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)


At 1/24/2008, Blogger Promise said...

Hi Professor Flesher. I'm really excited to use your new book in my Religion and Film class here at the small Quaker boarding school where I work.

Is the study guide available yet? Could you tell me how to access it?

I can't find it on this blog, through Abington Press, or on as the preface indicates.

Thank you for your help, and for creating such a book. I'll let you know how the course goes.


At 1/29/2008, Blogger Paul Flesher said...

Dear Promise,
It is almost finished. If you email me directly, I can send you a draft.
Paul Flesher

At 2/04/2008, Blogger Calissippi said...

Professor Flesher,
I am a PhD student at the Graduate Theological Union studying religion, film, and popular culture. I just finished reading your new book and wanted to thank you for your contribution to the study. Your focus on the socio-political influences on the creation of films is a welcome addition to a field that normally just focuses on the films themselves.
I too would be interested in looking at the study guide when it is available.
I run a website,, where I will certainly be mentioning your book.
Thanks again.

At 2/06/2008, Blogger Promise said...

I'm not sure how to find your email address here. Please direct me.

Thanks again,

At 2/20/2008, Blogger Paul Flesher said...

Dear Promise,
The final draft of the Film and Religion study guide is now available. Go to the first link on this blog.
Paul Flesher


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