Faith and film: ‘Holywood’ goes to the Oscars

The Academy Awards ceremony on March 7, 2010, featured a bumper crop of films, many built around spiritual, and sometimes overtly religious, themes. Were 2009’s movies really more spiritually focused than films of previous years? Has Hollywood found religion? Or are producers just recognizing that religion sells?

Whatever the reason, there is a widespread view in religious communities that commercial, Oscar-nominated films such as Avatar, Up, The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air and The Blind Side have important spiritual themes and religious lessons that are integral to their plot and to their success, and that those themes resonate with audiences — even if viewers don’t always realize it, and even if religious critics don’t always like the movies.

Background

Film has become an essential arena for theological discussion in today’s culture. Faith and its trials and triumphs make good stories, and Hollywood has always recognized a good story and told it creatively, from The Ten Commandments to The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Economic factors also contribute to the prominence of religious subjects in movies now. Thanks to the success of The Passion of the Christ, the spending power of the evangelical Christian market has registered at the box office.

Some Christians are also taking a more direct hand in film making. In 2006, Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., produced a feature film, Facing the Giants, that grossed some $10 million domestically. The church’s production company followed that up in 2008 with Fireproof, which became the top-grossing independent film of that year, earning $33.5 million on a $500,000 budget.

Like their secular counterparts, religious critics don’t always agree on what is a “spiritual” film, or which spiritually themed movies are good.

Resources

  • “The 10 Most Redeeming Films of 2009”

    Christianity Today‘s film critics compiled a list of the 10 most “redeeming” movies of 2009 — as well as a list of the best films. The Blind Side was No. 2 on the “most redeeming” list but did not make the Top Ten overall best films.

  • “FIRST-PERSON: The best and worst movies of 2009”

    Phil Boatwright, movie critic for the Baptist Press and author of Movies: The Good, The Bad and the Really, Really Bad, wrote a year-end wrap of the “best and worst” movies of 2009. Boatwright pointed to some good movies but felt Hollywood generally “continued its attack on people of faith.”

  • “The Most Spiritually Literate Films of 2009”

    The website SpiritualityandPractice.com has several lists broken down by documentaries, animated films, feature films and so on.  Avatar was a top pick of the site’s founders, United Church of Christ members Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, even though other Christian critics felt the movie glorified pantheism.

  • “Israeli film, Jewish-themed films up for Oscars”

    The Jewish news service JTA filed a report noting that there were three Jewish-themed films and an Israeli film up for the 2010 Academy Awards. The best known of those films are A Serious Man, a Coen brothers movie that examines their Jewish roots in a retelling of the Book of Job, and Inglourious Basterds, in which a squad of Jewish GIs targets Nazis behind enemy lines in World War II.

  • Movieguide

    Movieguide is a leading Christian movie reviewing website. Founded by Ted Baehr, an evangelical Christian, Movieguide lobbies Hollywood to make more religious and “family-friendly” films, and each year before the Oscars the organization presents awards to what it considers the best films of the year.

    On Feb. 24, 2010, at the 18th annual Faith & Values Gala, The Blind Side won the $100,000 Epiphany Prize for Most Inspiring Movie of 2009.

Additional articles

  • “Making Movies Moral”

    Read a July 31, 2012 review in Christianity Today of William D. Romanowski’s book, “Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies.”

  • “Nominees & Winners for the 82nd Academy Awards”

    See the 2010 Academy Award nominees and winners in each category.

  • “Oscar Race 2010”

    Read reviews of the 2010 nominated films by writers at America magazine, the national Jesuit weekly.

  • “Beliefnet Film Awards 2010”

    Beliefnet.com unveiled its annual “Beliefnet Film Awards” on March 1, 2010. The Road won Best Spiritual Film, and Precious and Up tied for Best Inspirational Film.

  • Christian Filmmakers

    Christianfilmmakers.org is a forum for Christians working in the film industry.

  • The Journal of Religion & Film

    The Journal of Religion & Film is a peer reviewed journal which is committed to the study of connections between the medium of film and the phenomena of religion, however those are defined. It encourages multiple approaches to the study of religion and film, including (but not limited to) the analysis of how religious traditions are portrayed in films; exploration of the religious concepts that may be found or utilized in the interpretation of films; study of how the religious ideals and background of the filmmakers may have influenced them; and analysis of how films themselves may operate “religiously” for viewers.

  • Movie Reviews by Muslims

    Movie Reviews by Muslims is a blog where the semi-anonymous contributors review films from an Islamic perspective.

  • National Center for Jewish Film

    The National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., is a nonprofit that stores, preserves, studies and promotes films with Jewish themes.

  • Crosswalk

    A for-profit Salem Web Network site for evangelical Christians that focuses on “faith, family, fun and community”

    It also posts movie reviews.

  • Image

    Image is a journal that studies the intersection of arts and faith.

    Its online adjunct, “Arts & Faith,” compiled a list of the Top 100 films of all time ahead of the 2010 Oscars.

National sources

Critics

Filmmakers & industry professionals

Scholars

  • George Aichele

    George Aichele, professor of philosophy and religion at Adrian College in Adrian, Mich., has written about connections between scripture and film, and about culture, entertainment and the Bible. He’s not so much interested in “Bible movies” that focus on overtly religious or theological themes. He’s interested in the points where biblical text, images, languages and themes appear in popular movies that are otherwise quite “secular,” such as Pleasantville and Minority Report.

  • Diane Apostolos-Cappadona

    Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, professor of religious art and cultural history at Georgetown University, wrote about “re-viewing” Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and images of women in contemporary religious film.

  • Richard A. Blake

    The Rev. Richard A. Blake, a professor of film studies at Boston College, is a film historian and author of Afterimage: The Indelible Catholic Imagination of Six American Filmmakers. He reviews films for America magazine.

  • Michele Desmarais

    Michele Desmarais is the associate editor of the Journal of Religion and Film and an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. She specializes in Buddhism and other Eastern religions.

  • Robert K. Johnston

    Robert K. Johnston is a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and an expert on film and faith who has written Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Baker Book House, 2000). He was director of Fuller’s Brehm Center’s Reel Spirituality Institute for Moving Images.

  • Eric Michael Mazur

    Eric Michael Mazur is a religion professor at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Va., where he teaches courses on religion and popular culture and Judaism and film. He is the editor of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Film. He says that if Americans are looking for spiritual expressions as opposed to institutional forms of religion, it’s logical they will seek spiritual themes in film.

  • S. Brent Plate

    S. Brent Plate is a visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. He has written about religion, art and visual culture. Religions, he notes, discuss the creation of the world, and films work on re-creating the world. He’s interested in how film has “come down” off the screen and infiltrated rituals. His books include A History of Religion in 5-1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses; Religion and Film; The Religion and Film Reader; Blasphemy: Art That Offends; Re-Viewing the Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics; and Representing Religion in World Cinema.

  • Adele Reinhartz

    Adele Reinhartz is a Department of Classics and Religious Studies professor at the University of Ottawa and author of Jesus of Hollywood (Oxford University Press, 2007). She specializes in the Bible and film.

  • Sharon Pucker Rivo

    Sharon Pucker Rivo is executive director of the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and an associate professor of Near Eastern and Judaic studies who teaches a course on Jewish film.

  • Paul Allen Williams

    Paul Allen Williams is an assistant professor in the department of philosophy and religion at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, and was editor of the Journal of Religion and Film from 2004 to 2008. He also teaches courses on African religions, the history of Christianity, world religions, Islam and New Testament.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Omer Bartov

    Omer Bartov, Brown University professor of European history, is the author of The “Jew” in Cinema: From the Golem to Don’t Touch My Holocaust (Indiana University Press, 2005). The book looks at how stereotypical portrayals of the “Jew” have informed European, American and Israeli cinema since the 1920s. In fall 2005, 200 students took his class, Modern Genocide and Other Crimes Against Humanity.

  • Cliff Guthrie

    Cliff Guthrie is an associate professor of religion and humanities at Husson University in Bangor, Maine. For many years, he co-taught a course titled “Reel Theology: Faith and the Movies” at Bangor Theological Seminary.

  • Bryan Stone

    Bryan Stone has served as the E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at Boston University’s School of Theology since 1998. His research, publishing, and teaching interests are in the areas of evangelism, congregational development, urban ministry, ecclesiology, theology and popular culture (including especially film studies), Christian pacifism, and Wesleyan, liberation, narrativist, and post-liberal theologies.

  • Heather Hendershot

    Heather Hendershot is professor of film and media at MIT. She wrote Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2004).

  • Rachel Wagner

    Rachel Wagner is an associate professor of religion and philosophy at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y. She has taught courses on religion and video games and is interested in the ways video and computer games depict rituals and sacred space, such as churches and cemeteries.

In the South

  • Robert D. Benne

    Robert D. Benne is professor emeritus and research associate in the Department of Religion/Philosophy at Roanoke College in Salem, Va. He has written about visions of life through film.

  • Conrad Ostwalt

    Conrad Ostwalt is Department Chair  of Philosophy and Religion at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. He co-edited a book with Joel Martin, Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth and Ideology in Popular American Film (Westview Press, 1995). He has written extensively about religion in the movies, with an emphasis on depictions of the Apocalypse, and is the author of Secular Steeples: Popular Culture and the Religious Imagination (Trinity Press International, 2003).

  • Richard Walsh

    Richard Walsh, professor of religion at Methodist University in Fayetteville, N.C., writes about portrayals of Jesus in film. He says there have always been implicitly Christian movies because the Christian narrative and vision of life is so deeply ingrained. Walsh is author of Reading the Gospels in the Dark: Portrayals of Jesus in Film (Trinity Press International, 2003), which compares Jesus films to the canonical Gospels, and Finding St. Paul in Film (2006).

  • John R. May

    John R. May, professor of English and religious studies at Louisiana State University, has written about Hollywood and religion, contemporary theories on the interpretation of religious film and religious visions in American classics. He is editor of the books New Image of Religious Film and Image & Likeness: Religious Visions in American Film Classics.

     

  • Ted Trost

    Ted Trost, University of Alabama American religions professor, has taught a course about religious themes and rituals in popular film.

In the Midwest

  • Roy Anker

    Roy Anker, a longtime professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of Beautiful Light: Religious Meaning in Film. He has also written about religion and the films of M. Night Shyamalan and the use of artificial intelligence in the films of Steven Spielberg.

  • John Lyden

    John Lyden became editor of the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Journal of Religion and Film in 2011. He was professor of religion at Dana College from 1991-2010 and is now director of the Liberal Arts Core at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. Lyden is the author of Film as Religion: Myths, Morals and Rituals and editor of The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film. He says that any popular film that affects people’s understanding of war, life and death is arguably religious. Movies, he says, can function religiously, providing a ritualized form of “meaning-making activity” through stories that express values and beliefs about the world.

  • Ed McNulty

    The Rev. Ed McNulty is a retired Presbyterian minister and publisher of Visual Parables, a journal that examines faith in films, and the author of Jesus Christ: Movie Star. He can talk about the Star Wars canon from a theological perspective.

  • Anthony Burke Smith

    Anthony Burke Smith, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, is author of The Look of Catholics: Portrayals in Popular Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War. He has written about the cultural and political role of Catholics in movies, television and photojournalism in debates about American identity.

In the West

  • M. Gail Hamner

    M. Gail Hamner, Syracuse University religion professor, specializes in religion and culture, with teaching interests in religion and film, Christianity and American culture, religion and literature, and feminist theory and the study of religion.

  • Gregory A. Robbins

    Gregory A. Robbins, University of Denver religious studies professor, has taught the course “Jesus on the Silver Screen.”

  • Craig Detweiler

    Craig Detweiler is associate professor of communication at Pepperdine University in California. He is co-author of A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture (Baker Academic, 2003). Contact 310-497-7204 (cell), craig.detweiler@biola.edu.

  • Paul V.M. Flesher

    Paul V.M. Flesher, University of Wyoming professor of religious studies, teaches a course on religion and film. He and Robert Torry are co-authors of Film and Religion: A Textbook (2007). He is also an expert on Judaism of the Rabbinic period and early synagogues.

  • Andrew Flescher

    Andrew Flescher, religion professor at California State University, Chico, has taught a course on religion and film that looks at religion and self in contemporary American society; religion, redemption and recovery; and religion and ethnicity. He also directs the Center for Applied and Professional Ethics, where he focuses on religion, ethics and society. He is the author of The Altruistic Species: Scientific, Philosophical and Religious Perspectives of Human Benevolence.

  • Richard Hecht

    Richard Hecht, religious studies professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, has taught a course about religious themes in American films.

  • Joseph L. Price

    Joseph L. Price is a professor of religious studies at Whittier College in Whittier, Calif. He wrote the article “Religion and American Popular Culture” for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (1996) and has taught a course on religion and film. He is the author of the 2006 book Rounding the Bases: Baseball and Religion in America and editor of From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion, a collection of 14 essays, six of which Price wrote. They include “The Super Bowl as Religious Festival” and “The Final Four as Final Judgment: The Religious and Cultural Significance of the NCAA Basketball Championship.”

  • Jeff Staley

    Jeff Staley is a core lecturer in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Seattle University. He co-edited Jesus, Son of D• V• D: A Handbook of Jesus Films (Westminster John Knox, forthcoming in 2007), an analysis of 18 Jesus films available on DVD.

  • Jeffrey Howard Mahan

    Jeffrey Howard Mahan is a professor of ministry, media and culture at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver where he teaches courses on religion and film and religion and culture. He is the author of Media, Religion and Culture: An Introduction (2014) and Religion and Popular Culture in America (2000, 2005). He has served on juries at several international film festivals and is currently studying religion in digital culture.

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