Theology and Film: Seeing the Sacred on the Silver Screen

Author: Dr. Kris H.K. Chong

Since the late 1880s, interaction between cinema and the church has been both colorful and engaging. In the last ninety years, the church’s reception of film has shifted from hostility and rejection to acceptance. Today, the use of films as resources for theological discussions is increasing.

Christians often ask, “How do we read a non-religiously explicit film theologically? Is that even possible?” Relating to this question, Felecia Taylor Douglass considers films as produced for entertainment purposes, not to explain human relationships with the Creator.  Such a “sacred vs. secular” perspective serves to perpetuate common perceptions of theology as sacred, and cultural artifacts such as film as secular.

This certainly is not accurate.

First, apart from the functions of entertainment and relaxation, film narratives record memories; they chart and perhaps parallel our life journeys. Movies regularly focus on themes of human struggles; and as future generations revisit them, the remembered images bring back memories and create new ones.

It is no exaggeration to say that films serve as a repository to enable robust accounts of our own life stories. Film theorist Dudley Andrew even claims that the “first responsibility” of the cinema is to “illuminate the spiritual darkness of our culture.” The medium and mode of film can be wisely appropriated to tell God’s Story as well.

If we hold onto the “cinema is evil” perspective, then we are regressing, whether in academia or the arts industry. Christian theology’s enduring relevance lies not only in proclaiming the narratives from centuries past, but in recognizing that theology is dynamic, always interacting with our current culture to challenge and inform our actions and attitudes.

Second, the nature of theology has always been ambiguous. It can be described broadly as “conversation about God,” in which those outside the church also actively participate—but it is also defined as a discipline that Christians discuss within their faith communities. A fundamental difference between Christian theology and film is that film can provide us with visual reminders of the divine, whereas Christian theology inevitably points us to a personal Savior.

Yet films, created aurally and visually, offer something that academic theology does not. Take, for instance, the stunning visual dynamics in films such as Constantine (2005) or The Devil’s Advocate (1997), where the visual style fuses film noir elements with traditional horror motifs in the thematic debate of good and evil, God and Satan.

The Devil’s Advocate is also an instructive resource for reflections on humanistic orientation: pride, lust and vanity, with a subtle hint of redemption. Can theology recapture the moment of visual transmission as represented—which amounts to a spoken word—in what is a commonly shared (and yet, at the same time, private) space of the cinema?

The term “sacred” often refers to some cosmic power that transcends human understanding and ability but that closely relates to humankind. Peter Berger explains in The Sacred Canopy that “sacred” power can be experienced at unanticipated moments of life. Philosopher Janet Soskice recounts her truly unanticipated “dramatic religious experience” of “a presence of love” in the shower!

Visual media has not usurped the church’s position as a societal institution. But film’s power and influence and its impact on public opinion are undeniable: it shapes social constructs and societal and individual values, and it supplies us with narratives that shape our outlook on life.

Theologically stimulating films are not always categorically religious. Yet they still raise issues that Christians need to tackle. One example is the life-affirming Still Alice (2014), which explores the real issue of human struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and the loss of human identity. Likewise, the Hong Kong film Mad World (2016) draws our attention to the social stigma that confronts the protagonist, who suffers from bipolar disorder.

A movie is more than a text; it is a happening. When viewed on a particular occasion or watched by a particular community, a movie’s contents and message speak to its audience, whose task is to bear it into the wider world of theology, mediated through their own insights and experience.

In this way, the spectator becomes actively involved in the task of personal interpretation and also contributes to the theological task of finding truth, goodness and beauty. This is a worked example of doing theology in a particular way with the media: a two-way engagement. While watching movies and unearthing meanings, familiar themes in a film’s narrative provoke a self-discovery process in the viewer.

This familiarity of particular circumstances unfolding on the screen enables the individual to name, or give meaning to, what was previously unnamed. This also acts as a contemplative stimulus to the viewer’s faith.

In other words, we ask the fundamental questions of who we are and what life is all about; we struggle to grasp the ultimate answer to meaning and purpose of human existence. Viewers ask questions as we seek to understand the film director’s social concerns and interests—and these are essentially the same questions asked in Christian theology.

At this point, one might ask: What, then, is the contribution of a movie replete with violence? French scholar Joseph Marty states that there is a sacramental element in films that can provoke viewers’ sensitivity to the mysterious and transcendent. So, even when the apparent message is blasphemous, film has the ability to evoke our awareness of forgotten forces in the spiritual dimensions.

Such awareness is part of common human experiences: birth, love, death, thrill, shock, awe, etc.—and all of these lead us to mystery, to the sacred realm. According to Marty, all religions, particularly Christianity, help us distinguish the sacred in the profane because the incarnation of Jesus Christ has transfigured the polarization of sacred and profane. So now, we can perceive our mundane everyday life as a receptacle of Otherness. This is a re-seeing of the everyday routine that also shapes the viewing of films.

To this end, the practice of seeing the sacred in secular films is a vibrant complexity that points towards a God who is excessive to any human theological project.

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