Law Religion Culture Review

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

Monday, February 06, 2006

Book Review: Reel Spirituality.

Readers of this blog observe a healthy dollop of both movie reviews and theology. The fact is I enjoy both. Weaving them together is even more enjoyable. In this regard, I have studied formally the relationship between theology and films. One of my theology professors, Dr. Robert Johnston, has written a book on this topic called, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue.

In Reel Spirituality, Johnston recognizes the power and pervasiveness of film. Nothing in our culture has the reach and impact of modern movies. Accordingly, he has written Reel Spirituality in an effort to bring theology, generally, and the Church, specifically, into dialogue with this powerful medium of messages and images.

1. Summary of Material.

After building the case for the power of film, he explores the Church's reactions to films. He positions them on a timeline beginning with "avoidance" and ending with "divine encounter". (pp. 41-42.) The stages between include: caution, dialogue, and appropriation, respectively. (Id.)

Dr. Johnston then generally argues that the later stages are more appropriate theological responses to film for several reasons. He contends that Christians can learn through nonChristians' art through the doctrine of common grace and the Spirit's pervasive role through Creation. He posits that viewers can encounter God through the images and truth put up on the screen.

The core point here is that theology is not, and should not be isolated. Theology derives from five (5) general sources, according to Dr. Johnston. They are: the Bible (at the center), the local church, tradition, experience and culture. (p. 84.) Explaining this process, he writes: "We read the authoritative biblical text from out of a worshiping community, in light of centuries of Christian thought and practice, as people embedded in a particular culture, who have a unique set of experiences." (p. 85). Movies, obviously, play a large role in this culture and these experiences, he observes.

Dr. Johnston explains that the heart of movie-making is storytelling. However, in view of its uniqueness, he analyzes the components of film-making. These components, which serve the larger story-telling purpose, are editing, framing, sound and special effects. These tools can be brought to bear so that movies have even more impact on the viewer, at least viscerally, than the printed page.

Further, Dr. Johnston explores the critical circle that exists between film's storytellers and audiences. He argues that"[a]n adequate critical theory of film takes into account (1) the movie, (2) the filmmakers, (3) the viewers with their own life stories that help interpret it, and (4) the movie's worldview. (pp. 115, 120.) Similarly, he also posits four aspects of film criticism: genre, auteur, cultural and thematic. (p. 126.) Understanding these components and perspectives will aid the viewer to unpack a movie's meaning and to meaningfully interact with it.

2. Critique of Material.

While I generally thought the book contributed significantly to a theological approach to movies, I had three general criticisms. First, the book seems content to have the Church as consumers of films. The thrust of the book is how to watch movies and then interact with them. I don't think it goes far enough. Given the inscrutable truth of the power of film (pp. 19-30, 57, 70-78), I think it's essential that Christians not only consume or view them, but make them. As Dr. Johnston concedes that the auteur's worldview colors the film, it necessarily follows that those with a biblical worldview should want to explore it through film.

Second, and related to the first, I would have preferred that the book's conclusion explored the view that, prescriptively, movie-viewing should be a means to an end. Much like studying books and viewing art, it makes for the well-fed and well-educated, but is that the chief end? As Billy in The Year of Living Dangerously (d. Weir, 1982) quoted from Luke 3, "What shall we then do?" What shall we then do, other than talking about how the movie spoke to us or even how we encountered God through it? I would have liked to have seen some exploration of this action step. For example, this could have been a call to make films as discussed above, or other tangible acts inspired from film-viewing.

Third, I disagreed with Johnston's placing of entertainment and education on opposite ends of the axis or spectrum (p. 88). While it's true that films are most often combinations of the two, it does not follow that the more a film is entertaining the less it is educational or vice versa, as the axis represents. It's not a zero-sum or mutually exclusive analysis. For example, The Insider (d. Mann, 1999) educates, but also entertains just about as well as any blockbuster, especially since the skillful (and entertaining) Michael Mann directed and two of the finest actors, Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, starred.

In sum, the book is worthy of your time, as it is one of the better basic tomes on the integration of theology and film.