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Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue – R. Johnston

September 11, 2015

A good interaction between theology and film which could be easily expanded to non-Christian RSTTATCreligions.

Inspired by John R. May’s five approaches to theology and film, Johnston and his associate Robert Banks developed lectures about theological responses to film and this eventually became the book.

Johnston arranges these approaches on a scale between ethics and aesthetics, as well as charting them historically.

The earliest approach and the one most strongly weighted to the ethical end of the scale, says Johnston, is avoidance: the choice of religious people to boycott films that are offensive to their religious beliefs and at times to pressure filmmakers to submit themselves to censorship.

As films and television became pervasive in American culture, Johnston argues, a second approach emerged as a strong force among religious movie-goers. This approach allows religious people to view films that may conflict with their moral values, but still evaluate them primarily from a theological and ethical standpoint.

At the midpoint between the ethical and aesthetic is what Johnston calls dialogue,

Where films are first understood as self-contained texts with their own meaning, and only then brought into dialogue with theology and ethical values.

Further to the aesthetic end of the spectrum is the late-twentieth century approach that Johnston calls appropriation, in which films are examined for religious wisdom and insight without being baptized as “unconsciously Christian.”

Finally, Johnston calls his last and most heavily aesthetic approach divine encounter.

As someone who claims to have had powerful experiences of the divine while watching films, this is Johnston’s most personal contribution—an understanding of film as providing opportunities to experience the sacred outside of any specific religious tradition.

Johnston’s choice of the word “spirituality” in the book’s title suggests that he is attentive to the division between institutionalized, organised religion and individualistic, experiential spirituality in America.

He is open about his own religious beliefs not dogmatic.

Perhaps most importantly, it acknowledges film— whether explicitly religious in intent or not—as an active contributor to religious faith.

Films covered include: Schindler’s List, Beauty and the Beast, Becket, Saving Private Ryan, American Beauty, Amistad, Crimes and Misdemeanors, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Apostle, Life Is Beautiful, The Shawshank Redemption, Deep Impact, The Truman Show and The Year of Living Dangerously.


Conversation about God—what we have traditionally called theology—is increasingly found outside the church as well as within it. One of the chief ven­ues for such conversation is the movie theater with its adjacent cafes. With attendance at church stagnating and with movie viewing at theaters and through video stores at an all-time high, Christians find themselves wanting to get back into the conversation but often are not able to do so effectively.

This book is intended to help the Christian moviegoer enter into theologi­cal conversation with film. As image, film assumes an artist and a viewer. As story, film assumes a speaker and a hearer. That is, although we might be watch­ing a movie while sitting silently in a theater, we are still part of a dialogue. For movies seek to engage us, their viewers, as whole human beings. They invite—we might almost say, demand—our response. And it is easily given. After see­ing a film, we go with friends to Starbucks or a restaurant to have a cup of cof­fee and to talk about whether we liked the film or not. We want to share our reactions and response.

For many Christians, however, this conversation with film remains partial, both naive in its judgments and disconnected from our faith and beliefs. How can we enter into the conversation with Hollywood in a way that goes beyond bumper stickers and sloganeering? How can we engage this alternate form of storytelling, both emotionally and intellectually?

Too few of us have developed the skills of movie watching, let alone of film criticism, so as to make authentic dialogue from a Christian perspective possi­ble. Even fewer have reflected theologically on how God might be using film to reveal something of the divine to us. Many Christians assume that movies are neither the context for theological discussion nor the occasion for revela­tory event. When they go into a theater, they do not expect to see anything but celluloid and therefore are not disappointed! But they are impoverished. More­over. they are increasingly out of step with those outside the church who res­:71:-.Ie strongly with Hollywood’s spiritual fare.

Though discrimination is called for, something that will vary depending on an individual’s personal and spiritual maturity, the church has swung the pen­dulum so far in that direction for so long that another danger seems the bigger problem today. Currently, the church risks irrelevancy without its walls and complacency within. We have boxed in God and the results are proving disas­trous. New eyes are called for as we attempt to see God anew.

The word theology is at least as ambiguous as film. For some, it means an aca­demic, and perhaps arcane, discipline that systematically discusses the doc­trines of Christianity. It is the equivalent of academic discussions of European “art house” films in the sixties—something best left to the critics. But what has become a technical subdiscipline in the study of Christianity, abstract and for many lifeless, has a much broader history. In the early centuries of the church, theology meant simply the study of God. It was first-order reflection, much closer to what a word like spirituality might mean today. Edward Farley notes that in the early centuries after Christ’s birth, theology meant a habit of the human soul, a way of knowing God and what God reveals. Theology had to do with “a personal knowledge of God and the things of God in the context of sal­vation. Hence, the study of divinity (theology) was an exercise of piety, a dimen­sion of the life of faith.” To be interested in theology was to be interested in knowing God directly.

With the rise of the universities, theology came chiefly to mean study about God. Theology was now understood as second-order reflection, though it was still viewed comprehensively and holistically. In the words of Farley, theology in this second sense “refers to a cognitive enterprise using appropriate meth­ods and issuing in a body of teaching.” Theology, that is, was to be seen not first of all as an experiential enterprise but as a critical task—a discipline whose end was an integrated knowledge about God.

It is in both of these two original senses of the term that I will use the word theology in this book. For movies, like other art forms, help us not only to know about God, but to actually experience God as well.

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