Film As Religion : Intro

I have been interested in reading John C. Lyden’s book “Film as Religion” ever since I read a summary of it several years ago:

The lights dim, the voices hush and the devotees prepare for a sacred, transformative experience. This scenario does not describe a ritual in a cathedral or temple, but one occurring in another religiously charged space: the cinema. Lyden, a professor of religion in Nebraska, argues that if we define “religion” by its function-what the activity does for the people who participate in it-then movie-going is the religion of our time. Movies provide the collective myths to help us deal with our cultural anxieties and hopes, and catharsis in the form of rewarded heroes and punished villains.  (Publisher’s Weekly)

I finally checked out a copy at the library and am going to try to blog through the book (hopefully that will get me to finish it – something I have a hard time doing with books!). I hope you find it interesting and more than that I hope it provokes some discussion on the topic – so let me know what you think.


As you read in the summary, Lyden’s thesis is basically that “there is no absolute distinction between religion and other aspects of culture, and that we have a tendency to label certain sorts of activities as “religious” chiefly because they fall into the patterns that we recognize from religion with which we are familiar.” He continues:

As a result, we have a tendency to limit what we view as religion to that which is recognized as such by us in our own culture. The result is that we can find ourselves shortsighted when we encounter a diverse form of religion – as, for example, the European colonists who came to America did. For a long time, they refused to even grant the name “religion” to the activities in the Native American culture that paralleled those undertaken by Europeans under that name. In time, they came to see that the “otherness” of American beliefs did not disqualify them from performing the same functions for Native Americans that Christianity did for most Europeans, and therefore these beliefs might be considered equally “religious.”… It may be that we experience a similar form of shortsightedness when we encounter aspects of our own culture that we view as opposed to religious values or beliefs. We fail to acknowledge the extent to which modern people base their worldviews and ethics upon sources we do not usually label “religious. (2-3)”

Lyden relies upon Clifford Geertz’ functional definition of religion. “This definition includes the three aspects noted in this book’s title: a “myth” or story that conveys a worldview; a set of values that idealize how that world should be; and a ritual expression that unites the two. (4)” “…I will argue for an understanding of [myth] that does not reduce it to a psychological projection or an illogical hegemony-promoting falsehood, but rather views it as a story that expresses the worldview and values of a community. (4)”

In regards to film as ritual, Lyden notes: “Films offer a vision of the way the world should be (in the view of the film) as well as statements about the way it really is; the ritual of film-going unites the two when we become part of the world projected on screen. We often hope and wish for a world like the one we see in the movies even though we must return to a very different world at the end of the show; in this way, films offer an entry into an ideally constructed world. (4)”


Lyden’s thesis is intriguing.  Though he may not put it in these terms, he seems to be basically acknowledging that all of life is theological and that we cannot safely divide our “secular” life from our “religious” life. Everything we do is wrapped up in religion, which is why Paul said “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Furthermore, everyone has a religion. Everyone has a worldview and they seek out things in their life that confirm and support that worldview. We cannot neglect the pervasiveness of “religion” in our “secular” affairs.

I also appreciate his willingness to acknowledge the religious power of film. Film-going is absolutely a ritual and every film preaches a message. It is very disturbing to see how many people, Christians especially, watch movies completely uncritically. They willingly turn their brains off and stuff themselves with popcorn, all the while telling themselves “its just for fun.” That may be the case, and there’s nothing wrong with kicking back and enjoying 2 hours of Star Trek. But if you ignore the fact that you’re listening to a sermon and you get sucked into cheering for the emotional thesis of the film (1: rebellion is a virtue, 2: follow your heart, not your head), then you are neglecting your Christian duty to “test all things; hold fast was is good.”

However, I am leery of Lyden’s thesis being “Film as Religion.” That’s like saying “Writing as Religion.” I don’t think we can make the medium the religion. I know that’s not what Lyden intends, but we’ll see how careful he is about it. Perhaps a better title would be “Hollywood as Religion” because that entails film, a specific manner of film-going, and a particular worldview & message. We’ll see how this is worked out throughout the book.

One other area of concern may be Lyden’s definition of religion. Religion is notoriously difficult to define. In his book Religion, Reason, and Revelation Gordon H. Clark concludes that there is no proper and fitting definition of religion other than “God’s creating Adam in his own image and giving him a special revelation…” as well all distortions of that original religion (which includes just about everything). (Clark argues that because distortion of this religion is the result of sin, and sin is irrational, that there cannot be any logical classification of religion).

I think Lyden’s thesis would still qualify under Clark’s definition, but I am content to go along with Lyden’s definition for the purposes of the book. Wikipedia is generally a good measuring stick to gauge what the world thinks about any given topic, and it provides a definition similar to Lyden’s: “in general a set of beliefs explaining the existence of and giving meaning to the universe, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” That definition works for me and it looks like Lyden’s thesis may be true. We’ll see.

3 thoughts on “Film As Religion : Intro

  1. Brandon

    Helpful blog.

    Just to mention – a good blog I thought about film at Euangelion at moment.

    Good to look at this topic in some detail since nowadays Christians watch films far too often and far too uncritically and in many ways in life I am the chief of sinners in this area.

    The problem is, I sometimes think we can even excuse too often our fim viewing by some intellectualising. Now don’t get me wrong I think what you are trying to grapple with about film is right to grapple with.

    My worries rise from my personal experience and observation.

    1. Christians watch lots and lots of movies. This cannot but mean the values and worldviews of these movies become part of their own. Attitudes to revenge; violence as a problem solver; easy no consequence sex; glamour; the good life and so on that flow off the screen and into our minds are hardly ‘renewing’ them – and more especially since most Christians are better at movie quizzes than bible quizzes.

    2. The movie values themselves. These are often complex and contradictory. Like tabloid newspapers a movie may well have as its overall theme a criticism of say casual sex. Yet the presentation even of casual sex may be so explicit that this alone is unacceptable. There are scenes in life which are private and the voyeuristic camera becomes immoral.

    Discrimination is very hard to maintain in movie going.

    What distresses me is that I find the values seep into my soul. The general hubris of the action hero, the seductiveness of the heroine and camera angles exploiting this can soon corrupt.

    By no means am I saying in these scattered comments that I think all movie going is wrong – but it is a high risk area that requires a great deal of discretion and self control.

    I find it a minefield.


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