Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning

Written by Clive Marsh & Gaye Ortiz (eds) Reviewed By Tony Gray

The practice of overlapping two distinct disciplines, film studies and theology, has been gaining acceptance and followers for a number of decades now. As interdisciplinary studies grow and develop, this is a field rich in material for exploration. This volume is an excellent introduction to both the theory and the practice of looking at films through theology (and vice versa).

The contributors come from a range of backgrounds, both theologically and professionally: academics in the fields of film studies and theology are included, as are those involved in parish ministry and evangelism, both British and American. In this fact alone the book demonstrates the widespread appeal and interest which the subject generates. Evangelists use film in their engagement with society, and lecturers develop hugely popular courses in film and theology.

The work is divided into three sections. The heart consists of 13 papers examining particular films or film-makers, including amongst others Terminator and Terminator 2, The Piano, Shirley Valentine, Edward Scissorhands, Shane, Awakenings, Dead Poets Society and the films of Scorsese. The choice of films is largely popular, representing one of the issues concerning the ‘feel-good’ factor of mainline Hollywood cinema. Some of the essays are more successful than others. Rhoads and Roberts’ examination of domination and mutuality in The Piano and the Gospel of Mark is fascinating, illustrating recent readings of the Gospel which have become influential. The analysis of the Terminator films is interesting yet predictable, and the contrasting of two different interpretations of Dead Poets Society is useful in illustrating the subjectiveness with which this discipline struggles. Less convincing is the examination of the spirituality of Shirley Valentine, although this still forces the reader to re-examine their interpretation of the film, as most of the essays also succeed in doing. Telford’s analysis of the portrayal of Christ in the movies is of great interest to any theologian, reflecting something of Schweitzer’s analysis of the Quest and its progression (135), especially as Telford informs the reader that Verhoeven (director of Robocop and Showgirls) is proposing a film based on the work of the Jesus Seminar.

The top and tail of the book are also extremely informative. Part One includes three essays which splice the two disciplines of film studies and theology together, offering a basis for the rest of the work. Part Three includes two very important essays. The first, by David Jasper, responds with criticism to some (perhaps all) of the essays in the main body of the book, and raises some very important questions concerning interpretation and analysis. The universality of themes of salvation, redemption, sin, guilt, messiah, etc., may have more to do with the universality of such biblical themes within humanity, rather than any great theological intentions of directors (see his comments on the interpretation of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands by Malone, 239). The concluding essay begins to look at the implications of postmodernism for the interplay of these two disciplines, and is a useful starter on the issue.

All in all, Marsh and Oritz have provided an entertaining, informative and reliable guide to the interplay between theology and film.

Tony Gray