FAITH IN FILMWritten by Christopher Deacy Reviewed By Andrew Fellows
Even for those who would not classify themselves as ‘film buffs’ this is an important book. It could well serve as a wake-up call for evangelicals who have failed to seriously engage with culture.
Faith in Film is largely addressed to the academic community, where there is a remarkable rise of interest in film studies. Much of this interest reflects a post-modern hermeneutic where film is read through the lens of feminist, Marxist, and post-structuralist ideology. In Deacy’s view there is not enough interest in ‘reading film’ through a religious lens. His agenda is to put this one firmly in the centre of film studies. He would also like to see modern theology conducted in a ‘conversation with film’.
Deacy’s starting point is that the human condition is insatiably religious. We were made for God and this makes us religiously restless. Now, if a religious sensibility is a given for all humans, the mode of religious expression is much more fluid. That is why we can expect that if religion is squeezed out of one area of social life it will find expression in another. Deacy is arguing that religion has mutated from the church to the cinema. This is reflected in the fact that so many films are religious in terms of their narrative, symbols and content. What is more, within Western society the religious orientation of film is predominately Judeo-Christian—dealing with theological realities like sin, alienation, atonement and redemption. The central theological realities of our faith are now being communicated through a new social medium. It is a case of a ‘secular agency’ taking the role of a traditional religious institution, that is, the church.
This new reality makes nonsense of the sociological argument that religion is about to die in a secular society. Religion has not died; it has simply mutated and how finds its locus point is the heart of popular culture. This is why Deacy wants us to wrestle with the reality that the vitality of religion is now outside the boundaries of the church. Today your average Westerner is bombarded with religious stimuli—without even attending a church.
The value of this shift is that it naturally breaks down the sacred/secular divide. For so long the church has struggled to contend in the public square. Now that religion is in the cinema it is firmly there. This serves as an ‘apologetic’ advantage.
Deacy does not naively content that all film fits into this category. He makes a distinction between:
escapist film (which has no relation to the real world) and religious film (which brings a confrontation with the truth and the desperate plight of the human condition).
He also uses a lot of space in the book to argue for the fact that this ‘religious trend’ in film is to be found in Hollywood (i.e., films like ‘Magnolia’ and ‘American Beauty’). It is a mainstream phenomenon.
While I would not want to extrapolate Deacy’s thesis to the conclusion that the church has completely lost its place as the religious centre, I do believe we need to hear what he is saying. We need to take film seriously as a medium for understanding the religious landscape of our times. We also need to harvest the apologetic resources which film affords us. We have instant access to a repository of religious symbols that are universal—and therefore understandable and acceptable. The modern cinema is the equivalent of the temples of Athens (see Acts 17). Our response should be that of Paul who said, ‘I see that you are very religious’. He then went on to use one of its dominant symbols (the ‘idol to the unknown god’) to communicate the gospel. The difference between first century Athens and our own time is that the ‘temple of the cinema’ is full of symbols belonging to our Christian worldview. We must engage with them in order to learn how to use them.
L’Abri Fellowship, Liss