Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film

Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film

Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film

Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film

Synopsis

What are the religious impulses in the 1976 film Rocky, and how can they work to shape one's social identity? Do the films Alien and Aliens signify the reemergence of the earth goddess as a vital cultural power? What female archetypes, borne out of male desire, inform the experience of women in Nine and a Half Weeks?These are among the several compelling questions the authors of this volume consider as they explore the way popular American film relates to religion. Oddly, religion and film- two pervasive elements of American culture- have seldom been studied in connection with each other. In this first systematic exploration, the authors look beyond surface religious themes and imagery in film, discovering a deeper, implicit presence of religion. They employ theological, mythological, and social and political criticism to analyze the influence of religion, in all its rich variety and diversity, on popular film. Perhaps more importantly, they consider how the medium of film has helped influence and shape American religious culture, secular or otherwise. More than a random collection of essays, this volume brings to the study of religion and film a carefully constructed analytic framework that advances our understanding of both. Screening the Sacred provides fresh and welcome insight to film criticism; it also holds far-reaching relevance for the study of religion. Progressive in its approach, instructive in its analyses, this book is written for students, scholars, and other readers interested in religion, popular film, and the impact of each on American culture.

Excerpt

Film is an extraordinarily popular medium today, but films do much more than simply entertain. Films, as with other cultural forms, have the potential to reinforce, to challenge, to overturn, or to crystallize religious perspectives, ideological assumptions, and fundamental values. Films bolster and challenge our society's norms, guiding narratives, and accepted truths. In short, films can and do perform religious and iconoclastic functions in American society.

Peter Williams, in Popular Religion in America, argues that in our society popular cultural forms perform some of the religious roles usually associated with ecclesiastical institutions. For example, Williams notes that in the United States sacred time has been transformed by a cycle of holy days independent of any traditional religious institution. Holidays such as the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, and New Year's have redefined "the idea of sacred time," expanding it far beyond traditional religious holidays such as Yom Kippur and Easter. Religion, in other words, is not confined strictly to what happens in a synagogue or church but is manifested in diverse cultural formations in our society, including popular films.

In this study of Hollywood films, we avoid the elitism that finds intellectual and aesthetic value exclusively in canonical works of art. Rather, we think an investigation of popular expressions of art is integral to understanding the culture that produced it. If we want to understand American culture, we need to study Hollywood films. This is the reason we have brought these chapters together: to examine critically the way popular films relate to religion. The authors of the chapters collected in this book define religion in different ways, some much more broadly than others, but all assume that religion is an important part of our world and that popular films are powerful vehicles for communicating religious meanings, mythic stories, and bedrock ideological values to millions of people. Their chapters teach us to recognize the explicit and implicit presence of religion in one of the most important media of our contemporary culture. These chapters demonstrate that "religious" longings and values pervade the public sphere. This should change the way we think about religion as well as about film. Movies can no longer be viewed as "just entertainment," and religion can no longer be viewed as an antiquated or a peripheral institution in a predominantly secular society. Rather, films, perhaps because they are presumed to be "just entertainment," pro-

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