Book Review

Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film
Boulder: Westview Press, 1995

Edited by Joel W. Martin and Conrad E. Ostwalt Jr.
Reviewed by Greg Watkins

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

Reviewed by Greg Watkins

[1] In their book Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film (1995), editors Martin and Ostwalt have provided scholars and teachers interested in the intersection of film and religion with a valuable resource. Although the collection of essays is strong and wide-ranging, it is the framework provided by the editors and the insightful delineation of the issues involved in this area of work that make this book of such value to those beginning to think about religion and film. Martin and Ostwalt do an admirable job of bringing popular film studies in face-to-face contact with issues in religious studies. Although I ultimately find their theoretical moves too generous and the overall spirit too 'ecumenical,' these are perhaps the best attitudes to have in such a nascent field. Readers who may be in search of their own more narrow theoretical proclivities (I divulge mine at the end of this review) can only benefit from being able to react to positions more broadly stated. In the end, one need not push too far in any particular direction to find that this area of scholarship calls for more decisive, if narrowing, theoretical and methodological moves. 


[2] Martin and Ostwalt's presume from the start that a case needs to be made for using religious language and analysis with respect to American popular film. Indeed, the deeper motivation for this book seems to be an argument against the two prevalent forms of the 'secularization thesis' identified by the editors: "One version assumes that if traditional religious institutions no longer hold the social power they once did, this means religion itself is declining in power. The other version thinks that if traditional religious institutions have lost power, this says little about the fate of religion itself but may simply mean that people are 'getting' their religion elsewhere" (p. 67). Martin and Ostwalt find the first version 'too simplistic' and the second version 'evasive' because it downplays "the deep ways in which modernity challenges all religious orientations..." (p. 67). Their answer is to adopt a very broad definition of religion while 'taking modernity seriously': "We think secularization is occurring, and we think religion is thriving. Many people, without necessarily participating in a traditional religious institution, are finding mythic meaning and orienting themselves toward something sacred. They are finding the key to the mysteries and spiritual longings of human life in a novel type of secular, religious imagination." (p. 67). 

[3] Armed with this theoretical stance and a very broad definition of 'the religious', it is a short step to their view that American popular movies are replete with religious material worthy of careful criticism: "The fundamental contention of our theory of religion and culture is that such experiences in popular culture that experiment with, reinforce, or alter reality perceptions can perform religious functions in U.S. society and that film, as a cultural standard-bearer, can communicate a society's major myths, rituals, and symbols" (p. 155). Furthermore, they feel confident that the essays they have collected "...teach us to recognize the presence of religion in our contemporary culture and demonstrate that the investment of religious longings, values, and engagement in the public sphere is alive and well" (p. 157). Furthermore, the editors feel that they have been able to identify three distinct approaches to religious criticism of popular films: the theological, the mythological, and the ideological.

Theological Criticism :
Psycho,Blood Simple, Ironweed, Platoon
, and apocalyptic films)

[4] Theological criticism is as you might expect, involving primarily Christian and Jewish concern with tradition-dependent 'God-talk': "...when identifying traditional religious meaning is the major goal of the film critic, theological criticism is taking place" (p. 14). The editors are careful to point out the dangers of formulaic theological readings, viz., of finding a Christ-like figure around every corner, adding that a truly theological approach would stimulate viewers "to think about profound religious themes such as finality of death, the possibility of resurrection, the end of time, the experience of grace, and the meaning of sacrifice" (p. 15). At the very least, the films which serve as subjects in this part of the book should lend quick support to the editors' claim that popular culture is by no means secular. Larry Grimes, in his essay "Shall These Bones Live? The Problem of Bodies in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and Joel Coen's Blood Simple," argues that the differences between Psycho and Blood Simple trace directly back to the contrasting theologies of the directors, with Hitchcock offering us a traditional Christian vision and the Coen brothers countering with a post-Christian, post-modern vision. In "Angels in the Primum Mobile: Dimensions of the Sacred in William Kennedy's Ironweed, Novel and Film," Ted Estess argues that whether one considers the novel or the film, Kennedy has a religious vision of 'mythic proportion and theological weight.' In the stories of the main characters, 'ultimate concerns are addressed, the profane and sacred are fused'in what is ultimately a 'Catholic sacramental perspective.' Next, in "The Christian Allegorical Structure of Platoon,"Avent Childress Beck seeks 'simply to document Stone's allegorical structure' in studied detail in an effort to show that Platoon is a film which treats its audience ' the ordered familiarities and emotive comfort of the Christian narrative.' Finally, in his essay "Hollywood and Armageddon: Apocalyptic Themes in Recent Cinematic Presentation," co-editor Conrad Ostwalt, Jr. demonstrates '...the existence of a popular, apocalyptic imagination in contemporary society' through a look at U.S. box-office films since the 70s, principally Pale Rider, Apocalypse Now, and The Seventh Sign.

Mythological Criticism
(Star Wars, the Aliens sequence, and science fiction films)

[5] In their introduction to this approach, the editors argue that the film medium as a whole has gone hand in hand with a reduction of theism and an ascendancy of archetypal myth making and that mythological criticism might see 'religion' where a theological critic might not. The mythological critic assumes that "films have a distinct relationship to archetypes (universal symbols) in such a way as to communicate them to modern audiences in a meaningful way" (p. 68). In the first of the three essays collected here, "Star Wars: A Myth for Our Time," Andrew Gordon lays out the details of how Joseph Campbell's 'monomyth' 1 shows up in Star Wars (a connection which is openly acknowledged by both Lucas and Campbell). In the essay "With Eyes Uplifted: Space Aliens as Sky Gods," Caron Schwartz Ellis argues that the appearance of 'kinder, gentler aliens' in Hollywood films addresses 'our deep fears about technology' and answers 'spiritual questions about our destiny.' Such films achieve this effect through the use of sky god archetypes which bring viewers face-to-face with a sacred sphere. Finally, in "Evolution of 'The New Frontier' in Alien and Aliens: Patriarchal Co-optation of the Feminine Archetype," Janice Hocker Rushing analyzes the evolution of the American frontier myth in its rhetorical and archetypal forms in order to show that these films present 'a hybrid of the old and new myths, in which the lost feminine is encountered, is found to be vengeful at the exploitation of her domain, and is then killed by a patriarchalized heroine.'

Ideological Criticism
(Rocky, Blue Velvet, Nine and a Half Weeks)

[6] Ideological scholars place an emphasis on situating the religious within historical, social, and political contexts. For such critics, "...the meaning is secondary, and the relationship to a traditional religious figure or theme is even less relevant" (p. 10). In the first essay, "Redeeming America: Rocky as Ritual Racial Drama,"co-editor Joel Martin succeeds in going beyond other ideological criticism of the same movie by showing how the film's ideological power "depended to a great extent upon the screening of a scapegoating ritual" (p.121). Next, in her essay "From Revelation to Dream: Allegory in David Lynch's Blue Velvet," Elizabeth McLemore turns the tables somewhat by showing us how the use of allegory and blank parody in Blue Velvet 'rescues something of [the] past, although it illuminates the failure of any totalizing narrative and problematizes our notions of history.' 'Blue Velvet,' she continues, 'exposes the fantasies at work in the desire for a stable past, a unifying and unmediated history.' Finally, Irene Makarushka (a recent contributor to The Journal of Religion and Film), in her essay "Women Spoken For: Images of Displaced Desire," examines 'the construction of identity and selfhood in a contemporary film that both reflects and overcomes the reductive, belittling representation of women circumscribed by and confined to male discourse.' Of all the essays in the book, I think this one has the most strained relationship to the editors' thesis on religion in film. Ostwalt defends the essay in his conclusion by arguing that Makarushka herself "identifies religion as the creative process performed by individuals and communities to make life meaningful" (p. 122).

Conclusion and Discussion

[7] Martin and Ostwalt hope for and expect a 'fourth way' to evolve out of the tripartite division they have made: "Such a synthesis will be a criticism deeply grounded in generations of thought about the sacred, broadly open to the diverse ways in which the sacred manifests itself, and acutely sensitive to the political and social effects of religious and mythological texts" (p. 12) But I feel that when significant strides are made in this arena, it will not be due to the achievement of the kind of synthesis suggested above.


[8] In justifying this project in their preface, Martin and Ostwalt want to "avoid the elitism that finds intellectual and aesthetic value exclusively in canonical works of art" (p. vii). Later, in the introduction, Joseph Cunneen is referenced as an example of that kind of critical elitism, quoting his claim that the Hollywood system of film making does not allow film makers 'to make personal movies that suggest the depth of religious mystery.' But Martin makes no response to that claim. Rather, he simply asserts that popular film has been a blind spot in religious studies and film criticism. Similarly, in his article on Star Wars, Andrew Gordon opens by quoting critical reviews which find the movie to be 'kids' stuff' and a 'cartoon.' Identifying a 'monomyth' in its structure does not necessarily elevate it, in my opinion. Does the latest Star Wars success reflect Lucas's continued insight into deep cultural patterns and powerful archetypes? Or does it have more to do with pre-release publicity and Happy Meal toys at McDonald's?

[9] I have no quarrel with the claim that popular media are the vehicles of cultural values (who would take issue with that?), or with the claim that this mass-audience process of the creation of meaning and values is worth calling 'religious' at times. I also find it extreme to claim that intellectual and aesthetic value are to be found 'exclusively' in canonical works of art. But I do believe in 'great works,' I do believe in religious genius, and I believe firmly that the sociology of culture has the potential both to foster and to inhibit that genius. In justifying his method in The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James makes the claim that it is the 'extremer cases' which will lend the most insight into the nature of the 'religious.' And when it comes to the religious in film, it is almost by definition the case that the 'extremer cases' will be found outside of the Hollywood system.


1. For a different take on the issue of the monomyth in the Star Wars series, see John Lyden's "The Apocalyptic Cosmology of Star Wars."

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