Reaching Out Through Film

Reed Daigle - Street Level

Christianity and the cinema have had a long relationship dating back to the very beginnings of cinema. The cinema can be a beautiful means of glorifying God and of carrying out the Lord's work in society. It is an art form, and not simply a means of communication, though it is that as well.

In this chapter, I give a brief history of the beginnings of cinema and show that Christians were involved with it from those very beginnings. I then go on to say discuss cinema's role in the church and society and how the cinema can take God's message of hope to society.

This chapter is actually an excerpt from a research paper that I had written for my course work in film studies at the University of New Orleans. I kept those parts that I thought would most fit for the focus of this book. I want to thank Trevor Macpherson for the opportunity to share this with you who read it. I thank Jesus our Savior for the love He shares and the opportunity He has given me to pursue this art.

From the very beginning, Christianity has had a formative relationship with the cinema. “And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:3-4).

“The next step was taken in 1887 in Newark, New Jersey, when an Episcopalian minister named Hannibal Goodwin first used celluloid roll film as a base for light-sensitive emulsions” (Cook 4).

This is the same celluloid roll film that George Eastman began to mass-produce and market in 1889. Some of the first films ever made featured Christianity, such as The Passion Play of Oberammergau (1898), patterned after medieval Passion plays and featuring thirteen minute-long tableaux from the trial and death of Jesus, and The Temptation of St. Anthony (1898) by Georges Melies, the director of the well-known film A Trip To The Moon (1902) (Miles 6).

With a bit of history out of the way, I now venture into some of the theory involved with the relationship between Christianity and the cinema, the role of art in the church, and cinema taking that role.

Art and imagery have always had a very important place in the lives of Christians.

Within historical Christianity, religious images gave a focus to and informed piety. Cinema can be seen as continuous with a long tradition in which images have been used to produce emotion, to strengthen attachment, and to encourage imitation

(Miles 3).

While attending a Catholic grade school, I can remember going through the “Stations of the Cross,” which were representations of the events during the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. These images provided me with a mental picture of what took place during these crucial events in the life of Jesus. I had an image to put alongside the words of the account. How much more vivid is a film presentation of these events?

Imagery is what helps us to visualize the invisible. Though images have been an integral part of historical Christianity, especially within Catholicism, some in Protestantism have often times equated the use of imagery in the church with idolatry. Some have viewed the commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol... You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:4-5) as meaning that the image itself was inherently an idol, whether used that way or not.

However, as Martin Luther, the first Protestant, has stated in regards to the use of images:

It is possible for me to hear and bear in mind the story of the Passion of our Lord. But it is impossible for me to hear and bear it in mind without forming mental images of it in my heart. For whether I will or not when I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging on a cross takes form in my heart just as the reflection of my face naturally appears in the water when I look into it. If it is not a sin, but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?

(qtd. in Johnston 75)

In recent times, there is not much debate over whether images are idols or not, but there are those among the Christian community who regard film and all “secular” entertainment as having no part in the life of a Christian.

In this case it seems that “the relationship between art and morality is unclear, so that one is invited either to divorce the two completely, or to suspect any attempt to relate them” (Schillaci 22).

However, as Robert Johnston points out, “Escaping society has little Biblical warrant,” and “It is also the case that all the positions except avoidance can be given strong theological support”. If Christianity is to be relevant in the society at large, it must speak in that society's language. Cinema is to a large degree, today's language. It transcends class, race, age, and nationality.

Does this mean that cinema is simply another means to “preach the Gospel”? The answer is, of course, yes and no. Schillaci says that, “Each age must experience a new incarnation of the gospel 'message,' one that communicates with the age on its own terms.”

And so it is true that cinema is a means to put forth Gospel truth, however, as Margaret Miles states in Seeing and Believing,

To assume that visual pleasure serves only to seduce viewers into mindlessly accepting the film's values distorts a spectator's experience and eliminates the primary motivation for analyzing a film.

A film's message does not stop when it is created, but it continues to live in the minds of the spectators who in turn, with different life experiences and preconceived ideas, mold the images into unique cinematic experiences.

In the translated words of Russian filmmaker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein,

The spectator is compelled to proceed along that selfsame creative road that the author traveled in creating the image. The spectator not only sees the represented elements of the finished work, but also experiences the dynamic process of the emergence and assembly of the image just as it was experienced by the author


Without going too far into film montage theory, a film is a montage, which is to say that it is a collection of images juxtaposed in such a way so that the ideas of different images combine in such a way as to create a new meaning. This meaning is also dependent on the spectators' ideas of these elements. The filmmaker, as well as the spectator, takes part in carrying out the creation of a movie. We err when we deny the power of cinema to connect with the audience in this manner, and we err when we base our morality solely on the movies as well, but we also err when we view movies as mere entertainment.

We are accustomed from religious instruction to derive a practical “moral” from every word or event. But we sometimes fail to realize that Christ himself took a somewhat different approach. He most often merely told a story, a parable, and let the people draw their own conclusions. We are very much like the Apostles: we can't enjoy the simple, moving story, but immediately demand, “What does it mean? What should we do?” In this, Schillaci says that we should not always try to squeeze a moral out of a story; sometimes a movie is best left to stand on its own. However, maybe in the instance of the parables that he taught, Christ wanted his disciples to ask those questions. Perhaps it was the stories that actually prompted them to seek the morals and lessons in order to apply in their lives.

Movies can do the same, by prompting people to ask questions when viewing them, instead of simply “killing time.” The cinema has proven to be a great vehicle, though it is much more than simply a vehicle, for portraying Bible stories in visual form.

From the various reenactments of the life of Jesus, including The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), The Gospel according to St. Matthew (1964), to the Turner productions of other Biblical personas including, Moses (1996), Abraham (1995), Jacob (1994), and Joseph (1995), these portrayals are brought to life on the screen, thus bringing the stories a little closer to people's minds and memories. Other films, such as Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) or Godspell (1973), set the life of Christ in a different context or time setting.

Though one can find moral lessons in movies, and one can use the cinema to spread a message or retell Biblical events, the dynamics of the cinema, as an art and as a mass medium, dictate that there are other, perhaps even more effective, ways of using the cinema to the benefit of church and of society.

The cinema has various roles to play in the Christian church, as well as society in general. These include that of modern man's “morality plays”, prophet, and “cultural exorcist.” Movies can and do play an important role in discussing current moral dilemmas. So, as a “morality play”, a movie can present a moral dilemma, offer a solution, and thereby raise consciousness of it and promote discussion in the society.

Margaret Miles shows two ways in which this role is played out.

Film is an accessible medium in which competing issues of public and private life in a pluralistic society are formulated and represented for consideration and interpretation

(Miles xv).

In this way, the issues are “put on the table” so to speak in order to raise awareness of them in the society. Moral dilemmas are therefore presented.

A director can imagine, and a film can visualize, the resolution of a situation so that cinema audiences can picture more concretely how the issue might be dealt with, what it would look like and feel like if a particular resolution were to be adopted

(Miles 18).

In this sense, the movie presents a solution to a moral dilemma. It may be because the author feels that this is the correct solution, or it may be to imagine what would happen if this particular instance was the solution. Trends in society are many times started in movies, but many times the movies give us a view of societal trends that are already in existence.

Sometimes we are unaware of social change until we see it in the popular media, especially in cinema. “Art in this role is a prophet. And one of the prophetic roles of art is to reflect social change before we are aware that it is taking place,” says Schillaci (12). Speaking of “cultural exorcism,” he argues that, “the artist has become the Cultural Exorcist, driving out of the society the subpersonal demons which warp and twist human life” (20).

The Cinema and Christianity have enjoyed and endured a long relationship with each other. There have been some misunderstandings and upsets along the way, and although recently it sometimes seems that there is a lack of communication between the two, I think that there is hope in their inextricable union.

The cinema has proven to be a great aid to the cause of Christianity in its ability to communicate Biblical stories and personas to a large and diverse audience, and in its ability to present current trends in society. Cinema has given society a means to discuss moral, ethical, and spiritual dilemmas, problems, and questions on a grand scale.

In movies, Christians gain an understanding of how they appear to others in society, and they also give an accurate presentation of themselves to the world. The cinema has sparked controversy and protests among Christians over films like The Last Temptation of Christ, and it has spread the Gospel message in countries all over the world with films such as The Greatest Story Ever Told.

The past couple of decades have seen a lack of Christian representation in the cinema and a lack of spiritual themes, but with films such as The Apostle, Dead Man Walking, Left Behind, Keeping The Faith, and The Big Kahuna, we are seeing a reawakening in the interest of spiritual matters, specifically those of Christianity.

I project that with the increase of digital film making, and therefore the decrease of the cost of film making, more and more individuals and independent producers will be able to make their voices heard. This goes for any group, not just Christians. There will be more offerings of fair and accurate representations of Christ, Christians, and Christianity, because those who truly know it and believe it will have the ability to produce those representations. This will happen without the aid of some Production Code, which enforces certain values on those who don't hold those same values.

Christians cannot expect non-Christians to produce accurate portrayals of Christians, nor can they expect to find movies that promote Christian ideas to come from Hollywood. Christians will have to produce the films that promote their beliefs, ideas, and concerns.

I think that there is a renaissance in the cinema beginning among Christians. There are some things that must take place within this movement. Some filmic conventions must be developed, or at least made better, to show religious commitment and devotion.

There already exists voice over to signify prayer, and close ups on faces during times of enlightenment or contemplation, but some of these have become so cliche that there must be others to take their places. One can show physical and social action to represent religious commitment, as in The Mission (1986), or Dead Man Walking (1995).

It is difficult to capture a conversion cinematically, however in The Apostle there are a couple of good examples. Another thing that should take place, is the laying aside of bullhorns.

Though Christians do have a duty to preach the Good News, they also have a duty to make good works of art. If God could create a world of beauty like the one we live in without scripture verses printed under each tree, then in that image, Christians can also make honest, realistic, and artful films of integrity, which can speak much louder and truer of God than any filmed sermon.

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