Religion and Film: Part I: History and Criticism

By Lindvall, Terry | Communication Research Trends, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Religion and Film: Part I: History and Criticism

Lindvall, Terry, Communication Research Trends

I. Introduction

Perhaps the place to start a study of religion and film is with the Second Commandment of the Decalogue, mandating that one should not make any graven image. Receiving the Law from God, Moses descended from Mount Moriah to find the Israelites worshiping a golden calf they had made out of material possessions. The juxtaposition of the Commandment and the devotion toward the graven image was ironic, and a source of adversarial suspicion developed between Hebrew culture and visual art.

However, within chapters of the book of Exodus, religious aesthetics were established. The first person that God breathes His Spirit into is Bezalel, a craftsman of material arts, who is equipped to construct the Ark of the Covenant. Not much later in Israel's journey across the wilderness, God instructs Moses to make a brazen symbol, a bronze serpent that will bring healing to a sickly and grumbling people. Those who look up and gaze upon the elevated and projected image regain their health. The typological symbol suggests the possibility of a visual mode of religious communication, one that invites the habit of the gaze. The history of the Hebrews, however, is replete with the rejection of and temptation to the worship of neighboring cults of idols, the Canaanite Baal, the Phoenician Asherim, or the Moloch of the Ammonites. Associated with rites of violence and sex, these cultic images seduced many willing and wayward Hebrews, including the sagacious king Solomon himself through the influence of his numerous foreign wives, into the twin taboos of spiritual adultery and idolatry.

Rooted in this aniconic Hebrew culture, but tempered by Hellenic visual arts, the early Church wrestled with the place of imagery in its worship and instruction. By the eighth century, Leo III denounced all use of graven imagery in the church, calling forth a movement of Iconoclasm. He was roundly trounced by the very articulate apologist of images, St. John of Damascus, and by Pope Gregory the Great. Grounding their defense of the use of imagery in the Incarnation, wherein Christ became the image/icon of the invisible God, these religious leaders envisioned the religious possibilities of the visual art (John of Damascus, 1997). Thus, while concocted in a cauldron of religious controversy, the visual arts found themselves baptized into the creativity of the Church, and eventually, after being alloyed with theatre, literature, music, and other lively arts, evolved into the communication medium of moving pictures or film.

Previous overviews of Communication Research Trends have inserted sections on films under their general rubrics of media and religion or entertainment and religion (De Vries, 1995; Soukup, 2002). Soukup (1989) compiled an encyclopedic annotated bibliography that inspected an international list of key books and articles (e.g., Ayfre, 1953; Smith, 1921) on these subjects. Others, particularly Johnston (2000c), May (1997a), Hulsether (1999), and Nolan (1998) have capably sorted notable texts on film and religion and categorized them according to clear and cogent typologies. Johnston follows Niebuhr's classic framework of Christian positions vis-a-vis culture while May practices a similar theoretical set of categories (based on an acknowledged schemata rooted in the academic inter-discipline of religion and literature) that delineates authorial approaches to the relationship of religion to film studies (i.e., a fuller system of classification centered on hermeneutical modes of heteronomy, theonomy, and autonomy). Hulsether sorts out the relationships among Christian values, American popular religion, and Hollywood films, offering four different approaches for studying these relationships: a mythical, a theological, a sociological, and an historical "apparatus-centered criticism" of religious film censorship. Finally, Nolan pinpoints a very helpful threefold system of methodological trends in religious film analysis in a cinematic theology (preoccupied with directorial vision and cinematic analogues of biblical concerns), biblical-hermeneutical interests (viewing biblical themes being interpreted by or developed in films), and a general religious studies cultural approach.

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