New Image of Religious Film / Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film

By Phillips, Gene D. | Anglican Theological Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

New Image of Religious Film / Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film


Phillips, Gene D., Anglican Theological Review


New Image of Religious Film. Edited by John R. May. Communication, Culture and Theology. Kansas City, MO: Sheed and Ward, 1997. xiii + 337 pp. $29.45 (paper).

Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film. By Lloyd Baugh. Communication, Culture and Theology. Kansas City, MO: Sheed and Ward, 1997. x + 337 pp. $24.95 (paper).

In his editor's introduction to New Image of Religious Film, John May acknowledges the continued discomfort with the film medium, not to say distrust of it, on the part of theologians. By contrast, May encourages the forming of a sympathetic alliance of theologian and filmmaker. To bring about this alliance, May calls for a "fruitful dialogue between theology and cinema" (p. ix).

The way to bring about this alliance, according to Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, is to restore the close connection that once existed between art and worship in the Middle Ages at the time of the building of the great cathedrals. When an art form such as the film is divorced from any theological implications, it loses its ultimate meaning. One hopes there will always be director, like Bergman who will seek to restore that meaning.

Thus, as Sylvain De Bleeckere notes in his essay in New Image on "The Religious Dimension of Cinematic Consciousness," Bergman depicts in The Seventh Seal ( 1956) "the religious struggle" of the disillusioned medieval knight Antonius Bloch (Max Von Sydow) to come to terms with his wavering faith and face death with Christian resignation (p. 104).

One can observe directors like Bergman and Stanley Kubrick examining in film after film the fundamental problems of human existence. A case in point is Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which Peter Hasenberg cites in his essay on "The 'Religious' in Film" in the same volume as an example of "science fiction with a strong undercurrent of religious sensibility" (p. 49). In the film hvo astronauts find themselves, in the course of a space flight, at the mercy of the god]ike computer HAL, which controls their space ship. When HAL the computer makes an error, he refuses to admit the evidence of his own fallibility and proceeds to destroy the occupants of the space ship to cover it up. Kubrick implies that human fallibility is less likely to destroy man than the abdication of his moral responsibilities to supposedly infallible machines.

At the climax of the mos ie the astronaut who is the sole survivor of the mission is reborn as a superior human being, returning to earth prepared for the next leap forward to mankind's evolutionary destiny. Although this episode is open to vastly different interpretations, Hasenberg perceptively comments that this episode can be read as another milestone in mankind's journey toward eternity, and ultimately as a vision of "man's longing for paradise" (p. 49). A black monolithic slab, which possesses powerful energy, materializes mysteriously in the course of the film. It perhaps symbolizes (Cod Himself or, more likely, an emissary of God, monitoring mankind's evolutionary, progress. In sum, Hasenberg's essay exemplifies how New Image of Religious Film qualifies as a thought-provoking study of the relationship of religion and film.

The same can be said of Imagining the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film by Lloyd Baugh, S.J. This book explores films in which the biblical Christ is actually portrayed, as well as motion pictures in which the central character is a Christ-figure. In the former category Baugh treats George Steven's Create. …

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