Film & Theology Part 2

Continuing my series on  film and theology (part 1 is here), wherein I publish my postgraduate research en lieu of actual content, here’s a few paragraphs on why the emergence of post-secularism within academia and emergent theology within theology might prove to be rather interesting for the study of film and theology.

Post-secularism and Emergence Christianity

…about every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur. [1]

When discussing the notion of post-secularism, many who have approved of the absence of religion as we know it in the academy (in reference to certain manifestations of religion, I include myself in this group) may recoil at the idea of a resurgence of theology in contemporary scholarship, fearing that “desecularisation” necessarily means a conservative backlash or an anti-intellectual incursion. Religion in the public sphere has a bad reputation and become associated with “intellectual dishonesty”[2], as outlined succinctly by Eric Dean Rasmussen:

Witness, for example, Bush’s faith-based initiatives to turn a range of social services over to private religious groups…the growing assault on women’s reproductive rights, calls to teach creationism as the theory of ‘intelligent design’ in science classrooms…the so-called “Jesus Factor” is providing much of the impetus for this shift…[3]

These problems exemplify some of the excesses of contemporary theology and religious practice that have – apart from the general infancy of the discipline – contributed to the clumsiness of much of the film-theology dialogue so far. The Western philosophical tradition over the past five hundred years has been shaped by the ideas of René Descartes, one of the leading philosophers of the Enlightenment, who argued that we can prove the existence of God and that reason alone was sufficient to do so. The subsequent overemphasis of “pure and autonomous reason…even to the point of contradiction”[4] has, according to emergent author Peter Rollins, led to a defensive posture and a rejection of doubt and ambiguity within much contemporary Christian theology, much of which still clings to modernism:

When the truth affirmed by Christianity is thought of as constituting a series of factual claims open to being assessed by intellectual experts, Christianity opens itself up to a corrosive form of doubt that threatens to destroy it…Christianity ends up being treated like any other set of factual claims, claims that are provisional and open to being proven wrong…This has the effect of placing the Christian idea of truth upon a very tentative and fragile foundation, one that could not possibly justify an individual’s unconditional commitment…[5]

At its worst, the faith resulting from this philosophical outlook “appears quite strong and rigid, but if you even begin to rethink or discuss…the whole thing is in danger”.[6] This self-protective impulse has been, in part, responsible for religion’s absence from the academy; for example, the American Association of University Professors decided in 1915 to exclude any religious-affiliated institutions from the definition of ‘university’ because they “do not, at least as regards one particular subject, accept the principles of freedom and inquiry”[7]. Given this long-standing uneasiness between the two domains, it is natural that a resurgence of religion within scholarship should be met with a certain degree of scepticism within some circles.

Concurrently, Christianity is going through its own period of transition. Important conversations are taking place about both doctrine and practice, and these dialogues have loosely crystallized around the term Emergence Christianity. The emergent conversation is questioning many of the ways in which Christianity has been described and outworked under modernity, and wrestling with how to approach faith in a postmodern society. Several traits of Emergence Christianity include the deconstruction of doctrine (sometimes known as weak theology), creative approaches to worship and an emphasis on narrative rather than propositional truth:

If in pursuing this line of exegesis, the Great Emergence really does what most of its observers think it will, it will rewrite Christian theology…into something far more Jewish, more paradoxical, more narrative, and more mystical than anything the Church has had for the last seventeen or eighteen hundred years. [8]

This has profound consequences for the re-entry of theology into mainstream academia. There are three main ways in which the advent of emergent theology can contribute to the development of the film-theology dialogue.

  1. Potential to aid spirituality’s easy transition into academy

If theology does indeed surface into other areas of study, it will emerge into a context that is generally influenced by a postmodern outlook – a wariness of didacticism, an embracing of uncertainty, and an “incredulity towards metanarratives”[9]. In order to be able to converse with such a previously foreign discipline, this milieu will need to be met with a theological framework that operates along compatible assumptions or codes of recognition.

Andrew Perriman identifies several hallmarks of emerging theology that would seem to correlate with such a need:

A theology that places a high value on intellectual and critical integrity…that fosters an open, inquisitive, probing mindset…A generous theology that is inclined to discover meaning and truth outside of itself.[10]

  1. Potential to solve problems within mainstream theology that lead to aforementioned shortcomings of theological engagement with film [go into details]

As has already been mentioned, much of the film-theology dialogue thus far has been somewhat unrefined, for many reasons. This is an issue that has been well dealt with recently by scholars wishing to mature the discussion such as Chris Deacy, Clive Marsh[11] and Robert K Johnston[12]. As discussed above, many of the reasons why previous contributions may have missed the mark in the past are the result of actual failings in modern theology rooted in our Western philosophical tradition.

…three things will be needed: a better grasp of orthodoxy’s range, greater humility than is often displayed in the handling of Christianity’s riches, and an acceptance that doctrine does change.[13]

A brief scan of the major blogs[14], forums[15] and books[16] through which the emergent conversation is taking place will reveal that the issues raised here by Clive Marsh are corollary to matters already under fervent discussion; this timely convergence suggests that this is a particularly fruitful moment for the film-theology dialogue to come of age. Thus, when authors such as Gordon Lynch write about wishing to distance themselves from forms of religious film critique that are “very low on thoughtful analysis”[17], this concern will become extraneous when new theologies are added to the equation; emergent Christians spend a lot of time deconstructing the impulses in the broader theology that leads to low levels of critical engagement.

  1. Potential to discover new ways of engaging with and analyzing film

Finally, and most importantly for this discussion, fresh perspectives on theology that are coming to light through the emergent conversation have the potential to uncover new dimensions of film’s spiritual component, and thus encourage innovation, exploration and creativity within the dialogue. There has been an increased emphasis on experience, narrative and mystery as a way of counteracting modernity’s overemphasis of doctrine and theoretical constructs, as well as a rediscovery of ancient spiritual disciplines.

For the purposes of this inquiry, two approaches to spirituality – parable and icon, both of which are being newly rediscovered in the light of postmodernity – will be considered in the context of how they can bring new insights to how we approach film.

Tomorrow: Film as Parable

[1] Tickle, Phyllis (2008) The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. Grand Rapids, Baker Books: 16

[2] Bell, Rob (2005) Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, Zondervan: 42

[3] Rasmussen, Eric Dean (2005) ‘What Would Žižek Do? Redeeming Christianity’s Perverse Core’. Electronic Book Review [online]. Available: Last accessed 4th September 2010.

[4] Davis, Creston (2009b) ‘Introduction: Holy Saturday or Resurrection Sunday? Staging an Unlikely Debate’, in Davis, Creston (ed.) (2009a) The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? Cambridge, The MIT Press: 5

[5] Rollins, Peter (2008) The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief. London, SPCK Publishing: 92-93

[6] Bell, Rob (2005) Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, Zondervan: 26

[7] American Association of University Professors (1915) Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. Available: Last Accessed 10 September 2010.

[8] Tickle (2008: 162)

[9] Lyotard, Jean-François (1979) The Postmodern Condition. Manchester, Manchester University Press: xxiv

[10] Perriman, Andrew (2006) ‘What (again) is an emerging theology?’ Available: Last accessed 26th July 2010.

[11] Marsh (2004)

[12] Johnston (2007: 23)

[13] Marsh (2004: 157)

[14] Walker Cleveland, Adam (200) ‘Plurality 2.0 Guest Blogger Schedule’. Available: Last accessed 20th September 2010.

[15] The Ooze [online] Discussion Board. Available: Last accessed 27th September 2010

[16] Eg. Tomlinson, Dave (2003) The Post-Evangelical. Colorado Springs, NavPress.

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


One response

  1. You’re not the only one who uses the blog to post research. Although I tend to blog about my thoughts on the front end. Recently though, I have followed your lead to post things that I’ve honestly written in full 🙂

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