"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Christian Films as Distinctly Theological: A Theological Project

Should films with a distinctively religious theme and narrative water down the theological dimension so to be more acceptable in modern, secular society (i.e., a broader range of movie-goers)? The success of films like The Last Temptation of Christ, The Nativity Story, The Passion of the Christ, and Son of God suggest that theology should be embraced rather than tempered if box-office numbers are at all important. The genre should thus be distinguished from historical drama. Screenwriters and directors engaging in the religious genre would be wise, therefore, to distinguish the theological from the historical even in handling religions in which the historical is salient in the theological.
Adam Holz, an editor at the Christian pop-culture site, Plugged In, warns against making a Christian film as a historical piece. “I think we live in a culture right now that isn’t particularly interested in history, so with historical epics, you almost need some {hook}.”[1] That hook is none other than a distinctive take on the theology. Mel Gibson, for instance, emphasized the violence in the Crucifixion in The Passion of the Christ. Last Temptation notably challenged some fundamental theological assumptions. Both films are set in a historical context, but history itself is not the issue. Neither film is a historical biography like the relatively unsuccessful film, Paul, Apostle of Christ.
In the cases of Judaism and Christianity, the concept of salvation history makes it difficult to ply apart the theological as distinctive. God makes a covenant with Israel at a certain point in its history—in the exodus from servitude in Egypt—and Jesus makes the vicarious sacrifice for mankind when he is crucified when Judaea was a province of the Roman Empire. Even just in using the present tense in referring to theologically-rich moments in the past, I am expressing the tension between the theological and the historical—that the theological in such cases is not simply history. Because the Exodus and the Passion Story were both written as faith narratives, they cannot be taken as historical accounts. No historical evidence exists, for instance, of a historical Jesus, and yet, Jesus is depicted as such in the faith narratives of the Gospels. It is indeed difficult to view the theological in such a case as distinct. Even though the historical Jesus movement sought to get back to the historical, I submit that the proper task of the Christian religionist is to uncover the distinctiveness of the theological. This doesn’t mean divorcing it from history; the two are so intertwined in the Gospels. Rather, the task, of which screenwriters and directors can partake, is to depict in moving pictures how theology is its own stuff—how, in other words, it can come into its own even when it is mixing with other domains like history, psychology, science, and even metaphysics.
My favorite scene in The Greatest Story Ever Told eerily depicts the whipped and thorn-crowned Jesus carefully walking down a hallway toward Pontius Pilate. The Roman’s facial expression suggests that something very different—a different, unknown kind of strength—is in the frail man who is remarkably still intact. The strength being depicted so well by the images and the music gives the viewers a glimpse of something distinctly theological. The historical setting is thus transcended; the film is not really about history. This example illustrates how filmmakers and actors can wrestle with the distinctive nature of the theological and how it can be depicted and heard onscreen.  

An elaboration of the distinctiveness of theology, with implications for relations to other domains, is in the booklet, "Spiritual Leadership."

1. Patrick Ryan, “Christian Films’ Success Deserves More Faith,” USA Today, March 28, 2018.