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On Being Alive to the Arts and Religion: Film

by F. Thomas Trotter

A graduate of Occidental College (AB) and Boston University (STB, Ph.D), Trotter was Dean and Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology. Later he was General Secretary of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church and President of Alaska Pacific University. His special interests are in religion and the arts and religion in higher education. This essay appeared in Loving God With One’s Mind, by F. Thomas Trotter, copyright 1987 by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. Used by permission. This document was prepared for Religion Online by William E. Chapman.


The only unique art form to emerge in the twentieth century is the motion picture. While painting, sculpture, drama, poetry, and the her arts have been familiar throughout the centuries of western civilization, only the motion picture is unique to the technologies of recent past. It is the most complete art form, if one is to judge the variety and complexity of its elements. It is supremely a modern art form, since it is dependent upon the development of technologies of film production and transmission. Television, the most recent technology, is dependent for the most part on film and still has not liberated itself from film. Technology is the framework in which the filmmaker produces art, precisely in the way in which a painter uses canvas and paints and a writer uses pen and paper.

The most powerful element of the motion picture film is its sense of immediacy. The filmmaker creates a mood that critics have called "virtual presence," that is, a sense of the reality of an event that is created in the perception of the viewer. Because of motion, lapse of time, mobility of the angle of vision, and the intimacy of the close-up, the viewer has a sense of presence that is much more tense than in any other art form. There were stories told during World War II of primitive people seeing films for the first time and sowing stones and spears at the screen. While it is often a public relations gimmick, having a nurse in attendance during a horror film is not all that strange. The images of the film have the power to overwhelm normal reactions.

It is precisely this sense of immediacy that gives the film as an art form a unique place among the arts as a religious gesture. More than other arts, the film is able to present an existential experience, that is, to make it possible to enter the personal, religious experience of the actors and the events on the screen. When the Hanafi Muslims objected to the exhibition of the film on the life of the prophet Mohammed in March, 1977, they were reacting in ways that had deep resonance in Muslim experience. Images are so powerful that they may also be used to blaspheme or to ridicule the religious sensitivity of people. Therefore, in Islam, representations of Mohammed are considered objectionable. For Jews and Christians, similar problems present themselves.

The question is this: Is it possible to make a film with religious subject matter and not be idolatrous or careless? W. H. Auden, the late poet, once suggested that to portray Jesus on film was to risk making him appear to be either a charlatan or a clown. The imagination has no difficulty dealing with the incredible images of the biblical stories, the physical miracles, the healing miracles, the Resurrection, and other powerful episodes. The immediacy of the film, however, tends to make these events appear contrived and even mechanical.

F. D. Dillistone, former Bishop of Liverpool, once suggested that artists dealing with biblical subject matter have two ways to go. First, they may create a story about Jesus "in the light of experience." This is essentially what a biblical movie does. A film like The Greatest Story Ever Told is a film about Jesus in the light of experience. But, suggests Bishop Dillistone, an artist may also produce a film based on human experience in the light of Jesus. In the former, the viewer is an objective observer. In the latter, the viewer is a participant. In the former, the film is about Jesus. In the latter, the film is about the viewer.

Like all art forms, a film may be merely decorative and entertaining. That is a proper and useful role for film to play. But when religious issues are dealt with as decoration or entertainment, then a moral-critical question is involved. It is a matter of serious consequence for theologians when a film based on religious subject matter is made, because more people will be likely to view that film than have read the New Testament in all history. Thus, the theologically untrained and maybe hostile filmmaker is put in a position of having an enormous impact on the religious education of millions. On the other hand, a sensitive filmmaker, understanding the authority of the person of Jesus, may make a profoundly reverent film about Jesus. Pier Paolo Pasolini_s The Gospel of St. Matthew has stood the test of time as a good representation of the Matthew story of Jesus, although Pasolini himself was an atheist.

But possibly the more profound religious films are those that deal with basic human dilemmas and questions of meaning and purpose, but do not specifically announce themselves as religious films. Films that deal with human experience in the light of Jesus invite the viewer into a world that is immediate and available, not exotic and closed. So questions that impinge upon our contemporary personal experience of selfhood, community, racism, sexuality, good and evil, and meaning may form the structure for films of great religious power.

In the history of film, some of this latter group might include films like The Pawnbroker (1964), which deals with the restoration of feeling in a death camp survivor who had decided that he could survive only by suppressing all feeling. The film deals with this struggle and the suffering that it requires. The film Nothing But a Man (1964), invites us to come into the private world of a young black worker who tries to make a home for his family in a world that is hostile to his hope. The films of Ingmar Bergman, notably Scenes From a Marriage, invite us to live through complex human relationships and to sense our own humanness in that process.

At one time, it was assumed that a religious movie was a film with biblical subject matter. Early in the days of motion pictures, church people were extremely wary of the motion picture. The industry broke down that hostility by producing enormously popular biblical epics. One wag suggested that sex was introduced into films in the biblical setting. The context made the difference. I still vividly remember seeing Claudette Colbert_s milk bath in that famous scene in the first King of Kings. The film was shown in the church gymnasium on Sunday night. "Bible and bubble bath" was the formula. But stories about Jesus and other biblical events have only one dimension of power. They are ultimately illustration and not convicting.

There are three modes of speech in the New Testament. The first is preaching (kerygma). This is the straightforward proclamation of the gospel. The second kind of speech in the New Testament is teaching (didache). This is the narrative detail of the gospel story—the who, what, where, and when. But the third type of New Testament speech is revelation (apocalypse). This is the speech of the parables and the imaginary descriptions of the future. It is "revealing" speech. It is speech that does not point (like preaching) or describe (like teaching), but embraces. The film is the art form that is most likely to embrace and overwhelm the viewer. It deals with our experience in the light of Jesus. It invites us to understand ourselves. A famous novelist once suggested that after reading a certain book he felt not that he understood more, but that he was understood. The film has the power to assure us that we are understood, that we are actors and not merely passive observers.

We need to be careful in all experience of art that we do not expect to be instantly adequate critics. Criticism is the art of separating the more or less good from the more or less bad in art. To be critical is to have a sense of taste and discrimination, to be able to judge authentic and inauthentic art, and to share your judgments with others in helpful ways. All experience is subject to this kind of criticism. It is incumbent upon Christian folk to become articulate critics. The seeing of many films is one way to develop these skills. But another way is to let us be guided in our intentional film-going by knowledgeable and thoughtful critics. The National Council of Churches Communications Commission publishes a monthly film review and criticism newsletter called "Film Information." This is an excellent way to keep informed and to be guided on discretion and usefulness in your film viewing.

Film is available in every town these days. Film societies and school courses are near you. Your own church could easily experiment with films as a way of opening the human issues in religion to full understanding and care in the community. It is even possible to make films inexpensively. Being alive in the late twentieth century will mean being alive to film.


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