Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Reflections on the Uncritical Appropriation of Cinematic Christ-Figures: Holy Other or Wholly Inadequate?

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Reflections on the Uncritical Appropriation of Cinematic Christ-Figures: Holy Other or Wholly Inadequate?

Article excerpt

Dr. Christopher Deacy, Lecturer in Applied Theology

University of Kent, U.K.


The aim of this paper is to offer a critical response to Anton Karl Kozlovic's article, published in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture in 2004, on "The Structural Characteristics of the Cinematic Christ-figure." Even though one may be able to discern a parallel between a film character and the person of Christ, I argue that Kozlovic's tendency to impose Christian motifs on to films rests on the false assumption that all of the facets of Christ's life and work can be fitted into a particular typology, such that a film either does, or does not, have the necessary definitional properties. I propose adopting a new approach to the theology-film field which entails not the pursuit of redundant thematic parallels but asking whether or not a two-fold dialogical relationship between theology and film and between Christ and Christ-figure can emerge.

[1] At first sight, there is much to support Anton Karl Kozlovic's contention, in a recent article for the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, that "the Christ-figure film is a legitimate pop culture phenomenon" whose usage "will be undiminished in the foreseeable future" (Kozlovic 2004 [paragraph]0). The basis for Kozlovic's claim is that "Christ-figures are built into many popular films," albeit with the proviso that "they are frequently ignored by critics, unappreciated by film fans" and "resisted" by what he labels "anti-religionists" (Kozlovic 2004 [paragraph]13). That it is a "living genre whose engineering, rediscovery and scholarly criticism grows yearly" (Kozlovic 2004 [paragraph]5) is also a plausible assertion, when one considers not only the quantity of scholarly literature in this field over recent years–from Peter Malone's Movie Christs and Anti-Christs (1990) to Lloyd Baugh's benchmark 1997 publication Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film to one of the chapters in my own Faith in Film: Religious Themes in Contemporary Cinema (2005) which looks at theological currents in the films of Jack Nicholson and Paul Newman–but the content of the plethora of university modules now available, especially in Britain and America, on religion and film. Indeed, whenever I invite my second and third year undergraduate students to undertake, as part of their assessment for one of my courses, a theological interpretation of a movie of their choice, it is a rare script that does not endeavour to outline the degree to which an Edward Scissorhands, John Coffey or James Cole bear witness to various facets of Christ's passion, crucifixion or resurrection. On one level, of course, this is an entirely healthy and profitable enterprise. After all, in an age which, to quote Stark and Bainbridge, since the Enlightenment most Western intellectuals in the fields of sociology, anthropology and psychology "have anticipated the death of religion as eagerly as ancient Israel anticipated the Messiah," and have subsequently looked forward to "the dawn of a new era in which, to paraphrase Freud, the infantile illusions of religion will be outgrown" (Stark and Bainbridge 1985, 1), there is plenty of evidence to indicate that religion is not so much disappearing with the secularization of society as evolving and mutating to meet new circumstances, even through, moreover, what Conrad Ostwalt identifies as "extra-ecclesiastical institutions" (Ostwalt 1995, 157; see also Deacy 2005, 11-13).

[2] However, there is a crucial and critical disjuncture between establishing that the secularization thesis lacks credence and arguing that, simply because theological motifs can be discerned in unconventional places, the quest for cinematic Christ-figures is an intellectually and theologically legitimate undertaking. It is not just that, in Kozlovic's words, "cinematic Christ-figures are so common today that a certain degree of viewer fatigue has already set in among the knowing" (Kozlovic 2004 [paragraph]13). …

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