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From ‘Raging Bull’ to ‘The Gospel of John,’ books explore faith, film

Christianity often has been at odds with cinema, which tends to push the limits of cultural mores. And yet, what preacher or teacher doesn’t turn to films for illustrations?
Two recent books join the cultural exegesis discussion, showing how film and faith can interact.
In “Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century,” Filmmaker Craig Detweiler attributes the beginning of his faith journey to the film “Raging Bull.” He became a filmmaker, went to seminary and now uses cinema as a lens to understand God. His book “Into the Dark” combines autobiography, theology and cinema study.
He brings together in each chapter a set of thematically related films, summarizes one focus film and brings in others for comparison. Then he brings to bear theological insights, exploring how the films enlighten our understanding of God or how they challenge a culture-influenced vision of God.
The films are selected from the top 250 films on the Internet Movie Database, a film discussion site where members rank films.
Detweiler has three stated goals. First, he wants to understand experience: “How an avowedly profane film like ‘Raging Bull’ prompted my spiritual search.” Second, he uses the theological concept of general revelation to explain how God reveals himself in film: “To search for that wild, untamed God who reveals whatever to whomever whenever God chooses.” His third goal is to address critics of his first book, where he “neglected to point out the limits of pop culture.”
His first goal is the only one he achieves. His personal story of faith combines with his knowledge of cinema to yield rich insights. For example, he helps readers connect cinematic experience with the biblical text: The story of King David “has just as much sex, violence, and duplicity as the darkest film noir.” He demonstrates how films with negative examples of community challenge Christians to look beyond the American cowboy myth toward the true God.
Detwiler’s insightful look at current film will be a useful voice in the theology of culture discussion. Unfortunately, his stretched-too-far theology raises more questions than it answers. With no Christian limits to guide them, readers are left to wonder at which point we walk out from the cinema and move into the light.
Taking the film/faith discussion in a different direction, “Images of the Word: Hollywood’s Bible and Beyond,” edited by David Shepherd, is a collection of essays by biblical scholars interpreting films that are about biblical stories, rely on biblical allusion or illustrate biblical reality.
The introduction sets out the goals: Show how the Bible has influenced film, show how film can influence the interpretation of the Bible and de-center Hollywood’s vision of the Biblical text.
Some of the essays examine a specific film depicting a biblical story, such as the recent “The Gospel of John” by Philip Saville, or the Indian film “Karunamayudu” by Singh Bheem, both about the life of Christ.
Other essays explore secular films that parallel biblical texts, such as Roy Andersson’s “Songs from the Second Floor” presenting a Job-like and Ecclesiastes-like story, and David Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ” sharing the function of food imagery with the Book of Revelation.
The book concludes with a response by a film studies professor, himself a Jesuit priest, and a biblical scholar commenting on the “beautiful friendship” between the two fields of study.
As a whole the essays demonstrate the influence the Bible has had on filmmaking and provide ways for Bible students to use film to understand biblical stories. Whether the work de-centers Hollywood or not is hard to say.
Since most of the films discussed are international and few were mass- marketed in the United States, much in the essays may be new to American readers, presenting both opportunity and challenge. The opportunity is for readers to discover new films, new ways of viewing films and new ways of understanding biblical texts.
The challenge is that the essays are semi-technical, so the book might best be used in a university course on film/culture and the Bible. To make the reading more accessible, major film concepts are explained, but the obscurity of the films and academic writing style will narrow the readership.
“Into the Dark” provides accessible films and personal insights, while “Images of the Word” presents films most Christians will never see. The first shows God working in film. The second shows how filmmakers depict God’s work (or lack thereof).
Each book demonstrates that Christianity and film both address deep needs in the human condition—a common ground for rich, passionate dialogue between Christians trying to be the image of Christ and our culture.

MARK PARKER is completing his Doctor of Ministry with an emphasis in spiritual formation at Harding University Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, Tenn.

Filed under: Reviews Staff Reports

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