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.

Jesus Camp – some thoughts ** 1/2

I finally watched “Jesus Camp” and I have to say I was dissapointed. There were some interesting parts. The mostly observational approach gave viewers a brief look at the lives of Pentacostal children. However, the film was poorly directed (yes, documentaries are directed). The film loses at least 1 1/2 stars for the annoying and completely irrelevant interruptions by Mike Papantonio, the radio host. It loses another star for not having clear direction.

What was the point? Was the directors’ interest in the method or the message? It seemed to be both. I fully agree that the method of high pressure, energetic, emotionalism will have detrimental and permanent effects on the children. As a study in method it is right to focus on those affected by the method, the children. However, much of the documentary was about the message as well. As such, it is wholly inappropriate to focus on the children as representatives of the message and as a result portray the message as utterly foolish to the audience. If the directors wanted a movie about the harmful effects of Pentacostalism, they used a great approach. If the directors wanted a movie about how its stupid to believe in the Bible and to believe a human being is created at conception, their method is more than innapropriate, it is deceitful.

This is not to say I agree with everything that was said by the Pentacostals, hardly. I think the film does a decent job of showing the harmful effects of false teaching in the church. I have provided links at the end for further info on the subject.

A couple notes on Papantonio. First, his view of the separation of church and state is not even sophomoric, it is more ignorant. Separation of church and state is very simple. It does not mean you divide your life into sections. It does not mean you have a private life and public life. It does not mean that you are not allowed to let the Bible inform your views of the world. It simply means that church officials cannot hold any governmental office and that government cannot interfere in churches. It was a reaction against church-states like Roman Catholicism and state-churches like the Church of England.

Second, when talking to Becky Fischer on the phone, Mike objects to her method by saying “you can tell a child anything!” This is certainly true, but what he seems to be forgetting is that you have to teach them something. Someone has to decide what is right for the children to learn. Should it be him? Should it be the parents? Or should it be the state? Americans have overwhelmingly said it should be the state (unfortunately).


Some quotes from other reviews of the film:

“Camps or churches that push kids or adults into the mentality that a “decision” made at a camp is going to make you more dedicated are in the tradition of the 2nd Great Awakening where the emphasis is placed on the experience, or your decision, rather than on the objective work of Jesus Christ.”

“I defy anyone to scour the Bible and find where it says that the task of the New Testament church is to make America moral.”

“Finally, the viewer can note in the clip where some of these children are weeping, raising their hands and falling down, shaking on the ground. Is this recapturing America? No, it is the Pentecostal/Charismatic equivalent of the hypnotic state. It was VERY common in the Second Great awakening and became institutionalized in Pentecostal churches, especially in the late 1880’s and beyond”

“She (Becky Fischer) strikes me as a very sincere woman who is seriously misguided in her understanding of the Gospel and Christianity… What I find to be of great concern is the spiritual harm being done to children in the name of Christian teaching. They are being taught that experience trumps truth and that the proper goal of their generation is to take America back for Christ.”

“All of this (repairing the harm of false teaching) will require a mentality significantly different from that which too often prevails in evangelical children’s ministries where fun is featured more than faith. Catechetical instruction as well as doctrinal and ethical training should be reclaimed as useful tools in the effort to ground our children in the Word of God. We must not hesitate teaching them the whole counsel of God and speaking plainly to them about the cost of discipleship.”

“Your own reaction to the film will depend on how shocked you are by Pentecostalism. The film is obstensibly about “evangelicals” yet every Christian depicted in the documentary attends some sort of charismatic church. The casual viewer would be left with the impression that being “saved” causes all evangelicals to speak in tongues, convulse uncontrollably, weep hysterically, and vote Republican.”


“Contemporary Religion Versus the Gospel”

“Contemporary religion lacks the New Testament evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work. Instead of being preoccupied with Christ’s person and work as were the apostles and Reformers, contemporary religious figures are preoccupied with religious experience. Instead of being based on the Bible alone, it is based on personal experience, on infused righteousness, on the gifts of the Spirit.”

“Try the Spirits–A Reformed Look at Pentecostalism”

“But our main purpose has been to answer Pentecostalism’s arguments from Scripture for its doctrine of Holy Spirit baptism and for its practice of miracles, especially tongues. This has been done. In answering its appeals to Scripture, we have shown from Scripture that Pentecostalism is heretical in its doctrine of salvation (Holy Spirit baptism) and fraudulent in its miracles.

The Reformed faith judges Pentecostalism to be a different religion from that of Luther, Calvin, and the Reformed creeds-a fundamental departure from the faith once delivered to the saints.”

“Evangelicalism, the Charismatic Movement, and the Race Back to Rome”

“The Pentecostal movement came into being directly on the issue of insisting that the physical sign of speaking in “tongues” was the evidence of the baptism of the Spirit. This issue of tongues caused a split between the holiness and Pentecostal movements, yet the basic theology of the two movements remains the same. Pentecostalism is the inevitable outcome of subjective revivalism. The kind of revivals that operate in the United States may not be overtly Pentecostal or charismatic, but they tend in that direction because they are supremely oriented toward religious experientialism.”

“Beware of Men”

“As mentioned earlier, claims of greater love for the Bible are not infrequently heard among charismatics (and sometimes outside the charismatic movement). “The baptism of the Spirit” is said to “unlock the Bible” for charismatics. To what does the evidence point when we look into charismatic literature? It points to the subordination of the Bible to the experience.

Frequently passages from the Bible are quoted out of context. When this takes place, a meaning from without is imposed on a text or passage. The word of man is placed over the Scripture and is then called the Word of God.”

My thoughts on “300”

Oh the rebellious heart of an idolatrous world.

The only good thing I can say about “300” is that I got to see it in a dollar theater in Boise… so I only wasted $1 instead of $10 and I didn’t have to do it in LA. More than anything I was saddened by the film. I was disheartened that people paid $200,000,000 to see it, some more than once. I couldn’t help but think what Francis Schaeffer would say about such a film. For those that aren’t familiar with Schaeffer, he was a fantastic critic of culture. He traced the presuppositions that people live by as they manifest themselves first in philosophy, then in art, then in music and general culture, and finally in theology.

To me, “300” said a lot about the world we live in. It said that people don’t care about meaning, they don’t care about art, they don’t care about story, they care about tittilation. Its pointless to explain that the film contained no craft of storytelling, no art of acting, that it made no attempt to appeal to anything beyond the carnality of its viewers, because everyone knows that and they willingly submit to the spectacle. Saturday Morning Cartoons show a higher degree of craft and art than “300.”

What the film did say was blunt and ugly. A civilization that worships war by killing the weak at birth* recieves no rebuke but rather praise, praise for glorifying the self, for refusing to submit. A civilization that knows nothing but war and death is the beacon of hope for viewers.

Mighty Sparta takes a stand for liberty, for freedom!

“We are with you sire! For Sparta, for freedom, to the death!”

“I am here for all those voices which cannot be heard: mothers, daughters, fathers, sons (like the ones they throw off the cliff at birth) – three hundred families that bleed for our rights, and for the very principles this room was built upon. We are at war, gentlemen. We must send the entire Spartan army to aid our king in the preservation of not just ourselves, but of our children. Send the army for the preservation of liberty. Send it for justice. Send it for law and order. Send it for reason.”

“My children, gather round! No retreat, no surrender; that is Spartan law and by Spartan law we will stand and fight… and die. A new age has begun. An age of freedom, and all will know, that 300 Spartans gave their last breaths to defend it!”

Praising Sparta for defending liberty is akin to praising Hitler for the 15th Amendment. ( Nothing regarding truth here, merely emotional roars… not very mighty ones at that.

Then there’s the “subtle” theme of the film: Spartans, the logicians, the creators of reason took a stand against the mysticism of the world. Only 300 strong at first, but now 40,000 strong, this age of reason will succeed in conquering irrational faith once and for all.

“Yet they stare now across the plain at 10,000 Spartans commanding 30,000 free Greeks! Ho! The enemy outnumber us a paltry three to one! Good odds for any Greek. This day we rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny, and usher in a future brighter than anything we could imagine. Give thanks, men, to Leonidas and the brave 300! To victory!”

“We are at war, gentlemen. We must send the entire Spartan army to aid our king in the preservation of not just ourselves, but of our children. Send the army for the preservation of liberty. Send it for justice. Send it for law and order. Send it for reason.”

There are several other references to Sparta as the beacons and defenders of reason and logic that I can’t find the quotes for. Xerxes praises Leonidas for Sparta’s logic when they meet face to face.

The references are clear. Xerxes is referred to by the Biblical titles of King of Kings and Lord of Hosts. He is the object of faith for all those who submit, for all those who refuse to stand for reason, for all those who abandon logic and kneel at the feet of “mysticism” – whatever form it may take, anything other than atheism. Leonidas stands for free Greece. He was the true Savior (as the film’s imagery depicts him – the high angle of his dead body) of the world, of reason and freedom from the tyrannical control of irrational mysticism.

“300” glorifies man’s refusal to submit to anything other than his autonomous self. It glorifies a life dedicated to death in the name of depraved reason. It glorifies the death of art in cinema. And it glorifies the rebellious heart of an idolatrous filmgoing public who refuses to submit to the soveriegn control of an Almighty God.

*The whole opening sequence regarding the treatment of males from birth in Sparta is true

Spiderman 3 – Two Views

I haven’t seen Spiderman 3. I heard it was terrible. However, I found these two reactions to the film quite interesting. I’d love to hear some feedback on this one. Take a look at both articles to see their contrasting points and let me know which one you agree with.

Spidey Gets Spiritual

“The film is rife with themes of love, friendship, pride, vengeance, confession, repentance, forgiveness and redemption. No kidding—it’s all there … not to mention a critical scene in a church that I won’t say much about here.

In the studio’s official press kit, Raimi sounds like a Sunday school teacher when he says that in this story, “Peter has to put aside his prideful self. He must put aside his desire for vengeance. He has to learn that we are all sinners. He has to learn forgiveness.”

The Gospel in Spider-Man 3

“It isn’t there.”

“This movie has themes of the folly of pride, of the agony of prioritizing, of the dangers of popularity; of vengeance, sin, forgiveness, and even arguably redemption. It features an American flag and a cross, at critical moments.

But the morals are groundless, and thus the forgiveness is man-centered and meaningless.”

“So, you see, my objection isn’t so much against Spider-Man 3 which, as movies go, is a very good, fun movie.

My real objection is against the world, that shrinks in horror from the genuine Gospel of God, offering in its place the cheap, plastic, imitation, non-gospel that is the best it can provide.”

“Conclusion: Spider-Man 3 is a fun, expertly-done movie. It contains a nice bit of moralizing. It preaches an appalling sermon.”

The Nativity Story

“What Would Jesus Watch?

The Nativity Story (2 stars)
Jesus Camp (3 stars)

Chances are there won’t be a lot of overlap in the audiences for the two Jesus-themed movies opening in town this week. But anyone who views both will get a varied and contradictory portrait of Christianity, and the sad feeling that no one making movies right now understands how to make a film about Christians without being either overly pious or overly judgmental.”

“Hollywood now has a paradoxical relationship with evangelical America. The movie industry is eager to beckon and serve Christian viewers, yet as long as it thinks of those viewers as another market slice, a demo, it may end up pandering to them with cautious and stultifying reverence. The Nativity Story is a film of tame picture-book sincerity, but that’s not the same thing as devotion. The movie is too tepid to feel, or see, the light.”,6115,1564208_1_0_,00.html

“The Passion of the Christ was sadistic but at least it was visionary. The Nativity Story is also insulting, but it’s not our morals it attacks, only our intelligence. Cutting back and forth between Mary and Joseph’s domestic and spiritual trials with the twirling-mustachery of Herod (Ciaran Hinds) over in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and the journey of the Three Wise Men—all, ostensibly, stand-up comedians—to witness the birth of Christ, the film suggests a corny high school production of The Nativity.”

This is all very depressing. Christian films are being made because The Passion made a lot of money, but The Passion was made because of Gibson’s conviction, not because it would sell. It opened up a chance for more films dealing with Christianity (not just biblical epics) to be made, but that opening has been filled with terrible films (most recently, One Night with the King). Fortunately and unfortunately the films have drawn an audience. Unfortunately because they are terrible and the only reason people go is because its about the bible. Fortunately because it means producers will be willing to make more. Hopefully the sham of films about Christians is not exposed before a decent one can be made.

Once again, people with a taste for movies criticize The Nativity Story while conservative Christians rally around it as a battle won in the culture war. Doesn’t anyone think that the story of Christ’s birth should be told by a Christian? Neither writer, director, or actor (who actually is pregnant and unwed at 16) are Christians. Does anyone consider 1 Corinthians 2:14 relevant?

“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

If Christians are going to rally around the making of Christian films, they should at least insist that the storytellers be Christian.