‘People are no longer relying on traditional religious institutions such as the Church to provide answers to many of the fundamental

questions pertaining to human existence, and contemporary secular agencies such as film are taking this function.’ Critically assess this claim.

Introduction While Western society may be largely built on the foundations of the Christian faith, there can be little doubt that it is becoming increasingly secular. We live in a postEnlightenment era where religion is no longer being understood as providing the only answers to life’s most important questions. It is the purpose of this study to show that the answers to these questions are being sought not only outside the sphere of religion, but increasingly within the cultural arena – specifically in the visual medium of film. The nature of this study will therefore be two-fold. Firstly, there will be an engagement with scholarly debate surrounding the role of film as a cultural medium that may or may not be supplanting religion. Secondly, the fundament questions, or issues, pertaining to human existence will be briefly outlined and discussed in relation to a selection of four popular films from different genres - as such films represent our best indication of the willingness of the masses to engage with the aforementioned questions. Film as the New Religion – An Eschatological Perspective In Luke 18:8, the evangelist recounts the words of Christ concerning his return: “…when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” The question is rhetorical and the implication clear – when the world comes to an end, belief in God will have all but vanished. Perhaps the best indication of the contemporary Western societies diminishing faith in a creator God is the decline in church attendance and the rise of secularism. However, answers to questions that have occupied the minds of theologians and

philosopher through the ages are still being sought by those who no longer subscribe to theistic belief. Furthermore, even those who do subscribe to such a belief are starting to look outside of the Church for answers to these questions, as Robert K. Johnston observes: Conversations about God – what we have traditionally called theology – is increasingly found outside the church as well as within it. One of the chief venues for such conversation is the movie theatre with its adjacent café’s. With attendance at church stagnating and with movie viewing at theatres and through video stores at an all-time high, Christian’s find themselves wanting to get back into the conversation but often are not able to do so effectively.1 Johnston’s observations seems to highlight an increasing trend among modern day Christian’s to attempt to engage with a popular culture that is becoming increasingly interested in spiritual ideas. Of course this is not without historical and biblical precedent, as witnessed in the Apostle Paul’s encounter with the statues of gods in Athens (Acts 17). Paul too wanted to know what the art of Hellenistic society said about the spiritual beliefs of that culture, and he was able to relate his knowledge to his evangelism. So today’s Christian’s have a hermeneutically valid reason for wanting to engage with the cultural medium of film. However, the extent to which contemporary popular film reveals anything about the spiritual beliefs of modern society is problematic, as Joel W. Martin makes clear: In some key ways, film exceeds religion. The Police Academy movies, for instance, do not appear very promising case studies for our purposes. An interpreter might find a quasiChristian morality encoded in these movies (the first shall be last and the last shall be first), but the yield hardly seems worth the effort, and a person advancing such an interpretation will appear humourless and driven.2


Johnston, Robert K. Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Grand Rapids) p.1


Martin, Joel W. ‘Screening the Sacred on the Screen’ in Joel W. Martin and Conrad E. Oswalt, Jr. (Eds.) Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth and Ideology in Popular American Film (Boulder) p.4


So clearly not all films are worthy of entering into a theological dialogue with. Indeed, Martin here highlights the distinction between film as entertainment as film as art. However, this distinction is not always easy to make. For example, the film adaptations of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings may well come from great works of literature, but their transition to the big screen has, at least in the case of the former, severely diminished their artistic credibility and essentially rendered them entertainment. However, those films that can be considered works of art, perhaps best defined as auteur cinema, remain worthy of engagement with Christian audiences. Furthermore, John David Graham argues that the Christian viewers interaction with such films may help inspire theological thought: Like other media, film can stimulate or communicate theological reflection in the reader of the film. That can be evoked by the often powerful effect which the film has as we watch it and later reflect on that experience. By the very nature of the experience of watching it, film tends to be all-absorbing, especially when in the cinema. Even film on television can exercise a similar demand for total commitment from us, even if interruptions are more likely.3 It is this all-absorbing nature of film, especially within the setting of the cinema, which makes the interaction between film and audience comparable to that between preacher and congregation. Both preacher and film are communicating a message to an audience of onlookers whose attention is fixed for that period of time. Indeed, the coffee shop dialogue spoken of by Johnston may also be seen in the coffee and chat that often follows a Sunday service. In this sense then, cinema may be viewed as fulfilling a similar role to the Church in


Graham, David John. ‘The Uses of Film in Theology’ in Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz (Eds.) Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning (Oxford) p.36


society. However, this does not necessarily make Christian viewer interaction any less valid, although an awareness of the comparison may help the Christian gain a better sense of perspective and proportionality. While the believing Christian may be permitted to interact with film, or films, they should not allow cultural institutions such as the cinema to gain the same level of significance as the Church in their lives. Furthermore, the writer of Hebrews makes the eschatological importance of regular fellowship abundantly clear: “…not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” (Heb. 10:25). The cinema may provide a limited basis for such fellowship, but the local church remains the natural platform for the meeting together of believers. The cinema nevertheless stands as cultural arena where people may go for something more than entertainment. While its overall significance for the Christian must remain secondary in relation to the Church, Sylvain De Bleeckere argues that its importance to those outside of the Church may be more substantial: Film can be seen as a privileged and decentred field for postmodern mankind, in which it can freely express its religious feelings and thoughts. Film creates an important extraecclesiastical and non-clerical, as well as non-modernist, space of religious evocation for the person who learns to live without all-too-human illusions.4 Indeed, it may be the ‘non-clerical’ nature of cinema, free from the traditional regulations of organised religion, which makes it a more acceptable institution for an increasingly secular society. However, De Bleeckere uncovers and interesting paradox insofar as the relativist nature of postmodern society makes contact with religious ideas unavoidable. Indeed, a


De Bleeckere, Sylvain ‘The Religious Dimensions of Cinematic Consciousness in Postmodern Culture’ in John R. May (Ed.) New Image of Religious Film (Franklin) p.99


society which views religious belief as an integral part of a wider narrative gives religion a more fertile ground for expression than it had under Modernism – even if the convicting power of religion has been somewhat diminished. So religious thought remains an integral part of postmodern culture and while the consequences of such thought still remain unclear, the parallels with religion that can be seen in movie culture may reflect mankind’s inherent need for religious expression, as Christopher Deacy suggests: The very fact, then, that we are inclined to accord to film actors and actresses the status of ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ is testimony that films have the potential to fulfil certain religious needs and requirements, event to the degree that, to quote Bryant, ‘movies participate in this culture’s primordial longing for intercourse with the gods’ (Bryant, 1982. p. 106).5 Deacy may be speaking more specifically about the excesses of celebrity culture in relation to film, but his insights are cogent nonetheless. The fact that film actors have been elevated to such iconic status highlights the power of cinema in society. While those who venerate such figures may not watch their films with the intention of looking for meaning, they have nevertheless found it in the performances, not to mention beauty, of the actors and actresses they admire. While this may be a more shallow approach to engaging with film, its impact on society is undeniable. Religious considerations aside, film remains a medium to which people keep returning in order to seek meaning for their lives. This quest for meaning might also find its expression within the content of a film, as Ernest Ferlita suggests: Film is a form of dramatic art ideally suited to the portrayal of the passion for meaning. Because of its unique power to imitate action in time and space, it can show man in search of meaning through every technique at its command…Not surprisingly, the quest for meaning will often take the form of a journey; we should not be surprised, then, if the motion picture is of all the dramatic arts best able to depict man on the move. Nor should

Deacy, Christopher. Faith in Film: Religious Themes in Contemporary Cinema (Aldershot) p.81


we be surprised if film appears to be the most suitable art for supporting our continued or renewed quest for meaning.6 So the quest for meaning continues with viewer and auteur alike. Furthermore, Ferlita’s contention that cinema may provide the best basis for this quest may be significant – insofar as the cinema, and film in general, provide perhaps the most accessible form of media in contemporary society. However, the ‘meaning’ that these various scholars refer to, in their examination of film in relation to religion, remains somewhat abstract. In order to ascertain the exact nature of the questions being asked, a more specific analysis is required.

Concerning Human Existence – The Eternal Questions in Popular Film While the questions pertaining to human existence have occupied the minds of our earliest philosophers, it was with the rise of Existentialism that we saw the process of personal inquiry begin to flourish in Western Society. While Existentialism may be seen as having Christian roots, as evidenced in the faith of proto-Existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, it can equally be seen as a school of thought independent from religion, as evidenced in the views of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Satre. Without going into an in-depth analysis of Existentialism, Colin Brown correctly identifies eight key themes of Existentialist though: …personal existence as contrasted with impersonal existence, the absurdity of life and the quest for meaning and validity, human freedom (or the lack of it), choices and the will, individual isolation, anxiety, dread and death.7


Ferlita, Ernest. ‘Film and the Quest for Meaning’ in John R. May and Michael Bird (Eds.) Religion in Film (Knoxville) pp.116-117

Brown, Colin. ‘Existentialism’ in Walter A. Elwell (Ed.) Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids) p.424


Indeed, these are eight common concerns that form the basis for Existentialist philosophy. Since, then, these are issues that are common to humanity and are being asked more frequently in a post-Enlightenment age, it should not be surprising that contemporary film makers are both asking and attempting to answer these questions in their films. It is therefore useful to examine the content of some relevant popular films in order to analyse how these questions are being addressed in this context. Some popular films (i.e. films that did good business) from various genres have been chosen. These films were chosen over independent or art-house cinema, as their popularity is the best indication of the willingness of the masses to engage with the questions that they address. High Noon dir. Fred Zinnemann, (1952) Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 western cost $750,000 dollars to make and grossed $18,000,000 worldwide.8 It won four Academy Awards in 1953, and is considered a classic of the genre. It tells the story of Sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper), who is set to retire on his wedding day which also happens to be the day an old enemy is released from prison. The odds are stacked against the sheriff as his old adversary has three men as hired-help all lying in wait for him, whereas Kane is unable to find anyone willing to help him. Larry J. Kreitzer focuses on the specifically Christian aspects of the film as he sees a Christ analogy played out in the figure of Kane, as he is deserted by his friends and left to wait for the hour of judgement. In more general terms, however, Kreitzer highlights the confrontation between good and evil as it plays itself out in relation to light and darkness in this film.9 It is in this sense, then, that High Noon can be related to existential questions outside of Christianity concerning

8 9

IMDB ‘High Noon (1952)’ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0044706/ Kreitzer, Larry J. Gospel Images in Fiction and Film: On Reversing the Hermeneutical Flow (Sheffield) pp.105142


individual isolation, freedom of choice, anxiety, dread and death. Indeed, the western may be the one genre where the polarity between good and evil, as well as the black and white nature of moral values, may find its most clear cinematic expression. Psycho dir. Alfred Hitchcock, (1960) Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller come horror of 1960 cost $806,947 to make and grossed $50,000,000 worldwide.10 The story involves damsel in distress Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh) ill-feted stay at the Bate’s Motel and slowly focuses on the title character’s twisted relationship with his mother. While Psycho’s popularity has never been in doubt, it was not well received by critics at the time of its release, although it has since come to be regarded as a classic of the genre and highly influential work. With this film Hitchcock subverted many of the conventions familiar to the horror and thriller genres of the day and surprised the cinema-going world with an entirely darker and more disturbing work than they had ever seen before. Larry E. Grimes contends that Hitchcock was an “idealist in search of universal truths about the emotional, if not the cognitive, life of human beings.”11Furthermore, Grimes maintains that the ‘universal truths’ of sin and death are the chief features of the film: “…the body of the film speaks of corruption and death. Its biblical message is clear: the wages of sin is death.”12 While Grimes’s identification of these themes is closely tied to a specifically Christian worldview, the universal nature of Hitchcock’s work has already been established. Even if the concept of sin or evil is problematic in a relativist society, the issue of death is one that must be faced by all members of society, irrespective of their

10 11

IMDB ‘Psycho (1960’ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054215/ Grimes, Larry E. ‘Shall These Bones Live? The Problem of Bodies in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Joel Coen’s Blood Simple’ in Joel Martin and Conrad Oswalt Jr. (Eds.) Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth and Ideology in Popular American Film (Boulder) p.20 12 Ibid.


metanarrative. It is in this respect that the horror genre may provide the best cinematic platform for people to engage with ideas of evil, as well as human mortality. The Piano dir. Jane Campion, (1993) Jane Campion’s 1993 drama is good example of a small independent film crossing over to a mainstream audience. As well as winning three Academy Awards, it was also the recipient of the Palm d’Or, the highest accolade at Cannes Film Festival. The film cost $7,000,000 to make and grossed $40,158,000 worldwide. It tells the story the mute Ada (Holly Hunter) and her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin), who have made the long journey by sea from Scotland to New Zealand for Ada to participate in an arranged marriage with a settler named Stewart (Sam Neill). After Stewart refuses to allow Ada to bring her grand piano to their house, insisting that she leave it on the beach, she grows gradually disenchanted with him and begins a slow-burning affair with a settler called Baines (Harvey Keitel,) after he salvages the piano. David Rhoads and Sandra Roberts call The Piano, “…a dark film about power – the power of the will against the power of domination.”13The domination to which Rhoads and Roberts refer can be seen in three different ways: in the domineering attitude of Stewart towards his wife, in the subtle interplay between Ada and Baines in their sexual encounters, and in the sexual repression caused by the imposed religion of the settlers. Therefore, The Piano might be reasonably viewed as being anti-religion, although it may be more reasonable to see it as asking questions about religion. If so, then the film demands an engagement from the viewer as they attempt to draw their own conclusions about religion as it is presented in the film. Beyond this, The Piano addresses the existential questions


Rhoads, David and Sandra Roberts. ‘From Domination to Mutuality in The Piano and the Gospel of Mark’ in Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz (Eds.) Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth and Ideology in Popular American Film (Boulder) p.47


pertaining to isolation, human freedom and choices of the will. Finally, The Piano shows that the genre of drama may prove the most effective in causing the viewer to engage with the deepest of human emotions. The Truman Show dir. Peter Weir, (1998) [Reel/Wright p.184] Peter Weir’s critically acclaimed 1998 comedy cost an estimated $60,000,000 to make, and grossed $125,603,360. The story centres on title character Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) and the false reality that has been built up around him in the form of a hit reality TV show where actors play given roles in his life in an effort to maintain the illusion. As such, it can be seen as a prescient view of where Western television was headed in the nineties – the reality TV boom did not occur until the new century. Remarking on the director’s creative vision and worldview, Johnston writes: “In The Truman Show, we perhaps see Weir’s “counterculture” mind-set as he explores the spiritual consequences of virtual reality in our computer age.”14 One of the consequences Johnston refers to is that social disorders such as voyeurism start to become social norms when they are normalised as part of media culture. In this respect, then, the film asks serious questions of the viewer concerning their accepted patterns of behaviour in a society that is becoming, if not morally, then increasingly ethically abnormal. The impact of this as far as existential considerations are concerned is that an engagement with this film will cause the viewer to reassess their existence in relation to the society in which they live. The film also deals with the illusions that society presents us with and challenges the viewer to look beyond the material world into the possibility of a greater reality. The existential issues of isolation, human freedom, choices of the will and fear of the unknown are also borne out in the film. Furthermore, The Truman Show demonstrates that


Johnston, Robert K. Reel Spirituality (Grand Rapids) p.325


comedy may be the best cinematic genre for presenting a subversive view of society, as its inherent humour renders it deliberately disarming. Conclusion In the final analysis it has been shown that cinema can be seen to be playing the role of religion in different ways within contemporary society. While this does not preclude Christian’s from engaging with film in an attempt to start an evangelistic dialogue with society, the higher value of cinema for society is best evidenced in its significance for those outside of religion. In this respect cinema can be seen to have replaced religious institutions such as the Church. The eschatological implications of this are also made evident in this respect – although a direct correlation between declining church attendance and increasing box office sales cannot be established. The attempt of auteur directors to address both Christian themes as well as existential themes found outside the sphere of religion has also been established. As mentioned, popularity of such films provides us with the best indication that the general public are seeking answers to these questions. The titular claim of this study therefore proves valid when understood in accordance with these distinctions.