Recent Books on Faith & Film
New Books in 2000
Bryan P. Stone. Faith and Film: Theological Themes at the Cinema. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2000. 197 pages.
Peter Fraser and Vernon Edwin Neal. ReViewing the Movies: A Christian Response to Contemporary Film. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000. 187 pages.
Sara Anson Vaux. Finding Meaning at the Movies. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1999. 224 pages.
Robert K. Johnston. Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000. 236 pages.
Gire, Ken. Reflections on the Movies: Hearing God in the Unlikeliest of Places. Colorado Springs, CO: Victor, 2000. 215 pages.
Forest, Ben, with Mary Kay Mueller. God Goes to Hollywood: A Movie Guide for the Modern Mystic. Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press (iUniverse.com), 2000. 269 pages.
“Movies do not merely portray a world; they propagate a worldview” (Bryan Stone Faith and Film, p. 6). That assumption underlies each of these thoughtful and accessible new books. Each assumes that movies can illustrate Christian convictions and truth claims. Each also makes it clear that the “faith claims of film must be challenged” and even “exposed as inadequate, false, and even dehumanizing” (Stone, p. 8). All four authors approach movies “dialogically,” that is, by recognizing ways in which movies either illuminate our world and our lives with glimmers of transcendence or cast shadows of brokenness and alienation. Two of the books are structured thematically and can easily be used in groups (Vaux, Stone); two are designed to teach the art of critical discernment (Fraser/Neal, Johnston). And Gire’s book, written as a collection of thoughtful dialogues with specific movies, is the easiest to read.
Stone’s book grew out of his teaching as Professor of Evangelism at Boston University School of Theology. Stone’s dialogue with the movies begins with each of fourteen clauses from the Apostles’ Creed. Each chapter includes analysis of at least one movie, reflection on the themes of the movie in dialogue with the Apostles’ Creed, discussion questions, and a list of movies that treat the same theme. Highlighted movies include Contact; Oh, God!; 2001: A Space odyssey; Jesus of Montreal; a trio of other Jesus movies; Romero; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Phenomenon; Powder; E.T.; Flatliners; Star Wars; The Mission; Babette’s Feast; Dead Man Walking; and The Shawshank Redemption.
Fraser and Neal aim to teach Christians how to discern dramatic and cinematic excellence. They suggest that good movies “should create or reflect a world that rings true, a world fallen and in need of grace, a world in which the only hope for resolution and individual salvation is the gospel” (p. 34). An excellent film, in other words, tells the truth. To discern that truth in contemporary film, the authors teach readers (1) how to learn the language of film; (2) how to recognize “whatever is true;” (3) how to reflect critically on the meaning hidden in the film’s genre; (4) how thoughtful parents can make informed decisions; and (5) how movies have borrowed theological themes to tell their stories. The book includes a 32 page annotated list of “movie treasures” organized by theme.
Vaux shows us how to look for messages of value and meaning by examining both the content of a film and the ways that a movie tells a story. Vaux reflects on nineteen films organized around prominent themes: authenticity (Cries and Whispers; Secrets & Lies), alienation (Contact; Star Trek; Blade Runner; Solaris), integrity (Unforgiven; The Searchers; Lone Star), vocation (Wall Street; Diary of a Country Priest), purity of heart (Forrest Gump; La Strada; Sling Blade), celebration (Babette’s Feast; Daughters of the Dust; and Ulee’s Gold), and healing (The English Patient). Vaux includes only movies that, in her opinion, “attempt to communicate a concept of a moral universe--a sense of order and meaning that affects the ways we live on and with our earth; a search to determine right or wrong behavior; and a grasp of how we should behave toward one another” (pp. xi-xii). The book includes three appendices: practical advice on showing and discussing films in groups, a list of additional films, and a glossary of film terminology.
Johnston’s volume is the most thorough and demanding of the five books. The book grew out of Johnston’s course in Theology and Film at Fuller Theological Seminary. This is the only book that includes a bibliography on theology and film (13 pages). In two early chapters the book reflects on the power of film in our culture and traces the history of the relationship between the church and Hollywood. After sketching a variety of theological approaches to film criticism, Johnston offers his own perspective on the relationship between theology and film and offers readers practical tools for “becoming a (theological) film critic.” In the final chapter Johnston applies his proposals to an analysis of the films of Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society; Witness; The Truman Show).
Gire’s thoughtful, popularly written volume assumes that because we live in a visually oriented culture, we do well to become critically aware of how movies influence us, how they tell the truth and tell lies about our lives, and how we appropriate their transforming potential. Above all, Gire is interested in helping us become aware of the emotional power of movies. Through sharing of his own intimate encounter with movies, Gire illustrates how to unpack their emotional impact. The book includes reflections on: Bambi, Camelot, Amadeus, Field of Dreams, Ordinary People, Saving Private Ryan, Smoke, Hoosiers, Hoop Dreams, The Elephant Man, The Dead Poets Society, Amistad, Schindler’s List, and The Wizard of Oz.
Forest’s God Goes to Hollywood offers brief two-page reflections on one hundred movies that can be interpreted as “modern parables, stories infused with spiritual lessons that tell us something about our life and our relationship with God” (p. xiii). Each entry includes a plot summary and a few paragraphs on “the message” of the film. Forest’s Christian perspective is sprinkled with references to the Bible, other religious traditions and contemporary “spiritualities.” Forest’s theological commentary assumes that we watch movies so that they can teach us something.
New Books in 2001
Malone, Peter, with Rose Pacette. Lights, Camera . . . Faith! A Movie Lectionary. Cycle A. Boston, MA: Pauline Books and Media, 2001. 393 pages.
McNulty, Edward. Praying the Movies: Daily Meditations from Classic Films. Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2001. 168 pages.
Romanwoski, William D. Eyes Wide Open: Looking For God in Popular Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2001. 171 pages.
We are living in a movie culture, as these books attest. The question each book raises in its own way is not whether we should watch movies, but how to relate our Christian faith to the movies that many of us are already watching.
Malone’s Movie Lectionary is a delightful resource that bridges the biblical texts in the Common Lectionary with seventy-two contemporary movies. Each chapter includes six sections: a synopsis that highlights characters, plot and sequence; commentary on the movie with information about actors, directors, producers and related films; dialogue with the gospel, reflecting on how the movie and its themes relate to the biblical text; a summary of key scenes and themes; questions for reflection and conversation; and a concluding prayer. The Appendix includes a Movie Ratings Chart.
McNulty’s Praying the Movies is a collection of thirty-one devotional reflections on movies that resonate with the theological theme of grace. These films are what McNulty considers the “saving remnant” of the several hundred films released each year, the films with a “treasure in earthen vessels,” and the films that will help us to develop “eyes that see and ears that hear.” Each section includes six parts: a selection of Scripture passages; an introduction to the plot; description of a key scene; reflection on the scene that includes theological interpretation; questions for further reflection or group discussion; and a prayer.
Romanowski’s Eyes Wide Open offers Christian readers a critical and constructive perspective on the popular arts and culture. Romanowski hopes that Christians will become communities “capable of discernment and active interpretation” (p. 32). Although not interested in “moral legalism,” Romanowski calls for a “Christian criticism” that provides “rigorous tools for analysis” of popular artworks of various perspectives, that is able “to evaluate productions that are intentionally ‘Christian’,” and that offers thoughtful reflection on Christian worldviews as it “addresses substantive personal, social, and cultural issues” (p. 145). One of the best things about the book is Appendix One, a study guide called “A Matrix for Analysis of Popular Artworks.” In Appendix Two Romanowski illustrates his critical method with an analysis of The Titanic.
Other Helpful Books (some new in 2002)
Baugh, Lloyd. Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ Figures in Film. Kansas City, MO: Sheed & Ward, 1997.
Cunningham, David S. Reading is Believing: The Christian Faith through Literature and Film. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2002.
Fraser, Peter. Images of the Passion: The Sacramental Mode in Film. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1998. (88 Post Road West, Westport, CT, 06881).
Fraser, Peter and Vernon Edwin Neal. Reviewing the Movies : A Christian Response to Contemporary Film. Focal Point Series. Crossway Books, 2000.
Godawa, Brian. Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films With Wisdom & Discernment. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002.
Jewett, Robert. Saint Paul at the Movies: The Apostle’s Dialogue with American Culture. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993. Discussion of Star Wars, Amadeus, A Separate Peace, Tender Mercies, Grand Canyon, Tootsie, Ordinary People, Epire of the Sun, Pale Rider, Red Dawn, Dead Poets Society.
________. Saint Paul Returns to the Movies: Triumph Over Shame. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998. Discussion of The Prince of Tides, Babette’s Feast, Forrest Gump, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Groundhog Day, Babe, Edge of the City, The Firm, Unforgiven, The Shawshank Redemption.
Marsh, Clive and Gaye W. Ortiz. Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997. Essays on the following movies: The Piano, Shane, Edward Scissorhands, Terminator, Groundhog Day, Dead Poets Society, The Mission, The Name of the Rose, Priest, Shirley Valentine, Babette’s Feast, Awakenings, as well as topics like Martin Scorsese, Jesus Movies, Feelgood movies.
Martin, Joel W. and Conrad E. Ostwalt, Jr., eds. Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular Film. Boulder, San Francisco, Oxford: Westview Press, 1995. Contains essays on Psycho and Blood Simple, Ironweed, Platoon, Apocalyptic themes in Movies, Star Wars, Alien/Aliens, Rocky, Blue Velvet.
Miles, Margaret R. Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies. Beacon Press, 1996.
Sanders, Theresa. Celluloid Saints: Images of Sanctity in Film. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2002.
Scott, Bernard Brandon. Hollywood Dreams and Biblical Stories. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1994.
Stern, Richard C., Clayton N. Jefford, Guerric DeBonna. Savior on the Silver Screen. New York: Paulist, 1999.
Stone, Bryan P. Faith and Film: Theological Themes at the Cinema. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2000.
Tatum, W. Barnes. Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the First Hundred Years. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 1997.
Gordon Matties, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies & Theology at Canadian Mennonite University (Winnipeg), teaches a course on Film, Faith and Popular Culture. Readers interested in discovering a wide range of Christian perspectives and theological resources on faith and film are welcome to visit the Movie Theology webpage, with links to resources on faith and film.