Film & Theology Part 5

This is the penultimate installment in my posting of my MA dissertation on Film & Theology.


Further Possibilities: Paradigmatic Synthesis

For some films, a dialectic of both parable and icon paradigms will be the most useful axis on which to stage a discussion. As a final example, one such film is AJ Schnack’s About a Son[1], a visually arresting portrait of the late musician Kurt Cobain. This film is of particular interest to my research given my ongoing interest in broadening the definitions and uses of documentary. The film is based on tape recordings of interviews between Cobain and journalist Michael Azzerad. Until the very end, we do not see a single image of the artist; instead, the recordings are complemented by wistful cinematography of the spaces inhabited by Cobain during his life.


The film has both a parable aspect and an iconic one, and both are made more powerful by the existence of the other. The parable aspect, while not as overt as that of Lady Vengeance, is present through our alignment with the film’s subject. We listen to him discussing highly personal themes such as ambition, his parents’ divorce, memory, bullying, art and family; through this alignment we are given space to interact with his perspective. It is this narrative aspect that carries parable potential, as we imagine how our story relates to Cobain’s.


The film’s iconic dimension is supplied by the ambient camera work. We are given a portrayal of Cobain’s autobiographical milieux, but rather than a straightforward representation of his history, the camera lingers hauntingly over frequently unrelated landscapes – in places, it bears resemblance to Bill Viola’s use of light in his video Hatsu Yume (for example, halfway through there is a scene of light playing off water through the windows of a boat – similar in cinematography and pacing to the opening sequence of Viola’s work). This tangential approach serves to lead us into the emotional core of the film, bypassing clear-cut illustration in favour of visual poetry. The editing is well-paced, with a mixture of fast-moving sequences and slow, tranquil ones to complement the film’s emotional cues. Moreover, the parable element is complemented by shots wherein locals are asked to hold the camera’s gaze, creating revealing living portraits within the film itself – a mesmerizing effect similar to that of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests[2].


When the lyrical, aesthetic dimension of the film (icon) combines with the human, narrative aspect (parable), the two elements play off each other to create a multi-faceted film with plenty of room for multiple viewing positions, including much space for spiritual exploration or revelation. As most viewers will know from the outset the tragedy of Cobain’s suicide, the film carries a poignancy that carries the promise of opening us up to contemplation of questions of life’s meaning and our place in the universe; for some viewers, this can certainly lead to even deeper possibilities of theological activity.


Where next? Some suggestions


Throughout this essay, I have attempted to show some of the riches that a theological approach to film can confer on the academic study of film. Clearly, I have done so from a Christian perspective, so the contention has been to demonstrate the particular resources of my tradition when it comes to engaging with spirituality and culture; voices from other religious traditions have thus far been thin on the ground, but have surely much to offer the enquiry into spirituality within cinema (for instance, given Bill Viola’s interest in Zen, a Buddhist reading of his films would be of great interest). Regardless of the faith basis, there are several things that will need to be taken into consideration as film scholarship attempts to engage with post-secularism and theology.


It is clear that while a large number of spectators might share the experience of the sublime within a filmic text (as Hay’s research suggests), far fewer will be open to the fullness of that moment’s true transcendent potential. One detail that should be clear to any serious film theorist, and which many involved in the film-theology dialogue have missed in the past, is the fact that a given film text will not have the same effect on all of its viewers, as was highlighted by spectatorship theorists such as Roland Barthes.  Again, the point that contemporary theological mores have negatively influenced the discourse holds. In the same way that modern literalists are preoccupied with finding the verbatim meaning of a biblical text while ignoring both authorial context and the subjectivity of the reader[3], many preliminary endeavors and film and theology analysis “have either erred on the side of didacticism, reducing the movie under consideration to mere illustration, or have remained too cautious, taking readers to the door of theological conversation, but failing to walk through that door for fear of becoming dogmatic”[4]. However, as mentioned elsewhere, current theological discourse indicates that these patterns of thought are losing authority and being replaced by more nuanced accounts of orthodoxy, which will doubtless have a positive effect on the film-theology conversation. The fact of the multiplicity of readings of, and reactions to, a film text should come as no surprise to theologians, as Jesus’ frequent caveat that his teachings would only be understood by those with “ears to hear”[5] seem to pre-empt the insights of spectatorship theory. Thus, where a film may contain the possibility of becoming the occasion of spiritual encounter, we should not expect that it would act the same way for all, or even most, of its audience. Film-theology criticism, therefore, should focus on the minority of viewers who are sensitive to a film’s spiritual element, rather than ignoring the multiplicity of reader positions by making interpretive generalisations.


Another thing that should be acknowledged upfront is the extent to which the nebulous character of spirituality leads unavoidably to a certain discursive ambiguity. There is an extent to which academic discourse tries “to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite”[6]; in trying to confront a subject as mysterious as spirituality, academia must recognize its own limitations. Moreover, on a practical level, alternative forms of worship and theological practise (including film as spiritual discipline) are only just beginning to be explored[7] and thus understanding of their effectiveness is in its infancy:


It is perhaps as we learn to think about cinemagoing as itself a spiritual practice that we will really discover how to nurture personal, transformative theological encounters with film.[8]


Gordon Lynch makes an important point: that perhaps some of the uncertainties surrounding the concept of spirituality within cinema – confusion about what exactly constitutes a spiritual experience, for example – will gain greater clarity as cinemagoers who are also spiritual sojourners begin to explore the possibilities of film’s theological dimension. As such, audience research and investigation into subjective experiences and intuitive observations in the spectator would prove highly profitable to the discussion:


An appropriate concrete next step for the theology/religion-film debate must therefore surely be to gather empirical data…about the emotional, cognitive, aesthetic and ethical impact of film…[9]


This is particularly important given that a large part of whether or not a film is able to act theologically depends heavily on the viewer-text relationship. Thinking about film as the possible juncture of hierophany would gain much clarity from its discussion alongside real-life examples.


If the film-theology dialogue is to develop in a fruitful way, it will certainly have to make its way into film theory-based settings rather than remain rooted within the discipline of theology. I hope to have demonstrated some ways in which this shift may be encouraged by new developments within theology through the corrective of postmodern, Emergence Christianity. However, if secular fields such as film studies are to adapt to accommodate post-secularism and a growing interest in theology, they will have to address certain unexamined assumptions. One of several ingredients that have led to the abandonment of modernity is a “refusal to regard positivistic and rationalistic criteria as the exclusive standard of knowledge”[10]; however, our academic forms of communication have been profoundly impacted by positivism. The Enlightenment-rooted privileging of certain forms of knowledge over others has been helpfully elucidated by John Peacocke:


When philosophy donned its garb of respectability – the argument, this gave rise to the spectacle of the contest…The “lovers of wisdom” were those who joyfully did battle with irrationalism and ignorance to proclaim the “truth” of reason. “Thinking” which did not cover the nakedness of its insight with the proffered cloak of respectability was consigned to the depths of irrationalism and exiled from the respectable precincts of philosophy. The “thinking” which was exiled from philosophy was to be encountered only in poetry, literature, art and, we might venture, mysticism and the religious. The whispered insights gained in such diverse fields, were never to be deemed worthy of the name “philosophy”; and never were the figures from these realms to be hallowed with the name “philosopher”.[11]


Problems with the accepted boundaries of academic discourse have already been identified by discourse ethicists as well as feminist and Marxist theorists.[12] It will be interesting to note how scholars with an interest in contributing to this dialogue deal with issues such as the problems of value-free language, how to define theology (ie. beyond existentialism or ethics) and negotiating plurality, and whether or not these insights actually affect how we approach academic discourse.


If post-secularism does indeed take root, these questions will be dealt with elsewhere in the academy by scholars with an interest in the subject; their insights and deductions will then simply bleed into film theory’s engagement with the subject. These questions are currently in the early stages of being wrestled with by a multitude of other contributors (philosophers, sociologists, cultural theorists, theologians, scientists and more). Thus, film theorists can acknowledge work done in other fields to influence their starting position rather than spend too much time on boundary-marking within their own work.


Finally, the advent of theology within film studies may also help film studies as a whole flourish, insofar as there are many auteurs whose films are superficially referred to as ‘spiritual’, but analysis of their work on these terms has been limited to simply stating that there are spiritual undertones. Theology can help provide film studies with a potential framework for uncovering more of the riches of certain filmmakers’ bodies of work, both past and present. In fact, I wish to stake a bold claim for the idea that the continued dearth of understanding of spirituality within film is impoverishing film theory. Spirituality – and perhaps even the divine – is an aspect of our human experience, and thus a dimension of both how we create and consume films; to ignore this is to limit our understanding both of the ways in which cinema can work and of the full range of human experience. Theology can help shed light on aspects of our film spectatorship that have previously been ignored or underplayed.


From Theory to Practice: Spiritual Space-Making Within Ding Dong the Church is Dead

As a film practitioner, particularly one who desires her work to point to deeper questions of human existence, I have been particularly interested in the practical implications of the exchange of ideas between theology and film. I would be interested in the infusion of my work with spirituality regardless of the subject matter; however, given the nature of my MA film project (a documentary titled Ding Dong the Church is Dead on the subject of the emerging church movement), I was particularly keen to explore how to create and sustain space for spirituality alongside my other creative ambitions.


My theoretical and practical interests share a certain continuity from the work I did during the final year of my undergraduate degree. That year, I made a short experimental film titled Wanted: A Lover, where I drew on Emmanuel Levinas’ concept of le dire et le dit (‘the saying and the said’)[13] in my approach to cinematic language:


In academic life the said is often privileged over the saying. What is important is that meaning is communicated and the way it is communicated is only important insomuch as it gets the meaning across (analytic philosophy and scientific discourse are interesting examples of this). Yet there are forms of communication that give emphasis to the saying over and above the said.[14]


I wanted to take an approach to film semiotics that would privilege form (the saying) over narrative (the said), rather than having all creative choices serve the meaning of the narrative alone. The aim of this was not simply to experiment with cinematic language for the sake of exploring film’s materiality (although that was also an objective), but as a means of implicating the viewer in the film’s emotional core. I therefore took an intuitive approach to editing that focused on creating visual poetry and deepening the viewer-text relationship rather than forming a coherent narrative (although narrative was not entirely absent).


With Ding Dong, I wanted to employ a similar approach – tapping into film’s poetic, lyrical side and asserting the experimental capacity of documentary form. In pre-production, my assumption was that the primary focus of my film in relation to my theoretical interests was going to be the concept of film as icon. In connection to my ongoing interest in the fusion of documentary and art film genres, I had hoped to borrow from techniques used by Bill Viola[15] and AJ Schnack and create what I referred to as ‘void spaces’ within the film, wherein the receptive spectator could reflect on the subject matter and perhaps enter into a visceral experience of the spirituality behind the film. Thus, although my film takes an experimental approach to film language, this radical eclecticism serves more of an authorial purpose rather than the iconic emphasis I had considered.  It emphasizes a subjectivity that perhaps allows greater access to the subject matter for viewers, and complements the autobiographical element of the film. The use of the semiotic elements (such as the “collage” style of editing, the colour palette, cinematography and choice of locations) within the film emphasize my filtering sensibility, thus enhance character identification through which the viewer is invited into the documentary’s spiritual core. Thus, although there is arguably an iconic element to Ding Dong, the theoretical interest would lie primarily with the discussion of film as parable, due to its subjective component:


Most often in the documentary tradition, the world rather than the filtering sensibility [of the filmmaker] has taken precedence. But there is nothing inherent to the documentary endeavour that requires this to be so.[16]


In the future, I can see my film practice delving further into the exploration of the materiality of film, as this has been an ongoing interest of mine. The exploration of what visceral effect a filmmaker’s creative decision-making can produce in the viewer, and the possibilities of the creation of spiritual spaces through the medium of film, are areas I would love to explore. Art film and particularly the possibilities offered by variations in presentation present exciting opportunities for the development in my work as a filmmaker; for example, I would like to experiment with creating work to be presented as an installation. I am also very interested in blurring the lines between different forms and genres, as I began to explore in Ding Dong by introducing elements of self-portrait and experimental video to the documentary system.  This impulse is, in part, responsible for my enduring fascination with music videos – experimentation and a high level of focus on the materiality of film and video are prioritized in even the most commercial of ventures, and people who would not normally be interested in avant-garde video nevertheless have an appreciation for the artistic stimulus of a music video. Since this genre lends itself so willingly to the blurring of boundaries between different film forms, I wonder about the possibilities offered by fusing music video and documentary – or indeed, documentary/installation, music video/installation and, of course, art film/documentary, as I have already been exploring.


Thematically, I maintain an interest in theological/spiritual subject matter and would love to continue to make films about different aspects of Christianity, as it continues to fascinate me and provide me with a rich terrain of topical possibilities. The subjective approach seems to have proven itself to be the most fertile means of approaching this subject matter; when dealing with notions about ways of being in the world, people tend to relate better to narrative (as discussed in the section on parables). However, I would also like to explore a diverse range of other subject matter. As I have been discussing here, a film does not have to contain theological thematic material in order to have a spiritual core.


The experience of the holy cannot be programmed. It is a gift. [17]


Throughout my creative process, several questions continued to haunt me: how can I, as a filmmaker, make space for a spiritual dimension to my film through creative decision-making? Surely this can easily give way to the presumptuous notion that I can “make the Invisible visible, the Transcendent immanent, the Impalpable palpable”[18] – that I can somehow manufacture a religious experience? I found in the philosophy of Blaise Pascal a useful paradigm for a robust recognition of the importance of artistic endeavour while leaving space for both the uncontainable nature of spirituality and the insights of spectatorship theory.


Most people are familiar with the philosopher from the argument known as Pascal’s Wager, wherein he argues that when wagering one’s life for or against the existence of God, it is better to bet in favour of God’s existence, due to the potential positive outcome of living as though God exists and being right versus the relative insignificance of the outcome of being wrong. What interests me is not the argument itself (which has many problematic elements), but the underlying philosophy behind it. Unlike his modernist contemporaries, Pascal understood that it was not abstract theoretical debates that invite hierophany, but the placing of the individual into an environment wherein their spirituality is encouraged to flourish:


While Pascal believed that the evidence of creation and the human psyche point towards the reasonableness of Christianity, he understood that this is not relevant. What is important is that people join the religious community and engage in the rituals. This acting as if it were true was not, for Pascal, authentic Christianity, and it did not guarantee that the miracle of faith would take place. But he reasoned that it was the best place to invite this miracle.[19]


Translated into the creative process, this means that my creative decisions are not responsible for producing spiritual movement or response. However, they can help create an environment in which such an effect is encouraged in the responsive viewer.


The exploration of the relationship between film and theology will therefore be fundamentally a practical one, not simply something I explore through theoretical discourse; just as my spirituality is not simply a theoretical construct but something to be experienced, my inquiry into the relationship between cinema and the divine will be best explored through trial and error and risk, based on my own subjective experience and observation as well as experimentation in creative practice. This synthesis of theory, creative practice and my own approach to film viewing represents, for me, a very exciting prospect.

[1] Kurt Cobain: About a Son (2008) [DVD]. AJ Schnack (director). USA: Sidetrack Films.

[2] 13 Most Beautiful…Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (2009) [DVD]. Andy Warhol (director). UK: Plexifilm.

[3] This phenomenon has been well-documented by Dave Tomlinson (2003)

[4] Johnston (2007: 23)

[5] Luke 8:8 (New International Version)

[6] Chesterton, G.K. (1908) Orthodoxy. Chicago, Moody Publishers.

[7] Cray, Graham (2010) ‘An introduction by Graham Cray’. Fresh Expressions [online]. Available: Last accessed 14th September 2010.

[8] Lynch, Gordon (2007) ‘Film and the Subjective Turn: How the Sociology of Religion Can Contribute to Theological Readings of Film’, in Johnston, Robert K. (ed.) (2007a) Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic: 123

[9] Marsh (2004: 131)

[10] Stanton Guion (2008: 15)

[11] Peacocke, John (1998) ‘Heidegger and the Problem of Onto-Theology’, in Blond, Phillip (ed.) (1998) Post-Secular Philosophy: Between Philosophy and Theology. London, Routledge: 180

[12] Gimmler, Antje (2003) ‘The Discourse Ethics of Jurgen Habermas’. Carnegie Mellon University, Department of Philosophy [online]. Available: meta/background/agimmler.html. Last accessed 1st September 2010.

[13] Levinas, Emmanuel (1974) Otherwise than Being: Or, Beyond Essence. Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publishers.

[14] Rollins, Peter (2008) ‘Did Jesus Speak Hoplandic?’. [online]. Available: Last accessed: 24th March 2009.

[15] Hatsu Yume (First Dream) (2006) [DVD]. Viola, Bill (director). USA: EAI.

[16] Renov, Michael (2007) ‘Away from Copying: The Art of Documentary Practice’, in Pearce, Gail & McLaughlin, Cahal (2007) Truth or Dare: Art and Documentary. Bristol, Intellect Books: 14

[17] Johnston (2003: 161)

[18] Anker, Roy M. (2004) Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co: 5

[19] Rollins, Peter (2008a) The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief. London, SPCK Publishing: 159



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  1. Pingback: Welcome! | head into the heavens

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