened for the public, first in Paris then in the United States the following year. As more Jesus films, Biblical stories, and depictions of Christian saints quickly followed, such films prompted theological and critical reflections on both the narrative content and the medium’s potential for accessing the spiritual dimension. Writing in 1915, poet and film theorist Vachel Lindsay recognized cinema as a site for religious significance, alluding to biblical books and describing filmmakers as “prophet-wizards” providing an “immortal soul” for the apparatus which makes visible the invisible. Similarly, early film theorists from Europe noted film’s potential for accessing a spiritual dimension, ranging from Hugo Münsterberg’s “soul psychology” to Germaine Dulac’s description of cinema as an “art of spiritual nuance” capable of capturing the immaterial, to Jean Epstein’s photogénie which suggests that film bridges the gap between the conscious and unconscious, allowing access to the human soul itself. Moreover, French film critics writing in the 1950s and 1960s—André Bazin, Henri Agel, and Amédée Ayfre—described film as “sacramental” and “sacred,” a means of divine revelation through the experience of the motion picture as icon and potential portal to the divine.

Many of these film-philosophers and critics were writing outside of English-speaking scholarly conversations about both cinema and theology—there weren’t (and likely still aren’t) many Anglophone theologians reading German and French film theory from the early 20th century. This is an understandable limitation in interdisciplinary approaches—scholars cannot be experts in every field and naturally give precedent to the discipline she or he was trained in, thus leading to more myopic clusters of conversation, especially about cinema.

On Dialogue and Film-Theology

Which brings me to my proposition: that film can do theology, not merely depict it. Many of the writings on film-and-theology since the 1970s to the present day have been couched in the term, “dialogue,” arguably the most prevalent subtitle for film-theology publications.[1] Dialogue is wonderful, as long as it is truly a dialogue: a genuinely egalitarian back-and-forth exchange of ideas marked by giving and receiving.

Despite the stated intentions, the dialogical approach of many theologians and biblical scholars remains one of theological dominance, where theology has both the first and last word in the conversation. Theological systems or ideas are placed onto films, or films are used as examples for theological ideas (just how many Christ figures or examples of redemption can one find in the movies?). Basic elements within cinema are often misrepresented, mistaken, misappropriated, or simply ignored for the sake of illustrating a theological point. I don’t want to over-speculate as to the reasons behind this prevalent approach—do we tolerate such misapplication of other aesthetic forms like literature or visual arts?—but I suspect cinema isn’t being taken seriously as a dialogue partner. Which is understandable—on the surface, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse may not seem particularly intellectually or emotionally stimulating, let alone raise important questions about metaphysics, hermeneutics, or anthropology (it succeeds on all accounts). So, to dismiss such a ubiquitous cultural artefact as film—one with a rich, complex history with religion, as noted above—possibly betrays a tacit belief that God isn’t active or present in cinema, either its production or experience, and that theology is somehow “above” film as a medium and as an academic discipline.

Thus, I want to encourage theologians to not watch films as mere distractions nor as pedagogical illustrations; rather, we can approach films as generative sites for theological inquiry, where questions about God, humanity, existence, and belief are explored and determined not via systems and texts, but aesthetics and images. This doesn’t mean that every film necessarily intends to theologize, and some are more theologically rich than others; I am only suggesting that a genuinely cinematic theology—one which takes film qua film seriously—is not only possible, but beneficial to our understanding of God.

For example, the filmmakers at the centre of my PhD research, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, craft post-secular cinematic parables: their ostensibly secular films raise theological and ethical questions about divine presence and human nature, the transcendent and immanent colliding in their intimate portrayals of the urban margins of Belgium. Drawing from their leftist Catholic upbringing, Continental and Marxist philosophy (especially Emmanuel Levinas and Ernst Bloch), and personal experiences in theatre and documentary filmmaking, the Dardenne brothers’ films are theological not only in content, but in their formal style of social realism and cinéma vérité. Similarly, filmmaker Martin Scorsese gave up seminary in order to become a filmmaker, and has crafted theologically complex works not via creed or treatise, but in cinematic form in films like Mean Streets, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Silence.[2] If we can approach such movies with a humble willingness to receive what cinema offers, we may discover new “texts” and fresh arguments about the nature of the divine. And we should do this together—if you’d like to have a movie night and subsequent discussion, I would love to host it.

I think of the Orthodox priest in the Hail, Caesar! scene, how his initial reaction to the theological question of film was “I though the chariot race was fakey.” As theologians, we certainly can engage with cinema on this level of basic appreciation—we can simply enjoy film as film. Yet I exhort us to also take seriously Eddie Mannix’s question, to see if cinema is theologically “up to snuff,” and to consider film-as-theology as a richly resonant dialogue partner in our larger theological conversation.

Further Reading

As cinema is the so-called seventh art, I want to conclude by offering seven books for a theologian’s to-read list, books which take cinematic theology seriously (in alphabetical order by author):

Jonathan Brant, Paul Tillich and the Possibility of Revelation through Film (Oxford University Press, 2012). Paul Tillich is the theologian most often cited in film-theology publications due to his correlation approach and appreciation of visual art, but Brant takes this a step further by including quantitative research on cinema experience in conjunction with Tillich’s theology, and noting where cinema may actually fill in some gaps in Tillich’s thought.

Sarah Cooper, The Soul of Film Theory (Palgrave MacMillan, 2013). Cooper’s historical study of the concept of the “soul” or “spirit” in film theory is both comprehensive and accessible, tracing the spiritual terminology utilized in film studies since cinema’s beginnings. I consider this is a theology book disguised as a film theory book—Cooper is currently the head of the film studies department at King’s College in London.

Pamela Grace. The Religious Film: Christianity and the Hagiopic (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). Grace’s book is a great introduction and overview to the relationship between Christianity and cinema over the past 100+ years, especially in films about Christ and saints, such as Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew and Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Gerard Loughlin. Alien Sex: The Body and Desire in Cinema and Theology (Blackwell, 2004). The book title which elicits the most curiosity from my officemates, Loughlin’s theological consideration of the human body and sexuality via sci-fi movies is likely the most robust cinematic theology I’ve read yet. Loughlin strives for the films to speak for themselves as he draws out their inherent theological positions rather than imposing his own.

Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (University of California Press, 2018). Before he wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, filmmaker Paul Schrader wrote a theological consideration of cinematic style, published in 1972. Republished last year with a brilliant new introduction on “slow cinema,” Schrader’s book is a classic for both film studies and theological aesthetics. Also, you should watch Schrader’s First Reformed, my favourite film from 2018.

Zachary Settle and Taylor Worley, Dreams, Doubt, and Dread: The Spiritual in Film (Cascade Books, 2016). This collection of essays takes a phenomenological approach to the film experience, and is one of the more diverse and complex of such collections to-date, engaging with films from Wes Anderson, David Lynch, Ingmar Bergman, among others. Plus, Worley is an alumnus of St Andrews.

Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema (University of Texas Press, 1986). The Russian auteur’s masterful book on cinema’s distinctions is both philosophically and theologically enriching, and offers a wonderful introduction to the filmmaker’s paradigm and style. Read this, then watch any number of his enigmatic and challenging films; I’d recommend starting with his sci-fi parable, Stalker.


[1] For example, Anthony J. Clarke and Paul S. Fiddes’ Flickering Images: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Regent’s Park College, 2005), Ulrike Vollmer, Seeing Film and Reading Feminist Theology: A Dialogue (Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), and Robert Johnston, Craig Detweiler, and Kutter Callaway’s book released this year, Deep Focus: Film and Theology in Dialogue (Baker Academic, 2019).

[2] Check out Christopher Deacy’s Screen Christologies: Redemption and the Medium of Film (University of Wales Press, 2001) and Catherine O’Brien’s Martin Scorsese’s Divine Comedy: Movies and Religion (Bloomsbury, 2018) for more Scorsesian theological reflections.

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