Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Book Review: Cinema & Sentiment: Film's Challenge to Theology.

1. Introduction

At the outset, Clive Marsh's Cinema & Sentiment: Film's Challenge to Theology (2005) states that it “explores what films do to people and what people do with films.” (p. ix.) As such, it sets out a two-way exploration. Marsh argues that theology and film are in dialogue, where each discipline can learn from each other. This review provides a summary of the material and then concludes with a critique.

2. Summary of Material

In the initial chapter, Marsh compares going to the cinema with going to church/cathedral or practicing religion. He cites four parallels including (a) pattern; (b) acknowledgment of a need for rest and relaxation; (c) shared experience; and (d) architecture. (pp. 1-4.) Observing these religious-like activities of cinema-going, he questions whether it is operating as a sort of replacement for religion in Western culture and whether it is ultimately a satisfactory substitute. (p. 9.) Marsh argues that film cannot fully supplant religion or theology, but his key point here is to ask how theology is to be done “given that film…is getting the supposedly ‘non-religious’ to do a theology-like thing…” (p. 12.)

After a case-study, the second chapter extends the first by examining film’s role in worship, and as a competitor to worship. Noting a relationship between worship and entertainment, Marsh argues that film may be used in worship in three fashions: (a) film as text; (b) liturgical enhancement; and (c) mood-setting. (pp. 23-27.)

Chapters three and four further look at how films affect people through the examples of The Shawshank Redemption and Titanic. In the first example, Marsh explores understandings of salvation in Shawshank and how this operates as a challenge to Christian theology. In the later example, Marsh explores the reverse direction; “theology has a contribution to make here”, such as its interaction with emotion and sentimentality in a theological framework. (pp. 71-74.)

In the fifth chapter, Marsh discusses the aspects of film-watching experience: illusion, emotion, embodiment, visuality, and attentiveness. (pp. 83-103.) In this discussion, he notes the analogous ways that theology/religion and film work in these arenas, and how they can illuminate each other in the dialogue. For example, “[t]heology is one important conversation partner in the task of structuring emotional responses by viewers to film.” (p. 94.)

In the sixth chapter, Marsh explores the critical function of theology in culture generally and movie-viewing viewing specifically. (p. 112.) He argues that theology has an analytical-evaluative role that must go beyond simply positing a religious “response to what ‘the world’ believes as presented through film.” (Ibid.) He observes that theology can offer much as it is “a multi-dimensional habit” encompassing the “aesthetic, affective, cognitive and ethnical.” (p. 118.)

Finally, Marsh concludes with fourteen conclusions about the link between theology’s culture role and the practice of film-watching. (p. 132). Ultimately, he concludes with his basic thesis, that theology can critique films in a culturally beneficial way and also theology can gain much from film. As such, Marsh concludes where he began—namely, theology and film is a two-way proposition.

3. Critique of Material

Marsh’s book has much to commend it. Its focus on the two-way exchange between theology and films deftly challenges the conceit that those with theology have all the answers and need not consult the “world” for betterment. This lack of hubris and openness to learning from the power of film is refreshing and well-done. Conversely, Marsh does not denigrate his theology’s salient role in the discussion, as many would find it irrelevant. Nevertheless, I have at least two fundamental critiques of the work. Marsh continues with two internal inconsistencies, and in so doing, suggests that some of his analysis is incomplete or not completely baked (as its typos also suggest).

First, Marsh does not seem to reconcile fully the role of community in film-viewing. In reaching for a connection between film and theology he asserts that movie-watching is communal, as is going to church. (pp. 2-4.) This “communal” theme is interspersed throughout the book, and he revisits it often whether the topic is salvation (p. 52) or otherwise. However, if one were to examine the numbers, going to the cinema, at least in North America, is in decline. The advent of DVD, on-demand, and cable movie channels enable the consumption of films to be a commonly individual or familial exercise. And, even if one were to go to the cinema, in the darkened environment and among strangers, there is no meaningful interaction. In fact, I see little difference between consuming a book and watching a movie as it relates to the individualized experience. Marsh later inconsistently seems to concede this point. (p. 122.) It becomes practically communal or shared only if it is dialogued about—an assumption Marsh makes that is probably more exception than rule. (p. 139.)

Second, Marsh does not establish a consistent view of the viewer’s interpretive role in film-viewing. He claims that the director’s intent should be eschewed or minimized (p. 138), and hence, the viewer operates with his or her own rubric (p. 129). However, Marsh argues that the film is a text, which should be interpreted as with other texts. (p. 127.) Then, Marsh wonderfully puts his finger on a major issue interrupting the “shared” experience of film, thusly, “A dialogue demands the question …which, or whose theology.” (p. 128; emphasis added.) Accordingly, if the writer’s or director’s intent has no bearing on meaning, and if the viewer is free to interpret it as he or she wishes, and no interpretive framework can be agreed upon, how effective will the dialogue ultimately be? Marsh does not answer these crucial dangling queries, and hence, his work leaves much unresolved.