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Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning – ed. Clive Marsh & Gaye Ortiz

October 10, 2015

EITAFUnlike many books on this topic, which have a narrow view of theology, this book is broad and encompasses a lot of spirituality which can be found in a lot of films.

I was interested to learn that Martin Scorsese wrestled with his sense of vocation between priesthood and film-making.

There is particularly good commentary on Babette’s Feast, Groundhog Day, Dead Poets Society and Shirley Valentine.


For one of the contributors to this book, the project began life with an overheard conversation in a pizza parlour on a Saturday evening in North London, England, in the late 1980s. Most of those who had queued for tables had just spilled out from a nearby cinema; the place was packed out; the discussion was lively. There was a heated discussion going on around at least one table. An informal theology seminar was in progress. Of course, the participants in that discussion may well have been regular churchgoers who would dutifully turn up at mass/communion/morning service on the follow­ing day. It is, however, unlikely that either on that day, or on many others in the life of local churches, such an involved theological discussion, directly relating to affairs in the world, would have occured. This is sad, but it is true. Theological debate happens in the church. But there it is conducted more often than not by recognized theologians. It sometimes happens outside the church — with Christians involved, but many others too (of explicit religious affiliation, or not) — though it often takes shape there in a rather different way. As we have seen in recent times, sometimes the media seize upon a religious scandal, provoking public debate in the press and over the airwaves. Sometimes, all manner of people argue publicly about religious and theological matters with a passion which often puts regular churchgoers to shame.

There has been for some time, however, a concern throughout Christian churches in the West to foster lay training, adult theological education, and to stimulate theological debate. Yet the concern to ensure that such training, education or discussion is “informed” often means in practice that it is less creative or exploratory than it might be. For “informed” often means, in practice, that it “conforms.” Christian orthodoxy is then not expanded, reinterpreted or rediscovered. It is not introduced as a vital resource into a lively debate about human life, and the ground of human life

Films, as works of art (some of which attain “classic status”), resist closure, i.e. it cannot be said of a film that it has a single, definitive meaning. In the contemporary climate, then, film analysis and theological construction may well be able to join forces. But if so, film is unlikely to engage in easy conversation with a defined theological tradition labelled “Christian theology.” Postmodern religion (and theology) must by definition be less systematic than any particular religion would like it to be. Postmodern­ism entails eclecticism, selectivity and leads inevitably in the end to the triumph of the individual. Diversity of interpretation brings with it radical diversity of belief.

We are grateful to Martin Scorsese for showing early interest in this project; he has been pointing out for years the theological significance of movies in contemporary Western culture. In many ways, this book is an attempt to assess, from a different perspective from his own, how that significance takes practical shape. As moviegoers, we greatly respect his work and are delighted by his interest in our academic efforts.

When I was a little younger . . . I wanted to be a priest. However, I soon realised that my real vocation, my real calling, was the movies. I don’t really see a conflict between the church and the movies, the sacred and the profane. Obviously, there are major differences. But I can also see great similarities between a church and a movie-house. Both are places for people to come together and share a common experience.

And I believe there’s a spirituality in films, even if it’s not one which can supplant faith. I find that over the years many films address themselves to the spiritual side of human nature. From Griffith’s Intolerance to John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, to Kubrick’s 2001, and so many more. It’s as if movies answer an ancient quest for the common unconscious. They fulfil a spiritual need that people have: to share a common memory. Martin Scorsese The Century of Cinema: A Personal Journey (1996)

(Film) is accused of corrupting the young, debasing moral standards, being part of the fabric of social decline, promoting “mindless” entertainment. And yet, in its brief century it has produced sublime works of art

through stories that we make sense of our world.

current stream of critical work in the 1990s is focused upon “reclaiming” or “rereading” film for audiences who have not until recently felt they have had a voice.

Film show us ourselves and is a mirror both of our achievements and all of our strivings; we make meaning in all we do, whether this is done in order to illuminate our path or to search for the infinite. In learning to read a film, we become fluent in interpreting the language of life.

“Natural theology” – an approach to theology which does not privilege particular traditions but draws theological conclusions from experience available to all hurnan beings – is thus emphasized. This understanding of theology’s relation to culture fits comfortably with an understanding of God which sees all major religions of the world as embodying equally valid paths to God (Ultimate Reality), who/which lies behind or beyond all traditions. Culture thus includes all religions and much more, and God can be discerned at any point.

Christian theology overreaches itself when it simply offers an “answer” to any question which culture poses. For culture is, in any case, diverse and complex. Films, books, fine art offer a range of ways of formulating such life-questions and their answers. But Christian theology undersells itself when it simply welcomes uncritically all that culture offers. A mutually critical dialog has to occur.

just as there is no single “meaning” of a film (but the range of interpretations is nevertheless constrained by the film’s own integrity), so also there is no single Christian theology (even though questions must always be asked about what the borders of the identifiably Christian are).

Written texts have dominated theological debate since writing was invented, and in ways previously imaginable after the printing press was invented. The advent of the electronic global village presents new challenges and opportunities to religious groups in society. It is a fair criticism that many religions traditionally clung on to the old ways of communicating

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