Academic journal article
By Johnston, Robert
Christianity and Literature , Vol. 51, No. 4
By John R. May. Franklin (WI): Sheed & Ward, 2001. ISBN 1-58051106-6 (paper). Pp. x + 138. $18.95.
This small volume reflects a lifetime of reading and viewing by a man of both faith and letters. John R. May is one of the "deans" of the academic study of theology and fiction, whether literature or film. In this book readers are let in on many of May's favorite stories, whether presented as novels, plays, short stories, or, in particular, movies. At the same time, May includes with his faith-informed criticism a dialogue with relevant biblical texts and contemporary theologians, all toward the end of illuminating the Christian story as outlined in the Apostles' Creed.
It should come as no surprise that many of May's favorite storytellers have their spiritual roots in his tradition, the Roman Catholic Church, even if all have not remained within its walls: Graham Greene, Frank Capra, John Ford, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, and Federico Fellini, to name but a few. However, May has praise to offer Protestants as well: Ron Shelton for his movie Bull Durham, C. S. Lewis, and John Updike, among others. Even the stories of Steven Spielberg, Ken Kesey, and Woody Allen become occasions for May's faith reflection.
May finds a means of organizing his disparate reflections around Houston Smith's suggestion that all the major religions of the world are striving to answer the same three fundamental questions: "Is the universe experienced as benign, indifferent, or malignant? Is salvation a matter of the head or the heart? Is it gained alone or with others?" (14). Christianity's distinctive answers to these questions correspond, for May, to the Trinitarian sense of the world that unfolds in the Apostles' Creed. He therefore shapes his reflections around "Stories of the Creator" "Stories of the Savior" and "Stories of the Lifegiver" in the three sections of this slim volume.
May states that one of his purposes in the book is to share "an understanding of the meaning of the fundamental truths of the Christian faith for us,' but though May does this through his explication of the Apostles' Creed, what seemed to this reviewer the stronger motivating drive for the volume is May's "appreciation of the Christian dimensions of literature and film" (13). Alumni Professor of English and Religious Studies at Louisiana State University, May desires to provide his readers with faithful reflection on stories that have shaped him and that he wants us also to experience.
It is interesting to note that May's book is the second of a recent, and unplanned, ecumenical trilogy of books in which contemporary fiction and/or film is brought into sustained dialogue with the Apostles' Creed. Bryan Stone's Faith and Film: Theological Themes at the Cinema (2000), which discusses sixteen films that illustrate basic themes of the Creed, was the first to come out. A Methodist and Professor of Evangelism at Boston University, Stone seeks to engage popular culture in Christian dialogue. A second study is David Cunningham's Reading Is Believing: The Christian Faith through Literature and Film (2002), which also starts with the Creed and then looks for that which exemplifies and explicates it by engaging the whole person--body, mind, and spirit--theologically. Cunningham, an Episcopalian systematic theologian, endeavors to make theology live today. …