Although most of us can recognize it on sight, we have a difficult time defining religion. In the early parts of Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals, John C. Lyden discusses this lack of definition and offers some broad categorizations since his thesis depends upon it. How can one assert that film may be understood as religion if religion isn’t identified? Lyden makes clear that this book won’t be about an ideological or theological interpretation of film. It’s more about popular culture and how elements of that culture, such as cinema, may be religion. This leads to the discussion of the topics of his subtitle: myths, rituals, and morals. These all share some conceptual territory with movies, therefore understanding them is important.
To me the most interesting part of the book is the consideration of genres (westerns, gangster movies, melodramas, romantic comedies, children’s movies, science fiction, thrillers and horror) as exemplars of various aspects of this religion. Each genre includes the discussion of a feature film, and some even have two. Of course, Lyden’s book is a few years old now and other studies have shed further light on both how religion and film interact and also on the interpretation of various genres of movie. The hope of the book—that it may be the start of a new kind of discussion about religion—has to some extent been realized, although the analysis has taken off in several directions at once. There can be no doubt that cinema taps deep spiritual needs in a way not unlike a religious ceremony.
It seems that society has come to distrust the usual purveyors of religion. Dishonesty almost as deep as that of the government has been found in it and the responses are remarkably similar—cover-ups and denials and many species of prevarication. Cinema seems downright credible in comparison. What you see is what you see. The big difference between movies and religion, however, is that we’re only too glad to acknowledge the human sources of celluloid. Many religions, especially in the monotheistic tradition, rely on direct divine revelation as their origin. Lyden isn’t suggesting that film substitutes for religion in that way, but on a more practical level it may. It meets our needs. We trust we’ll get what the poster and trailers promise us. We sit reverently in the dark awaiting illumination. And yes, there’s an exchange of money involved for any kind of worship involves an offering. No religion’s free of cost.
Posted in Books, Civil Religion, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged and Rituals, Film as Religion: Myths, genre, John C. Lyden, Monotheism, Morals, Movies
Our friends were shocked. I don’t even remember the title of the movie, but they couldn’t believe we had gone to see it. Not because of the content of the film, but because it had been shown on a Sunday morning. Why hadn’t we been in church? This was back in Edinburgh when we had very little money—wait, we still have very little money. This was back in Edinburgh, and we had won free tickets to an early screening of a new movie. The showtime was on Sunday morning. So in our own version of weak-willed athletes from Chariots of Fire, we’d skipped church to go see the movie. I don’t remember the title and I remember very little of the film. It had something to do with Richard Wagner and a conductor. An art film. We didn’t really feel too guilty missing church to go, since at the time, it seemed like a rare opportunity and the movie was, in some sense, religious. Or at least mythological.
Movies have a way of really influencing people. Thus it has been since the invention of the art form. We’ve all had the experience, I suppose, of a movie hitting us with a profound impact. It never really occurred to me to ask why. That is, until I read Colin McGinn’s The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact. I’d always thought that movies were simply a successful form of entertainment, and scholars seldom take entertainment seriously. As McGinn makes clear, there’s a lot more than casual watching going on when we slip into the theater. As a philosopher, McGinn is duty-bound to look beyond the obvious. Time after time in this profound little book I found myself pausing to consider the implications of what he says. Ultimately, he suggests that movies access the same areas of the brain that dreams do, not only giving them dreamlike qualities, but also making films emotional experiences like dreams.
At one point, McGinn draws explicit connections between going to church and going to a movie. Beyond the superficial aspects of a darkened building with a performance meant to impact a person, there are clear parallels between going to the theater and going to church. Both can be transformative experiences. The Power of Movies is a powerful little book. As much as we like to think that we have custody of our minds, the realm beneath the surface—that which gives us dreams and syncs with movies—has more influence on us than we’d generally like to admit. More and more, scholars are beginning to realize that films do have a profound impact on viewers. This is not just entertainment. It may not be worship, but after reading McGinn I think it might not be too far from it. The mind able to dream, after all, is a mind that’s truly free.
Posted in Art, Books, Consciousness, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Chariots of Fire, Colin McGinn, dreams, Edinburgh, Movies, philosophy, The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact
In the context of teaching, I often described how movies portrayed the Bible. There is an aspect of this that may go overlooked since the Bible is, in the nicest possible way, inert. That is, the Bible frequently functions as a character in movies. In a minor, or supporting role perhaps, but clearly it has an impact on what the other characters do or say. The story wouldn’t be the same without it. So it was that I finally got around to reading The Bible in Film—The Bible and Film, edited by J. Cheryl Exum. This is a collection of 11 academic essays about the Bible in various cinematic guises. A number of the essays focused on Jesus, being the most obvious biblical character to star in movies; he had another one this past summer. The collection, however, is wide-ranging in its biblical characters.
More interesting to me, and this is just a personal preference, is the way that the Bible shows up in movies. Those who decry the study of sacred writ seem to be in denial concerning just how deeply embedded in our national psyche the Good Book is. As the various contributors to this volume show, the Bible appears in ways both subtle and overt in many films. Like it or not, the stories represented in the Bible are classics, and many film-makers find a rich source of material here (when they’re not busy making sequels). The Bible is, to a large extent, who we are.
That’s not to deny a religious pluralism to the United States. We are diverse and that is one of our strongest assets. Still, even though our founders were primarily deists, and not evangelical Christians, their culture was pervaded by the Bible. A large difference between then and now is that, although they weren’t “Bible believers” our founders knew their Bible. In a sense that is almost incomprehensible today, they realized that you don’t have to believe it to see its value. The Bible does have some good things to say. Even now when I get overwhelmed, I can still find some balancing sanity in parts of Sacred Writ. It’s not all about killing your enemies or keeping women silent in the churches. It is a very human document. That’s why, in my humble opinion, we keep coming back, as a society, to the Bible. Anything that is so momentous is bound to find its way into our movies and our other art forms. How we take that is, of course, a matter of personal taste.
Posted in Bible, Books, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects
Tagged Bible and film, Bible-believers, Deism, J. Cheryl Exum, Movies, The Bible in Film—The Bible and Film
Years ago I was approached to write a book about Noah. There was still some hope at that time that I might find a university job and that my words would have more credibility than just any old internet hack. At the time I’d read just about every book about Noah that had been written—and there weren’t that many. Biblical scholars, beyond tying the story to its obvious Mesopotamian sources, have long relegated the tale to the nursery school of biblical drama. Sure, it’s a great story, but what serious scholar takes an interest in a great story? Well, I outlived my academic job and it looks like Noah is going to have the last laugh. We’re told that the Pope has been tweeted about the movie by Russell Crowe and that several Islamic nations have already banned it. According to Today Darren Aronofsky, the director, is more interested in getting non-believers into the theater than trying to please the faithful. Well, let’s face it. A movie based strictly on the Bible would have to be pretty preachy.
The bigger draw seems to be this: our society is simultaneously deemed secular and religious. Americans go to church. They also respond to surveys that they believe in God, the Devil, Heaven, and Hell. They also act as if none of this were true. Business practices tend to be anything but caring, and we show no concerted effort to make sure basic healthcare is offered to all our citizens, let alone the millions who are daily suffering and dying elsewhere in the world. We don’t want to reduce our emissions as a real flood—a literal flood—is on the rise on a global scale. Maybe we’re waiting for a biblical-scale miracle to save us. Noah’s face stares out at you all across Midtown. Judgment is upon us.
Action films draw male viewers. Religious movies draw females. Aronofsky and Crowe have the winning combination. No gender-bias for a secular-religious nation that has enough loose change to spend a weekend at the movies. The biggest complaint is that it isn’t the Bible. I have to admit I’m kind of enjoying the hype, despite the fact that I never received the chance to write that Noah book that was next on my agenda. If I had, now it might have enjoyed the sales that Irving Finkel’s The Ark Before Noah—scheduled for release three days before the movie—surely will. Timing has never been my strong suit. Of course, money can be its own sort of flood, and many more drown in it than in the literal waters of a secular-religious society. According to Genesis a raven was released to fly about looking for land. The Crowe might have been a better choice since movies, as we all know, improve upon the book.
Posted in Bible, Current Events, Genesis, Mesopotamia, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Darren Aronofsky, Genesis, global warming, Irving Finkel, Movies, Noah, Russell Crowe, The Ark Before Noah