Film and Religion

This site contains studies and comments by professors Robert Torry and Paul Flesher about the portrayal and use of religion in film. See their new book, Film and Religion: An Introduction (Abingdon, 2007) for a textbook on this topic.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Cassandra, the Prophet in Saved

Despite its setting in a Pentecostal high school, where everyone apparently wants to save others for Jesus, it is odd that no one in the film Saved ever gets saved. This is especially true for Cassandra Eddelston, the high school’s smoking, drinking, foul-mouthed bad girl. Despite being the constant recipient of “witnessing” by Hilary Faye, and undergoing two fake conversions during the film, she remains unrepentant and unconverted. Instead, Saved  presents Hilary Faye’s message as hollow and corrupt, while Cassandra, who at first seems to act in a self-destructive manner, in the end embodies a prophetic role.

Cassandra’s role as a prophet stands out in two ways. First, her name, Cassandra, comes from Greek mythology. Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam of Troy. The god Apollo fell in love with her and gave her the gift of prophesying truthfully. When she rejected Apollo’s love, he cursed her by causing her never to be believed.  Saved’s Cassandra actions and words spoken in rebellion against the high school, its students, and its staff are never taken seriously, but are viewed as drunken and unstable rantings.

Second, Cassandra’s last name is Eddleston; she is Jewish. As such she represents the Jewish prophets of the Old Testament, not the Greek. While modern, popular Christianity often sees prophets merely as predictors of the future, a more accurate characterization of the Jewish prophets was to speak truth to power (the king) and to the populace (the people as a whole). They were often ignored in this and so took measures to garner attention. Isaiah, for example, prophesied naked for three years (Isaiah 20). But it is Hosea who provides the best example of the functioning of prophecy. Hosea 1:2 reads, “the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of Harlotry and have children of harlotry, for the land commits great harlotry by forsaking the Lord.” God tells Hosea to commit harlotry by marrying a whore. He thus goes against all the rules of proper social behavior. Even though God uses Hosea to bring his message to the Israelites, he causes Hosea to receive social ostracizing by having him violate the Israelite social mores. Why? Because the Israelites themselves (“the land”) have violated their allegiance to God by turning their backs on him and his expectations and following other gods. So Hosea’s actions symbolize the Israelites’ actions. Hosea violates social norms because the society has forsaken God’s religious norms.

As the prophetic figure in Saved, Cassandra’s prophetic message comes not through the meaning of her words, but, like Hosea, comes through her actions. Cassandra’s actions symbolize the true nature of the high school community’s spiritual state, especially as seen in its leaders. Hilary Faye, the student leader, uses Christianity to glorify herself, to show self-love rather than to spread Christian love to others. Pastor Skip, despite his fancy talk, can no longer practice the love of Jesus but instead mostly sees Christianity as a set of rules and restrictions (no gays, no divorce) even as he violates the rules by committing adultery. So when Cassandra acts out by smoking, drinking, or by saying shocking things, she symbolizes the corruptness lying hidden under the surface of the Christians around her. Indeed, every time she acts out, she reveals the true nature of the high school community. This is particularly evident when she fakes the Baptism of the Holy Spirit in the opening assembly. That she can convincingly fake this most intimate of moments between God and an individual, as Pastor Skip’s reaction indicates, emphasizes that the commitment of the Christians around her can also be merely surface acting—as the remainder of the film shows.

In the end, Cassandra’s prophetic message fails to change the society around her. Although the hypocrisy of both Hilary Faye and Pastor Skip is revealed, they do not change and the high school which they represent remains the same.  The one member of the high school community who changes is Mary. As her inner physical transformation takes place during her pregnancy, she also undergoes an inner spiritual transformation. She moves from the superficially Christian yet internally corrupt Christians to the superficially non-Christians (Cassandra and Roland) who actually have internalized the Christian values of love and acceptance rather than rules and demands for conversion. 

Robert Torry and Paul Flesher

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Resurrection in SuperStar

The question of the resurrection in Jesus Christ, Superstar seems straightforward. To put it bluntly, there isn't one.

Well, maybe the empty cross at the very end (with the shepherd and his goats walking in front of it) is supposed to be symbolic of a resurrection. But it's a stretch to argue that the empty cross is an empty tomb.

But what is Judas doing, descending from heaven on a cross, dressed in white and spangles, and singing the last rousing number? How should we interpret this?

Is it the resurrection of Judas?

Is it the reception of Judas into heaven?

Or, . . .

Friday, September 25, 2009

Jesus Christ, Superstar

On the face of it, Jesus Christ, Superstar (1972) is a Passion Play. It depicts only the last week of Jesus' life, from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey to his crucifixion. But given how different this film is from every previous Jesus film, even from every previous filming of a Biblical story, we should beware the notion that this is a simple depiction of the Passion.

When you think about Superstar, it is clear that it is a love story. The three main characters are Jesus, Mary and Judas. From the start, Mary looks after Jesus, cares for him, anoints him, and watches over his sleep. She sings about not knowing how to love him. When Judas attacks Jesus, she defends Jesus. As Jesus is led away and it is clear that Jesus’ tale will not have a happy ending for Mary’s love, she sings him a good-bye song, “Could we start again.”

Judas plays an interesting role in the film. He is the first to sing, talking about his close relationship to Jesus and how he is worried that Jesus’ actions are going to bring destruction down on the movement. From that point onwards, he acts more like a jilted lover than a worried deputy. He attacks Jesus for not seeing what is happening. He attacks Mary for anointing Jesus and then attacks Jesus for letting Mary close to him. When he receives Jesus’ disapproval, he retreats to the back of the disciples group, casting longing looks in Jesus’ direction.

Fast forward to the end. Judas’ last song before he hangs himself begins, “I don’t know how to love him,”—a reprise of Mary’s song. His last sung words before his death are about Jesus, “Does he love me, does he love me too? Does he care for me?” Clearly, the words of a lover.

It is possible even to see the three main figures as a love triangle. As Mary moves closer to Jesus, Judas is pushed out and acts with jealousy. Of Jesus’ first three stints singing, two of them are defending Mary against Judas’ verbal attacks.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Melito of Sardis and The Ten Commandments (1956)

In the book’s chapter about The Ten Commandments, we drew upon the Pilgrims’ use of typology exegesis that presented the Jews’ Exodus and crossing of the Re(e)d Sea as a type for the Pilgrims’ own anti-typal action of crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

The Pilgrims were not the first to use typological interpretation on the Old Testament. Indeed, typology was used by some of the earliest Christian writers. Melito of Sardis and other writers were already using typology in their exegeses of the Jewish Scriptures in the second century. Indeed, Melito’s Paschal Homily (=”Sermon on the Passover”) makes extensive use of typology. Moreover, it seems that The Ten Commandments made use of the interpretation found in that work. (While the film’s introduction explicitly cites its use of Jewish sources for authority, it also drew from Christian sources.)

Whereas the Pilgrims’ emphasized the Jews’ journey through water and into the wilderness, Melito’s typological interpretation emphasizes the final plague, in which God killed all the first-born sons of the Egyptians. Melito’s characterization of the killing is picked up by the film. His physical description of the “darkness” that moves across Egypt and kills the firstborn as they come into contact with it (##22-27) becomes Ten Commandments’ mode of representing the way this wide-scale killing was accomplished. Other descriptions, such the angel of Death or even Exodus’ reference to God Himself, are not used.

Melito also makes a big point concerning the blood of the sacrificial lamb (in Melito’s terminology, “lamb” is stated in the singular) that was placed on the lintel of each Jew’s doorway to differentiate them from the Egyptians. (See Exodus 12.) Melito argues that the sacrifice of the lamb is the type which foreshadows Jesus own anti-typal death on the cross (##30-33). Just as the lamb died to save the Israelites from death, so Jesus died to save all people from death as sinners. More profoundly, Jesus suffers as the Passover sacrifice; Melito links the two through a Greek pun indicating that the verb meaning “to celebrate the Passover” echoes the verb “to suffer” (##46-47). Christ suffered for the peoples’ salvation as the lamb suffered for the Jews’ deliverance.

The Ten Commandments picks up on this link between Jesus and the Passover and transforms Moses into a Christ figure. Before Moses can lead the Israelites from Egypt, he is arrested, tried, and bound to a cross-bar, which he carries to the execution of his sentence in a manner that renders his body into a cross. Banished into the desert wilderness, the film emphasizes how Moses suffers and is purified. In this way he is prepared, suffering in a Christ-like manner, to lead his people to salvation from slavery.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Films of Christmas

Tis the season for Christmas movies! And after two weeks at number one, this year's big feature is "Four Christmases," a film full of in-law jokes, incompatible relatives, barfing babies and lots of (attempts at) humor.

Last year, the big Christmas hit was "Fred Clause," while the year before that it was "The Santa Clause 3." All three are comedies. None of them feature anything about the religious story of Christmas, namely, the birth of Jesus, Christianity's savior. Indeed, with a single exception, there have been no major release films or general audience TV features focusing on the religious story of Christmas for nearly half a century. The exception is 2006's "The Nativity Story," which had only modest box office success.

Most Christmas films and TV shows are comedies. Some feature Santa, the North Pole and its inhabitants: "The Santa Clause," "Elf," "Earnest Saves Christmas," "Olive, the Other Reindeer," and of course, the 1966 Burl Ives TV special, "Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reindeer." We learn details of North Pole operations, and laugh at Santa, the elves and the reindeer.

Other comedies feature the interactions among families or a small group of people: "The Christmas Carol," "The Grinch who Stole Christmas," and even "White Christmas." We laugh at the antics of family members and friends (and enemies), and in doing so, laugh at ourselves.

Both kinds of films emphasize laughing. A good Christmas film is about comedy, gaiety, and light-heartedness. It's about having fun, but not above poking fun. It involves "laughing at" someone as much as "laughing with" someone.

If that is the case, no wonder films about the birth of Jesus are unpopular. The Christmas story of Jesus' birth is a serious matter. It is not a humorous tale or one for poking fun. It certainly is not for laughing at the baby Jesus. The Monty Python film, "Life of Brian," may be able to pull off a sight-gag about the infant Brian being whacked by his "Mum," but showing Mary slapping the baby Jesus would never work. Poking fun at this mother and child could only be seen as insulting.

So it clear that a successful Christmas Jesus Comedy cannot be made, but why not a serious film about Jesus' nativity? After all, that is the reason for the season. Surely, since Christmas is the most popular time of the annual Christian calendar and since most Americans claim to be Christians, a film about Jesus' birth should be a hit.

One reason is the altered meaning of the word "holiday," which comes from "Holy Day." A Holy Day is a day for performing religious activity, whether worship, fasting, contemplation or prayer. We have lost that concept and exchanged it for a more festive one. A "holiday" for us is time off work, time for celebrating, relaxing, getting together with friends and family, for having a good time and laughing. A serious film about the true meaning of Christmas does not fit with that.

Another reason that serious Christmas films about the Nativity do not work is that Americans compartmentalize their lives. They, I mean "we," mentally assign particular kinds of activities to particular places and at particular times. Religion is for church, usually on Sundays or Christmas Eve; it does not take place in the mall or the movie theater. When people want to think seriously about the sacred Christmas story, they are more likely to attend church or read and meditate about it on their own (this is the era of private religion after all). Few Americans would want to go to a noisy movie theater and watch a film while surrounded by the smells of popcorn and stale soda pop.

Such compartmentalizing is not new, it lies in the very notion of a Holy Day which can only be holy in contrast to the ordinary and everyday. In today's world, Christians have developed a new sense of the holy, one that keeps the holy out of the marketplace and out of the movie house and in the more private spaces of home and church.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Power of God?

[Warning: Contains spoilers]

Indiana Jones the adventurer-archaeologist is back in the new film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Once again, he is on the trail of a powerful religious object, this time a crystal skull worshipped by a South American tribe. The film is set in the 1950s and Indy is opposed by a Russian scientist and her army henchmen who use violence, kidnapping, and murder to get possession of the skull.

With the skull as the central attraction, the film actually constitutes a meditation about the nature of belief, particularly belief in god, or in this case, gods. The Indians believe the skull is a sacred object, made holy as a symbol of divine beings worthy of their worship. The Russians see the skull solely as an object of power; they do not believe in the existence of any gods, but see the object as a source of knowledge and mental powers, which they can use for world domination. Indiana Jones portrays the scientific skeptic; he does not believe in magic, gods, or religion. To him, the skull is important because the Indians considered it important. It should be shared with all humanity by being displayed in a museum and studied.

Once the chase is on, Indy and the Russians head deep into the South American jungle, discovering ruins like those of the Mayans. Upon reaching the temple’s inner sanctum, they discover that the crystal skull is the actual skull of a space alien. When they place the skull on a headless alien skeleton, power is triggered. The skeleton reanimates, along with the nearby alien skeletons, the Russian scientist receives the psychic knowledge she desires, and then, as in the earlier films, Jones and his friends run for their lives.

The film’s climax indicates the Russians’ belief was correct. There were no gods. Instead, there were only space aliens. The Indians had mistaken the aliens for gods, and the aliens had taken advantage of that error. Jones’ skepticism was also mistaken, for the skull had power; not that of magic, but of the advanced technology of a star-traveling people.

The notion that the gods were actually space aliens visiting earth is not new. In the late 1960s and 1970s, this idea was popularized by Erich von Daniken, whose book Chariots of the Gods? sold millions of copies around the world. In this and later writings, he propounded the notion that the technology of the ancient world was given by visiting space aliens. Whether it was the building of the pyramids, Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly chariots, the statues on Easter Island, or Babylonian stories of heavenly travel, Von Daniken sees them as evidence of visiting aliens.

But Von Daniken’s favorite body of evidence are the Mayan, Incan, and other Central and South American sites of massive temples and pyramids. From the Mexican site of Palenque, Von Daniken identifies a pictorial carving of a human sacrifice on an altar as a spaceman sitting in a space capsule. A picture of a priest in an elaborate headdress becomes for him an astronaut with a space helmet.

So this new Indiana Jones’ film taps into Von Daniken’s ideas, even the fascination with South American ruins, and identifies gods as space aliens. Gods are not divine, supernatural beings, but flesh-and-blood creatures (or rather flesh-and-crystal-skull beings) with advanced technology. It suggests we poor superstitious humans have mistaken technology for divinity.

This message stands in sharp contrast to the three previous Indiana Jones’ films. In them, the powerful sacred object reinforces the presence and potency of the divine. At the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Ark of the Covenant’s power is revealed as that of God. The closing scenes of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom show that the village’s stone lingam still brings Shiva’s blessing to the village, and the cup of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade remains imbued with the power of Jesus’ blood. And in each film, Indy the skeptic is shown to be the only one who understands and respects the object’s divine power and the divinity responsible for it, even though he does not believe in them.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Study Guide available (in draft form!)

We have been working on the study guide for our book Film and Religion: An Introduction for several months. To actually finish it, we brought on board Den'ja Pommerane to help formulate insightful and useful questions. The last draft is now available by clicking on the link in the left column. When Abingdon makes the final version available, we will link to that instead. You will also be able to access it from