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Religion, Theology and Film
in a Post-Modern Age

John Lyden on Clive Marsh

Religion, Theology and Film in a Post-Modern Age 

John Lyden on Clive Marsh

[1] I wish to thank Clive Marsh for his insightful analysis and comments on my article, "To Commend or Critique? The Question of Religion and Film Studies." I believe that he has understood my basic point and seems to be in agreement with it. There are, however, some points at which I believe he has misread me, and so I would take this opportunity to try to clarify my position. It is also possible that we do in fact approach the study of religion and film in different ways, and so may simply have to agree to disagree; but I would like to be clear about where our actual difference in approach lies, and where he may have assumed my position differs from his when in fact it does not.

[2] To begin with, if one uses the Niebuhrian categories he suggests to relate theology and culture, then I would accept the basic characterization of my position as "theology (religion) in critical dialog with culture (film)." At the same time, I have some misgivings about using this Apology, which is one reason I did not refer to a form of Niebuh's categories in my article (though I considered doing so). Since one's own "religion" (which forms the basis for one's theology) is in fact a part of the culture as well its possible opponent, the opposition of "theology" and "culture" does not imply the opposing of two entirely disparate entities. It is rather the opposing of one particular aspect of that culture, from which one draws one's primary values, to everything else in that culture.

[3] I am not sure a sharp distinction between the two is ever really possible. The fact that I am uncomfortable with the opposition may imply (as Marsh suggests) that I am more "immersed" in culture than I would like to admit--and he may be right! But in any case, I would prefer to view the dialog of religion with film as a conversation between two religions, two distinct worldviews, or two ideologies (in the Althusserian understanding of that term Marsh prefers), rather then as a dialog between "theology" and "culture." For this latter juxtaposition seems to imply a superior position for theology, which makes judgments on the "culture" from the sort of "Promethean" vantage point Marsh elsewhere seems to eschew. In my understanding, dialog is in fact "two words," each of which can be spoken and heard in conversation with the other; at the outset, we cannot assume the primacy of one or the other.

[4] In some ways this may be the biggest difference between my approach and that of Marsh, that he wishes to define the conversation as one between "theology" and film rather than "religion" and film. He believes that the latter, more generalist approach is so broad in definitions that it fails to identify its own stance or the ideology which informs the interpretation, often one involving the ill-warranted assumption that all religions have the same unitary nature. Here I believe he has misunderstood me. I do not assume any unitary definition of religion when I enter the conversation with a film, precisely because I do not want to go looking only for what I consider to be "religious." Just as the Christian who goes looking for a relation to a transcendent personal God in all religions will fail to see "religion" in Confucianism or Taoism, and so may fail to hear what those traditions are saying simply because they don't say what he thinks they ought to, so I do not think we should enter the "religious" conversation with a film with the assumption that the only interesting "religious" things it might say will fall into my categories. I am willing to let my category of "religion" be expanded at any and all times. I teach a course in "Introduction to Religion" every semester in which one of my most basic goals is to get students to see that their rather narrow definitions of religion do not fit what are normally classed under that term. I am closer to the view of John Cobb than that of John Hick (as Marsh also seems to be) when it comes to the question of the "essence" of religion; I believe that there is no single essence which all religions share that makes them religions, but rather in conversation with other religions our definition of that term is constantly expanded.1 I am also in print criticizing Hick's approach for its assumption of a unitary reality underlying all religions.2 If Marsh believes that I assume such a unity, then, he has misread me at this point.

[5] Why, then, do I prefer to speak of "religion" rather "theology"? It is not because I am uncomfortable with theological discourse, or with the particularities of religions, as Marsh seems to think; I find both of those essential. I also agree whole-heartedly with Marsh that we must self-consciously identify the "value system" we inhabit, the theology (or "ideology," in the Althusserian sense) which we hold, in order to be clear about the hermeneutical baggage we bring to the conversation. I did not discuss this point in my article, as it was not its focus, but in fact my own approach to film relies on the interpreter to identify his or her own values and preconceptions which must influence how that person views a film. The reason I resist the term "theology," however, is because I do not wish to limit myself to one particular place for the conversation with popular film.

[6] Marsh feels that "the most fruitful dialogue with film will emerge from sustained conversation largely undertaken from within a single-but diverse-tradition which the interpreter knows well." Here I believe we do disagree. I would not find it very fruitful to only converse with films from my Lutheran theological standpoint, or even a more broad based Protestant or Christian standpoint. To do so would mean that I could only really converse with films that parallel the Christian (or Lutheran) understanding of salvation, or grace, or atonement. And though I do enjoy conversing with some films on this basis, e.g., The Shawshank Redemption, Priest, Babette 's Feast, or Dead Man Walking (as well as some less obvious candidates such as The Stunt Man), I think I would miss a lot if this was the only starting point I used. Groundhog Day, for example, I would argue is best understood in "religious" terms in dialog with Hinduism, which shares the notions of rebirth, the goal to escape from the cycle of rebirth, and acting unselfishly as the way to escape. This I find more fruitful than, e.g., Robert Jewett's analysis of the film in Pauline terms.3 Of course, one can juxtapose the film with any religion one wants, or with any text, for that matter; but some juxtapositions are more fruitful than others, we will all find. We may also disagree about what is fruitful, but that is precisely the point. The reader (or the course instructor) has the freedom to create whatever juxtapositions he or she wishes, and I do not see why we need to limit that at the outset.

[7] I am not in fact as well versed in Hinduism as I am in Christianity, nor am I a practitioner of Hinduism, but I believe the viewer of Groundhog Day can learn something about the film and something about Hinduism by juxtaposing the two, whether one is an expert on Hinduism or not, and whether one practices Hinduism or not.

[8] This is not to imply that one cannot juxtapose any film with Christianity, but that one need not do so. We can choose our conversation partners at will, and they can change as we see fit. In the case of the Star Wars trilogy, for example, it is so polymorphous religiously that one will fail to understand its religious symbology if one is limited to one conversation partner. It utilizes the mythic form of the hero's quest for identity and the primal battle with the father (ala Joseph Campbell, who influenced George Lucas in the making of the films } but the film also has a Zenlike force master in the person of Yoda, Hindu notions of fighting without hatred or anger, and Christian concepts of forgiveness and redemptive love. Other films may be best understood in dialog with American civil religion, e.g., Forrest Gump or Courage Under Fire.

[9] This also may speak to Marsh's question about what reasons one might have for examining "a range of possible readings of the film in the light of religious traditions pertaining to redemption," in particular, in regards to The Shawshank Redemption. He suggests this as a possible method at a liberal arts college, and I would agree that it is. But he asks, "what would I be doing it for?" This seems to imply that the main point of analyzing the religious symbology of film is only found in the alternate activities he suggests such as "interpreting the film for Christians, in a Christian seminary, wanting to re-interpret the Christian doctrine of redemption." Perhaps his point is intended to apply mainly to films like The Shawshank Redemption, which I would agree is best understood in dialog with Christianity. (My students had a field day examining the film as an allegory to the Christ story, and found connections I had not even seen.) But I would hesitate to agree that all films are best interpreted this way, or that there is no point in examining films in dialog with diverse religious traditions. If there is a point in studying diverse religious traditions at all, then one can juxtapose them at will to learn something from the comparison of them. We study "other" religions not necessarily to refute or commend them, after all, but sometimes just because they are interesting and worth knowing about. When I indicated that we are always both commending and critiquing, I should add that we must listen to what the other is saying and try to understand it as best as we can before we begin to form value-judgments on it (unavoidable as those may be). There is value just in learning about the other, and the other deserves as much-even a popular film, and the cultural "religion" it represents. This is the method of religious studies. It is not some sort of misguided attempt at objectivity which succeeds in questioning all religious values and advocating none; it is a comparative approach which can learn about the self and the other through the process of dialog which transforms both partners (again, John Cobb's view is helpful here).

[10] One might also ask, why bother doing this sort of "religious" interpretation of film, if there is no single viewpoint or even a particular "essence" associated with that term? Here I would suggest that those trained in religious studies--by which I mean all the disciplines that have come to be associated with that term--have something distinctive to add to the study of film. For a long time film studies was dominated by political or sociological approaches; literary approaches have developed; and now it is our turn. There is no single definition of "religion" shared by all scholars of religion, or all members of the American Academy of Religion; but all (or most) of us get paid to teach something having to do with that thing called "religion." I am willing to leave it at that. If there is something distinctive about our approaches (which are plural), it may be that we can all look to films in dialogue with our subject matters, which all have something to do with those activities that have been called "religions." Those things may involve a quest for meaning or human fulfillment, a relation to a transcendent, beliefs about a spirit world, etc., or they may define their nature in different ways. In any case, though we may debate what religion "is," there is clearly something out there called "religion," and we seem to be studying it.

[11] Finally, on the question of "ideology." Marsh is correct that I have basically used this term in Marx's sense (rather than Althusser's) of a system which perpetuates hegemony. As such, it is "bad," and deserving of critique. "Myth," on the other hand, I have used as shorthand for what is basically deserving of commendation in a film. I also admitted that these labels were rather artificial, as typologies and categories represent oversimplifications of details. I made this distinction, however, precisely to avoid the conflation of myth with ideology which political critics often encourage. "Myth," for me, signals a worldview which may not be simply reducible to an "ideology" which perpetuates power structures, as I indicated in my article. Of course, exactly how we decide what is myth and what is ideology is, as Marsh observes, rather tricky and ultimately subjective. We will argue about what is good or bad in a film, but we can at least agree (I think) that all films have good and bad in them. That was part of my main point. I also agree with Marsh that we need to gain self-consciousness about our own ideologies (or myths, or theologies, or Weltanschauungen). But again, I would have to confess that the values or ideologies (in Althusser's sense) that shape my own views of films are often unrelated to my Christian values. While some political film critics despise films which celebrate bourgeois "family values," I love them, not so much because I am a Christian as because I am a family man with a wife and three small children. I also hate jingoistic epics like Forrest Gump, not so much as a Christian as a liberal Democrat who resents the conservative view of American history present in the film. Is my training in religious studies, then, irrelevant when I view these films? No, because I can still analyze or critique them with the tools of my training. I can unpack the civil religion of Forrest Gump, as well as the religious symbols in a "family" film like E. T.. The fact that I hate one film, and love the other, does not prevent me from analyzing them in relation to religious symbols; I can both commend and critique each film, if I look hard enough for what I might consider good or bad in it; but I can also admit that my own values shape the fact that I hate one and love the other, and I am comfortable with that fact. I am as unapologetic about my liberal democratic values as my bourgeois family values or my Christian values and beliefs.

[12] In sum, then, I do not disagree with Marsh as much as he might have thought, but we do have some basic differences when it comes to our approach to analyzing films. I still believe one can "cast the net wide" in seeking religious materials with which to compare films, and that one can always be seeking new ways to find the religious import of films. Films are shaping people's values, as most of us who read this journal would agree, and perhaps films are even becoming the "ultimate concern" of some people, in Tillich's sense of the term "religion." Compare statistics on church attendance win box office sales of film tickets, and we have one measure of how the "religion" of film is being perhaps more vigorously practiced than its traditional counterparts.

More Discussion on this topic.


1  John B. Cobb, Jr., "Beyond Pluralism'," in Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990), pp. 81-95.

2  John C. Lyden, "Why Only 'One' Reality? A Critique of Religious Pluralism"' in Dialogue and Alliance 8:1 (Spring/Summer 1994), pp. 60-74.

3  Robert Jewett, "Stuck in Time: Kairos, Chronos, and the Flesh in Groundhog Day," in Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning eds. Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), pp. 155-165.

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