As Scott Cowdell (2004) reported:
John Carroll believes that the spiritual baton has been passed in the West from the Church to popular culture, in which spiritual and communal myths and values once associated with institutional religion and Christian culture are now to be found—modified, to be sure, but still sufficiently widespread and foundational to represent a spiritual continuity (p. 58).
One would agree with him, yet this is not a recent phenomenon for the “cinema between the 1920s and 1960s served as the principal new Church, the one to which most took the weekly pilgrimage that mattered—to sit in front of the silver screen on which their hopes and dreams might take flight” (Carroll, 2001, pp. 67-68). Nowadays, this migratory sitting behaviour is more likely to be in front of the TV, DVD or personal computer in one’s home.
Yet, this sociocultural fact should not be too surprising considering that this is undoubtedly the “Age of Hollywood” (Paglia, 1994, p. 12) and the ascendancy of moving image culture. As David Jasper (2004, p. 127) put it: “increasingly we live within a culture that is visual as much (or perhaps more) than it is verbal, and we can now speak of “reading” the texts of film.” For the proverbial children of the media, particularly the video generation, popular films1 have become “the lingua franca of the twentieth century. The Tenth Muse...[that] has driven the other nine right off Olympus - or off the peak, anyway” (Vidal, 1993, pp. 2-3). Indeed, popular films are a central focus for Generation X.2 As John R. Mabry (2003) argued:
Xers are keenly aware of popular culture and find much of their spiritual expression through popular music, film, and television. While older generations dismiss such media as shallow or philosophically anemic, Xers are tuned in to its subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) prophetic content. Pop culture skewers uncritically held assumptions, challenges the status quo, and mocks authority and even itself mercilessly. Since much of this media is being produced by Xers, attention to what is being said and to the meta-messages involved will be invaluable in understanding Xer culture and mindset. For those directing Xers, the music they listen to and the movies and TV shows they enjoy are priceless archeological indicators that will reveal much about their spiritual state, philosophical wrestlings, and moral trajectory (p. 183).
Popular films are also important instruments for personal growth and development. As Peter MacNicol enthusiastically claimed: “Films have not only delighted me, transported me, enchanted, terrified, and informed me; they have, in the best instances, shaped me. No priest or homily so calibrated my moral compass as did movies. No classroom lecture so humanized me as did Hollywood” (Malone & Pacatte, 2003, p. xi). Culturally speaking, popular films have become so influential in Western society that Todd A. Kappelman (2000) argued:
Because literature is no longer the dominant form of expression, scriptwriters, directors, and actors do more to shape the culture in which we live than do the giants of literature or philosophy. We may be at the point in the development of Western culture that the Great Books series needs to be supplemented by a Great Films series (pp. 119-120).
One can only agree with him and look forward to that definitive canon being formalised. In short, the movies are an important cultural text and a powerful pedagogic resource for good and evil that the profession ignores at its considerable peril. As David Jasper (2004, p. 128) argued: “as we move ever farther into a predominately visual culture, in which films are often watched far more readily than books are read, hermeneutics is of necessary developing new skills in interpreting the textuality of the screen.” Thus, further cementing the legitimacy of the interdisciplinary field of religion-and-film (aka cinematic theology, celluloid religion, theo-film, film-faith dialogue).
This valuable extra-ecclesiastical resource has traditionally been ignored, unappreciated or under-utilised by the Church and the teaching professions alike because of historically rooted anti-film fears (Kozlovic, 2003d, 2003e), prejudices regarding “low” culture, and the general lack of awareness of exactly how religious content permeates the modern secular media. Yet, the increasing inclusion of popular biblical films within mainstream textbooks about the Bible (Jasper, 1995, Keene, 2002; Miller & Huber, 2003) clearly demonstrates the cultural continuity of the divine word from revelation through orality, textuality and now the audio-visual. The popular, commercial feature film is undeniably a sociocultural and technological milestone, and one of the “signs of the times” (Matt 16:3)3 that believing Christians need to be cognisant and appreciative of. Thereby, making the emerging field of religion-and-film important, exciting and full of dazzling pedagogic promise hitherto unrealised. “Let’s face it! The entertainment industry—in particular, film—has changed traditional education and communication in profound ways, and the church had better take notice” (Frost & Hirsch, 2003, p. 151), especially if it wishes to remain relevant in this postmodern, post-Millennial and increasingly post-print age. Besides, even if:
Believers may not accept the theology in motion pictures[,] and religious institutions may not always appreciate the alternative sources of communication…the history and culture of Hollywood indicate that the collision of creeds and popular culture is unavoidable (Smith, 2001, p. 224).
Since forewarned is to be forearmed, it is prudent for the profession to proactively employ the popular cinema in the classroom, home and pulpit as soon as practicable, especially if it wishes to stay relevant to the video generation. As John C. Lyden (2003) argued:
It will not hurt traditional religion or academia to listen to the films that speak so strongly in our culture or to recognize that they may have something to say that is worth hearing; the only thing that may be damaged is our pride, as we may not be able to continue to assert our superiority to the texts we so confidently deride (p. 250).
Nevertheless, this is a small pride to pay for the immense benefits that can accrue from adopting this postmodern religious methodology. Not only is the Hollywood hermeneutic approach to religious education in tune with the cultural diet and entertainment proclivities of our youth, but it is sound theology. How? Because “The Word of God is indeed living and active—in ways that we might never have imagined possible: between the lines, inside the heads of a community of readers and rippling through our modern world” (DeBona, 2004, p. 49), especially in its filmic format. Since it is incumbent upon Christians to develop the critical ability to see God at work in all things, examples of Christianity already engineered within the popular cinema need to be acknowledged, identified and explicated, particularly in its less well-known covert form: the sacred subtext.
Cecil B. DeMille style biblical epics such as The Ten Commandments and the Jesus genre films such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ are well-known examples of overt religion amongst the public and the scholarly community alike (Baugh, 1997; Campbell & Pitts, 1981; Kinnard & Davis, 1992; Stern, Jefford & DeBona, 1999; Tatum, 1997; Walsh, 2003). Equally prolific, but less well-know are the hidden religious figures such as Jesus, Moses, Judas etc. overtly built into popular feature films. These religious characters take the form of sacred subtexts (aka holy subtexts; divine infranarratives), that is, disguised religious figurations that may not be initially recognised because they are not presented in their traditional historical guises. In fact, these religious characters may be of a different sex, age, look, disposition, physical location, historical setting or filmic genre than normally expected, and yet they still qualify as valid cinematic transfigurations of Holy Writ. The biblically based Christ-figure is a particular Hollywood favourite. After all:
…the Bible has permeated Western literature like no other text, so that even today it is, arguably, one of the most powerful cultural, if not religious, texts in our society. (Only think how Hollywood blockbuster films like Terminator II or Unforgiven are soaked in biblical images and even biblical language) (Jasper, 2004, p. 121).
The point about the Bible being a major cultural text was particularly pronounced during a poignant moment within The Day After Tomorrow, a disaster film about the dawning of a new ice age. While some survivors were taking refuge from the killing weather in a Manhattan public library, and burning its books to keep warm, Elsa (Amy Sloan) noticed that her philosophically-inclined peer was holding a large book and said:
Elsa: What have you got there?
Philosopher: A Gutenberg Bible. It was in the rare-books room.
Elsa: You think God’s gonna save you?
Philosopher: No. I don’t believe in God.
Elsa: You’re holding on to that Bible pretty tight.
Philosopher: I’m protecting it. This Bible is the first book ever printed.
It represents the dawn of the age of reason.
As far as I’m concerned, the written word is mankind’s greatest achievement.
Philosopher: You can laugh. But if Western civilization is finished… I’m gonna save at least one little piece of it.
Sacred subtexts have been described as “anonymous religiousness” (Gallagher, 1997, p. 151) or the pursuit of “overtly religious themes in a secular ‘wrapper’” (Ellis, 2001, p. 304). They exist because storytelling narratives can have a dual nature, namely, an overt plot plus a covert storyline of varying complexity that is comparable to the metaphoric or symbolic within literature. As Bernard Dick (1998, p. 129) described this relationship: “the narrative and infranarrative (or text and subtext) are not two separate entities (there is, after all, only one film); think of them, rather, as two concentric circles, the infranarrative being within the narrative.” However, before this Hollywood hermeneutic can be truly appreciated, and then pedagogically utilised, its various cinematic manifestations need to be identified, mapped out and explicated as a proactively mediated act of professional consciousness-raising. This is a necessary introductory step in a field that is full of delight and promise.
Consequently, the critical religion and film literature was briefly reviewed and integrated into the text to enhance narrative coherence (albeit, with a strong reportage flavour). Using textually based, humanist film criticism as the analytical lens (i.e., examining the textual world inside the frame, but not the world outside the frame—Bywater & Sobchack, 1989), the popular cinema was selectively scanned and three important aspects of the Hollywood hermeneutic were revealed. Namely: (1) explicit scriptural references and Bible-quoting, (2) Christ-figures, and (3) biblical characters, themes and props. The following is a brief explication of each of these taxonomic categories.
The popular cinema is full of Holy Scriptures (or pseudo-Scriptures) being quoted, used or abused, it being the linguistic-literary equivalent of finding Bible props on-screen. It has been a standard cinematic convention for setting the religious, spiritual and/or moral tone of a whole range of motion pictures within numerous genres. Most notably, biblical films resort to Scripture-quoting in their perfunctory prologues, epilogues, and in the very act of reading out past prophecies, commandments and holy orders throughout the narrative, whether on-screen or by off-screen narrators. For example, in the beginning of The Bible...In the Beginning, the mellifluous grumble of the off-screen narrator/God/director (John Huston) recited the beginning of Genesis 1 to set the mood for this Christian creation story.
Similarly, many Christ-figure films like to evoke biblical passages for religious effect, scene-setting, and to overtly signal their various subtextual religious figurations. For example, while on the subway platform in Jesus of Montreal, Daniel Colombe (Lothaire Bluteau) spoke part of the apocalyptic warning of Matthew 24:15-24. An abridged version of the 23rd Psalm was quoted by teenager Megan Wheeler (Sydney Penny) in the Clint Eastwood cowboy film Pale Rider to set the apocalyptic mood of this western and ring its note of despair in urgent need of Divine intervention. Its hero-protagonist known as Preacher (Clint Eastwood) was an “avenging angel/savior” (Malone & Pacatte, 2003, p. 261) easily linked to the “pale horse” of Revelation 6:8 (one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse called Death, followed by Hell), thus tagging this western film as a supernatural Shane, which itself was a western Christ-figure film (Marsden, 1974).
The blue, demon-looking superhero called Nightcrawler/Kurt Wagner (Alan Cumming) in X-Men 2, “the first scripture-quoting Marvel hero” (Detweiler, 2003, p. 21) was a homo-superior mutant with a strong religious bent. He hid from normal humanity in a church, he engaged in theological debate, and he made many faith-based comments throughout this ostensively science fiction film. When Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) sacrificed herself to save her fellow X-Men from sure death, Nightcrawler recited a poetically truncated (and European accented) Psalms 23:1-2,4 for the spiritual comfort of his superhero comrades. Namely, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of the death, I will fear no evil: for though art with me.” Quoting Psalm 23 was also a key moment in the sentimental, anti-Nazi war film Joan of Paris. This famous Scripture was recited by a sympathetic priest Fr. Antoine (Thomas Mitchell) prior to the immanent execution of Joan (Michele Morgan), a patriotic French resistance leader. She had willingly sacrificed herself by leading the murderous Gestapo on a wild goose chase so that many downed RAF pilots could escape certain capture and death. Not only did the film’s title resonate with another famous French maid, Joan of Arc, who was also executed for her efforts to fight tyranny, but Saint Joan was also this Joan’s personal patron saint.
The Vietnam War film Platoon began with a title snipped from Ecclesiastes 11:9: “Rejoice, o young man, in thy youth.” However, it did not complete the rest of the quote, which was itself subtly indicative of the premature termination of the film’s Christ-figure hero, Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe). In The Omega Code, translated portions of the Torah were put through Rostenberg’s (Yehuda Efroni’s) Bible code program to reveal prophecies of the immediate future, which were printed out in English for inspection and cogitation. These textual clues drove the plot of the film, and eventually lead to the last clue being inputted into the translation device. This computational act was quickly followed by God’s defeat of Satan, atomic bomb style, and the optimistic final answer of the film, namely: “0000…Dawn of New Millenium” in a Satan-cleansed world.
As indicated above, the Christ-figure is an incredibly popular sacred subtext. As Adele Reinhartz (2003a) explained concerning its ontological nature:
…Jesus is not portrayed directly but is represented symbolically or at times allegorically. Christ figures can be identified either by particular actions that link them with Jesus, such as being crucified symbolically (Pleasantville, 1998), walking on water (The Truman Show, 1998) or wearing a cross (Nell, 1994; Babette’s Feast, 1987). Indeed, any film that has redemption as a major theme (and this includes many, if not most, recent Hollywood movies) is liable to use some Jesus symbolism in connection with the redemptive hero figure (p. 189).
Therefore, the (covert) Christ-figure is ontologically distinct from the (overt) Jesus-figure because the:
“Jesus-figure” refers to any representation of Jesus himself. “Christ-figure” describes any figure in the arts who resembles Jesus. The personal name of Jesus (in line with contemporary spirituality, thought and practice) is used for the Jesus-figure. The title “Christ” - the “Messiah,” or the “Anointed One” - is used for those who are seen to reflect his mission. In cinema, writers and directors present both Jesus-figures and Christ-figures (Malone, 1997, pp. 59-60).
In short, the “idea of ‘the Christ-figure’ seeks to counter the straitjacketing of Jesus in physical correspondence to a stereotype” (Coates, 2003, p. 80). In fact, there are many structural characteristics of the cinematic Christ-figure that are worth investigating (Kozlovic, 2004) for in the twinkle of a cinematic eye, they can easily transfigure their mundane screen characters into mystical Christ-figures. That is, from the profane to the holy, thus providing a rich spiritual-theological-biblical vision for modern day audiences, albeit, frequently unappreciated.
Christ-figure films (aka Christ myth films; Christ-event films) can take on any genre, style or form for they need only embody the key elements of the Christian mythos and faithfully adhere to its internal hermeneutical logic. Although frequently undetected by an unsuspecting public, the cinema is full of them, and because it is a living genre, they grow in number, diversity and complexity each year (Baugh, 1997; Deacy, 2001; Kreitzer, 1993, 2002; Malone, 1988; Scully, 1997) and which this author has been diligently researching and documenting (Kozlovic, 2000, 2001a, 2001b, 2002a, 2002b, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c, 2004). For example, Edward McNulty (2003) considered that the female protagonist of Erin Brockovich was:
…following in the pathway of Christ and the Hebrew prophets who demanded justice for the poor and the powerless in the name of the God of righteousness. Erin [Julia Roberts], without consciously knowing it, is an instrument of God, a prophet in a miniskirt doing God’s will with such devoted passion that she is willing to allow her family and personal relationships to suffer for the greater good (p. 108).
Christic resonances can also be found in American Westerns, albeit, sometimes confused with hero-figures. This sort of confusion was evident in a review of Cecil B. DeMille’s western films triggered by his Canadian-American offering North West Mounted Police:
When captured by the Indians, [Gary] Cooper [playing Dusty Rivers, Texas ranger] gets to play an entire scene with his hands tied to a wooden bar across his shoulders. The lanky figure clearly alludes to the cruxificion. In fact the allusion, after Indian capture, exists in The Plainsman and later in Unconquered. In all three films, Cooper’s character is prepared to sacrifice himself for the good of others, but in all three films he escapes from the Indians through his own resources or the help of others. The hero of De Mille’s American West is not a religious sacrificial figure; he is a resourceful, moral man, who will fight to the end (Kaminsky, 1980, p. 110).
Yet, Jesus was also a resourceful, moral man who fought to the end to achieve God’s will for him to be a sacrifice for humanity. Although DeMille’s heroes may not be pure Christ-figures per se, they certainly have profound christic associations. It would be a serious mistake to overlook or dismiss this fact, especially considering how DeMille engineered many of his biblical characters as Christ-figures, most notably the OT Samson (Victor Mature) in Samson and Delilah (Kozlovic, 2003a), and his deliberate NT Christianising of the OT Exodus story in his second The Ten Commandments (Wright, 1996, 2003). Just as interesting as the Christ-figure phenomenon and Scripture-quoting is Hollywood’s frequent deployment of many other biblical characters, themes and props to reinforce the film’s religious messages and/or to buttress the Christ-figure.
The popular cinema is saturated with multiple examples of biblical characters, themes and props. As Adele Reinhartz (2003b) observed:
With the passing of the epic film genre, there have been relatively few feature films that explicitly set out to retell biblical narratives. But the Bible has by no means disappeared from the cinema. In fact, every year sees growth in the inventory of mainstream commercial films in which the Bible appears, in roles great and small (p. 1).
For example, in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, the Bible was held, opened and read from over fallen comrades as an expected religious aide-cum-Christian ritual duty. British officer Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) read out a contemporary variant of the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew 6:9-13 (but not Luke 11:2-4) after their victorious sea battle with the French. However, following the suicide death of midshipman Mr. Hollom (Lee Ingleby), the Captain refused to read from the Book of Jonah and handed back the Bible to a seaman and offered a personal prayer of forgiveness instead. Indeed, biblical films per se can be seen as religious artifacts of the cinematic kind, and therefore as biblical props within a film director’s ouevre. One need only consider Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959), the co-founder of Hollywood and the “King of the epic Biblical spectacular” (Finler, 1985, p. 32) to demonstrate this point. Especially regarding his The Ten Commandments (silent), The King of Kings, Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments (sound), all of which were box office hits and indelible classics of biblical cinema (Babington & Evans, 1993; Forshey, 1992).
Indeed, when Moses (Theodore Roberts & Charlton Heston respectively) displayed God’s holy tablets with the divinely inscribed Ten Commandments upon them, they became a proto-Bible in and of themselves. This is certainly a valid biblical artifact in the pre-book era. As was the appropriately inscribed “Holy Slab” that the stone age minister held as he married Fred Flintstone (Mark Addy) and Wilma Slaghoople (Kristen Johnston) in The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas. However, when such holy tablets were displayed for reading and/or were actually read from, these holy props were quickly transformed into biblical texts of the traditional recitation kind.
This brief survey of the Christian religion manifesting within the popular cinema is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There are innumerable examples of this phenomenon throughout the history of the cinema, and much more research work is required to reveal and explore them all. However, all that is needed is the desire to proceed and some academic humility regarding the true value of pop culture. After all, the interpretation of texts, whether ancient or modern, can never stand still. As David Jasper (2004, p. 129) advised his Scripture scholar peers: “you have to develop new interpretative skills of watching that are quite different from what goes on as you sit in your armchair with a good book. It is a different kind of text.” One can only agree with him and suggest that a second strand of consciousness-raising involve courses in film analysis and history before tacking cinematic theology as the logical culmination of religion and film studies. Overall, it was concluded that the Hollywood hermeneutic has immense value for religious, cultural and educational scholarship tailored for a 21st century media sensibility. Further research into the interdisciplinary field of religion-and-film is warranted, recommended, and certainly long over due, in addition to being a whole lot of fun. After all, who said that religion studies had to be endured rather than enjoyed?
1. Although there are real ontological differences between “film,” “cinema,” “motion picture,” “movie,” “video,” “TV movie,” “CD,” “DVD” “Internet movie” etc., they are all audio-visual images and will be treated herein as essentially interchangeable.
2. Generation X refers to Homo X-ian—Xers for short, that is, those people born between 1960 and 1985.
3. The Authorized King James Version of the Bible (KJV aka AV) will be used throughout, unless quoting other translations.
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Babette’s Feast (aka Babette’s Gastebud) (1987, dir. Gabriel Axel)
The Bible...In the Beginning (aka The Bible) (1966, dir. John Huston)
The Day After Tomorrow (2004, dir. Roland Emmerich)
Erin Brokovich (2000, dir. Steven Soderbergh)
The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas (2000, dir. Brian Levant)
Jesus of Montreal (1989, dir. Denys Arcand)
Joan of Paris (1942, dir. Robert Stevenson)
The King of Kings (1927, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003, dir. Peter Weir)
Nell (1994, dir. Michael Apted)
North West Mounted Police (1940, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
The Omega Code (1999, dir. Rob Marcarelli)
Pale Rider (1985, dir. Clint Eastwood)
The Passion of the Christ (2004, dir. Mel Gibson)
The Plainsman (1937, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
Platoon (1986, dir. Oliver Stone)
Pleasantville (1998, dir. Gary Ross)
Samson and Delilah (1949, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
Shane (1953, dir. George Stevens)
The Ten Commandments (1923, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
The Ten Commandments (1956, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, dir. James Cameron)
The Truman Show (1998, dir. Peter Weir)
Unconquered (1947, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
Unforgiven (1992, dir. Clint Eastwood)
X-Men 2 (2003, dir. Bryan Singer)