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Faith and Film: Theological Themes at the Cinema by Bryan P. Stone

October 9, 2015

FafThis book has theological; reflections on a great variety of films, notably 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jesus of Montreal, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Last Temptation of Christ, Romero, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Phenomenon, Powder, E.T., Flatliners, Star Wars, The Mission, Babette’s Feast, Dead Man Walking and The Shawshank Redemption

There are discussion questions which could be used with groups such as my church’s monthly Compline and Film Night.

The trouble is that the author uses the Creed as a structure upon which to hang his various observations and his style is somewhat dense and overly theological at times. This means that he misses out of secular moments of transcendence.


A fundamental assumption of this book is that what is espe­cially needed within the Christian movement today is vigorous and sustained thinking about both the gospel and the world, about scrip­ture and human existence, about text and context. When we read the Bible but are not able to read the world, we risk reducing the gospel to either a weapon or a toy. In the first case, the gospel is hurled at the world like a spear, brandished like a sword, or wielded like a club. It is a clumsy and uninvited word—one that does not speak to us but merely stands over us and against us. It may sting, but it doesn’t heal. In the second case, the gospel is a plaything—an amusing distraction to be played with, fondled, and polished. It has no relevance or function in a world of corporate mergers, unem­ployment, and global commerce. It is little more than a topic on the Internet or a slogan on a bumper sticker. It answers questions few people are asking.

Linking Christian faith and theology with the arts is not some­thing entirely new, of course. Christians have enjoyed a rich history of leaning heavily on the arts in order to carry out the tasks of bearing witness to the Christian faith. Just think of the impressive cathedrals of the Middle Ages that attempted to express Christian truth through their stained glass, handsome murals, ornate ceilings, and soaring arches. Architecture, acoustics, the careful use of light and shadows, even the smell of incense—all these have served as media for the communication of the gospel.

But the role of the aesthetic has become diminished in the face of a rationalistic religion that reduced faith to dogma and truth to propositions. It would be no exaggeration to say that in recent cen­turies the printed word in theology has predominated over imagi­nation, drama, myth, pictures, and storytelling.And yet few, if any, of our most fundamental Christian convictions can be reduced to words on a printed page. There remains in human beings a deep hunger for images, sound, pictures, music, and myth. Film offers us a creative language—an imaginative language of movement and sound—that can bridge the gap between the sacred and the secular, the churl open fresh new windows on a very old gospel

I grew up in a conservative that it was wrong to go to the movies. The cinema was spelled s-i-n-ema

However difficult in practice it might be to maintain a consistent and thoroughgoing witness against the motion picture industry, we should be cautious about too easily dismissing such conservative Christian attitudes as simply quirky or fanatic. It may be that they, more than other Christian groups, were able to perceive accurately the awesome ability of film to shape our lives and culture. At least one of the things these Christians were saying was that it is naive to believe that film, either as an art form or a medium for communi­cation, is somehow unbiased. The cinema may function both as a mirror and as a window, but it is primarily a lens. We see only what the camera lets us see, and we hear only what the writer has scripted. Movies do not merely portray a world; they propagate a worldview.

The cinema is a double-edged sword. It helps us see what we might not otherwise have seen, but it also shapes what and how we see. Perhaps my denomination was right! There is truth in its intu­ition that the industry as a whole and cumulatively can be antithetical to Christian values. But that does not mean—and here my agree­ment with the tradition ends—that wholesale abstinence is or ever has been the proper response of Christians to the cinema. The worldview and values propagated by the cinema—however subtly or implicitly this may occur—must be critiqued through a posture of constructive engagement rather than a silent standoff. And this critique must be rigorous and extended far beyond the narrow scope of values and behaviors typically critiqued by standard rating sys­tems concerned only with whether a film features profanity, nudity, or violence.

‘Clearly, the Holy Spirit does bear some resemblance to the Force of Star Wars.’

Christianity offers the protest that a karmic understanding of it is not really all that fair and just after all. Can karma adjust intentions and context? Can karma make any allowance for repentance and forgiveness? For Christian faith, justice is framed thin a personal and covenantal relationship rather than a legal impersonal one. And here is the subversive message of Chris-faith: In Jesus of Nazareth, God gives us what we don’t deserve! Indeed, the essence of Christian salvation is that we have been for­given. Christian judgment, then, has little interest in abstract definitions of justice. According to the Apostles’ Creed, the one who judges us is one who knows us and loves us, namely Jesus of Nazareth. Justice is not some impersonal moral law of cause and effect, but a loving and merciful establishment of a new and creative justice. Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son is an excellent example at this point. When one of two sons asks his father for his half the inherit­ance and then squanders it in “loose living” (Lk. 15:13), he is filled with regret. He decides to return home, confess his sin, and ask to be taken back as a hired hand. In a karmic framework, the son would have to pay for his actions until the karmic effects have been worked off. In the Christian vision, on the other hand, the boy returns home, and his father accepts him with open arms. The fa­ther even prepares a feast in the boy’s honor. The older brother in the story wants “justice” and “fairness.” It is not right that his father should accept his brother back so freely. But in the Christian vision, justice is not an abstract or legal accounting of reward and punishment commensurate with the action. Justice begins with compassion and mercy. It is established in the context of a covenant between parent and child rather than between judge and defen­dant. In the end, a Christian understanding of judgment finds karma to be quite unfair and pessimistic. There is little room for grace and mercy

Our choices matter because they matter to God. For Christian faith, the meaning of our lives is grounded ultimately in our contri­bution to the life of God and to God’s reign rather than in our own personal destinies beyond the grave. Of course, most Christians believe in life after death and in heaven and hell, but what makes our choices so important is not where they will “land us” some day after we die, but whether they succeed or fail as loving responses to God’s grace. In other words, it is God who ultimately matters.

One of the most perplexing questions in the Christian faith is how we are to understand the relationship between God’s gracious and sovereign activity and human response in freedom and obedience. The single reference to the birth of Jesus in the Apostles’ Creed is a prime example of this relationship. The creed affirms that Jesus had his origins in the activity and initiative of God the Holy Spirit, and yet it also states that Jesus was born of a woman named Mary and therefore shares with the rest of us the full human condition. On the one hand, to say that Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin is to affirm that we have been saved by grace’ and that, as humans, we are utterly incapable of producing a savior on our own. Jesus is God’s gift and initiative. On the other hand, however, we are not saying that Jesus had a “jazzed—up” genetic code or superhuman ability. In the early centuries of Christianity some believers were so intent on asserting the deity of Jesus that they ended up denying his earthly bodily and human origins. For them, the creed’s affirmation that Jesus was born of Mary was downright offensive. In fact, the word born would have been more scandalous to them than the word virgin. Given the fact that many Christians today understand the virgin birth as an assertion of Jesus’ divinity; it is important to remember that among the early Christians the virgin birth was a deliberate way of emphasizing his full humanity.

How we understand the paradox of Jesus’ double origins is only the tip of an iceberg that in virtually every area of Christian experience includes how we construe the relationship between the divine and the human. This tension shows up, for example, in how we understand salvation as the product of divine grace and, at the same time, human faith. It surfaces in our regard for the Bible as divinely inspired and, at the same time, a document written by ordinary, fallible humans. It crops up yet again in how we are able to think of the church as an imperfect human institution and, at the same time, a creation of the Holy Spirit. In fact, Mary’s prominent role in the Apostles’ Creed is a testimony to her own embodiment of this tension. God chooses Mary, and it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that she conceives a child. Mary, however, is not merely an object of God’s grace or an empty receptacle into which God deposits a gift. Mary is a willing and obedient servant who has “found favor with God” and who consents to Gods’ activity in her life (“be it done to me according to your word”). It is both because of her divine election and because of her obedience and trust that Christians of generations consider Mary “blessed” and aspire to imitate her faith If Christians across the centuries have consistently struggled hold in tension the full humanity and full divinity of Jesus without letting one of these overshadow or negate the other, perhaps can begin to appreciate how difficult it is to maintain this parch on film. A perennial problem in films about Jesus is how to portray him as a real human being and, at the same time, as the one Christians believe to be Messiah, Son of God, and Lord. Consider for example, the difficulty of providing a sense of historical authenticity in the film while at the same time giving due consideration of
the fact that the gospels are evangelistic accounts written. With a particular agenda and an unavoidable partiality that does not provide us all of historical, geographical, or chronological details we might like, of course, leaves the writer of a screenplay in an unenviable conundrum. Should Jesus say only what is in the gospel texts, or is it permissible to write additional dialogue for the Son of God that would help us to see him in normal human interactions at break— work, weddings, walking down the road, or fishing?

Add to these difficulties the fact that in constructing a screen version, Jesus films have four gospels to choose from, each of them both its own unique perspective and approach. Should a Jesus film attempt to harmonize all four gospels into one story or instead be more selective, relying perhaps on only one? Early on in the formation of the New Testament, Christians decided that it was important to include all four gospels side—by—side without attempting to harmonize them into one single gospel. A film, however, must make a choice.

On top of all this is the perplexing question of how to signal Jesus’ humanity and divinity on film. Go too far in one direction and the film will be viewed as disrespectful and blasphemous; go too far in the other direction and Jesus becomes a mythical figure, far removed from our own concrete life situations. In this chapter we will look briefly at three Jesus films to see how they fare in pulling off this incredibly difficult synthesis between reverence and relevance. Whether or not any or all of these three films finally prove satisfactory in this regard, perhaps they can nonetheless illustrate for us some of the issues at stake in our affirmation that Jesus of Nazareth is both the purpose of God incarnate and the truly human one.

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