Law Religion Culture Review

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

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Theology and Film in Dialogue: The Butterfly Effect (DVD), Part II of III.

The following is part II of a three-part dialogue between The Butterfly Effect and theology.

II. Methodological Understanding of the Integration of Film and Theology.

While the film The Butterfly Effect does not overtly discuss God or the Bible, it provides a treasure trove of issues to discuss within a theological understanding and otherwise. Accordingly, it is worthwhile to set out a methodological approach as to how the Bible (and more broadly theology) may be brought together with film.

Preliminarily, I believe that movies and theology (or the Bible) should be analyzed in the context of a two-way conversation. (See C. Marsh, Cinema & Sentiment: Film's Challenge to Theology (2005), p. ix.) As such, each discipline can learn from each other. I reject 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 a key to understanding films on their own terms.

Thus, starting with the film, it is useful to look at what the filmmakers are trying to present, and what they in fact have presented on the screen. “[A]uteur criticism helps on uncover the full significance of an individual film.” (R. Johnston, Reel Spirituality, p. 133.) In this regard, we have already explored “auteur criticism” in the context of The Butterfly Effect. In addition, to auteur criticism, genre criticism is also useful although I think it is secondary to auteur criticim for the simple reason that lines of demarkation are (and probably should be) blurred, as they were in The Butterfly Effect. In any event, this critical approach helps unpack the meaning of film because it provides context, which is key to understanding a film or any other text. For example, if the film emanates from a “horror” genre we can take the violence out of a literal interpretive rubric and place it into another more methaphorical or even comedic context. If one misses the context, one can grossly miss its meaning or purpose, and thereby grossly misinterpret it.

Once these interpretive tools are brought to bear, the viewer can intelligently uncover the film text’s meaning, if one is open to it. Many, however, are oppositional or confrontational when it comes to films. (R. Johnston, Reel Spirituality, p. 41.) This resistance must be identified and alleviated if one is to learn from the power of images, generally, and film specifically. Thus, there has to be self-introspection as to one’s approach. One must examine whether one’s posture toward film is of "avoidance”, “caution”, “dialogue”, “appropriation” or “divine encounter" or a combination thereof. (Id. at pp. 41-42.) If it is one of avoidance, there is not much integration or dialogue that can take place. By the same token, if one accepts the reality that movies can foment a “divine encounter”, and can do so through art produced by nonbelievers, this will allow the viewer a potential enriching and even worshipful experience as a child of God.

Only after interpreting film on its own terms, i.e. as a text, then the two-way conversation can take place. At this point, theology can be a worthy conversation partner. For example, Clive Marsh correctly argues that theology can interact with a film’s message by interacting with a film’s emotion and sentimentality in a theological framework. (Marsh, at pp. 71-72.) Marsh observes: “Theology is one important conversation partner in the task of structuring emotional responses by viewers to film.” (Id. at p. 94.)

Also, theology or the Biblical texts can provide context, greater understanding, or even responses to the issues that the films are presenting. It should be noted here that I am not advocating a reactionary approach to filmmaking where the Bible is marshalled as a tool to refute or oppose the film, as that does not reflect the true nature of a two-way conversation or dialogue. Marsh duly submits 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.” (Id. at p. 112.) He observes that theology can offer much as it is “a multi-dimensional habit” encompassing the “aesthetic, affective, cognitive and ethical.” (Id. at p. 118.)

This broad nature of theology, and the need to connect it with everyday life, as advocated in Robert Banks’ Redeeming the Routines: Bringing Theology to Life (1993), underscores that theology has a crucial role to play in the conversation, especially since movies routinely touch on theological or philosophical issuses, such as The Butterfly Effect. Not having a conversation partner fully equipped to engage on these issues would be a shame.

The next post (Part III) will be an extended example of this two-way conversation.