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.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Film and Religion book is now available!

Abingdon Press has completed the printing process for our text book _Film and Religion: An Introduction_ and it is now available for purchase at online booksellers, through local bookstores, or directly from Abingdon (see link on the right).

What distinguishes this work from other books that address the intersection of films and religious subjects?

First, it is a textbook. It is written specifically for undergraduate students and for use in a course on Film and Religion. There are many such courses in colleges, universities and seminaries around the country, but there have been no textbooks composed specifically for these classes. That said, the book is also written in a style that makes it interesting, accessible, and enjoyable to members of the general public.

Second, each chapter focuses primarily on an issue rather than on a film. Of course the chapters discuss and analyze specific films (and are intended to stimulate further classroom discussion), but it is not a collection of disparate essays on a variety of films. By focusing on an issue rather than a film, a course based on this book is not limited to the films analyzed directly. Each chapter sets up an issue for the intersection of film and religion by establishing the cultural context, asking the key questions that elicit insight into the issue, and then working through an example of a film or two to show how the questions play out. Most chapters end with vignettes suggesting other films that address the issue, and many issues apply to yet other films. (See the previous blog for a short example of how the book handles the 1956 film, _The Ten Commandments_.)

Third, this book is about the intersection of film and religion in particular cultural and historical contexts. We see films as presenting or using aspects of religion, from symbols and theology to rituals and institutions, to participate in or intiate debates on issues to the general audience. As we show, these debates range from the use of the atomic bomb to the role of Jesus as an establishment or an anti-establishment figure, from the notion of God as an alien to Islamic fanaticism and its identity with or difference from true religion.

The book's Preface for Teachers introduces the volume this way:

This book began as lecture notes for our course Film and Religion, an upper-level course open to all students, which we have been team-teaching for more than a decade. When we first taught the course, there were no textbooks and no guidelines for teaching such a course, so we set out our own strategy. We began by distinguishing between films that were explicitly based on religion, such as The Ten Commandments and Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and films that were overtly secular, but which covertly drew upon religious ideas, themes, or characters, such as The Matrix and The Natural. This distinction quickly fell apart, for we discovered that films that dealt overtly with religious topics often addressed secular, cultural issues (e.g., King of Kings), while films that were explicitly secular made the heaviest points on religious questions (e.g., The Legend of Bagger Vance).

By wrestling in class week after week with the question of how film uses religion to tell stories and to convey messages, we found that the answer often required us to go outside the film into the social and political culture within which and for which a film was created. That is, films frequently addressed cultural issues under debate in the larger society. Sometimes these issues were of broad national importance, while other times the questions mattered only to a small subsection of society, perhaps as small as the director and his colleagues. Big issue or small, we realized that we needed to ask about each film’s cultural context to interpret its use of religion.

This textbook brings together the three areas of knowledge we have found essential for understanding film’s use of religion: the films themselves, the religious features that appear in them, and the cultural concerns they address. This book serves as a guide for combining these three kinds of information to reach an understanding of how a particular film or group of films uses religious imagery, characters, symbolism, and so forth. Because of space limitations, it cannot give an exhaustive exploration of each film, but lays out its analyses to indicate avenues of exploration that can profitably be pursued further. An understanding of this book’s organization will help it to be used more efficiently.

We have organized each chapter around an issue addressed by a group of films (although sometimes it is a group of one). The chapter analyzes the issue through the investigation of one or two selected films. Many chapters include a vignette or two of related films at the end. Any one of these films may be viewed for the students to follow the chapter’s discussion.

Note: A study guide with helpful questions on each chapter is nearly ready for distribution from this blog and from Abingdon's website.

Table of Contents

Preface for Teachers


Chapter 1: Christmas Films: The Search for Meaning
How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1967)

SECTION ONE: Ultimate Destruction and the Cold War in the 1950s
Chapter 2: Religion, Science Fiction, and the Bomb
When Worlds Collide (1951)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Chapter 3: Making Rome Christian
Quo Vadis (1951)
The Robe (1953)

Chapter 4: The Ten Commandments and America’s Fight against Tyranny
The Ten Commandments (1956)

SECTION TWO: Filming Jesus
Chapter 5: The Messiah of Peace
King of Kings (1961)

Chapter 6: The Accidental Superstar
Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973)

Chapter 7: The Tormented Christ
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Chapter 8: Violence and Redemption
The Passion of the Christ (2004)

SECTION THREE: Varieties of Religion in American Film
Chapter 9: The Devil: Screening Humanity’s Enemy
The Exorcist (1973)
The Omen (1976)

Chapter 10: God as Alien: Humanity’s Helper
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Chapter 11: Religion and Scandal, Crime and Innocence
Agnes of God (1985)
The Apostle (1998)

Chapter 12: The Religion of Baseball
The Natural (1984)
Field of Dreams (1989)

SECTION FOUR: World Religions in Film
Chapter 13: American Dharma
Little Buddha (1993)
The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)

Chapter 14: Jewish Films: Finding the Path Between Torah and Modernity
The Chosen (1982)
The Quarrel (1990)

Chapter 15: Islam and Fanaticism: Only in the Eye of the Beholder?
Destiny (1997)
My Son the Fanatic (1997)

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Ten Commandments: A Christian Tale

From the end of World War II to the mid-1960s, religious films reflecting a Christian outlook and emphasizing biblical or early Christian themes constituted a popular American film genre. There were biblical romances, such as “David and Bathsheba” and “The Story of Ruth,” as well as Christians in Rome films, such as “The Robe” and “Demetrius and the Gladiators.” By 1961, a string of Jesus films had begun. But the most popular of all was “The Ten Commandments,” which appeared in 1956.

It is surprising that this story of God bringing the Israelites out of Egypt to give them the “law” was such a hit with American Christians, for the law is an anathema to Christian theology. Although Jesus was careful to indicate he did not aim to “tear down” the law, but to “fulfill it,” the early missionary Paul thought the opposite. In his Letter to the Romans, he spent the first eight chapters arguing that the “law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2) prevented salvation and that Jesus freed Christians from bondage to the law.

To overcome this problem, film director Cecil B. DeMille had to Christianize the tale. Borrowing from the Puritans and from earlier Christian ideas about Moses, he made the entire story into a foreshadowing of Christianity. Robert Torry and I discuss this in our new book, “Film and Religion: An Introduction,” and show that DeMille used two main approaches to accomplish this.

First, “The Ten Commandments” turned Moses into a forerunner of Christ by assigning him events from Jesus’ life. Moses’ birth shows this clearly. While the biblical story of the baby Moses being found by Pharaoh’s daughter in a basket floating in the Nile gives him a special upbringing in the palace, the film provides Moses with the signs of a special birth like Jesus.

A star appears to signal his birth and when the pharaoh consults his wise men, they tell him that it indicates the fulfillment of a prophecy of a deliverer for the Hebrews. Like King Herod, Pharaoh then orders the killing by sword of all the newborn male babies. Years of rumors followed concerning a deliverer for the Hebrews, just as Jesus’ lifetime was filled with rumors of a messiah who would deliver his people from the Romans.

When he grows up, Moses discovers his Hebrew origins and goes out among them. After Moses killed an overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave, the Bible story has Moses running away for fear of discovery. The film, by contrast, adds a Jesus-like trial in which he is accused of being the deliverer who will destroy Egyptian society by freeing the slaves. When Pharaoh seeks to pardon him, Moses answers the king in a way that forces his punishment, as Jesus did in his trial before Pilate.

Second, the law itself undergoes the most important transformation in “The Ten Commandments.” The film does not present Paul’s idea of the law that enslaves humankind, but a law that sets people free from tyranny.

Most important, it is a law written on people’s minds and hearts, as the film repeatedly indicates. At the film’s start, Moses is described as “a man upon whose mind and heart would be written God’s law.” Later, Moses tells Joshua that the Israelites will go to Mt. Sinai where God will “write his commandments in our minds and upon our hearts forever.”

God’s interview with Moses at the burning bush makes clear this characterization of the law refers to Christianity. This scene is quite faithful to the biblical text, with nearly all dialogue coming from the Old Testament Exodus story. But God tells Moses his ultimate intentions with a sentence taken from the New Testament, “I will put my laws into (the Israelites’) mind and write them in their hearts.”

This line from Hebrews 8:10 cites the prophet Jeremiah (31:33) predicting a “new covenant” which will come, and Hebrews interprets this covenant as the one established by Christ. So, “The Ten Commandments” uses this key phrase to present the giving of the law to Moses and the Israelites as a spiritual encounter akin to the inner, spiritual change of each individual in Christianity, and not a mere legal contract.

“The Ten Commandments” film thus presents the story about the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and their receiving of the law as a story that more than foreshadows Christianity; they become a type of Christian, guided to a relationship with God by a Christ-like savior, Moses, and linked to God through spirit of the law written on their hearts and minds.

Flesher’s and Torry’s book, “Film and Religion: An Introduction,” is published by Abingdon Press (2007) and is available from the UW Bookstore, and local and online bookstores.