The Journal
of Religion and Film

Screen Christologies:
Redemption and the Medium of Film


by Christopher Deacy
Cardiff: University of Wales Press 2001

Reviewed by Freek L. Bakker
(Utrecht University, The Netherlands)

Vol. 9, No.2, October 2005 

Screen Christologies:
Redemption and the Medium of Film


by Christopher Deacy
Cardiff: University of Wales Press 2001

Reviewed by Freek L. Bakker
(Utrecht University, The Netherlands)

[1] The author starts with the statement that in many respects cinema has taken over the religious function of the church. He justifies his observation by referring to the fact that in Britain the mainline churches have lost over five million people in the 1980s alone, and yet the membership of the new religious movements did not exceed five or six thousand. Nonetheless film critics almost never pay attention to the religious dimension of movies. On the other side, most theologians do not have a positive view of cinema as well and consequently they pay little attention to it.

[2] Deacy explains that one of the main functions of cinema is to comfort people. Often this is a motivation to produce escapist films. He shows how many films made in Hollywood intend giving the audience the impression of being in a paradise for two or three hours and to go home afterwards with a strong feeling of relief. Nevertheless there is also a market for motion pictures having more pessimistic contents, the so-called films noirs. It is important to consider that the author has rather broad definition of the concept of films noirs. So, the term includes the original French film noirs as well as the movies produced by Woody Allan, Martin Scorcese and other non-French filmmakers. These pictures are subject of his study.

[3] Unlike the suggestion given by the title of the book the study does not explicitly deal with the so-called Jesus films, which portray, each of them in its own way, the life of Jesus Christ. The term Christology refers to specific contents of films, in particular the films noirs. Unlike the escapist movies the contents of these pictures is redemptive and it is the redemptive character that is the background of the Christology of the movie. According to Deacy the worldview and the anthropology of these films reflect the worldview and the anthropology of Christianity. The brokenness of the world disclosed by the movies at the same time refers to the hope of redemption, just as the cross is, at the same time, preparation of the resurrection.

[5] In Christianity, however, it is a certain historical individual that realises redemption, Jesus Christ himself. In the movies the perspective is moved from Christ to his disciple, the person trying to follow Jesus throughout his entire life. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant already held, writes Deacy, that redemption lies in our imitation of Jesus' praxis, or moral example, and that it is our moral duty to elevate ourselves to his example of moral perfection. Thus Kant moved the focus of redemption from Jesus Christ to the disciple of Christ. The theologian John Hick elaborated on Kant's view and argues that redemption requires the process of confronting and seeking to thwart the problem of evil within human existence. Indeed, if humans are to have the chance of becoming more of what their innate potentiality for growth promises, then the divine hand must be stayed from interference in human affairs. The cross of Jesus Christ becomes represents a supreme act of evil as well as the attitude of Jesus, an attitude of selfless acceptance. Even in the middle of evil the human person can decide for good.

[6] While among many orthodox Christians today redemption is so uniquely Christian, that it is hardly worth one's effort to look for instances of it outside of the Christian faith, there is an intrinsic sense in which an analogous process is in operation, For, the noir protagonist may be interpreted as a functional equivalent of Christ, who performs the Christ-like role of undertaking a process of redemption from sin, guilt and alienation, the benefits of which may be passed on and imparted to other human beings.

[7] In addition Deacy distinguishes between two types of Christology, the Alexandrinian one, which stresses the supernatural quality of Jesus Christ, and the Antiochene one, which focuses on his human side.

[8] Making use of this theological model Deacy analyses films. He reveals that the Alexandrinian Christology dominates in The Greatest Story Ever Told (George Stevens, 1965) and the many movies with a superman as protagonist. The author's sympathy, however, is with the Antiochene Christology. In his opinion the audience will recognise itself in protagonists in pictures with this Christology and therefore finds more relief when seeing these films than movies with a protagonist representing an Alexandrinian Christology. Deace discovers the Antiochene Christology in King of Kings (Nicholas Ray, 1961) and in The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorcese, 1988). He also finds this Christology in some movies produced by Woody Allan and by Martin Scorcese, and in many other films noirs.

[9] Christopher Deacy's book is of interest, as it provides a real theological model for analysing films. The advantage of this model is that is does justice to the religious component present in many films. It shows also that many elements of the Christian faith have found a place in a multitude of films. My opinion is that the model is beneficial.

[10] Nonetheless, there are also some questions. The first question is whether the model will lead to read too much into some films. Are all supermen representations of an Alexandrinian Christology or are they just heroes as many of us wish them to be? And, are all people going through a process of redemption representations of an Antiochene Christology? The second question is raised by the film Ramayan produced in 1986 by Ramanand Sagar. In this movie the filmmaker declares that sacrifice sometimes brings the human person to such a greatness that he seems to rise above God. This is a statement made in a Hindu context unfamiliar with any Christology, unless the conclusion is that this remark is the result of Christian influence. It may be the case, but it has to be proven before it may be accepted as truth. In spite of this criticism the book is strongly recommended.

FILM CREDITS
Greatest Story Ever Told King of Kings

Last Temptation of Jesus Christ


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