The past decade has seen a significant increase in literature attending to the subject of film and faith particularly around the question of theology and film. From the early beginnings of cinema right up to the present there has been a thread of thinking that focuses on the alleged moral and spiritual impact of film on the viewer. This is now a diminished voice as we find theologically informed writers engaging in film criticism.
Evidence that there has been a shift is the number of books and articles now available that explore the links between film and faith. Cambridge theologian David Ford has edited a massive volume of 800 pages under the title The Modern Theologians (Blackwell 2005 3rd edition) in which he includes a section on theology and the arts - specifically, visual arts, music and film.
Jolyon Mitchell's article on film is a valuable place to begin the discovery of where things have been and where they are now in relation to theology and film. Mitchell observes that while "some critics have shunned the cinema as a medium that can corrupt morally, socially and doctrinally, …others have embraced it as a catalyst for theological exploration or even an art form with transcendent potential" (The Modern Theologians, p. 739)
Current writing on film and theology is diverse and there are different agendas. Robert Johnston in his book Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue speaks of how some critics begin with ethical presuppositions providing an account of the film's moral content. Others who value the revelatory power of film give themselves to the artistic and aesthetic qualities of the film before engaging the theological critique (see p.739)
Forays into the arena of faith and film have often been limited to the productions of Hollywood giving less or no attention to what the Academy calls foreign films - Asian, Indian or European films which are often more astute at raising questions about the human condition than what is found in Hollywood. Signs are afoot that theological exploration into film is giving attention to productions well beyond the Hollywood genre and beyond those movies that have explicitly religious themes. If film as an art form is committed to probing the deeper questions about what it means to be human then surely it is a place for reflective faith to engage. It should be noted that often the most theologically interesting films are not necessarily those with the most religious content.
In 2005 customers in the USA spent $45 billion on movies. Clearly there is something that is drawing us to the movies. Just what that may be can be answered in a number of ways. Perhaps we in North America are in need of escape - escape from the demands of work, the social pressures of life or from boredom. It may be that the narratives of film - the stories we are able to enter into - give us perspective on our own lives. Or is it that we gather in the theatres and living rooms of the nation to get some help with our values to discover what we ought to believe and maybe a little bit more about who we are. At its best film can have the power of a religious parable - providing insight and direction for the lives of its viewers.
This dialogue between theology and film is still very young and we should not expect too much of it for now. There are strong signs that the level of discussion is deepening with time and new works being published hold good promise for the future. Mitchell concludes his article with a number of questions about the film industry here are three of them: "How far has the film industry become an alternative kind of church, with its own sacred times and spaces, its own viewing rituals and canonization ceremonies? How far does it promote the accumulation of wealth and individual celebrity over the formation of character and caring communities? How far does the industry create cinematic distraction from the real and endemic violence in the world?"
It is this kind of conversation that we would like to foster in the Imago network.
John Franklin is Executive Director of Imago. Based in Toronto, Canada, Imago promotes the development of Christians in the arts.