Film and Christian Theology

Robert K. Johnston and Kutter Callaway

This article puts forward a robust historically-informed analysis of the current state of Christian theology and film discourse, establishing the necessary conditions not only for making sense of how the field has developed over time but also for imagining where it might go in the future. In comparison to other academic disciplines, the subdiscipline of theology and film is still in its infancy, but the field has also experienced a great deal of expansion, maturation, and growth since its inception in the early twentieth century. Thus, this article maps the current state of the theology and film discourse in light of the discipline’s historical development, focusing in particular on its theological, biblical, ethical, aesthetic, and ecclesial contours. It concludes by exploring the leading edges of the field’s horizon of possibilities, namely, a renewed emphasis on greater engagement with world cinema, an expansion of the boundaries of ‘theology’, a more responsible interaction with the social sciences, and a recognition that ‘cinema’ is a fundamentally dynamic and ever-emergent concept.

1 Introduction

Reliable futurists are few and far between, in large part because getting the present moment correct is hard enough. Nonetheless, as this entry will make clear, a robust, historically-informed analysis of the current state of the theology and film discourse establishes the necessary conditions not only for making sense of how the field has developed over time but also for imagining where it might go in the future. As far as theological history is concerned, the subdiscipline of theology and film is still in its infancy, originating as it did with the advent of the cinema in the early twentieth century. But, in this short span of time, the field has also experienced a great deal of expansion, maturation, and growth. From its inception, leading figures from established theological institutions have been involved in the production, distribution, reception, and even the moderation (and at times, censorship) of Hollywood films – whether explicitly religious or not. Beyond Hollywood, ecumenical juries have been granting awards at major film festivals around the globe for seventy-five years. In more recent decades, entire schools of thought have emerged. Roman Catholic theologians at Villanova engage film in ways that are discernibly different from their Protestant counterparts at St Andrews, Duke Divinity, or Fuller Theological Seminary, each of which represents its own idiosyncratic approach to the study of theology and film.

Although increasingly diverse and ever-expanding, theology continues to be the common thread that provides the discipline with a sense of coherence and purpose. Indeed, even though they are kindred spirits, theology and film is not religion and film. To be sure, those who analyse and interpret film from the standpoint of religious studies are important interlocutors. One need to look no further than the contributions by Jeanette Reedy Solano (2021), Melanie Wright (2006), Jolyon Mitchell and Brent Plate (2007), William Blizek (2013), John Lyden (2019), and Joel Martin and Conrad Ostwalt (1995) to see how religious studies scholars provide invaluable insights concerning the functional value of film. However, these descriptive projects nevertheless remain distinct from the constructive and even normative aims of scholars who are engaging film from a decidedly theological perspective – scholars like Christopher Deacy and Gaye Williams Ortiz (2008), Craig Detweiler (2008), Clive Marsh (2007; 2014), Robert K. Johnston (2006; 2019), Kutter Callaway (2013), Stefanie Knauss (2020), and Richard Goodwin (2022). As with any discipline, the boundary between theology and religious studies is often blurred, but maintaining this distinction is both important and necessary in light of what follows in this entry, which is a distinctly theological account of the story that the field of theology and film tells itself about itself.

2 Engaging theologically

2.1 Paul Tillich

It is hard to overestimate the theological importance of Paul Tillich (and perhaps, behind him, Friedrich Schleiermacher) to many of the discussions of theology and the arts. This is certainly true of theology’s engagement with both literature and fine art, and it is also true of film. Tillich’s theology of correlation – growing autobiographically out of his encounter with a Botticelli painting while on a brief furlough in Berlin during the First World War – has proven groundbreaking for many interdisciplinary scholars. Transfixed as he gazed at Madonna and Child with Singing Angels, Tillich was opened to a level of depth in human experience that he described as ‘almost a revelation’ (2012: 27). Here he found a ‘potent analogue’ for talking about religious experience more generally. For him, there had been a ‘breakthrough’ (2012: 27–28). In his lecture ‘Art and Human Nature’, Tillich labelled this event ‘revelatory ecstasy’; he had had ‘an encounter with the power of being itself’ (1987: 12)

Towards the end of his life, Tillich reflected on his theological approach:

I started with the experiences of the holy and advanced to the idea of God and not the reverse way. Equally important existentially as well as theologically were the mystical, sacramental and aesthetic implications of the idea of the holy, whereby the ethical and logical elements of religion were derived from the experience of the presence of the divine [the Spirit] and not conversely. (1967: 28)

In an important collection of essays entitled Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning, Clive Marsh turns to Paul Tillich as he explores which model of a theology of culture might be most suitable to the then-developing discipline of theology and film. For Marsh, film must be able to contribute with its own integrity to Christian theology, ‘but Christian theology brings its own agenda’ (1997: 27). Marsh continued:

Christian theology cannot, however, simply quarry film for good illustrative material. It looks for confirmations of its own content, but also expects to be challenged and even radically questioned in the process. For this to happen, theology and culture must be understood as in dialog: existing in a critical, dialogical relationship. (1997: 27)

Marsh then turns to Tillich’s theology of correlation, noting its similarity to his own but modifying it in three significant ways: (1) Tillich’s theological use of art is not adequately grounded in the art itself; (2) Culture is not uniform, but complex, even in the West; and (3) in Marsh’s view, Tillich’s notion of culture is too highbrow. With such critiques leading to necessary modifications, Marsh believed Tillich’s approach could help viewers understand how film could assist theology in working out its relevance for contemporary life and doing justice to the emotional and aesthetic aspects of life.

Marsh believed that his revised Tillichian theology of culture might best fit into H. Richard Niebuhr’s typology as ‘Christ and Culture in Paradox’. At this early stage of discussion, he was still quite guarded. Others, however, were not as cautious. Gordon Lynch, writing a decade later in his Understanding Theology and Popular Culture, also proposed a revised correlational model (2005: 103). But while, like Marsh, he ‘values a complex conversation between the questions and insights of both religious traditions and popular culture’, he also ‘allows for the possibility that both religious tradition and popular culture [including film] can be usefully challenged and transformed through this process’ (2005: 105). For Lynch, theology needs to be open to being changed – as well as challenged – by film.

A still more recent use of Tillich’s theology is the well-received monograph by Jonathan Brant, Paul Tillich and the Possibility of Revelation through Film: A Theoretical Account Grounded by Empirical Research into the Experiences of Filmgoers (2012). Brant used Tillich’s understanding of a theology of revelation through the arts to design and enact an empirical research project, exploring the possibility of film having a religious impact on its viewers – even if there was no explicitly religious subject matter in the movie. Brant’s qualitative research, grounded in his reading of Tillich, was carried out at a film festival in Uruguay. Asking filmgoers to read a brief description of Tillich’s understanding of revelation through culture, Brant then asked them whether they thought cinema could function as a medium of revelation, transforming or healing their lives. After giving them a description of Tillich’s encounter with Botticelli’s painting, he again asked them whether they had experienced anything similar. After completing his research, Brant concluded that Tillich’s account was appropriate for his use, and was compelling precisely because it was grounded in real-life experience – in particular, his own experience – of the power of art.

2.2 H. Richard Niebuhr

Although Paul Tillich continues to be influential in the field, the major theological figure feeding into present-day discussion of theology and film has been H. Richard Niebuhr through his book Christ and Culture (1951). His five-fold typology (explained in turn below), or variations thereof, have dominated discussion of how Christians might respond to film ever since the turn of the millennium, when Robert K. Johnston’s Reel Spirituality (2000) first appeared. Having surveyed the emerging field at the time, Johnston noted that scholarship surrounding theology and film could be sorted into five categories: avoidance, caution, dialogue, appropriation, and divine encounter.

If one switches the last two categories, the parallels with Niebuhr’s original typology become immediately obvious, as do their correlation with biblical and denominational/theological traditions. ‘Avoidance’ has been typical of many Pentecostal and independent Bible churches, and might find its biblical grounding in 1 John. ‘Caution’ is representative of St Paul in Romans and is the classical Lutheran position. It has also been true of many Baptist and conservative evangelical churches. ‘Dialogue’ has been typical of many churches from outside the Reformed tradition, and some of the more progressive evangelical denominations. One might look at Paul’s discussion with his Greek interlocutors on Mars Hill in Acts 17 for a biblical example. ‘Appropriation’ is a typical stance of many mainline Protestant denominations and is found extensively in the wisdom sayings of Proverbs. Finally, ‘Divine Encounter’ has been true for those in the Roman Catholic church, as well as those from more sacramental denominations, with the account of the death of King Josiah (who ‘did not listen to the words of King Neco from the mouth of God’, 2 Chr 35) providing a biblical example.

Perhaps the fullest description of theology and film criticism making use of Niebuhr’s five-fold typology has been that by Christopher Deacy and Gaye Williams Ortiz (2008) in their introductory textbook, Theology and Film: Challenging the Sacred/Secular Divide. The first extended chapter uses Niebuhr’s book to present a typology of present-day study in theology and film. The first of Niebuhr’s five models, ‘Christ against Culture’, condemns and abstains. As William Romanowski suggests, this position is represented by those who have ‘an attitude that aligns Hollywood or popular culture with the realm of evil as opposed to the Kingdom of God’ (Romanowski 2007: 12). Here also would belong the censorship of nudity and explicit sexuality by the Catholic Legion of Decency that operated in America for decades. At the other end of the spectrum, for Niebuhr, was the model of ‘Christ of Culture’. Here, Christians consume popular culture without adequate Christian appraisal. As with Niebuhr, these two extremes might best be understood as representing the boundaries, with few present-day theology and film critics residing within their borders. Instead, it is one of the remaining three mediating positions that tends to hold sway today.

The ‘Christ above Culture’ model is often thought of as a Roman-Catholic-based position, though Protestants like Paul Schrader (2018) also fit here. For these critics, film has a sacramental potential, with the particular remaining distinct even while it can open up to something greater. In Schrader’s words, ‘[t]ranscendental style, like the [Catholic] mass, transforms experience into a repeatable ritual which can be repeatedly transcended’ (Deacy and Ortiz 2008: 44) Here also is where Roy Anker, another film scholar connected with the Dutch Reformed Calvin College that Schrader attended, can be situated. Even the titles of Anker’s trilogy of books indicate his growing interest in a more sacramental approach: Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies (2004) appeared first; then, Of Pilgrims and Fire: When God Shows Up at the Movies (2010); and finally, Beautiful Light: Religious Meaning in Film (2017). It is not that theology is being read into the films by these critics, but that theology arises out of the films, fulfilling and completing them. There is a reciprocity between the material world (film) and the spiritual, between theology and culture.

The model of ‘Christ and Culture in Paradox’ is the classically Lutheran position (‘in the world but not of it’), one that recognizes a tension between the two worlds that humankind inhabit – the secular and the sacred. Robert Jewett, a leading Pauline scholar who wanted to resituate the meaning of Paul’s letters within a contemporary context, believed that – although film needed to be interpreted according to its own canons – scripture was ‘first among equals’ (1993: 11). In Saint Paul at the Movies: The Apostle’s Dialogue with American Culture, Jewett examined films that he believed must be read against the standard of Paul’s insights (1993: 11). Deacy believes Jewett’s missiological bent compromised his ability to be a film critic, and this is true at times. At other times, however, Jewett’s approach works well for biblical students interested in placing film and Bible into a mutually reinforcing dialogue. For instance, Jewett critically analyses the ways in which a particular movie’s embodiment of a shame culture resonates with the ways in which Paul might also be addressing a shame culture (cf. Jewett 1999). Certainly, Jewett’s intention was a two-way dialogue.

Perhaps two better examples of ‘Christ and Culture in Paradox’ might be Douglas M. Beaumont’s The Message Behind the Movie: How to Engage with a Film without Disengaging Your Faith (2009) and Brian Godawa’s Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (2002). Godawa, a Christian screenwriter (To End All Wars, 2001), wants to separate himself from both cultural ‘anorexics’ and ‘gluttons’, helping viewers discern ‘the worldviews and philosophies that are communicated through Hollywood movies’ (2002: 177).

The final of Niebuhr’s five types is ‘Christ the Transformer of Culture’. This is Niebuhr’s own position and represents a Reformed Protestant viewpoint. Interestingly, Deacy and Ortiz find few examples of practitioners who take this position in theology and film and instead illustrate this ‘type’ with examples from the music industry. Johnston has renamed (and perhaps ‘transformed’) this position as ‘dialogue’. The ‘transformer’ in Niebuhr’s model worries about those who call everything in the culture good, just as he/she rejects those who simplistically denounce popular culture as too low-brow or immoral. While film invites us to engage with and say ‘yes’ to the truth, beauty, or goodness it presents, it also invites viewers to say ‘no’ to the pseudo-understandings it sometimes presents.

Two examples of such a Reformed position are Ted Turnau’s Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective (2012) and William D. Romanowski’s Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning (2019). The goal of both books is neither rejection by nor spiritual transformation in the reader, but informed movie-watching followed by meaningful dialogue. The authors are both informed and generous in their appraisals, even if they read the films under discussion over against standard Reformed theology. As Romanowski writes, ‘there is value in engaging contrary views in both life and the movies as a way of learning about our own outlooks and those of others’ (2019: 25). He recognizes the difficulty of maintaining both conviction and humility. Yet he also warns in consecutive chapters about film’s ‘Illusion of Reality’, of ‘Redemption American-style’, of ‘The Yellow Brick Road to Self-Realization’, and of redemptive superheroes who substitute regenerative violence for sacrificial love. For Romanowski, it is important ‘to maintain a critical posture without losing sight of the fact that all people have the capacity for creativity and truthfulness’ (2019: 24).

2.3 Other options

Not all work in theology and film over the last three decades falls under the shadows of Tillich or Niebuhr, however. For example, mention might be given to Richard Blake’s helpful metaphor of an afterimage. In his book AfterImage: The Indelible Catholic Imagination of Six American Filmmakers (2000), Blake makes use of this provocative metaphor to help shape his discussion of six directors, each of whom grew up in the Roman Catholic church even though as adults they identified with that faith in different ways or not at all. Blake’s reference is to the camera’s flash bulb (when such were used) which caused light to linger in the subject’s eyes after the picture was taken. He notes that the Catholic imagination which is embedded in the films of Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, John Ford, Francis Ford Coppola, and Brian De Palma is like this afterimage. For these directors, the Catholic theology they experienced as children with regards to sacramentality (the sacred is present in the common place), mediation (God is at work in our lives through others), and communion (the importance of community for one’s salvation) gives shape to their stories. These directors might neither be consciously aware of their ‘Catholic’ imagination nor consciously trying to express such theology in their films. Nevertheless, as in the lingering bright light after the flash goes off, an image shaped by Catholic theology remains, continuing to inform these directors’ imagination.

Blake is not alone in his use of this metaphor. In an insightful monograph entitled Transcendence and Spirituality in Chinese Cinema: A Theological Exploration (2020), Kris H. K. Chong uses Blake’s ‘afterimage’ metaphor to explore how, in contemporary secular China, the historic religious traditions continue to influence current filmmakers and shape their storytelling. Whether or not these directors intend to present such afterimages, they can nevertheless be found in their films, which are permeated by the influence of hundreds of years of Confucian principles and a Daoist worldview. This religious background is their stories’ ‘universe’, providing Zhang Yimou’s To Live (1994), Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (1984), and Zhang Yang’s Shower (1999), among others, the root convictions out of which their stories grow.

Among those working today in the field of theology and film, a few still turn to film to illustrate (or oppose) Christian truth. They use theology as their yardstick to measure the truth of cinemas’ portrayals of life. Others discover in film a deepened understanding of theological truth, something first known independently. Many, today, resonate with films’ spiritualities. They find in film sacramental possibilities. Film can invite dialogue with scripture; it can also mediate T(t)ranscendence (for this use of both capital and lowercase, see below); it can be used to engage others missionally; it can also be the occasion for discerning mystery.

The centripetal force operating theologically today in this field is the recognition of the centrality of the Spirit with regard to film’s theological loci. Jürgen Moltmann’s understanding of the Spirit as the Spirit of Life has been influential here. As the discussion of movies in theology and film dialogue has shifted from a focus on the film itself towards a focus on the reception of the film by the viewer, the role of the Spirit has taken on increased importance. Without the presence of the Transcendent, transcendence remains a self-projection. Without the Spirit, spirituality remains a horizontal affair. Rather than asking with regard to film, as earlier generations of Christians did, ‘what in hell are you doing?’, theologians are more prone today to ask the question the present writers’ former colleague Richard Mouw was often overheard posing: ‘what in heaven’s name are you doing?’ The Spirit of Christ is also the Spirit of creation, illumining the world, including the world of film, with its divine light.

3 Engaging biblically

Film has provided fertile ground for theological reflection and, in many instances, functioned as a helpful starting-point for various forms of theological engagement with culture. However, an argument can be made that the modern discipline of theology and film began not with theologians but with several New Testament professors who wrote books on Hollywood movies. Bernard Brandon Scott’s Hollywood Dreams and Biblical Stories (1994) began a conversation between Scott, the ancient biblical texts, and modern American movies. His goal was to lay a new foundation for hermeneutics in our ‘electronic’ age, and he tried to accomplish this by seeking a critical correlation between themes that were embedded in movies and the Bible.

Perhaps more successful was Robert Jewett’s Saint Paul at the Movies: The Apostle’s Dialogue with American Culture (1993), followed by Saint Paul Returns to the Movies: Triumph over Shame (1999). Jewett’s stated intention, as with Scott, was to bring films and biblical texts into conversation by means of an interpretive arch which was rooted on one end in the ancient world of Paul and on the other in the contemporary world of film. Jewett called his hermeneutic (interpretive approach) ‘dialogue in a prophetic mode’, and wanted to be certain that the films he chose for correlation with his biblical texts became ‘a full partner in conversation with Paul the apostle (1993: 7, 11). He asked: ‘Could it be that certain movies afford deeper access to the hidden heart of Paul’s theology than mainstream theologians like myself have been able to penetrate?’ (1999: 20). As Deacy noted above, given Jewett’s choice to start with the biblical text and his commitment to have scripture function authoritatively, there was a risk that Jewett would impose his theological perspective on the movie he was considering. For example, he argued that Amadeus (1984) was a movie about sin, rather than the movie being about the mystery of divine gifting/calling. However, many times he is insightful, his interpretive arch allowing conversation to move freely back and forth between then and now, between scripture and movie, as when he discusses Grand Canyon (1991).

As the discipline of Bible and film has matured, several subgenres have emerged. In his book Bible and Film: The Basics, Matthew Rindge (2021) distinguishes between scholarship on (1) the Bible ‘on’ film, (2) the Bible ‘in’ film, (3) film ‘reimagining’ biblical texts, and (4) the Bible ‘and’ film, i.e. films without direct biblical reference which nevertheless invite biblical dialogue. Many well-known Old Testament stories have appeared ‘on’ the screen over the decades, often multiple times. There are at least six movies of Samson and Delilah, for example. There have also been repeated retellings of the Jesus story – Intolerance, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Passion of the Christ, to name only a few. Theological discussion of these Jesus movies has become almost a cottage industry, both in the classroom and in publishing.

Other films make prominent use of the Bible ‘in’ their stories. The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) three times quotes Tolstoy’s use of Luke 3:10 (‘What then must we do?’); Pulp Fiction (1994) (mis)quotes and gives a range of interpretations of Ezek 25:17; and Magnolia (1999) contains sprinkled throughout the movie references to Exod 8:2 (‘I will strike your whole country with frogs’), foreshadowing a surprising ending to the movie. A Serious Man (2009) and The Tree of Life (2011) both reimagine the book of Job, while The Green Mile (1999) and Jesus of Montreal (1989) similarly reimagine Jesus. These are sometimes called ‘Christ’ stories, as they take the mythic shape of the Christ story as their narrative arc.

Adele Reinhartz, a leading scholar in Bible and film, has evaluated the use of biblical texts in numerous films (e.g. Scripture on the Silver Screen, 2003; Bible and Cinema: Fifty Key Films, 2013). More specialized studies that engage film ‘and’ particular portions of the Bible include Robert K. Johnston’s Useless Beauty: Ecclesiastes through the Lens of Contemporary Film (2004), which finds the hard, paradoxical reality of life as described in the book of Ecclesiastes to be portrayed visually and aurally in movies like American Beauty (1999) and Monster’s Ball (2001). Also to be mentioned is Lars Von Trier’s Cinema: Excess, Evil and the Prophetic Voice, by Rebecca Ver Straten-McSparran (2022), who finds in Von Trier’s prophetic voice analogical comparisons with Ezekiel’s prophesy and prophetic acts, and Richard Walsh’s Finding St. Paul in Film (2005).

In all of the above, Scott’s early goal – a two-way conversation between film and Bible that has as its goal both partners in the dialogue gaining greater understanding of their own disciplines –takes place. But there is another type of interaction between the Bible and film yet to be fully explored – one that is methodological in nature. Can biblical hermeneutics provide new possibilities for theology and film studies?

Much of contemporary theology and film scholarship is trying to offer a ‘thick’ description of film, finding within movies a depth that penetrates beneath the surface of the story. A film story is more than its plot and characters, more than its sounds and images, although that is where any conversation must start. Larry Kreitzer (2002) calls this, contra Jewett, ‘reversing the hermeneutical flow’. We begin by looking closely at the film itself. Yet, a story worth telling always embodies something more. How is that best accessed?

One resource is the medieval method of biblical interpretation, which uncovered multiple layers of meaning. For over a thousand years, scholars used a fourfold interpretive strategy to unpack the Bible’s larger meaning. Having first taken the text literally, readers then considered it allegorically, finding themselves – as with all humanity – connected in some way to the story. This might in turn open the reader tropologically for ethical action toward one’s neighbours, as well as anagogically, discerning the mystery of God’s revelatory presence, The language is now considered outdated, but the experience remains common not only to the contemporary biblical reader but to the film viewer as well. A film’s story often transcends the screen, not only becoming ‘my’ story, but also ‘our’ story, and even on occasion ‘the’ story, a story through which the Spirit is discerned.

4 Engaging ethically

As the tropological layer of meaning suggests, narratives of every kind – cinematic stories included – bear some degree of moral weight. In fact, to borrow from Paul Ricoeur, a narrative is not complete until a reader brings the world of the story into the real world of human action and human suffering (1990: 70; see also Stiver 2001). From this perspective, cinematic stories open up a ‘re-figured’ world ‘in front of’ the film story, that viewers can choose to accept or reject, and they do so in terms of their concrete action towards their neighbour in real time. Although scholars of theology and film offer widely divergent interpretations of what movies ‘ought’ to communicate in general, and how viewers ‘ought’ to understand the ethics of filmgoing in particular, there is a near-unanimous consensus that films play a role in how viewers see and understand the moral world they inhabit. As Jolyon Mitchell notes in his Media Violence and Christian Ethics: ‘It is noticeable that many Christian ethicists now speak of the importance of vision, and by extension learning to see, to understand and to describe the world correctly’ (2007: 11).

The second edition of Robert K. Johnston’s Reel Spirituality (2006) offers a robust historical account of the various ways in which lay and professional theologians have engaged film ethically over time; from an early embrace, to outright suspicion and condemnation, to a policing of standards, to a mutually-enriching two-way dialogue. Many, if not most, of the deliberations regarding the ethics of film were (and in certain cases continue to be) focused on content, namely, depictions of language, sex, and violence. Early attempts at content moderation are often imagined as religiously-motivated efforts to censor artistry. Notably, however, the infamous Hays Code was originally created in 1930 as a self-censorship mechanism for the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), and not as a way for the church to police the world of art. It was years later that the Production Code was brought under the supervision and administration of the Catholic Legion of Decency, but even then the primary reason that major film studios agreed to abide by this code was economic and not aesthetic or ethical. It is thus no small wonder that, as the moral sensibilities of ticket-buying Americans shifted, so too did the effectiveness of these or any other ethical guidelines.

This long and convoluted history notwithstanding, what is important to note is that the modern-day offspring of these overlapping political, economic, and religious concerns is the much-maligned MPAA rating system, which is self-administered by major studios without any kind of church intervention or involvement. Interestingly enough, few things unite the diversity of scholars writing and researching on theology and film like their shared dissatisfaction with the rating system as a tool for ethical deliberation. Their individual reasons for finding the MPAA rating system inadequate vary, but, on the whole, most scholars consider it to be both too narrow and too blunt of an instrument for the task of ethical deliberation. Not only is it inconsistently applied, it also fails to account for the radically different time-periods in which films are made, the ever-changing mores of contemporary society, or the wide-ranging sensibilities of filmgoers who inhabit different social locations. What is generally deemed acceptable in France is a far cry from what viewers will endorse in Ghana or Brazil or the United States. All told, it might be a helpful tool for parents who need a quick and easy guide for determining if a given film is appropriate for their children, but otherwise it is simply not up to the complex and nuanced task of making ethical sense of film from a theological perspective.

Recognizing the deficiencies of the rating system for ethical guidance, scholars of theology and film like Margaret R. Miles have focused less on the content itself and more on the ways in which the conventions of the film industry encourage viewers to see and, thereby, interact with the content in a particular film. In her landmark text, Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies (1996), Miles draws upon cultural studies as her primary critical lens, highlighting the ways in which the cultural context of Hollywood films orients viewers towards issues of race, class, gender, and violence. Regarding Western American society, Miles suggests that Hollywood films perpetuate harmful and regressive ideologies by imbuing conservative values in their representation (or lack of representation) of American society. Due to their reliance on a set of standardized conventions, most popular films are unable to transcend or subvert the oppressive values they depict and thereby bring about in audiences. It is thus incumbent upon the filmgoer (aided by the theologian and film critic) to cast off their blinders and expose the ideological work of Hollywood, if they are ever going to be able to answer the question of ‘how should we live?’.

Others are similarly cautious about the ethics of film, but they approach the conversation from a set of theological convictions rather than the critical hermeneutic of cultural studies. For example, in both her writing and her work as a filmmaker, Barbara Nicolosi (2005) considers the ethical possibilities presented by movies in terms of her Roman Catholic theological framework. On the other hand, William Romanowski, who wrote both Eyes Wide Open and Reforming Hollywood (2007; 2012), understands the ethical implications of filmgoing not just from a Protestant perspective but more specifically from a Reformed Calvinist perspective. Nonetheless, despite the different critical lenses that Miles, Nicolosi, and Romanowski employ (cultural studies, Roman Catholic theology, or Reformed Protestantism), each underscores the need for viewers to watch movies with their critical guard up, in order to avoid the powerful hypnotic work of film as a medium. Without constant vigilance, unsuspecting audiences will have their vision distorted and, as a result, enter back into the real world as malformed and misshapen people who are incapable of seeking justice in the face of injustice or loving the outcast, oppressed, and marginalized in their midst.

More recently, however, the broader theology and film discourse has shifted in a different direction, emphasizing the agency that viewers are able to exert in their engagement with film and not merely the power of film over the viewer. For instance, in his insightful Film as Cultural Artifact: Religious Criticism of World Cinema (2017), Mathew P. John highlights film’s capacity to serve as a means for understanding and appreciating the cultural, religious, and racial ‘other’ in an increasingly pluralistic society. This is especially the case with world cinema, says John, as movies from different parts of the world introduce viewers to the life of the other, creating cultural bridges that foster a sense of unity in the midst of diversity. Similarly, in Deep Focus: Film and Theology in Dialogue (2019), Johnston, Detweiler, and Callaway suggest that, if approached with a particular posture, film is capable of aiding viewers in ethical decision-making that can and does lead to concrete actions. Some films should of course be critiqued and possibly even condemned for any number of ethical flaws. But if viewers ‘appreciate before they appraise’, demonstrate ‘ethical patience’, and embrace the ‘law of proportionality’, it is quite possible for any number of films not only to create a common ethical language among filmgoers but also to generate a shared sense of empathy for the other that manifests itself in ethical action in the concrete and complex world in which they live.

It is also the case that, drawing upon cognitive film theory and numerous other theoretical paradigms within the cognitive sciences, scholars like Carl Plantinga (1999; 2018) and Joe Kickasola (2020) are endeavouring to generate a kind of ethical response to film that is informed by the affective, emotional, and cognitive experience it offers. Unsatisfied with the prevailing psychoanalytic theories that tend to dominate film criticism but are far removed from the actual experience of filmgoers, Plantinga in particular has developed an approach to film that relies upon identifying and accounting for the source of a film’s influence upon the audience. Filmgoers, suggests Plantinga, are not passive recipients of ideology but actively collaborate with film narratives through what he terms an ‘ethics of engagement’ (Plantinga 2018: 10). For his part, Kickasola (2020) also highlights the ways in which the affective, sensual, and embodied dimensions of film ‘simulate’ our apprehension and engagement with the world. In doing so, they provide an opportunity for filmgoers to rehearse their affectively-laden responses to concrete, ethical scenarios. Thus, for both Plantinga and Kickasola, the ethical ‘ought’ that film implies cannot be separated from the ‘is’, which can only be described in full through a scientifically (indeed, empirically) informed approach to the cinematic experience.

5 Engaging aesthetically

As one engages with film from a theological posture, the old adage ‘First appreciate, then appraise’ applies. Perhaps the literary critic C. S. Lewis has said it best:

The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.). (1961: 19)

This is why Bible and film scholar Larry Kreitzer (2002) has argued in a series of books that we must ‘reverse the hermeneutical flow’, moving from film to theology/Bible rather than the obverse.

In doing so, however, critics in the arts have recognized for millennia the complexity of such aesthetic engagement. There is an artistic critical circle, with the work, its auteur, its world, and its audience differing in significance and design according to both the critical theory used and the work discussed, but all having their influence. As M. H. Abrams recognized decades ago in his widely influential work on criticism, these elements ‘seem an inseparable part of [humanity’s] discourse about all things that really matter’ (1953: 4). Applied to film, we can say: ‘In a movie, meaning is found not only in the story itself and its envisioning of reality, but also in the storyteller and the community of viewers’ (Johnston 2000: 115). However, while all adequate theories will recognize the relevance of all four moments of the artistic critical circle, one or another of these will usually function as the key to understanding the significance and status of the other three, as well as the larger significance of the work of art. And so it is in theology and film scholarship.

There are works in theology and film that centre on the filmmaker as auteur. Joel Mayward’s monograph, The Dardenne Brothers’ Cinematic Parables: Integrating Theology, Philosophy and Film (2023), Cathleen Falsani’s popular-level The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers (2009), and Elijah Siegler’s edited volume Coen: Framing Religion in Amoral Order (2016) are strong examples. It is also true that other works in theology and film have recognized, in a line of criticism going back as far as Plato, that behind a narrative’s particular portrayal is a reality the filmmaker is seeking to ‘imitate’. There is an informing vision, a world, a perspective from which a story is told. This is the focus that theology and film writers have used to best understand such Christ-figure movies as Cool Hand Luke (1967), Logan (2017), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Calvary (2014), Breaking the Waves (1996), and Superman (1978). In each case, the deep structure and compelling power of these films centres around a redeemer figure.

Theology and film has also turned to a more careful analysis of a film itself, recognizing the need to move beyond a chiefly ‘literary’ paradigm when unpacking a film’s story. Worthy of mention are the foundational works by Kutter Callaway (2013) on the affective power of cinematic music and by Richard Goodwin (2022) on the role of the visual in film in fostering revelatory experience. Also to be mentioned is Justin Ponder’s Art Cinema and Theology (2017), which argues that a film’s sound and images complete, nuance, and deepen its narrative meaning and can be enriched by the parallel use of theological criticism as an alternate form of critical theory.

However, it is not on the above but on the importance of the viewer where the emphasis in contemporary theology and film scholarship is found. Rather than movies being theologically important primarily because of the expressiveness of the filmmaker, the view of the world embodied in the movie, or the themes brought to life by sight and sound, scholars are increasingly noting the spiritual development that film invites in its viewers. Though not a theologian by trade, the experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky functioned as such when he observed that movies have ‘the potential to be transformative, to be an evocation of the spirit, to become a form of devotion’. They provide ‘moments of revelation or aliveness’ (2003: 261).

In their textbook Deep Focus: Film and Theology in Dialogue (2019), for example, Johnston, Detweiler, and Callaway begin by each narrating a movie that proved transformative in their own lives. For Craig Detweiler, it was Raging Bull (1980); for Kutter Callaway, Up (2009); and for Robert Johnston, Becket (1964). Realizing that their experience with the revelatory power of film had been behind much of their scholarly research and writing, they write:

Movies have functioned for us, in various times and situations, as cautionary tales, as moments of spiritual encouragement, and even as opportunities to hear God speak. They have served as occasions for encountering the Spirit’s wider revelatory presence, both redeeming and redirecting our lives. (2019: 19)

This focus on a movie’s ability to provide viewers with moments of insight, aliveness, and even revelation as they find themselves on the screen has often been discussed using terms such as S(s)pirituality and T(t)ranscendence. While strongly contested, there is a growing recognition that this is film’s theological centre. For some, such experiences are limited to perceiving new theological illustrations of existing truths. But for many others, film viewing invites moviegoers to look deeper, to see there is ‘more in life than meets the eye’ (the phrase comes from Kris Chong’s description of Chinese religion). It will continue to be debated whether one is discovering transcendence, perhaps a still point in a turning world, or encountering the Transcendent, which is revealed as divine Presence. The border remains fuzzy, as Avery Dulles (1980) has explored. However, the differences are also clearly drawn. Moreover, with both, personal transformation is often the result, even while ongoing mystery remains.

6 Engaging ecclesially

As an academic enterprise, the discipline of theology and film has at times been guilty of analysing and interpreting a popular form of mass culture (i.e. film) in ways that would be largely unrecognizable to the people who actually engage with it. However, one of the primary benefits of drawing upon film as a form of theological reflection is that it creates space for both the layperson and the general populace to participate in the theological task. Rather than being the domain of experts (whether theological or film-critical), film has long served as a helpful starting point for members of religious communities to engage in dialogue that is both internally (i.e. ecclesially) and externally (i.e. missionally) oriented. As early as 1910, Rev. Herbert A. Jump was espousing ‘The Religious Possibilities of the Motion Picture’ (Jump 1910). Jump suggested that, just like Jesus’ parables, films have value for contemporary religious education. Given the entertaining way that movies tell their stories, they also serve as compelling demonstrations of the heart of the gospel, even to the ‘morally sluggish’ (Lindvall 2001: 7–8, 44–78).

Jump eventually had to move to a different congregation in order to find a community which was willing to embrace his vision of a film-focused ministry. Yet, following in his footsteps, a long line of pulpit pastors and ministry practitioners have embarked on similar efforts in their own churches and communities. Many of these efforts have focused on film as a resource for engaging in spiritual conversations with youth and young adults, with an emphasis on providing parents with guidance regarding what is or is not appropriate for their children to watch or discuss. PluggedIn, a production of Focus on the Family, offers precisely this kind of content. Along with a team of writers, executive director Adam Holz reviews a large number of films. Although generally appreciative, the primary critical lens this team employs is content-based. Each review is framed by a tally of every on-screen depiction of profane or obscene language, sexuality, and violence that is deemed inappropriate for children. In other domains, this somewhat narrow focus expands to include not only children and families but also young and more mature adults. For instance, the Spirituality and Practice website, housing the work of Methodist ministers Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat over the past fifty years, features a yearly list of the most ‘spiritually literate’ films, complete with interpretive reflections on each film and an attendant spiritual practice tutorial.

Along similar lines, and representing myriad denominational backgrounds, various cinephiles have produced practically-oriented works aimed at generating small-group conversations around the deeper spiritual meaning of film. Ranging from Catholic (e.g. Rose Pacatte and Peter Malone’s 2001 Lights, Camera … Faith!: A Movie Lover’s Guide to Scripture), to Baptist (e.g. Anthony J. Clarke and Paul S. Fiddes 2005 Flickering Images: Theology and Film in Dialogue), to Covenant (e.g. Catherine M. Barsotti and Robert K. Johnston’s 2004 Finding God in the Movies: 33 Films of Reel Faith and God in the Movies: A Guide for Exploring Four Decades of Film, 2017), numerous volumes have emerged in both print and digital formats that offer practical guidance on how to understand and interpret a film on its own terms, and also how to lead members of a religious community to do the same. A similar impulse for creating helpful tools for ecclesial use can be found in the digital collections of film study guides on the websites for Edward McNulty’s Visual Parables and Brehm Film (née Reel Spirituality), which include brief theological essays, key production notes, and a range of discussion prompts that have been customized for children, young adults, and adults.

Another group of authors have produced a series of ecclesially-oriented works that are concerned not so much with prompting small-group interaction but rather with the personal or devotional possibilities of cinema. Jeffery Overstreet’s Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies (2007) and Garreth Higgins’ How Movies Helped Save My Soul (2003) are nothing less than paeans to films as a spiritual medium. More recently, Joshua Larsen’s Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings (2017) and Elijah Lynn Davidson’s Come and See: A Christian Guide to the Greatest Films of All Time (2022) and How to Talk to a Movie: Movie-Watching as a Spiritual Exercise (2017) each identify pathways by which film can be a resource for a filmgoer’s spiritual life and practice.

Although theologically attuned, the primary audience for these devotional approaches to theology and film is neither academics nor theological scholars, in large part because the authors themselves are not academics. Before they are anything else, they are film-critics, which means that the readership they have in mind is concerned first and foremost with insightful film analyses. What is more, even though their works are decidedly theological in nature and, at times, expressly Christian, these authors are not writing exclusively for devout filmgoers. Instead, in almost every case, they are proposing certain practices by which persons of any faith or even no faith at all might meaningfully engage the transcendent and spiritual dimensions of film. In this respect, without denying their own religious commitments, these authors turn to film as a bridge that might traverse the seeming spiritual divide that so often separates ecclesial communities from members of the societies that surround them (especially those in the world of film).

Not everyone conceptualizes their contributions to the theology and film discourse in precisely the same way. As demonstrated by Bob Briner’s Roaring Lambs: A Gentle Plan to Radically Change Your World (2000), those who operate within the subculture of evangelical Christianity often have certain missional sensibilities that motivate them to seek out avenues through which they might impact (i.e. transform) the film and entertainment industry from the inside out – an approach that only accelerated in the wake of the box-office success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. However, in slight contrast to this way of viewing the relationship between theology and culture, film is increasingly understood by many to be not the object or end of Christian mission but rather one of a number of artistic media that might very well serve as a bridge to wonder, to beauty, and, in certain instances, even to the divine (e.g. Cecelia González-Andrieu’s 2012 Bridge to Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty).

All told, the particular approach a given film critic, pastor, or theologian takes with respect to the theology and film dialogue says as much about their theology as it does their critical methodology. Indeed, it is a theological claim to suggest that film can (or should) serve as a rhetorically persuasive means through which people of Christian faith are able to communicate a truth they already possess to the blind and the ignorant. Conversely, a different set of theological commitments is required to understand film not in purely instrumental terms but as an occasion (i.e. both a site and a source) for joining with fellow sojourners – religious and non-religious alike – to pursue together a truth that not only cannot be possessed but also never stops calling out to those who have the ears to hear and the eyes to see.

7 Boundaries and future issues

This entry has sought to map the current state of the theology and film discourse in light of the discipline’s historical development, focusing in particular on its theological, biblical, ethical, aesthetic, and ecclesial contours. In light of this descriptive historical analysis, it is now possible to imagine where the theology and film dialogue might be headed in the future. Of particular concern are the leading edges of the conversation that, if pressed, might enable the discipline to expand the horizon of possibilities without becoming boundlessly incoherent.

First, there is a great and even urgent need for theologians to attend more consistently to films emerging from locations other than Europe and North America. The same can also be said for theology in the West more generally, but cinematic storytelling has an inherently visual and dynamic nature, in which action is a ‘character’ and filmmakers show rather than tell. Movies therefore have a unique capacity to help viewers overcome the very cultural-linguistic barriers that so often preclude or otherwise discourage cross- and inter-cultural engagements that are theologically robust and epistemically humble. Thus, for both theological and cultural-critical reasons, theologians would do well to learn from their counterparts in religion studies. For instance, the Routledge Studies in Religion and Film book series features monographs ranging from Milja Radovic’s Transnational Cinema and Ideology (2018) to Kris H. K. Chong’s Transcendence and Spirituality in Chinese Cinema (2020), to Melissa Croteau’s Transcendence and Spirituality in Japanese Cinema (2022), to Kristian Petersen’s New Approaches to Islam in Film (2023), to Antonio Sison’s World Cinema (2012). In an increasingly globalized age of transnational media, it will not do to remain focused solely on the films and filmmakers that originate in the West. Similar appeals have been made before (e.g. Ortiz 2007) but with little or no lasting effects, which raises an important question about whether those contributing to the theology and film discourse are willing to confront the challenges their own work brings to light.

Second, in concert with a renewed emphasis on World Cinema, the discipline of theology and film might also expand its notion of theology itself to include theologies that are neither Western nor even Christian. Just as Western theologians have a great deal to learn from film cultures around the world, so too do they have much to learn from the theological insights of their Orthodox, Muslim, and Jewish sisters and brothers. In the absence of these insights, Protestant and Catholic theologians run the risk of naïvely (and possibly harmfully) misappropriating certain films and fundamentally misunderstanding the audiences who watch them. Indeed, without reducing religion to culture or vice-versa, it is nearly impossible to engage in a fruitful dialogue with – much less understand – world cinema (and increasingly even North American cinema) without a deeper awareness of the wide array of theological assumptions that serve as the audience’s background conditions of belief.

Third, in light of the growing consensus among scholars that reception-analysis is a critical component for understanding the theological significance of film, more work needs to be done in conversation with the social sciences. The question of ‘what films actually do to people and what people do with their film-watching’ (Marsh 2014: 10) is the right one to ask, but to answer this question by making generalizations based upon anecdotal evidence is neither helpful nor responsible. The way forward is for theologians not to become social scientists but to draw upon a set of critical methods and analytical tools that will enable them to access and understand more fully the psychological, sociological, and political implications of film and filmgoing. Beyond a more rigorous and responsible form of scholarship, such a move would also ground some of the more speculative claims of theology, especially as it concerns how audiences in general are responding to film. All told, the aim here would not be to replace theology with social science but to bolster theological reflection with a set of tools ready-made for the task at hand.

Finally, just as all media are seen in contemporary culture as ‘transnational’, the thin and porous boundaries that once surrounded the category of ‘film’ are proving to be anything but fixed and stable. As Kutter Callaway points out in the foreword to the Reel Spirituality Monograph series:

[G]iven the increasingly rapid pace at which digital technologies have transformed the whole of modern life, a number of previously unrealized opportunities for storytelling have emerged. The immediate result of this proliferation of digital technologies and distribution platforms has been the blurring of the lines between what constitutes a ‘film’ and other forms of audio-visual storytelling.

What exactly is a ‘film’ anyway? The great majority of movies are no longer even shot on ‘film’, so the term itself is a bit of a misnomer. In addition, a growing number of movies are now premiering exclusively online or simultaneously online and in theatres, so it would be misleading to say that we are concerned only with those audio-visual stories that are created and distributed for theatrical release. And what about the many long-form, serialized stories that are now available on subscription platforms like Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix? These are certainly not ‘films’ in the classic sense of the term, but they are surely on the leading edge of the ever-evolving enterprise we have come to know as the ‘cinema’ (a word that has its origin in the Greek kinema, or ‘movement’). (2017: x–xi)

It might go without saying, but theologians engaged in dialogue with ‘film’ would thus do well to return frequently to the question posed by the title of a work by André Bazin many years ago: Qu’est-ce que le cinema? [what is cinema?] (2004). The goal in doing so would not be to identify an abstract ontology of film by which concrete instantiations could be judged as either ‘real’ or not. Rather, it would serve as a constant reminder that the cinema ‘is’ (and always has been) dynamic. It is neither photography, nor literature, but something else altogether. It is ‘sculpting in time’ (Tarkovsky 1989), which means that, even if technological innovations continue to press the limits of cinema as a conceptual category, the perennial question about what counts as a ‘film’ is not a bug in the system. It is a feature of the ever-changing medium itself – or at least that is the story the discipline is currently telling itself about itself.


Copyright Robert K. Johnston, Kutter Callaway ORCID logo (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Chong, Kris H. K. 2020. Transcendence and Spirituality in Chinese Cinema: A Theological Exploration. New York: Routledge.
    • Fuller Studio. [n.d.]. ‘Brehm Film’,
    • Goodwin, Richard. 2022. Seeing Is Believing: The Revelation of God Through Film. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.
    • John, Mathew P. 2017. Film as Cultural Artifact: Religious Criticism of World Cinema. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
    • Johnston, Robert, Craig Detweiler, and Kutter Callaway. 2019. Deep Focus: Film and Theology in Dialogue. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
    • Radovic, Milja. 2018. Transnational Cinema and Ideology. New York: Routledge.
    • Reedy Solano, Jeanette. 2021. Religion and Film: The Basics. New York: Routledge.
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    • Anker, Roy. 2017. Beautiful Light: Religious Meaning in Film. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
    • Barsotti, Catherine M., and Robert K. Johnston (eds). 2004. Finding God in the Movies: 33 Films of Reel Faith. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.
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