Film & Theology

In the grand tradition of shameless self-promotion and content-laziness for which this blog is famed, I will be posting my MA dissertation in series over the next couple of posts. I definitely don’t think it’s my best work, but considering the lack of development within the field I think I did okay…

‘For Those with Ears to Hear’: Maturing the Dialogue Between Film and Theology


This study engages in an analytical exploration of the emerging conversation between film and theology. The dialogue thus far has shown much promise; however, it has remained firmly rooted within the domain of theology and has yet to break into widespread discussion within the largely secular domain of film studies. This, I will argue, may lead the discussion to stagnate out of insularity.

In order to remedy this problem and mature the discussion, this dissertation suggests ways in which the debate can be galvanized to operate out of a basis of film studies rather than theology; the rising level of interest in post-secularism within broader streams of academia seems to propose new alignments of priorities that could lead to theology being picked up by film studies as a valid conversation-partner. Emergence Christianity, a new stream of theology influenced by postmodernism represent an ideal conversation-partner for the post-secular academy, which will need to be met with a theology that is both self-aware and culturally astute.

After elucidating the parallel streams of academic thought that may allow this development to take place, I engage in a creative exploration of two potential avenues of study that may prove to be extremely rich terrain as theology emerges as a discourse within film studies – film as parable and film as icon. Through the case studies of Park Chan-Wook’s Lady Vengeance and Bill Viola’s The Passing, I demonstrate ways in which film scholars can engage with filmic texts theologically. Both paradigms suggested are models of spirituality rooted in ancient mysticism that are in the process of being rediscovered in the wake of postmodernism.

Finally, my interest in the film-theology dialogue is considered in terms of how it has influenced my own work as a film practitioner. I also submit several recommendations and ensuing implications regarding how the dialogue could progress once it enters post-secularism and the domain of film studies.


Since the early 1980s[1], an ever-increasing number of books have been published with the aim of establishing film as a conversation partner for theology and religious studies. Yet the language and syntax of the majority of these publications betray a certain bias; almost every scholar takes the discipline of theology as their starting point and seeks to integrate film/cultural studies into the discourse. A definitive edited volume, Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline[2], is tellingly funded by an institute of Fuller Theological Seminary. Gordon Lynch’s Understanding Theology and Popular Culture[3] contains three sizeable chapters explaining different approaches to analysing popular culture, betraying an assumption that his target audience is unlikely to be well versed in cultural studies.

My interest lies in furthering the conversation’s development in the opposite direction – in exploring the possibilities afforded by introducing theology to a film studies basis. Academic writing from this perspective has thus far been thin on the ground; I believe, along with several key theorists such as Slavoj Zizek[4], Terry Eagleton[5] and Stanley Fish, that this is about to change:

When Jacques Derrida died I was called by a reporter who wanted to know what would succeed high theory and the triumvirate of race, gender, and class as the center of intellectual energy in the academy. I answered like a shot: religion.[6]

Fish is not alone in his conjecture about “the return to the theological in our time”[7]. In the aftermath of the failure of modernity’s coherent metanarrative, postmodern critique of the Enlightenment quest for unadulterated reason is leading to a growth in interest in the theological within academia, particularly within the domain of philosophy[8], and yet philosophical enquiry is not the only domain to experience this new direction:

In a postmodern era more and more scholars are challenging the boundary between faith and knowledge, acknowledging the importance of religion as a social phenomenon and as a way of knowing. Articles on the return of religion can be found in a dozen disciplines, including art, English, philosophy, music, political science, social work, medicine, history, and sociology.[9]

If current trends continue, I submit that other areas of scholarship will not remain untouched by post-secularism, including film studies. A burgeoning interest in theological discussion among film scholars would seem to be the most expedient vehicle for the development of the film-theology dialogue in the direction of placing a greater emphasis on film studies and cultural theory.

The Dialogue So Far – Strengths and Weaknesses

Thus far, the film-theology dialogue has been firmly rooted within the domain of theology. The emphasis has been limited to how film can be used within and as the servant of theology; this applies as much to amateur contributions to the conversation (for example, when churches use films as sermon illustrations[10]) as to academic discourse on the subject[11] (such as when film is used as a means to the end of illustrating theological concepts such as atonement, redemptive violence[12] and gospel narratives[13]). Great strides have been made in recent years to complexify and broaden the dialogue beyond its preliminary concerns – for instance, Clive Marsh succinctly and effectively underlines fourteen theses which he sees as primary concerns for the debate at this point[14], and elsewhere there have been calls to extend the conversation-partners within the debate including interreligious dialogue[15], as well as to broaden the selection of cinema under discussion[16]. Lynch’s volume[17] assembles key aims and methods which scholars have had little time to discuss before. These kinds of clarifications and questions are vital at this stage in the discipline’s life.

Nevertheless, there is great potential to be found in the inverse approach – using theology as a servant to film theory. However, issues of theology, religion and spirituality have remained relatively untouched by film theorists. This is primarily to do with a credibility gap concerning how religion is viewed in broader streams of academia.

Tomorrow: Post-secularism and emergence Christianity

[1] Johnston, Robert K. (2007b) ‘Introduction: Reframing the Discussion’, in Johnston, Robert K. (ed.) (2007) Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic: 15

[2] Johnston, Robert K. (ed.) (2007a) Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic.

[3] Lynch, Gordon (2005) Understanding Theology and Popular Culture. Malden, Blackwell Publishing.

[4] Žižek, Slavoj (2009) ‘The Fear of Four Words: A Modest Plea for the Hegelian Reading of Christianity’, in Davis, Creston (ed.) (2009) The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? Cambridge, The MIT Press: 24-109

[5] Eagleton, Terry (2009) Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. London, Yale University Press.

[6] Fish, Stanley (2005). ‘One University Under God?’. Available: Last accessed 10th January 2010.

[7] Davis, Creston (2009) ‘Introduction: Holy Saturday or Resurrection Sunday? Staging an Unlikely Debate’, in Davis, Creston (ed.) (2009) The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?. Cambridge, The MIT Press: 2-23

[8] For example: Caputo, John (2007) What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic; Davis, Creston (ed.) (2009a) The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? Cambridge, The MIT Press.

[9] Mahoney, Kathleen and Schmalzbauer, John (2005) ‘Religion and Knowledge in the Post-Secular Academy’. Purdue University Indianapolis [online]. Available: http://www.iupui.cedu/~raac/downloads/Essays/Schmalzbauer.pdf. Last accessed 14th September 2010.

[10] See, for example: Mars Hill Church (2010) ‘Film and Theology’. Available: Last accessed 24th September 2010; Missiongathering (2010) ‘God in Film: The Hurt Locker’. Available: Last accessed 24th September 2010.

[11] See eg. Graham, David John (1997) ‘The Uses of Film in Theology’, in Marsh, Clive and Ortiz, Gaye (eds.) (1997) Explorations in Theology and Film. Oxford, Blackwell Publishers: 35-44

[12] Eg. The discussion of The Shawshank Redemption in Marsh (2004: 45-59)

[13] Seay, Chris and Garrett, Greg (2003) The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in The Matrix. Colorado Springs, Piñon Press.

[14] Marsh (2004)

[15] Lyden, John (2007) ‘Theology and Film: Interreligious Dialogue and Theology’, in Johnston, Robert K. (ed.) (2007) Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic: 205-218

[16] Ortiz, Gaye (2007) ‘World Cinema: Opportunities for Dialogue with Religion and Theology’, in Johnston, Robert K. (ed.) (2007a) Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic: 73-87

[17] Lynch (2005)


3 responses

  1. Pingback: Film & Theology Part 2 « head into the heavens

  2. Pingback: Film & Theology Part 3 « head into the heavens

  3. Pingback: Welcome! | head into the heavens

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