Contemporary Film: A Source For Theological Reflection

Parliament Trustee, Robert Sellers, discusses film as a means of reflecting on human drama occurring across the globe, and as a springboard for conversation regarding shared values and the role of Religions therein.

Every couple of years, I offer a course for both undergraduate and graduate students at my university entitled “Religion and Film.” This theology-prefix course, offered on the Friday nights and Saturday mornings of about half of the semester weekends, is identified by the following course description: “An exploration of the relationship of modern film and religion, particularly Christianity. The focus will be upon theological interpretations of the characters and plots of selected mainstream movies. Students will have an opportunity to explore how specific spiritual and ethical motifs are treated in film.”

Some may question why movies should be a source for theological reflection. There are several good reasons. First, the Divine doesn’t only confront us in sacred texts, so we are challenged to grapple with the Mystery and to “read the text” in all of life’s experiences. Second, the visual and audio, and, (now, even) 4D capabilities of contemporary films greatly enhance the impact that they can contribute to those who experience them. Third, 

many screenwriters, directors, and actors consciously determine to communicate profound insights through their work, yet many movie viewers assume that films do little more than entertain, which is a notion that should be challenged. And, finally, film is perhaps the most popular artistic medium today, and the largest demographic of moviegoers are young people—the very group that, regardless of their religious (or non-religious) background, might learn to appreciate the power that a good story has to shape one’s moral character.

The way in which I structure my class meetings enables students to watch 14 films during our sessions together, as well as to participate in small group presentations at the end of the semester. Seminar members write a theological reflection on each movie, focused upon a suggested theme such as life, identity, guilt, forgiveness, pain, coping, faith, hope, love, trust, redemption, transformation, acceptance, and interdependence.

Some students enter the course expecting to view overtly religious movies—Christian films, to be precise, since my university has Baptist roots and distinctiveness. But they suppose the course title “Religion and Film” really means “Religion in Film,” and thus we’ll be watching movies that serve an apologetic function, like The Passion of the Christ (2004) or God is Not Dead (2014), or at least films where some perceived Christian virtue is dramatized, as in Facing the Giants (2006). These young people may also believe the movies I select will unequivocally demonstrate the superiority of “our” faith by portraying the bad behavior of persons who aren’t Christ-followers.

Other students think that finding a theological meaning in a movie simply requires identifying the story element that is contrary to their own particular religious upbringing. Thus, they will write a paper decrying marriage unfaithfulness in The Bridges of Madison County (1995), greed in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), or sexual abuse in The Kite Runner (2007). But the theological meanings I want them to engage are more subtle and more gray than black or white. The Bridges of Madison County, for example, could yield a helpful discussion about choices, The Wolf of Wall Street about consequences, and The Kite Runner about redemption.

Such assumptions, however, are wrong and have nothing to do with my purpose or approach. What I want to do is to acquaint students with the human drama as it unfolds in many cultures and among people of different religious traditions. Thus, some of the films I select originate in countries other than the United States, while the values implicitly or explicitly expressed in the stories are grounded not only in Christianity, but in a variety of other religious traditions. Films of this type that I’ve used productively include In a Better World (Denmark, 2010), The Sea Inside (Spain, 2004), Rabbit-Proof Fence (Australia, 2002), Monsieur Lazhar (Canada, 2012), The Color of Paradise (Iran, 1999), Tsotsi (South Africa, 2005), Ajami (Israel, 2009), Innocent Voices (Mexico, 2005), and Five Minutes of Heaven (Ireland, 2009).

I’ve discovered that movies can also stimulate rich conversations concerning perspectives from the Religious Other and, especially, about ways to relate to persons who follow other faiths. One of the best entrees to such a discussion is the sweet story Stolen Summer (2002). Students are particularly interested discussing their idea of the themes in two cinematically gorgeous films by Ron Fricke, neither with a plot or dialogue, entitled Baraka (1992) and Samsara (2011). These visual and emotional “masterpieces” elicit multiple interpretations.

Based upon several years of successfully challenging very bright university students to think creatively about pop culture, I heartily recommend that films be used to initiate conversations about our shared values and virtues as people who practice various religions. They not only entertain hundreds of millions of people around the world—including a host of faithful adherents of our own spiritual traditions—but they are often reservoirs of helpful theological insight about the Divine, our fellow human beings, and the world which we all share.

Robert P. Sellers is professor of missions and theology at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, and represents Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches, USA. He is a member of the Board of Trustee of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions.

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