Film and Religion

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FILM AND RELIGION . While the academic study of "film and religion" as a subfield within religious studies has only come of age since the late 1980s, the connection between film and religion is as old as film itself. As film theorist André Bazin once put it, "The cinema has always been interested in God" (Bazin, 1997, p. 61). Indeed, if one accepts the now-standard origin of cinema to begin with the Lumière brothers' first public screening for a paying audience in December 1895, then the first decade of cinema saw at least a half dozen filmed versions of the life and passion of Jesus Christ, including those made by the inventors of film themselves, Thomas Edison and Louis Lumière. The figure of Jesus Christ has continued to be a popular topic for film and a touchstone for cinematic controversy throughout the twentieth century, with such directors as Sidney Olcott, D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, George Stevens, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Norman Jewison, Martin Scorsese, and Mel Gibson offering various theological perspectives. Jesus is not the only religious figure to appear on screen, however, and religious issues, practices, characters, and conflicts are presented on a frequent basis in films around the world. The first half of this entry will thus offer a global survey of examples of films since the mid-1980s that deal with matters of interest to religious studies.

It is not only the content of film that connects film and religion, for as a number of critics have observed, one can find religious interests and implications in the formal style of film, as well as in the cinematic experience of viewing film. As another early film critic and director, Jean Epstein, once said, "I would even go so far as to say that the cinema is polytheistic and theogonic" (Abel, 1988, p. 317). Film, and the experience of viewing film, may be religious in and of itself, creating its own gods, goddesses, and myths, and film does not merely represent or reflect an already established religion. So, while not mutually exclusive categories, film studies and religion studies can be usefully divided into three key approaches, and the second half of this entry will examine the various scholarly responses to the connections between film and religion: religion in film, religion as film, and the cinematic experience and ritual.

Religions and Cinemas around the World

While an all-inclusive list would be impossible to include here, there are a number of international filmmakers since 1985 (approximately since the entry on film was written for the first edition of The Encyclopedia of Religion ) who have dealt with religious issues in myriad ways. Many films in world cinema that touch on religious themes often do so by presenting religion in conflict. The most common conflicts arise when older religious values are challenged by the social, political, economic, and religious realities of modern life, especially in a postcolonial environment. There is conflict when, due to modern life and the aftereffects of colonialism, religious people from differing traditions are placed side by side and forced to get along (or not). And conflict arises when individual gender, sexual, and ethnic identities meet socioreligious identities. This list is in no way comprehensive, but is intended to display the number of directions that the study of film and religion can go in without treading across the same territory of previous studies. There is little or no critical literature from a religious studies standpoint in English on the films mentioned in this entry, and these films are mentioned precisely for this reason, to show the breadth of possible subject matter for religious studies scholars interested in film.

East Asian cinema has seen the development of several movements since the 1970s, as filmmakers have experimented with new styles and modes of production. In the wake of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, Japan has continued to be a prominent producer of films dealing with key religious themes. Toshihiro Tenma's Kyosono Tanjo (Many happy returns, 1993) explores new religious movements in Japan; Hirokazu Koreeda's Maborosi (1995) utilizes a "Zen aesthetic"; and two films produced in 1989 examine the life of the Zen Buddhist tea master Rikyu: Kei Kumai's Sen no Rikyu and Hiroshi Teshigahara's Rikyu. Also vibrant in Japan is the work of anime writers and directors, including Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001), Hideaki Anno's two Neon Genesis Evangelion films (1997), and Katsuhiro Ôtomo's Akira (1988). Ôtomo also wrote the screenplay for Metropolis (2001), directed by Taro Rin. A number of Korean directors have infused Buddhism into their films, including Bae Yong-gyun in Why Has the Bodhidharma Left for the East? (1989), Im Kwon-Taek in Sopyonje (1993) and Come Come Come Upward (1989), and Chang Sonu in Passage to Buddha (1993).

China's New Cinema movement has had a huge impact on the international film scene since the mid-1980s, occasionally incorporating Daoist and Confucian elements. Daoist issues arise in Chinese director Chen Kaige's King of the Children (1987), while critiques of Confucian ethics are seen in Zhang Yimou's Ju Dou (1990). In Bangladesh, Tareque Masud's Matir Moina (The clay bird, 2002) tells the story of the emergence of the nation of Bangladesh, offering a sympathetic yet critical look at Islam in the midst of the move toward political independence.

Notable films with religious interests from New Zealand include the work of Jane Campion: Angel at My Table (1990), The Piano (1993), and Holy Smoke (1999). Cross-cultural conflicts between Maoris, whites, and others get taken up in Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors (1994) and Gregor Nicholas's Broken English (1996). In Australia, films such as Nicholas Parsons's Dead Heart (1996) and Tracey Moffatt's Nice Coloured Girls (1987) deal with Christian-Aboriginal cultural conflicts. From another standpoint, David MacDougall's ethnographic films of Aboriginal culture, such as Transfer of Power (1986), offer intriguing examinations of cultural differences, and MacDougall has been prolifically thinking through the issues of visual representation in his films and writings.

South Asian cinema, because of its enormity (Mumbai's yearly production dwarfs Hollywood's) and because mythological themes are so intertwined in Indian cultures, is almost impossible to classify. Indian film history is steeped in mythological themes and stories of Hindu saints, and today's masala films often incorporate many of these narratives, weaving them into song and dance routines, domestic drama, and action-adventure sequences. Some films with themes of interest to the religious studies scholar might include the Mahābhārata retelling in Arjun Sagnani's Agni Varsha (2002), the postcolonial religion/cricket epic Lagaan (2001) by Ashutosh Gowariker, and the Muslim-Hindu religious conflicts dealt with in Kamal Haasan's Hey Ram (2000), Khalid Mohamed's Fiza (2000), and Deepa Mehta's Earth (1998). Films about the Indian diaspora and consequent cross-cultural challenges figure prominently in newer Indian films; important among these are the story of a wedding in Sooraj R. Barjatya's Hum Aapke Hain Koun (Who am I to you? 1994) and Subhash Ghai's coming of age story, Pardes (Abroad, 1997). And apart from Western filmmakers looking at Tibetan Buddhism, including Jean-Jacques Annaud's Seven Years in Tibet (1997) and Martin Scorsese's Kundun (1997), former Tibetan monk Khyentse Norbu made The Cup (1999), a prime film for teaching religious studies, as it deconstructs an exoticizing gaze.

The most productive site in western Asia for film production is Iran, where the films of Abbas Kiarostami (e.g., A Taste of Cherry [1997], The Wind Will Carry Us [1999]); Mohsen Makhmalbaf (e.g., A Moment of Innocence [1996], The Gabbeh [1996], The Silence [1998]); Majid Majidi (e.g., Children of Heaven [1997], The Color of Paradise [1999]); and Jafar Panahi (e.g., The Mirror [1997], The Circle [2000]), among others, all reflect everyday life in postrevolutionary Iran. Faced with heavy censorship, Iranian filmmakers have continued to produce some of the most critically acclaimed films in the world. While the religious studies scholar may wish to see more explicit images of Islam, there are a number of ways to read these highly allegorical films that point toward a Persian-Islamic worldview. And while Islam may not always be present, these films are peopled with Muslims, and it is crucial, as always, not to confuse an essentialist term like Islam for the people who actually practice the religion.

Toward the Mediterranean, films from Israel have shown the conflicts between gender and religion (as in Amos Gitai's Kadosh [1999]), sexuality and religion (as in Sandi Simcha Dubowski's Trembling Before G-d [2001]), and between the orthodox and the secular, with a good dose of Qabbalah (as in Yossi Somer's The Dybbuk of the Holy Apple Field [1998]). In Palestine, Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention (2001) portrays conflicts through the mixing of theology and politics.

The continent of Africa has experienced a strong increase in film production since the 1970s, with films confronting postcolonial situations that pit the traditional against the modern; in sub-Saharan Africa this often includes the conflict between Christianity and indigenous beliefs and practice. Egypt is the "Hollywood of the Arab World" and has garnered the attention of the international film world, especially since Youssef Chahine's Destiny, a film set in twelfth-century Islamic Andalusia, was nominated for the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997. Other Egyptian standouts dealing with religious-political conflicts include Daoud Abdel Sayed's Land of Fear (1999) and Atef Hetata's Closed Doors (1999).

Elsewhere in Africa, examples of the modern-traditional debate with reference to Islamic, Christian, and indigenous religions include Drissa Toure's Haramuya (1995) and Dani Kouyaté's Keita: Heritage of the Griot (1994), both from Burkina Faso; Amadou Thior's Almodou (2000) from Senegal; Nouri Bouzid's Bezness (1992) from Tunisia; and Saddiq Balewa's Kasarmu Ce (The land is ours, 1994) from Nigeria. Perhaps the best-known and most prolific filmmaker in Africa is Ousmane Sembene from Senegal, whose many films include Guelwaar (1992), which offers a critique of interreligious conflict. Like Sembene, director Med Hondo of Mauritania self-consciously makes films that offer an alternative aesthetic to that of Western filmmaking; one example is Sarraounia (1986), about a warrior-queen who leads her people in the challenges posed by the colonizing French. In western Africa, there has been a boom in film production through new, inexpensive video technologies that are used to produce "videofilms" that have a mass appeal, many of which are produced by Pentecostal religious groups. The African diaspora is the topic of many films produced in and out of Africa, and can be seen, for example, in such films as Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991), Felix de Rooy's Desiree (1984), and Haile Gerima's many films, especially Sankofa (1993), as well as a number of Latin American films discussed below.

In southeastern Europe, in the midst of decades of political upheaval, film production has been strong. Of particular note is Milcho Manchevski's Before the Rain (1994), which tells of Orthodox Christian and Muslim communities and their conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Romany/Gypsy cultures are seen in a number of productions, including the great Bosnian director Emir Kusturica's Time of the Gypsies (1989) and Tony Gatlif's Latcho Drom (1993) and Gadja Dilo (1997), the former created without any dialogue, only music and movement.

The works of western European directors have been well-traversed by religion scholars, and are only mentioned in passing here. In many ways inspired by former countrymen Carl Theodor Dreyer and Søren Kierkegaard, Danish filmmaking has consistently returned to existentially religious themes. Such films include Thomas Vinterberg's Celebration (1998), Roy Andersson's Songs from the Second Floor (2000), and the works of Lars von Trier, especially The Kingdom (1994, 1997), Breaking the Waves (1996), and Dancer in the Dark (2000). In Poland, the late Krzysztof Kieslowski's religiously inspired films include the Three Colors trilogy (19931994), Decalogue (1988), and the posthumous project eventually directed by Thomas Tykwer, Heaven (2002). In Spain, Julio Medem shies away from depicting religion explicitly, yet his style evokes a mystical aura in ways akin to the magic seen through early film theory, especially in Tierra (1996), Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998), and Sex and Lucia (2001). And Pedro Almodóvar, as a descendant of Luis Buñuel's surrealism and Roman Catholic satire, continues to utilize critical, yet not unsympathetic, portrayals of nuns and the institution of the church in such films as Matador (1986), Live Flesh (1997), and All about My Mother (1999). A number of French films through the 1990s updated the existentialist quest for meaning in life, notably Benoît Jacquot's School of Flesh (1998) and Danièle Dubroux's Diary of a Seducer (1996), while the cross-cultural clashes of suburban Paris are seen in Mathieu Kassovitz's Hate (1995).

Themes of religion in Central and South America have tended be critical of Roman Catholicism, or have delved into the hybrid religions of Afro-Catholic mixings. Cuba has been a fertile site for film production since the 1959 revolution, with Santerian practices showing up, for example, in Gloria Rolando's Oggún (1991), Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's Guantamamera (1994), and Humberto Solás's Honey for Oshun (2001). Films from Mexico include critiques of Roman Catholicism in Carlos Carrera's Crime of Father Amaro (2002) and Nicolás Echevarría's Cabeza de Vaca (1991). In Brazil, Tania Cypriano's documentary Odô yá! Life with AIDS (1997) portrays the importance of Candomblé in education about AIDS, and her short, Ex-Voto (1990), is a devotional expression to the patron saint of Brazil. One of the masters of Brazilian Cinema Novo is filmmaker Nelson Pereira dos Santos, whose many films include Jubiata (1987), which deals with interracial, interclass issues with a strong dose of Afro-Brazilian religious practice. Vodoun is probably the most slighted religion in the history of film, but can be seen in a somewhat objective light in Maya Deren's posthumously produced documentary Divine Horsemen (1985) and Alberto Venzago's documentary Mounted by the Gods (2000).

Independent filmmakers in the United States continue to weave religious themes into their works, often improvising on ancient myths and mythic structures, and examining the ways narratives construct the communal and personal identities of Americans. Of note in this regard are the films of Jim Jarmusch (e.g., Dead Man [1995], Ghost Dog [1999]); Hal Hartley (e.g., Henry Fool [1997], The Book of Life [1998], No Such Thing [2001]); and John Sayles (e.g., City of Hope [1991], Lone Star [1996], Limbo [1999]). The annual Sundance Film Festival gives evidence to the continued presence of religious interests among young filmmakers, and religious matters have been taken up, for example, in Sarah Rogacki's debut, Rhythm of the Saints (2002); Jonathan Kesselman's comedy, The Hebrew Hammer (2002); Larry Fessenden's mythic Wendigo (2001); and Greg Watkins's relationship comedy, A Sign from God (2000). Intriguing insights into the spirituality of rave culture can be seen in Greg Harrison's Groove (2000) and Jon Reiss's documentary, Better Living through Circuitry (1999).

In Canada, Egyptian-born director Atom Egoyan, whose films include Calendar (1993), Exotica (1994), The Sweet Hereafter (1997), and Ararat (2002), continually plays with the ambiguous relation between historical time and memoryspecifically in reference to loss, tragedy, and the possibilities of redemptionin ways inherent to the medium of film. The mature works of David Cronenberg, including Crash (1996), eXistenZ (1999), and Spider (2002), deal with issues of identity and relationships in ways that probe the depths of what it is to be human, developing existential questions in a postmodern age.

Scholarly Approaches to Film and Religion

There are three key scholarly approaches to the relationship between film and religion. The first might be called "religion in film," a way of analyzing the religious dimensions of film by focusing primarily on its narrative content. "Film as religion" is the second key approach, and is based on formal parallels between the aesthetic styles of film and religious practices. Finally, there is an interest in "cinematic experience and ritual," where a focus on spectatorship and its relation to ritual takes precedence. These categories often overlap in individual studies, and are charted here for heuristic reasons. The key question that divides these approaches seems to revolve around the location of meaning: Is religious meaning found in the subject matter of the film, in the aesthetic form of the film, or in the experience of viewing the film?

Religion in film

Whether a film plot is based on a messiah, a saint, a bodhisattva, a pilgrimage, a reenactment of a sacred text, or whether religious performances are displayed in documentary film, religion shows up in film on a regular basis. This way of thinking about the relation between film and religion seems to be the most apparent to the textual and narrative bias of most religious studies, and it has therefore become the most prominent method of examining the relationship. As with so much of the study of religion itself, a vast majority of these studies have been based in Christian theology and display a Euro-American outlook.

P. Adams Sitney's contribution to the 1987 Encyclopedia of Religion ("Cinema and Religion") came along at the end of what might be called the first wave of religion-in-film criticism, a loose canon of publications roughly extending from the 1960s to the late 1980s. Book-length studies during this period typically offered broad approaches, and they often worked from the standpoint of existential theology: film could be religiously instructive because it taught about the human condition, providing stories and images that struggled for meaning. John R. May should be credited as the key person in the development of the interdisciplinary fieldespecially for amassing and publishing the work of other scholars interested in the topicas a legitimate focus of study within religious studies.

As most of the publications in this first wave made clear, the connection between film and religion was primarily to be found in European cinema, particularly in the work of directors such as Pier Paolo Passolini, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, and Ingmar Bergman (Japanese directors Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa were the two key non-Westerners). Relevant U.S. productions included work by D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille in the early years of cinema, with Alfred Hitchcock adding a few flourishes mid-century, and George Lucas, Stanley Kubrick, and Martin Scorsese providing a religious flavor to film in the 1960s to 1990s. During this period, religion-in-film scholars tended to shy away from popular films, choosing instead to focus on what would later be called "art house" films. This probably does not reflect an elitist attitude on the part of this first wave of scholars so much as it reflects the struggle they faced in getting others in the academy take their work seriously. After all, who could argue against the seriousness with which Bergman or Kurosawa portrayed religious matters?

The study of film and religion became solidified through the decade of the 1990s, as evidenced by the upsurge of publications in the field, the establishment of a program unit on film and religion within the American Academy of Religion, and the launch of the online Journal of Religion and Film. In many ways reacting to the earlier paradigm that found film and religion only in "serious" art house films, the 1990s witnessed the next wave of film and religion criticism, which self-consciously took popular Hollywood film as its primary focus. Biblical scholars and theologians began to take a second look at popular culture, and found a wealth of resources in film, particularly in popular film. Christian theologians reworked Reinhold Niebuhr's and Paul Tillich's thoughts on the relation between Christianity and culture, and decided that there must be an engagement with culture, with film being one of the cultural expressions par excellence in modern life. The prevalence of the ideas of Tillich and Niebuhr in film and religion studies, a half-century after their writing, attest to these theologians' keen insights in relating religion and culture, though it probably also attests to the need for new theories of culture, since the culture of the first half of the twentieth century looks less and less like that of the twenty-first.

This second wave is also marked by a number of explicitly Christian theological studies, in contrast to the tendency to use existentially universal language evident in many of the first-wave publications. Studies through the 1990s include the relation of film to Christian, and occasionally Jewish, understandings of the Bible; the relation of film to doctrines of Christian theology; and a plethora of works on Christ figures in film. While there are a variety of interests indicated in these works, they can be seen collectively through their examination of popular film, by their chiefly Christian theological orientation, and ultimately by the ways they see religion in film, paying scant attention to the specificities of the medium or the role of spectatorship.

Since the mid-1990s there have been several attempts at historicizing, categorizing, and hence legitimizing the subfield. One of the more influential and useful schemas for the approach to religion in film is found in Joel W. Martin and Conrad E. Ostwalt's edited volume Screening the Sacred (1995). In the introduction, Martin lays out three ways of viewing film from a religious studies standpoint: theological criticism, mythological criticism, and ideological criticism. Not meant to be exclusive categories, Martin points toward a "future" synthesis of these modes, implying that such a synthesis has not yet occurred. A wide variety of films can be included under the three categories, yet the actual studies within the book itself all primarily function from the understanding that religious meaning is found within the film story or characters. Following on these categories, in Film as Religion (2003) John Lyden rightly notes that most film and religion studies are either too theological or too ideological: the former remains bound by presuppositions as to what constitutes "religion" (i.e., Christianity), and the latter tends to be so focused on critiquing the power structures that it neglects some of the more positive understandings of religion. Lyden goes on to develop a more nuanced approach that draws heavily on the myth and ritual theories of Clifford Geertz, supplemented by the theories of Wendy Doniger and Jonathan Z. Smith. By investigating "religion as film," Lyden's work crosses over into the second category of film and religion approaches.

Religion as film

Early film theorists, chiefly because of the visual prominence of silent film, emphatically stressed formalist understandings of cinema. They argued about the psychological and social effects that the medium of film has on its audience due to its rearranging of "normal" space and time through cinematography, mise-en-scène, and editing. In the 1920s in France, film theorists (in particular, Louis Delluc, Jean Epstein, and Léon Moussinac) developed the idea of photogenie, the cinematic transformation of reality through the technological properties inherent in the form of film itself. Because of its emphasis on the formal properties of filmmaking, much of this early film theory did not depend on narrative film, and indeed often triumphed nonlinear, nonnarrative films. Thus, through the camera's ability to slow down or speed up "real time," or to juxtapose images in ways that display new relations, or to zoom in on particular segments of visual reality, the world itself is reconfigured and viewers are given a brand new outlook, a new "worldview." Representation became a means for knowledge, "revealing" the truth of the world in an altogether new form. And even though debates eventually emerged between the realists and antirealists in film theory, both arguments have implications for a religious view of film form.

From a religious studies perspective, what is interesting about film's capacity to rearrange the "world-as-it-is" is the frequent use of religious language to justify the theory. Epstein has already been quoted as seeing the theogonic properties of cinema, and others spoke of cinema as "revelation," as "magic," and as a "miracle." Recapping many of these ideas in her book Savage Theory (2000), Rachel Moore argues that early film theorists and filmmakers (especially Walter Benjamin, Sergei Eisenstein, Vachel Lindsay, Siegfried Kracauer, and Bazin) saw in film a potential re-enchantment of a modern world that had lost language's expressive ability (explicated in Ferdinand de Saussure's account of the arbitrariness of the sign) and that experienced a general mode of alienation due to industrialized, modern life. In the early 1960s, avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage would continue this language, expressing the religious possibilities of film form in his quasi-manifesto "Metaphors on Vision" (1963). For Brakhage, film artists are "essentially preoccupied by and deal imagistically withbirth, sex, death, and the search for God" (Mast, Cohen, and Braudy, 1992, p. 72).

Later, director and screenwriter Paul Schrader's 1972 Transcendental Style in Film examined the "aesthetics of sparseness" in the films of Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer. Even though these directors had differing religious backgrounds, Schrader sees them each using a filmic style that emerges through pared-down filmmaking techniques, including austere cinematography, unexpressive acting, and light-handed editing. Thus, the properties specific to filmmaking itself allow access to the transcendental; a long take of a close-up of an expressionless face, no matter whose face it is, can evoke an experience of transcendence.

From another angle, the religious dimension to film form and style can also be seen in relation to the contemplative emphasis of various religious traditions, and here film becomes a new medium in a long list of visual media, from icons to yantras to thangka paintings, designed to facilitate meditation. Francisca Cho, for example, discusses the relation of Korean Buddhist films to a "cultic mode" of viewing heavily dependent on the aesthetic choices made in the making of film (see Cho in Plate and Jasper, 1999). And as with each of the examples given here regarding "film as religion," Cho's cultic mode of viewing film implicitly suggests that meaning cannot simply be found in the film form, for there must also be an audience that views the edited juxtapositions, the austere lighting, or the slow movement of actors.

The cinematic experience and ritual

Apart from the formal style, the plot, and the characters of film, there is also the cinematic experiencethe reception of filmwhich is a critical point of interrogation for the scholar of religion. While theorists of film and religion continually mention the importance of audience reception, very little work has been done in this area. Scholars often theorize about the effect of editing, for example, but seldom do they do any ethnographic work to find out how audiences actually do react. More complicated still would be a study that gauged the responses to a particular film in varying locations, times, and cultures, thereby reorienting the location of the meaning of film to the cinematic event.

The religious implications of film reception are most obvious when the experience is understood and analyzed in terms of ritual; this is not to say that every screening of every film is a ritual, for that would make both terms meaningless, but that the cinematic experience can become a ritual. We can see this when viewers perform pūja (devotional offerings) before screenings of mythological films in South Asian theaters; when young people in the United States, wearing specific clothes, line up for a "midnight mass" on Saturday night to watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show again and again; or when films are televised, and family and friends in North America gather in living rooms to watch the annual broadcast of It's a Wonderful Life at Christmas, King of Kings at Easter, or The Wizard of Oz in July. In these ritualized performances, the religious content of the film is beside the point. Rather, what is crucial is the way these activities occur at special "set apart" times (often in seasonal cycles) and in special places (whether the living room of the family home or in the film theater) in which there is an emphasis on a communal experience and on the aesthetics of seeing and listening (and usually eating as well), and on interacting with other viewers and with the film. Whatever else a ritual is, it certainly aims to be an activity that promotes attentiveness and sensual focus, and film form enables just that.

In this approach to the relation of film and religion, social-scientific approaches become prominent, and such newer fields as media studies and cultural studies offer useful methodologies. Nonetheless, communications and media studies, even when discussing the ritual dimensions of audiovisual media, usually neglect film and spend most of their time evaluating audience reception of television shows and news media. The work of Stewart Hoover, Lynn Schofield Clark, and Eric Rothenbuhler, among others, has offered interesting studies on the ritualized reception of media (mostly television and news media), analyzing many of the parallels between ritual and media, and the methods of these scholars can be useful to film and religion studies. Perhaps the most vital new field that provides a "third term" in linking film and religion is that of visual-culture studies, which combines the formalist interests typical of the humanities with the reception interests typical of the social sciences. Inherent is also an interest in the cross-cultural dimensions to visuality, to see the cinematic experience located within particular cultures, at particular times, paying attention also to the gendered, ethnic, sexual, and religious differences of the activity of seeing. Thus, visual culture offers a way to think through all three of the approaches to film and religion listed here.

Conclusions and Futures

The subfield of film and religion has gradually gained acceptance in religious studies, and prominent theorists of religion now regularly incorporate discussion of films into their analyses of myth, ritual, and other aspects of religion. Alongside this development are newer modes of religious inquiry that utilize material and visual artifacts as primary evidence, rather than "illustration," of religious belief and practice. As part of a broader movement within religious studies that is increasingly paying attention to visual- and material-culture studies (and concomitantly emphasizing religious practice rather than merely belief), film and religion studies can continue to play a vital role in the shaping of religious studies and not merely be an appendage to the discipline. Along these lines there are two key directions that the field is beginning to take (and will likely keep elaborating on). First, film and religion studies is moving beyond the Christian-Hollywood matrix and displaying the varieties of global religious experiences and traditions as mediated through film. Second, religious approaches to film are helping to point out the constructed nature of vision by making links between visual representation and the creation of socioreligious, worlds with all their attendant myths, ideologies, and practices.

Because postmodern, postcolonial life consists of multicultural and interreligious encounters on a regular basis, there is an obvious need to branch out beyond the Hollywood centrism evident in a majority of film-and-religion studies in the past. Films made outside of Hollywood do not conform to the same aesthetic standards that capitalist, industrial film relies upon, and by looking at films made in South America, Africa, and Asia, for example, and through attention to film form and reception, the student of film and religion begins to see the ways other worlds are visually constructed, not excluding religious worlds.

In so doing, the religious studies scholar may begin to develop what might be called an "ethics of vision" that is attentive to the differences in cultures, races, classes, genders, sexualities, and a host of other identity factors. Seeing is an activity that humans learn how to do; it is not an innate ability. Among other factors, this sensual activity is shaped by visual technologies such as film, television, video games, and the Internet, as well as ever more powerful telescopes and microscopes. Thus, by moving beyond the search for religious characters in film, scholars can look at the larger religious questions involved in the social construction of reality through visual terms.

Finally, as Sitney ended his 1987 Encyclopedia of Religion entry with a nod to avant-garde film, so will this entry. There remains much promise for religious studies in the avant-garde films of Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, and Hollis Frampton, among others, and it should not be too easily overlooked. While there is often a strong religious content, albeit obscure, in avant-garde works, there is a religious dimension to the formal style of these films that is perhaps more important. Sitney's own study of the avant-garde, Visionary Film (2002), is now in its third edition, and his analysis highlights many engaging relations between film and religion. While avant-garde films remain difficult to watch, they nonetheless help to point out the constructed nature of vision itself. As Brakhage put it in "Metaphors on Vision": "Suppose the Vision of the saint and the artist to be an increased ability to seevision" (Mast, Cohen, Braudy, 1992, p. 71).

See Also

Art and Religion; Media and Religion; Niebuhr, Reinhold; Popular Culture; Tillich, Paul Johannes; Visual Culture and Religion.


Early film theorists considered issues of religion on a regular basis. For a good critical study of early film theory and the quasi-religious language that the theorists used see Rachel O. Moore, Savage Theory: Cinema as Modern Magic (Durham, N.C., 2000). Useful anthologies on film theory include Richard Abel, ed., French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/Anthology, 19071939, 2 vols. (Princeton, 1988) and, more broadly, Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen, and Leo Braudy, eds., Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 4th ed. (New York and Oxford, 1992) and Bill Nichols's Movies and Methods, 2 vols. (Berkeley, 19761985). See also André Bazin's article "Cinema and Theology" in Bazin at Work: Major Essays & Reviews from the Forties & Fifties, edited by Bert Cardullo and translated by Cardullo and Alain Piette (New York, 1997), pp. 6172.

There have been few studies of religion and film outside Christianity and outside European and North American productions. Occasional articles in edited collections, such as John May's New Image of Religious Film (Kansas City, Mo., 1997) and several of the chapters in S. Brent Plate and David Jasper's Imag(in)ing Otherness: Filmic Visions of Living Together (Atlanta and Oxford, 1999), as well as Plate's Representing Religion in World Cinema: Filmmaking, Mythmaking, and Culture Making (New York, 2003), deal with non-Christian, non-Hollywood films. The Journal of Religion and Film, available from, has also published a number of articles dealing with world cinema.

Significant among the first wave of "religion in film" studies dealing with broad, existentially religious themes are Neil Hurley's Theology through Film (New York, 1970), Ernest Ferlita and John May's Film Odyssey: The Art of Film as Search for Meaning (New York, 1976), and Ronald Holloway's Beyond the Image: Approaches to the Religious Dimension in the Cinema (Geneva, 1977). Some of the second wave of studies that turned toward popular film yet retained a broad understanding of religion can be seen in Joel Martin and Conrad Ostwalt's edited Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film (Boulder, Colo., 1995) and Margaret Miles's Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies (Boston, 1996). The second wave also includes many works dealing explicitly with Christian theology, including Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz's edited Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning (Malden, Mass., 1998), and an overabundance of books dealing specifically with images of Jesus and "Christ figures" on screen, including Roy Kinnard and Tim Davis's Divine Images: A History of Jesus on the Screen (New York, 1992), Lloyd Baugh's Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film (Kansas City, Mo., 1997), and Christopher Deacy's Screen Christologies: Redemption and the Medium of Film (Cardiff, UK, 2001). There are also many works dealing with relations of the Bible to film, such as Robert Jewett's Saint Paul at the Movies: The Apostle's Dialogue with American Culture (Louisville, Ky., 1993), Bernard Brandon Scott's Hollywood Dreams and Biblical Stories (Minneapolis, 1994), George Aichele and Richard Walsh's edited Screening Scripture: Intertextual Connections between Scripture and Film (Harrisburg, Pa., 2002), and Erin Runions's How Hysterical: Identification and Resistance in the Bible and Film (New York, 2003). For an updated theory (beyond Tillich and Niebuhr) of the relations of Christianity to culture, see Kathryn Tanner's Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Minneapolis, 1997).

For overviews of some of the studies dealing with religion in film, see chapter 1 of John C. Lyden's Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals (New York, 2003) and Steve Nolan's "The Books of the Films" in Literature and Theology 12, no. 1 (1998): 115.

Studies focusing on "religion as film" come from a variety of perspectives, including Lyden's religious studies orientation in Film as Religion. For a film studies perspective see Paul Schrader's Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (Berkeley, 1972) and P. Adams Sitney's Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 19432000, 3d ed. (Oxford, 2002). Many of the early film theorists took this approach as well; see the sources listed above.

Scholarly work relating the "cinematic experience" to religion and ritual is still in its early stages, but see, for example, the work coming out of the social sciences, such as Patrick Kinkade and Michael Katovich's essay "Toward a Sociology of Cult Films: Reading Rocky Horror " in Sociological Quarterly 33, no. 2 (1992): 191209. Paul Nathanson's Over the Rainbow: The Wizard of Oz as a Secular Myth of America (Albany, N.Y., 1991) and several of the articles in Plate's Representing Religion in World Cinema deal with the religious reception of films. Film and religion are usefully brought together by the use of such third terms as cultural studies, media studies, or visual culture. From a media studies perspective, see Eric Rothenbuhler's Ritual Communication: From Everyday Conversation to Mediated Ceremony (Thousand Oaks, Calif., 1998) and Stewart Hoover and Lynn Schofield Clark's edited Practicing Religion in the Age of Media: Explorations in Media, Religion, and Culture (New York, 2002). David Morgan, while not dealing with moving images, nonetheless develops useful methods for seeing the relations between religion and visual culture, particularly in his Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images (Berkeley, 1998).

S. Brent Plate (2005)