The Silents of God: Selected Issues and Documents in Silent American Film and Religion, 1908-25/sanctuary Cinema: Origins of the Christian Film Industry

By Lawrence, John Shelton | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2008 | Go to article overview

The Silents of God: Selected Issues and Documents in Silent American Film and Religion, 1908-25/sanctuary Cinema: Origins of the Christian Film Industry


Lawrence, John Shelton, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


The Silents of God: Selected Issues and Documents in Silent American Film and Religion, 1908-25 Terry Lindvall. Lanham, MD, Toronto, London: The Scarecrow Press, 2001.

Sanctuary Cinema: Origins of the Christian Film Industry Terry Lindvall. New York, London: New York University Press, 2007.

A commonplace of American social history is that church people instigated the moralistic movie controls surfacing as early as the first decades of the 190Os. Familiar landmarks of their religious initiative are the National Board of Review in New York City (1909) and the better known Motion Picture Production Code (1930), which mandated respect for God, religion, and the clergy-while repressing nudity, sexuality, divorce, successful criminality, and profanity. sectarian markers are everywhere in this history, from the Presbyterianism of Will Hays of the Production Code Administration (PCA), to the Catholicism of Father Daniel Lord and Joseph I. Breen, who respectively formulated and administered the Production Code; they were abetted by militant lay organizations such as the Better Films Movement (1925) on the Protestant side and the Catholic Legion of Decency (1933). The Catholic aspect of this story has been covered extensively in Gregory Black's Hollywood Censored (1994), as well as his The Catholic Crusade against the Movies 1940-75 (1997), and in Frank Walsh's Sin and Censorship (1996). Such accounts of religious shackling and progressive liberation seem unshakably accurate for a liberal culture.

Thanks to Terry Lindvall, the C. S. Lewis Chair of Communication and Christian Thought at Virginia Wesleyan College, we can now pinpoint significant omissions in this secular-congenial paradigm. Lindvall's amendments to the standard histories come in two books that make good companion volumes, though each can stand well on its own. The Silents of God reproduces several dozen texts drawn from denominational publications (mainly Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Methodist), sermons, news articles, and the film trade press. Sanctuary Cinema is an interpretive book that gives intensive coverage to approximately the same decades, but it enlarges the frame with a first chapter on religious aesthetics. In his final two chapters he briefly surveys contemporary religious attitudes and the signs of a thriving, Christian film industry. Unlike scholars who focus on religious themes and historical representations in commercial film, Lindvall is more concerned with what he calls "tribal Christian films," which attempt to capture cinema for Christian purposes and to offer an appealing, nonprofit alternative to the secular, largely Hollywood product. Illustrated in ways comparable to Silents, it surpasses it with an exceptionally handsome ten page section of color plates.

Major section headings for The Silents of God are Part 1: A Prophetic Vision, 1908-13; Part 2: The Great Debates, 1913-19; Part 3: Before the Fall, 1919-20; Part 4: The Great Divorce, 192025. Each unit of the book is preceded by a wellfootnoted commentary and is instructively illustrated throughout with cartoons, advertisements, and documentary photographs. Parts 1, 2, and 3 evince the early twentieth century church debates about film's relevance and ethical character. The most familiar viewpoints within the churches reflect the older moralizing of the Victorian Mrs. Grundy and her American counterpart, the relentless Anthony Comstock. Within their strict vision, the devil's incarnations appear in a considerable number of amusements and discourses. However, among the selections I found startling-as will many others-are those reflecting the enthusiasms and sense of revelation with which many church leaders and prominent laymen greeted film; they immediately trumpeted the power of visual illustration to eect change. Anticipated benefits were the ability to market the church through an attractive new technology, and to enhance instruction, particularly in the Sunday school. …

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