Journal of Religion and Film

Religion, Theology and Film

in a PostmodernAge:

A Response to John Lyden

by Clive Marsh

Vol. 2, No. 1 April 1998

Religion, Theology and Film in a Postmodern Age:
A Response to John Lyden

by Clive Marsh


This paper engages in a critical, creative conversation with John Lyden's article in JRF 1.2. Though affirming the basic tenor of Lyden's approach, this paper presses Lyden to consider that a "commending and critiquing" approach to the task of film interpretation requires greater attention to the ideological basis upon which such a stance is possible. In particular, the theological particularity of discrete religious traditions has to be respected by the scholar of religion. This respect must be shown despite all the attendant institutional complexities which accompany it. The consequences of this need for religious interpreters of film to be more aware of, and consciously working from, the particular hermeneutical (including theological) traditions within which they themselves stand are then drawn out in relation to two films: Shirley Valentine and The Shawshank Redemption.


[1] John Lyden's article "To Commend or To Critique? The Question of Religion and Film Studies" (JRF Vol.1 No.2) helpfully delineates what is actually happening when films are examined and interpreted by scholars in the field of religious studies. His analysis of the inevitably dual response (at once positive and negative) made by the religious interpreter to the ambiguous (simul iustus et peccator) artistic product under scrutiny both highlights the complexity of the interpretative process and foregrounds the need to clarify what role any "religious response" to film can play in the public realm, and how this is to be done. Lyden shows, via an appropriation of the category of "myth", that religious studies must enable affirmation as well as negative judgment of values presented - explicitly or implicitly - within film.

[2] In this reply, I wish to affirm Lyden's basically strategy. I shall begin by relating his approach to my own mapping exercise, undertaken more explicitly from within theological studies, drawing out the clear points of similarity. I shall, however, then go on to raise critical questions about a number of aspects of Lyden's theoretical framework. In particular I shall draw attention to Lyden's understanding of "ideology", the implications of his use of such terms as "spiritual significance", "mythological core of religion" and "windows to transcendence", and the irony of his appeal to Lutheran theology. In a final section I shall draw out the consequences of my critique for the task of the religious/theological interpretation of film with respect to two examples: Shirley Valentine and The Shawshank Redemption.

[3] In chapter 2 of Explorations in Theology and Film I seek to spell out the possible understandings of theology within which a critical appropriation of the subject-matter of film can take place.1 In making adaptive use of H. Richard Niebuhr's well-known taxonomy of five possible understandings of the relationship between "Christ" and "culture" I note that there are basically three stances which a theological interpreter can take up in relation to film. S/he can view the relationship between the task of theological construction and the interpretation of film as one of polar opposites: film simply cannot deliver to theology any of its resource-material ("theology against culture"). Alternatively, s/he can shelve, or abandon, any appeal to a specific religious identity and argue for an understanding of theology which sees itself as so embedded in culture, that it is difficult to distinguish theological discourse from any other form of human discourse ("theology immersed in culture"). As a third possible option, s/he can accept the need for an identifiable (and particular) religious discourse and community/communities within which to work, and work dialectically with culture ("theology in critical dialog with culture"). Each of these three positions has had - and has - its supporters. Each is tenable. Clearly, only two of these - the second and third options - are going to be of much practical use to people who believe that film has something to offer theological discussion.

[4] If my reading of Lyden's paper in the light of my own mapping exercise is correct, then we are in similar territory. "Theology against culture" correlates with his "critiquing" of film. Here it is striking how Lyden's description of supporters of this position from within religious studies ("…more common among scholars of religion. Drawing on liberationist and feminist critiques of hegemonic discourse…"; p4) shows what strange alliances can be formed, given that it would be within this same camp that fundamentalists and conservatives in Christianity would wish to be located. Lyden's highlighting of those who "commend" film relates most readily to those who view theology as "immersed in culture". The task is thus to see the "religious", the "mythical" (even "the collective unconscious"), below, beneath or behind film, beyond the constraints of any particular form of religiosity.

[5] Lyden effectively provides a third way - beyond commending and critiquing - and this is, I suggest, directly related in principle to a view of the relationship between theology and film as theology and film in critical dialog: theologians (as religious interpreters, in Lyden's reading) neither condemn nor affirm, they both commend and critique, depending on the results of a creative conversation between the material they bring to a film, and the material that a film presents to them. Given my own mapping exercise, then, I cannot but affirm Lyden's "third way". This seems exactly what does happen - at its best - in the relationship between theology, or religious studies, and film.

[6] My critical interaction with Lyden's work, however, begins precisely at that point where we explore the significance of the alternative offered in my previous sentence: "theology, or religious studies". My argument, in a nutshell, is this: for Lyden to take up the position he has, requires that he be more explicit than he has been, about the value-system he inhabits, out of which he is able to undertake the task of "commending" and "critiquing". He need not, of course, explicitly take up a "theological" position in order to commend or critique the content of a film. But - as he seems to recognise at one point in his paper - it will inevitably be an ideological position of some form that he adopts.2 If I myself - as I indeed would - choose to commend a particularly Christian theological framework as a most suitable discussion-partner for the kind of things which films deal with, then I do so out of preference. But I do so also because I believe that such a discussion is likely to be especially fruitful in the exploration of film. My contention, then, is that Lyden's position requires greater attention to the particularity/ies (re. ideology, location, community/ies) implied in the dialogical approach to film he adopts. Though there is a correlation, then, between Lyden's third approach and my own preference for theology in critical dialog with film, my exploration suggests that without more attention to the particularity of the theology/ideology out of which he speaks, Lyden's "third way" effectively leaves him more embedded in culture than he may care to admit (and thus a proponent of my second model ("theology immersed in culture"). In the rest of this article I shall spell out further how and why this lack of attention to religious particularity is a weakness in Lyden's paper, and what, therefore, is to be done about it.

[7] I begin with the terms "ideology" and "ideological". At a number of points in Lyden's article, it is clear that ideology is a bad thing. Take, for example, this statement:

"Drawing on liberationist and feminist critiques of hegemonic discourse, religious scholars trained in these approaches have viewed popular American films as a prime example of that which secures and perpetuates ideology in America." (p4)

[8] Lyden may, of course, claim that at this point he is passing on a use of the term "ideology" as found in those he is commenting upon. But he does not seem to balk at this use of the term. Indeed throughout his commentary on the "critiquing" mode of discussion about film amongst scholars of religion, he appears to accept the view that where ideology is present, it is none-too-welcome. Where mythology functions as ideology, it is bad news. Ideologies will always, it seems, support hegemonic structures. And Lyden continues to use the term in this way when expounding his own "third way" of looking at film from a religious scholar's perspective. His appropriation of the term "myth" in relation to film entails seeing film as a "good thing" when viewed as myth, but a "bad thing" when seen as ideology or as contributing to ideology (p7).

[9] Now there is a problem here. Whether or not an Althusserian understanding of the term "ideology" is adopted, it is worth noting that the words mythology and ideology as used by Lyden simply denote, in the former case, values, views or principles which are to be recommended, and in the latter those to be opposed or rejected. What we have not yet begun to ask is the basis upon which such judgments can be made. A Lutheran theological basis is found for an argument for film as ambiguous, but irreducible (and rich) myth-like narrative. But we have not yet found a means of distinguishing myth from ideology in the sense of knowing that which is worth keeping and promoting, and that which is not. Yet that, surely, is the true demand placed upon a scholar of religion in light of their public responsibility. And if it be true that we now live in a postmodern age, and the term means anything, it signifies that we must be more conscious than ever of the interpretative communities out of which we speak. Not only that, we must consciously use our participation in those communities as the basis upon which we can undertake interpretation at all. Only in that way, ironically, will we always be able check (via the challenge of others) the wisdom - or not - of what we say and believe.

[10] It is at this point, I must admit, that I cannot see any other way forward for a scholar of religion than to dabble in theology. Or - if that is not a welcome word - I cannot see any other way forward than to attend to the competing truth-claims of different religious traditions (in whatever way they wish to be understood), knowing that religions can only be handled in all their complex particularity.3 I warm here to John Lyden's comparison of religion/film discussions with developments in inter-faith dialogue (p2). But the comparison need not be taken only in the direction suggested by Lyden. For unless it be claimed that scholars of religion - or religious believers (with no need, even, to specify which particular religion) - are somehow able to transcend the concreteness of religious particularity and the detail of human living, it is necessary to attend to the specifics of what religions (in all their internal diversity, as well as difference from each other) actually claim and promote. What particular religions (or theological, mystical, spiritual or ethical traditions within those traditions) claim and promote is what scholars of religion bring with them to their task of interpreting film. They can only know so much. And they can only support so much. They may not simply support a single tradition (it would probably be dangerous if they did). But they cannot support all. And the claim to be bound by no tradition is merely indicative of a lack of self-awareness, or a sign of a disturbing kind of individualism; probably both. Lyden is by no means saying this! But he does not carry through his awareness that value-judgments can never be bracketed into the theological/ideological implications of his method.

[11] It is this lack of attention to religious particularity which makes me uneasy when I see reference to such terms as "spiritual significance", "windows to transcendence", the "mythological core of religion" or even "the religious interpreter of film", and this constitutes my second critical point. All of these terms - and Lyden is far from alone in using them, of course - end up carrying too much freight. It is clear that religions seem roughly to be in the same game, or a similar business. It makes sense to talk about "transcendence" as something which all religions are trying to deal with. "Spirituality" is something which some religions feel more comfortable with than others, but it is fairly clear that there is a dimension across the diversity of human experiences which can be included under this heading (even if reducible to no single thing). However, there is an ever-present danger of implying a false unity here.4 The task of interpreting film - even for scholars of religion (in religious studies departments, rather than in seminaries) - cannot merely be about identifying and working with religious images, universal symbols or signals of transcendence. Film interpretation - and the religious "use" of film - draws on particular religious and theological traditions in order to do its work. Unlike a seminary professor, a religious studies lecturer is likely to draw the religious net more widely in search of resource material to inform a creative discussion with a film, and maybe with a different intent. But the conversation remains a matter of bringing particular, religious/theological traditions to a given film. Spreading the net more widely does not, of course, make any conclusion more profound or far-reaching. It may make it more diffuse and unhelpful. And the very location and practice of such a broad interpretative undertaking may imply a capacity on the part of the religious studies professor to conduct an overview, and stand in judgment, on the narrowness of a particular religious perspective. But as we are all postmodernists now, we know that such a Promethean standpoint is not possible.

[12] The approach which Lyden adopts, then, does insufficient justice, in my view, to the particularity of traditions which any "religious" interpretation of film must call upon in order to do its work. The implicit understanding of "religion" which pervades his paper must be challenged, not by an over-assertive form of orthodoxy clamouring for attention only to one religious tradition over all others, nor by a claim that university departments are simply not the best places to have discussions about religion and film (though that may well be true!). It must be challenged by the recognition that "religion" like "myth" is not reducible and exists only in particular, exasperatingly concrete and diverse forms. Just as there is no metanarrative, or monomyth; so there is also no "religious" reading as such of any film, for there is no "religion" in relation to which such a reading can be constructed.

[13] This brings me to a brief, third and final point in my critique of John Lyden's paper: the irony of his appeal to his own Lutheran background in the provision of a rationale for his approach to film. This appeal illustrates my point precisely: in order to undertake the task of religious interpretation we have to draw on very particular traditions. Though it may be claimed that religious readings pick and choose from a wide range of available options, we are nevertheless confronted with the possibility (I think I'd say probability, but that would take time to argue) 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, in all its complex diversity. Buddhist, Christian and Jewish readings, for example, (and conversations between those interpretations - but not from any conclusive, overarching perspective) would be preferable to religious readings of film. At least then the theological ideologies are out in the open, and are being examined at the point at which they interact with the commended or critiqued ideologies of the films being interpreted.

[14] Where does my reaction to John Lyden's paper lead, then, and what does it mean for the task of the interpretation of film by scholars of religion? Let me summarize my challenge to John Lyden's position, before offering a couple of examples. Lyden needs to supplement his thesis, it seems to me, with an understanding of theological discourse which, whilst leaving room for the complex dialogical discussion with film which he notes is in practice happening and also advocates, also acknowledges that religion only exists in specific forms. The particularity of religions means that all "religious" and "theological" discussion - no matter how broadly or loftily such discussions are conceived - happens in relation to specific theologies (or philosophies or ideologies). This does not then mean that religions or theologies in their particularity are not then open to critique; far from it. But it does highlight the difficulty of engaging in such critique, and indicates the level of stubbornness with which religious and theological views are likely to be upheld. If Lyden is uncomfortable with a reference to "theological discourse", as his paper implies might be the case, then I would defend its appropriateness at least on ideological grounds: most religions entail explicit theologies, whether we agree with their content or not, and we have to find a way of dealing with God-language by some means, without simply ignoring it or abandoning it.5 It is perhaps this hesitation in so much religious interpretation of film which has prevented maximum theological creativity.6

[15] But what do these insights mean for the task of interpreting film? In closing I take up two concrete examples. I have used the film Shirley Valentine in teaching - in formal and informal educational settings - over many years. Part of the attraction of the film, aside from the sheer impact it can have on viewers (and despite its apparent "lightness"), is its glaringly untheological character. It is not the kind of film you would expect to have a theological conversation with. Since putting down on paper one particular theological conversation with the film, my discussions with others have prompted so much more thinking.7 I would now want to accentuate much more the film's "chasms of unexplored implication".8 In particular, I would want to make more of the film's individualism, its lack of closer examination of the social structures within which Shirley Valentine operated, and also the failure to expose the explicit religious dimensions at least to Shirley's upbringing, and possibly even to her experience in middle-age. From a cultural studies perspective, then, it would easily be possible to locate this film (though made in the late 80s) within a philosophical mood of 1970s "secular" existentialism.

[16] Having said all this, it remains a provocative and eminently watchable film; and it remains true that the kinds of issues it presents are the stuff of religions (inner turmoil, self-questioning, personal identity, relation to others/an other). I stand by the particular, theological conversation I conducted with the film in Explorations in Theology and Film. My further reflections are, however, in part theologically-informed and result from my own theological development, from the growth in my understanding of the complex richness of the diverse, particular theological tradition within which I stand (Christian-Protestant-Methodist, deeply informed by Calvinism, Pietism, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Feminism, Liberal theology of the 19th and 20th centuries, and Post-Liberalism). The new reflections I offer take nothing from the particular, theological reading I have already offered of the film. They merely complement the ideology-critical/cultural studies insight just offered, and enrich the resulting content of the dialogue which specifically Christian theology can have with the film.

[17] My earlier reading of Shirley Valentine as a "woman of spirit", being inspired to a form of prayer through her process of identity-loss and self-questioning in middle-age needs to be supplemented by some kind of critique from the perspective of ecclesiology. By this I do not mean that I should have recommended to her that she should simply have "gone to church".9 I mean that the form and place of corporate human living needs to be addressed much more in any adequate Christian reading of the workings of "spirit". The film does in part address the issue of Shirley Valentine's loss of identity in relation to a lost network of friends. But it leaves unsaid why she is so stable, sensible and "together" in the first place, to enable her to address the self-questioning when it arises.

[18] Now this "postscript" to my earlier piece could be read as wriggling when caught in a tight spot or anticipating a potential weakness in the chapter; maybe. But in the context of this present discussion I would want it rather to be viewed as an example of the way that discussion of film actually works theologically. There can always be multiple readings and re-readings of films. Those potential readings are not limitless. Constraints are imposed by the form and subject-matter of the films themselves (textual determinacy). But what readers themselves bring is always diverse and changes, diverse and changing even in the life of an individual interpreter. If such readings are not, however, to be merely seen as a manifestation of individual whim, then much more attention to the interpretative communities out of which an interpreter approaches a film is called for. As a Christian theologian, I am consciously working within Christian traditions. I believe this will continue to be fruitful. I am not bound to everything that Christianity stands for (how could I be?). Nor am I resistant to whatever readings might be offered from other religious traditions to the films with which I work. Nor, again, do I suppose that any particular film might simply affirm all that I already believe, or have nothing to contribute to the development of my own Christian value-system. That such a critical dialog can occur at all is what "theology by negotiation" is about.10 But I must make clear the hermeneutical traditions I am working with in undertaking my task of interpretation.

[19] Now at this point, the location of an interpretative task surely becomes significant. Distinctions can rightly be drawn between academic and church locations of interpretations. Within academic locations, university/college and seminary may be distinguished. Geography is far from unimportant, given, for example, the different relations between state, church and academy in the USA and the UK (different even in the different component countries which make up the latter). Even acknowledging the complexities created by geography, however, does not alter the fact that diverse hermeneutical traditions with a range of interests are at work in the interpretative task. If we are handling - in religious studies - theological claims in any form, then we are dabbling in theology. If we are not commending or promoting any particular theology, then we have to be clear on what (hermeneutical and ethical) basis we are not doing that. If we end up implying that any theology is inevitable (and will therefore "do"), then we have problems. Precisely because John Lyden is not doing that, then it is vital to highlight the theological/ideological basis upon which the "ideology" so prevalent in popular films (which is to be critiqued) and the "myths" constituting "the religion of popular film" (which are to be commended) rest. For the answer to that question constitutes the theological/hermeneutical tradition within which he is actually working. In short, even in religious studies, theology has to be done in some form, both in the interests of the fruitfulness of the task, and in order to disclose the hermeneutical drivers which enable us to see what's on the screen.

[20] My second example is The Shawshank Redemption. In stark contrast to Shirley Valentine, this is a film which invites a "religious" reading of some kind. "Redemption" is hardly a word to pull in the crowds at the local multiplex (though Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman evidently managed it). But the very appearance of the term indicates the kinds of issues that will be touched on in the film's narrative and even, I would argue, alludes to the hermeneutical traditions out of which those issues might be best clarified and even understood. Redemption is clearly a weighty theological word. It would, however, be wrong to conclude that because redemption forges an obvious link to theological discussion, therefore a "religious" reading of the film - in a general sense - must result. Again, only interpreters using particular theologies can conduct a conversation with the film. So where are we to look? It would be right to say, as scholars of religion must, that we are free to look anywhere to enable us to be informed about the nature of the "redemption" dealt with in the film, both across the religions of the world, and outside of religion. And we must, of course, also allow for the possibility that the term was originally used as no more than a metaphor.11 In this case, however, though it may be said that all religion is to some extent in the salvation business, the use of the term "redemption" narrows down the range of discussion-partners somewhat.12 Adopting a simple reference-book strategy, I find that references to "redemption" in John Hinnells' Dictionary of Religions direct me to articles on "Gospel", "Icon", "Jesus Christ", "Judaism", and "Mari."13 Even allowing for some Judaeo-Christian bias in the dictionary cited (for which I am claiming no particular evidence), these cross-references suggest that Jewish and Christian interactions with the subject-matter of The Shawshank Redemption are likely to be the most productive.

[21] But having established this, what then? Again questions of the location of the interpreter become important. Who is an interpretation for? What is it meant to do? I may, in other words, be interpreting the film for Christians, in a Christian seminary, wanting to re-interpret the Christian doctrine of redemption (and may even wish to commend a particular form of it) for Christian ministers.14 Or I may be in a liberal arts college, wanting to examine a range of possible readings of the film in the light of religious traditions pertaining to "redemption". But, in the latter case, what would I be doing it for? It is clear that it would be inappropriate simply to play off any particular Jewish reading of the film against any Christian reading (or vice versa). But to deny that there is ideological critique involved the religious study of film is to deny what actually goes on, as John Lyden's paper clearly shows. The question is: at what point, and in what way, does ideology-critique take shape in relation to the particularity of religion, rather than with regard to "religion" per se, given that religion only operates in particular forms?

[22] At this stage, the comparison between theology and film discussions and progress in the field of inter-faith dialogue is again instructive. Inter-faith dialog has developed to a point when it is accepted that participants in a particular tradition do not simply speak about their traditions, whilst listening to others speak of theirs, but also speak for them.15 There is a challenge here for "religious interpreters of film" to follow this track: we cannot shirk the public and ethical responsibility to interact creatively with, and to evaluate, the religious ideas and images which films present (implicitly or explicitly), but we cannot do this without greater attention to the particular conversations which are required of us in the process. Furthermore, we cannot do this without recognizing the diverse nature of the hermeneutical traditions (not only religious) within which we as interpreters actually stand, the locations we find ourselves in when we undertake our interpretations, and the diverse interests we serve. We need to be clearer than ever about what it is that we commend (and why) even if there will be so many times when we shall also imply, or state, "we simply do not know". All this, I suggest, would of necessity be entailed in considering, in a teaching context, what to do with The Shawshank Redemption.

[23] Where has this exploration left us? First, we are indebted to John Lyden for spelling out the approaches he sees at work in the use of film in religious studies. His work prompted me to make links with my own activity in theology and film, and to examine our respective undertakings in a constructive fashion. Second, it is clear that there are useful conversations to be had between theologians and scholars of religion about how film is to be interpreted in their respective disciplines. These conversations will need to more fully self-conscious than has often been the case, and must highlight the crucial significance of differences in institutional location. But they must not be bound by constraints which are themselves ideological (and with which interpreters of film implicitly or explicitly collude). Such conversations must acknowledge that theology is necessary within religious studies, and that some understanding of the role of religion/religions is essential for theologians, lest they become blind to the particularity of their own universal claims. Third, it is clear that all interpreters of film have to be more upfront about the baggage they necessarily bring to their interpretative task. This is not so that all interpretation can become thinly-veiled autobiography. Precisely the opposite is the case. It is so that the inevitably autobiographical element inherent in the interpretative task can do its work, in the interests of doing justice to a film as text, and to the hermeneutical traditions represented within the conflict of interpretations. We shall not then be ideology-free. But we may at least make some progress in determining - together - which ideologies are the least bad, and why.


The Shawshank Redemption

Shirley Valentine

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