This year’s Academy Awards ceremony on March 7 features a bumper crop of films, many that are built around spiritual, and sometimes overtly religious, themes. Are 2009′s movies really more spiritually focused than films of recent 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.
This edition of ReligionLink provides background and resources for reporters looking to cover aspects of the Oscars that go beyond the red carpet glitter.
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 filmmaking. 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.
MovieGuide is a leading Christian movie reviewing Web site. 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, at the 18th annual Faith & Values Gala, The Blind Side won the $100,000 Epiphany Prize for Most Inspiring Movie of 2009. The Web site lists others winners, as well as Top Ten lists of the group’s favorite films of the year.
Christianity Today‘s film critics compiled a list of the 10 most “redeeming” movies of the year — and 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.
Phil Boatwright, movie critic for the Baptist Press and author of Movies: The Good, The Bad and the Really, Really Bad, has 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 Web site SpiritualityandPractice.com has several lists of “The Most Spiritually Literate Films of 2009,” broken down by documentaries, animated films, feature films and so on. Avatar was a top pick of the site’s founders, UCC members Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, even though other Christian critics felt the movie glorified pantheism.
Meanwhile, the Jewish news service JTA filed this report noting that there are three Jewish-themed films and an Israeli film up for 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.
- 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.”
- See the Academy Award nominees in each category here.
- Read reviews of the nominated films by writer at America magazine, the national Jesuit weekly.
- Beliefnet.com unveiled its annual “Beliefnet Film Awards” on March 1. The Road won Best Spiritual Film, and Precious and Up tied for Best Inspirational Film.
- Crosswalk.com, a popular evangelical Christian Web site, posts movie reviews.
- Catholic News Service, operated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, archives its movie reviews here.
- Christianfilmmakers.org is a forum for Christians working in the film industry.
- 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.
- The Journal of Religion and Film is exactly what it sounds like. It is published at the University of Nebraska in Omaha.
- Movie Reviews by Muslims is a blog where the semi-anonymous contributors review films from an Islamic perspective.
- 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.
- Ted Baehr of Camarillo, Calif., is founder and publisher of MovieGuide and chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission. Contact appointment secretary Sandra Bell at 770-886-8598, email@example.com.
- Danielle Berrin writes the blog Hollywood Jew for Jewish Journal. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Brett McCracken reviews movies for Christianity Today and has a blog about Christianity and entertainment. Contact 562-906-4516, email@example.com.
- Jeffrey Overstreet is co-editor of FilmWell and writes about movies at Christianity Today and Image. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Ron Reed is an actor, playwright and author of a forthcoming book titled 1000 Soul Food Movies: A Guide to Films with a Spiritual Flavour. He has written about the movies at Christianity Today, Arts & Faith and at his blog, soulfoodmovies. Contact email@example.com.
Filmmakers and Industry Professionals
- Doug Phillips is founder of the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival, which operates an annual festival and academy for aspiring Christian filmmakers. Contact via Wesley Strackbein at Vision Forum Ministries, 210-340-5250 ext. 222, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Norton Rodriguez is the writer behind ChristianFilmmaker.com, an online ministry to filmmakers and other film professionals. Contact theGodofmoses@gmail.com.
- 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. Contact 517-265-3959, email@example.com.
- Diane Apostolos-Cappadona is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, where she teaches a course titled “Catholics Go to the Movies: From The King of Kings to The Da Vinci Code.” She has written many articles and papers about religion in films such as The Piano, The Passion of the Christ, The Age of Innocence and Ben-Hur. She currently serves as consulting editor for art, dance, film and new media for the 2011 supplement to The New Catholic Encyclopedia. She sees two major strains in recent films: the affirmation of the age-old myth/quest of the hero as a spiritual struggle, as in Crazy Heart and The Last Station; and a continuing fascination with the breakdown of traditional religion, especially in terms of questioning its validity in the modern world. Contact 202-687-0289, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The Rev. Richard A. Blake, co-director 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. Contact 617-552-4532, Richard.email@example.com.
- Michele Desmarais is 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. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Robert K. Johnston is a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and co-directs Reel Spirituality, its center on spirituality and film. He teaches a course on theology and film and has written several books on the topic, including a new second edition of Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue. Contact 626-584-5607, email@example.com.
- Eric Michael Mazur is an associate professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College, where he teaches a course on Judaism and film. Contact 757-455-3250, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College, New York. He has published extensively on the relations of religion and film, including his authored book Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World (2008) and edited volumes The Religion and Film Reader (2007) and Representing Religion in World Cinema. His courses include “World Films, World Faiths,” “Myth and Ritual on Film,” “Religion and Media” and “Religion and Visual Culture.” Contact 315-859.4587, email@example.com.
- Adele Reinhartz is a professor in the department of classics and religious studies at the University of Ottawa. She is the author of Jesus of Hollywood (2007) and Scripture on the Silver Screen. She specializes in the Bible and film as well as in early Jewish-Christian relations. She sees a preoccupation with apocalyptic films, perhaps as a reaction to current events, perhaps as a result of the spread of evangelical Christianity, which emphasizes the end of the world. Contact 613-562-5800 ext. 1339, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Sharon Pucker Rivo is executive director of the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University and an adjunct associate professor who teaches a course on Jewish film. Contact 781-736-8658, email@example.com.
- Paul Allen Williams is an associate editor of the Journal of Religion and Film and an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Contact 402-554-6016, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 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. Contact 401-863-1375, Omer_Bartov@brown.edu.
- Cliff Guthrie is an associate professor of religion and humanities at Husson University in Bangor, Maine. For many years, he co-taught a course (PDF format) titled “Reel Theology: Faith and the Movies” at Bangor Theological Seminary. Contact 207-941-7760, email@example.com.
- Bryan Stone is a professor of evangelism at Boston University, where he teaches a course on faith and film that presents movies as a window to understanding and communicating the Christian faith in contemporary culture. He thinks Hollywood is asking new questions that reflect a more pluralistic United States, with films embracing themes of intermarriage and religious differences. Contact 617-353-2456, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- M. Gail Hamner, associate professor of religion at Syracuse University, specializes in religion and culture, with an emphasis on film. She is working on a forthcoming book about religion, film and politics and teaches a course on religion and film every fall. She can discuss the religious/spiritual underpinnings of Avatar. Contact 315-443-5716, email@example.com.
- Heather Hendershot coordinates the film studies program at the City University of New York at Flushing and wrote Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture. Contact 212-817-8361, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Rachel Wagner is an assistant professor of philosophy and religion at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y. She is interested in religion in film and new media. She is on the editorial board of the Journal of Religion and Film. Contact 607-274-3249, email@example.com.
- Robert D. Benne, director of the Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., is the author of Visions of Life Through Film. He teaches a course titled “Religious Interpretation of Film.” He says many current films have narratives of Christian redemption while still being strictly secular films. Other films are overtly religious, like In Bruges and A Serious Man. Contact 540-375-2378, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Stephen Kendrick is a filmmaker on the faculty of the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival’s academy. He lives in Albany, Ga. Contact StephenKendrick@SherwoodPictures.com.
- Conrad Ostwalt is chair of the philosophy and religion department 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. Contact 828-262-3089, email@example.com.
- 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 are so deeply ingrained. Contact 910-630-7077, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- John R. May, professor of English and religious studies at Louisiana State University, teaches a course on religion and film. He has written about Hollywood and religion, contemporary theories on the interpretation of religious film, and religious visions in American classics. Contact 225-578-3129, email@example.com.
- Ted Trost is an associate professor and chair of the religious studies department at the University of Alabama, where he teaches a course about religious themes and rituals in popular film. Contact 205-348-7534, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Roy M. Anker, an English professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies. Contact 616-526-6530, email@example.com.
- John C. Lyden is professor of religion at Dana College in Blair, Neb., where he teaches a course on religion and film. He is the author of Film as Religion: Myths, Morals and Rituals. Contact 402-426-7247, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The Rev. Ed McNulty, a retired Presbyterian minister in the Cincinnati area, publishes Visual Parables, a journal that examines faith in films. Contact 859-493-0286, email@example.com.
- 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. Contact: 937-229-4650 Anthony.Smith@notes.udayton.edu.
- Jeffrey H. Mahan is a professor of ministry, media and culture and holds a chair in religion and public communication at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, where he teaches courses in religion and popular culture, religion and film and religion and media and culture. Contact 303-765-3192, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Gregory A. Robbins, associate professor of Christian origins at the University of Denver, has taught the course “Jesus on the Silver Screen.” Contact 303-871-2751, email@example.com.
- Craig Detweiler is an associate professor and chair of mass communication at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif. He’s also a screenwriter and co-author of A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Paul V.M. Flesher, University of Wyoming professor of religious studies, co-teaches a course on religion and film. Contact 307-766-2616, email@example.com.
- Andrew Flescher, assistant professor of religious studies at California State University, Chico, teaches a course in religion and film that looks at religion and self in contemporary American society; religion, redemption and recovery; and religion and ethnicity. Contact 530-898-5534.
- Richard Hecht, religious studies professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, teaches a course about religious themes in American films. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Joseph L. Price is a professor of religious studies at Whittier College in Whittier, Calif. He teaches a course (PDF format) on religion and film. Contact 562-907-4803, email@example.com.
- Jeffrey Staley is an adjunct professor of New Testament at Seattle University, where he teaches courses titled “Hollywood Jesus,” “Religion and Film” and “Film and the Catholic Imagination.” He co-authored Jesus, the Gospels and Cinematic Imagination: A Handbook to Jesus on DVD (2007), an analysis of 18 Jesus films available on DVD. Contact 206-296-5862, firstname.lastname@example.org.