Book Review 

Teaching Religion and Film
Oxford University Press 2008

by Gregory J. Watkins

Reviewed by Julien Fielding

Teaching Religion and Film
Oxford University Press 2008

by Gregory J. Watkins

[1] Even though academics have talked a lot about the intersection of religion and film over the last 20 years, they have not been as forthcoming in offering theoretical or pedagogical advice as we might expect. This is a lack that Gregory J. Watkins seeks to redress with Teaching Religion and Film (Oxford University Press, 2008). As he writes in his introduction:

[2] “Although the field of religion and film has been in need of a volume on pedagogy, I have also recognized a unique opportunity to present not only the range of theoretical orientations to that intersection but the latest developments in theory as well.”1 Anyone who has ever taught a religion and film course will recognize the significance of Watkins’ book. Not only does it provide theory but, more importantly, it contains real-world examples of what the authors have experienced in their classrooms.

[3] All chapters in Watkins’ book should be of interest to those who teach religion and film courses. However, several of the essays proved to be particularly useful to me, so I will focus on this review on the following chapters: especially William L. Blizek’s and Michele Desmarais’s “What Are We Teaching When We Teach ‘Religion and Film’?;” Christopher Deacy’s “The Pedagogical Challenges of Finding Christ Figures in Film;” Amir Hussain’s “Film and the Introduction to Islam Course,” and Watkins’ “Introducing Theories of Religion Through Film: A Sample Syllabus.”

[4] Those new to the study of religion and film will be wise to read “What Are We Teaching When We Teach ‘Religion and Film’?,” because it provides readers with an overview of the four most popular ways in which the subject is being discussed. And these are: theological, critical, promotional, and ideological. The first is undoubtedly the most common perspective, and as Blizek and Desmarais explain: “When we analyze a movie from a religious perspective, it becomes an expression of that religion or of some part of it.”2 In the second category, one finds overtly religious films, such as Agnes of God and The Last Temptation of Christ, which comment on religion or religious institutions. As for films that “promote” religion, the authors include Contact, Dead Man Walking, and The Passion of the Christ, saying that “the preceding examples provide a very limited account of how movies can be used to promote religion, but they are not exhaustive.”3 Although the aforementioned films may indeed promote religion, the authors missed the opportunity to discuss the growing number of Christian production companies, such as Namesake Entertainment, Cloud Ten Pictures and Sherwood Pictures. These companies have financed films that have gone head-to-head with movies produced by major studios. Surprisingly, their evangelical films have seen tremendous box office success. For instance, Facing the Giants (2006) was reputedly made for $10,000 and made $1.3 million on its opening weekend. Fireproof (2008), also from Sherwood Pictures, cost about $500,000, made $6.8 million on opening weekend, and debuted at No. 8 in the box office chart. After four months, it had earned $33.4 million.

[5] Their final approach to religion and film comes from Joel Martin’s and Conrad Ostwalt’s book Screening the Sacred, and it deals with the issue of movies having an agenda, meaning that they “espouse some values and discourage others …When religious and popular cultural values conflict, it is important for religions to reveal those popular standards in movies, especially because they may influence people without their recognizing it. By exposing different values in movies, religions promote their own ideals and encourage people to live their lives in accordance with them.”4

[6] The authors continue, saying that “the difference here is between religion using movies to encourage better spiritual practice on the part of believers and religion using movies to expose cultural values so that everyone conforms more to the religious communities’ values.”5 On the surface this approach may seem to be only marginally germane. After all, when we look at gender, racial or sexual issues, we tend to consider them within the domains of women’s, black or queer studies. Religions do speak about these issues, so to take a secular film, such as Thelma and Louise, as the authors suggest, and use it in the classroom as a way to open up discussion on what one or more religions say about gender issues and violence, offers instructors a way to “think outside of the box.” As it might be expected, given the authors’ space constraints, their essay only scratches the surface of the topic. It does, however, summarize well how one might approach religion and film.

[7] If we are to believe scholars and theologians, Christ figures are everywhere and can be found in myriad films, ranging from Superman to The Matrix. With only a few exceptions, writers have seldom offered any guidelines as to what makes a character “Christ-like.” Anton Karl Kozlovic is the exception to the rule, and he comes under scrutiny in Christopher Deacy’s “The Pedagogical Challenges of Finding Christ Figures in Film.” In Kozlovic’s 2004 article “The Structural Characteristics of the Cinematic Christ-figure,” he lists 25 structural characteristics of the cinematical Christ-figure.6 Some of these qualities are that he is usually tangible, male, human, and an outsider. He is divinely sourced and tasked. He has an alter ego, is special and extraordinary even though he appears “normal,” has 12 people associated with him, is betrayed, has a decisive death and resurrection, is innocent and a willing sacrifice, and may pose in a cruciform shape. The author ends his essay by declaring that the “cinematic Christ-figure is certainly a legitimate character, a valid pop culture phenomenon, and a living genre,” but because of a “decline in biblical literacy,” most fail to recognize such figures. Deacy takes issue with this practice of arbitrarily finding Christ-figures, and states that “forging superficial correlations between the New Testament Jesus and so-called cinematic Christ figure ... is not only theologically unsophisticated but has limited pedagogical utility …”7 He continues, remarking that even though Kozlovic creates this elaborate list, he fails to list any films that fulfill even half of the qualities that he has outlined as being indicative of a Christ-figure. I raised a similar argument in chapter six of my book Discovering World Religions at 24 Frames Per Second.8 What exactly makes someone a Christ-figure? Do we have to know the filmmaker’s intention? Do the characters’ words have to come from scripture? Does the film have to have biblical allusions or a biblical title? Must there be promise of a kingdom of heaven? During my research, I found a Christian blogger who had come up with a similar list of Christ-like characteristics, however, when these were put to the test, it was determined that they were so vague that they could apply to anyone from Moses to most modern-day superheroes.

[8] Deacy raises a number of valuable points and concerns in his essay. First of all, he reminds us that “there is no such thing as a definitive, normative or objective theological lens through which one may embark upon a theological conversation.”9 We all bring our own theological beliefs, or lack of them, to our interpretations, and we may, in fact, see something in the film that the filmmaker did not intend. Furthermore, when we are only looking at a film from a theological perspective we may miss more relevant source material. The titular character in Edward Scissorhands is frequently labeled a “Christ figure,” but is this all the film offers? What more can we discover when we look at it as an amalgamation of fairy tales, drawing from Frankenstein, Peter Pan and Beauty and the Beast? When asked about the genesis of Edward Scissorhands, director Tim Burton explained that the screenplay came out of an image he drew long ago and was rooted in his feelings as a teenager. This was a character who “wants to touch but can’t, who was both creative and destructive” and grew out of Burton’s own feelings of being “weird.”10 The director acknowledged that the setting and film’s climax blended elements from his negative impressions of the suburbs in which he was raised and the classic horror films, especially Frankenstein, that he enjoyed as a child. When asked about the film’s connection to Beauty and the Beast, he replied, “that’s such a classic theme. Someone said there were only five stories, well, that’s one of them. It’s a theme that’s in thousands of stories and any number of horror pictures.”11 It seems that when we look at a film through theological tunnel vision, we miss some of the deeper, perhaps more interesting, connections and meaning. Deacy reaches a similar conclusion, stating that when someone “stretches the interpretation of such films to the breaking point” we end up doing an “injustice both to Christianity and to the films in question.” Furthermore, if no one considers the context in which this alleged Christ-figure appears, it ends up being a “dishonest enterprise … Where, indeed, does one draw the line?”12

[9] Another valid and much needed argument Deacy raises is if we look at a film simply to find a Christ figure or biblical prototypes, are we not missing a chance to discuss the larger issues contained in these films? X-Men may contain redeemers, but it also addresses issues of prejudice and social ostracism; Sin City may seem to recall Saint Augustine’s book of the same title, but does not it also allow us a way to discuss the way in which women are treated? “The danger with simply forging superficial correlations is that such wider issues tend to go untreated and unnoticed, and it is hard to see how, as Kozlovic suggests, theology and religious studies benefit from the quest for cinematic Christ figures.”13 This opens up a much bigger question: In general, what benefit, if any, does the examination of films from a religious perspective serve? So we find a Christ figure? What does this mean within the overall picture of film? In the end, Deacy states that:

“classroom discussions would be more productively spent looking at wider debates between theology and film than ones that see cinematic characters as little more than ciphers whose existence is predicated upon the existence of the New Testament Jesus and who are accordingly not instrumental in their own right.”14

Of all of the essays in Teaching Religion and Film, I found Deacy’s to be the most challenging, meaning it issues a challenge for us to see religion and film in a new way. I would certainly not hesitate to assign this as a reading in a Religion and Film course as it would open the door to much needed discussion.

[10] Most of what is written on religion and film comes from a Christian perspective; the runner-up might be Judaism. Of the monotheistic traditions, Islam is the only one to be given short shrift. And this is why Amir Hussain’s “Film and the Introduction to Islam Course,” the seventh essay in the book, is such a welcome and much needed addition. The author begins exploring how Muslims are portrayed in media and in film. The result is far from positive:

“These negative portrayals of American Muslims on television must have some correlation with the ways in which actual American Muslims are perceived … For an Islam class, this makes the instructor’s task different from that in other religion courses, where students may come in ignorant but usually not with preconceived biases. It may be necessary to de-exoticize Buddhism, but one almost has to humanize Muslims.”15

In Discovering World Religion at 24 Frames Per Second, I had considered including a chapter on Islam, but after surveying the material – television shows and films – I found that Hollywood was more interested in perpetuating the myth that all Muslims were fundamentalist terrorists than depicting them as they are: a group of people who may share a religious tradition but, as Hussain points out, have ethnic and sectarian differences.

[11] To find realistic depictions one needs to look outside of the United States. Hussain mentions the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie; the British funded, Miramax distributed My Son, the Fanatic; and Children of Heaven, also distributed by Miramax. I would add to these the Pakistani film Khamosh Pani: Silent Waters (2003), which deals with the issue of partition and how it affected Sikh-Muslim relations; the French film Le Grande Voyage (2004), which is about a young, “progressive” French-Moroccan who reluctantly drives his traditional father to Mecca for the Hajj; the Canadian film Sabah (2005), which is about a Muslim woman who falls in love with a non-Muslim and the culture clash that ensues; and the British play turned film East is East (1999), which depicts the cultural clash for a Pakistani man and his family in 1970s England. In the end, Hussain spends most of his discussion on documentaries, which, until Hollywood changes dramatically or foreign films, which offer a more realistic portrayal of Muslim life, become more readily available,16 these are still the best way to learn about Islam.

[12] On a side note, during the course of his discussion, Hussain raises some important questions about teaching Islam: “What, if any, type of ‘Islam’ is considered ‘normative?’ Is the course taught from a Sunni perspective? How does one teach about groups that are marginalized … or those that many other Muslims consider un-Islamic?” These same questions could apply to any religion. When we talk about Buddhism, do we exclude the Theravada tradition? Are we focusing too much on the Protestant view of Christianity? The Roman Catholic one? Within the Christian tradition, there are also sects that may be viewed with some suspicion by students, especially the Church of Latter Day Saints, which some consider to be a “cult.”17 Which voice is the “authentic” one? Who decides this?

[13] Instructors who are teaching a religion and film course for the first time or who have been teaching one for awhile but are struggling for a fresh approach will gain insight from the fourteenth essay in the book, Watkins’ “Introducing Theories of Religion Through Film: A Sample Syllabus.” The author presents his information in a straight forward, conversational style, and he offers “tips” throughout. For instance, the first thing that instructors must consider is, based on the length of the class period and the frequency of classes, how many films should one include in the syllabus? The next question might be whether or not to screen the films in class or to have students watch them on their own. No matter which option you choose, it always leads to more concerns. If you screen them in class, you cut down on time for discussion or the number of films to include. If you have students watch them outside of class, you have to coordinate times that will work for all of your students. If a few students cannot attend all outside screenings, you have to consider the availability of the films. Can the students rent them on their own? Watkins suggests mixing classroom screenings with “homework” viewing assignments. “To avoid competition for viewing when films are put on reserve, I typically set up one or two opportunities for group screenings.”18 The next issue that Watkins tackles is what kinds of films the instructor should screen. Students, in general, watch mainstream, Hollywood-made films, and it is the instructor’s job to challenge them with films they probably would not choose on their own. The fact that students may become “annoyed” or “bored” by a film simply presents the instructor with an opportunity.

[14] “One of my pedagogical goals is for students to develop the habit of asking about a film they find unusual … I consider this aspect of the class a success if students are willing to entertain the ideas that movies that work in unexpected or unfamiliar ways might be worth some effort on their part and that they might change as viewers in the process.”19

[15] In my own experience, unless students are film majors or are true cineastes, they rarely see films outside of the big blockbusters and only a handful have ever seen the films I screen in class. I tend to choose foreign films, and we watch them in their original form with subtitles.

[16] As a component of his class, Watkins assigns “reaction papers.” This has a two-fold purpose: It helps the students by encouraging them to think critically, and it helps the instructor by giving him or her an idea of what to talk about during discussion. For me, reaction papers tell me if the film is too “complicated” for students to grasp, especially when they might only have a surface knowledge of the religious tradition being addressed, or if they truly do not enjoy the film. There is a fine line between challenging the students and boring or irritating them. My goal is to use the tools that will be the most effective while retaining the students’ interest and enthusiasm for the material.

[17] In his class, Watkins teaches film language and style as well as religious theory, and he demonstrates how he does this in the rest of his essay. For instance, he screens a horror film, such as Jacob’s Ladder, so he can introduce Rudolf Otto’s Idea of the Holy. As he explains,

“Otto’s argument linking fear, awe and dread to the Holy has a powerful effect on students once they start to relate it to their own visceral experiences of the same … at a minimum, they get a good sense of how a nonpropositional, nonrational understanding of religion might work.”20

He admits that pairing a discussion of Otto with Jacob’s Ladder is not a perfect fit, saying that something more in the horror genre might. It seems to me that showing something with more of a supernatural bent, such as the 2007 Spanish-language film El Orfanto (in English: The Orphanage), which deals with Catholic themes, might be more suitable. For his Buddhism and Film unit, Watkins pairs the documentaries The Tibetan Book of the Dead I and II with Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? Since Bruce Joel Rubin was inspired by the Tibetan Book of Dead, among other things, when writing Jacob’s Ladder, it might be an interesting experiment to screen this film after watching the documentaries to see if students can make the connection between the two.

[18] As in most books on religion and film, the Christian perspective dominates in Teaching Religion and Film. To its credit, it includes several essays on how to teach about other religions: Hinduism (“Designing a Course on Religion and Cinema in India”),21 Buddhism (“Buddhism, Film, and Religious Knowing: Challenging the Literary Approach to Film), and Islam (“Film and the Introduction to Islam Course”). Overall, Teaching Religion and Film contains several thought-provoking essays that will challenge and inspire instructors. I came away with new insights and ideas that I will surely incorporate it to my next Religion and Film course.

Grouped Notes

FILM CREDITS

Agnes of God Beauty and the Beast Brigham City Children of Heaven
(Bacheha-Ye aseman)
Contact Dead Man Walking East is East Edward Scissorhand
Facing the Giants Fireproof Frankenstein God's Army
Le Grande Voyage Jacob's Ladder

Khamosh Pani: Silent Waters

The Last Temptation of Christ
Latter Days

Little Mosque on the Prairie

The Matrix Mr. and Mrs. Iyer

My Son, The Fanatic

El Orfanto
(The Orphanage)
The Passion of Christ Peter Pan
Sabah Sin City

Superman

Thelma and Louise
Tiebetan Book of the Dead, Part I: A Way of Life Tiebetan Book of the Dead, Part II: The Great Liberation Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left for the East X-Men


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