Divine Film Comedies: Biblical Narratives, Film Sub-Genres, and the Comic Spirit

Journal of Religion and Film, April 2017 | Go to article overview

Divine Film Comedies: Biblical Narratives, Film Sub-Genres, and the Comic Spirit


Terry Lindvall, J. Dennis Bounds and Chris Lindvall, Divine Film Comedies: Biblical Narratives, Film Sub-Genres, and the Comic Spirit, New York: Routledge, 2016.

Serious films demand thoughtful responses. Sight and Sounds list of "The Greatest Films of All Time" is loaded with deep, complex, and probing explorations of the human condition.1 Oscar winners generally fall within a certain dramatic range: historical dramas of personal triumph amidst tragedies. The burgeoning field of religion and film has expanded understanding of what makes these kinds of pictures so moving. Our canon salutes high minded and rigorous religious films like Diary of a Country Priest (1951), The Seventh Seal (1957), and Tender Mercies (1983).2 Yet, religion and film scholars tend to overlook comedies, which also probe and maybe even expose the human condition.

A search for "comedy" on the Journal of Religion & Film website reveals one essay on Life of Brian, a couple on holy fools, and one historical overview of the neglected comedies of Leo McCarey. The theological bite of the Coen Brothers gets mentioned in reviews, but where should students researching spiritual impulses in the films of Pixar, Nora Ephron or Seth Rogen turn for guidance? Mark Pinsky explored The Gospel According to The Simpsons (and South Park and Family Guy) back in 2007. How many more comedies have audiences devoured since then? As a comedy writer (dive deep into the bins of Walmart and one might find a copy of The Duke [1999] or Extreme Days [2001]), I have been just as guilty of not taking the genre seriously.

Frankly, there is a paucity of resources on comedy within film studies as a whole. I've read so many students' papers about romantic comedy rooted in the research of Leger Grindon3, Tamar Jeffers McDonald4, and Kathleen Rowe5 perhaps because they are amongst the few to engage in a serious study of comedy. Their work dovetails strongly with discussions of gender and power dynamics, but religion and film scholars have yet to fully embrace the enduring genre. Where are the appreciations and critiques of characters played by Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, and Reese Witherspoon? What to make of films like Four Weddings and a Funeral (9994), which begins and ends in church? African American filmmakers have depicted Jumping the Broom (2011) and what it means to Think Like a Man (2012) but our analyses are scant (even when Bishop T.D. Jakes serves as a producer on the project!). My students are quite interested in why arrested development drives the work of Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, and Vince Vaughn, but religion and film scholars haven't figured out how to place the bromances of Judd Apatow or Ben Stiller within a faith context.

Thankfully, Terry Lindvall, Dennis Bounds, and Chris Lindvall provide an alternative canon to religion and film criticism in Divine Film Comedies: Biblical Narratives, Film Sub-Genres, and the Comic Spirit. The authors reach across film history to resurrect the spiritual themes animating Charlie Chaplin's The Pilgrim (1923), Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve (1941), and Peter Sellers' in Heavens Above! (1963). They also divide such comedies into distinct sub-genres like the slapstick, the screwball, and the picaresque. Lindvall, Bounds, and Lindvall also invite readers to consider the religious insights contained within seemingly slight, box office hits like Home Alone (1990), Nacho Libre (2006), and This Is The End (2013). Divine Film Comedies fills a gaping hole in the religion and film discipline.

Plenty of literary scholars have delved into the religious comedies of Flannery O'Connor and Frederick Buechner. Why have religion and film scholars often veered away from comedy? In their introduction, the authors note how religious organizations have often resisted or suppressed the comedic impulse. They recall how St. John Chrysostom "warned that it was the devil who gave us the chance to play" (3). The Rule of St. Benedict banned jest, which leads to laughter. …

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