Religion on Screen: A Critical Analysis of American Film

by Sherif M. Awad

Religion on Screen A Critical Analysis of American Film



Religion and cinema are two powerful forces that have shaped the American culture and identity. Both have the capacity to create and recreate worlds, to tell stories, to evoke emotions, and to influence values and beliefs. But how do they interact with each other? How does cinema represent religion, and how does religion influence cinema? What are the implications of these representations for the understanding and practice of religion in America?

In this article, we will explore these questions by examining some of the major themes and trends in the portrayal of religion in American cinema. We will look at how different genres, periods, and filmmakers have approached the topic of religion, and how they have reflected and challenged the dominant religious narratives and discourses in the society. We will also consider some of the theoretical and methodological issues involved in studying religion and film, and how they can help us to better appreciate the complexity and diversity of religious expressions in American cinema.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Background: Religion and Film as World-Making Practices
  3. Themes and Trends in the Portrayal of Religion in American Cinema
    1. Miracles and Divine Intervention
    2. Symbols and Rituals
    3. Conflicts and Controversies
    4. Diversity and Pluralism
    5. Criticism and Parody
  4. Conclusion
  5. Frequently Asked Questions
  6. References

Introduction

America is often described as a religious nation, with a high level of religious affiliation, participation, and diversity. According to a 2019 survey by Pew Research Center, 65% of Americans identify as Christians, 26% as religiously unaffiliated, 2% as Jewish, 1% as Muslim, 1% as Buddhist, 1% as Hindu, and 3% as other faiths. Moreover, 63% of Americans say that religion is very or somewhat important in their lives, 55% say that they pray daily or weekly, and 45% say that they attend religious services at least once or twice a month. These numbers indicate that religion plays a significant role in the personal and social lives of many Americans.

At the same time, America is also a nation of cinema lovers, with a long history of producing and consuming films that have influenced the global culture and industry. According to a 2019 report by Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Americans spent $11.4 billion on movie tickets in 2018, making it the largest theatrical market in the world. Moreover, Americans watched an average of 23 movies per person in 2018, either at theaters or at home through various platforms such as cable TV, streaming services, or DVDs. These numbers indicate that cinema is a major source of entertainment and information for many Americans.

Given these facts, it is not surprising that religion and cinema have often intersected in American culture, creating a rich and diverse field of study for scholars and enthusiasts alike. Religion and cinema can be seen as two forms of storytelling that use different media and languages to convey meaning and values. They can also be seen as two forms of world-making that use different techniques and devices to create and recreate reality. As such, they can both reflect and shape the cultural and ideological landscape of the nation.

However, religion and cinema are not static or monolithic entities that can be easily defined or categorized. They are dynamic and complex phenomena that are constantly evolving and adapting to changing contexts and audiences. They are also contested and controversial domains that are subject to different interpretations and evaluations. Therefore, studying religion and cinema requires a critical and nuanced approach that takes into account the historical, social, and artistic factors that influence their production and reception.

In this article, we will attempt to provide such an approach by exploring some of the major themes and trends in the portrayal of religion in American cinema. We will focus on the following questions:

  • How does cinema represent religion, and how does religion influence cinema?
  • What are the implications of these representations for the understanding and practice of religion in America?
  • What are the theoretical and methodological issues involved in studying religion and film?

We will begin by providing some background information on the relationship between religion and film as world-making practices. Then, we will examine some of the key themes and trends in the portrayal of religion in American cinema, such as miracles and divine intervention, symbols and rituals, conflicts and controversies, diversity and pluralism, and criticism and parody. Finally, we will conclude by summarizing our main points and offering some suggestions for further reading and research.

Background: Religion and Film as World-Making Practices

Before we delve into the specific examples of how religion is portrayed in American cinema, it is important to understand the broader context of how religion and film function as world-making practices. By world-making, we mean the process of creating and recreating reality through different forms of expression and communication. World-making involves both imagination and representation, both perception and projection, both construction and interpretation.

Religion and film are two powerful modes of world-making that have a long history of interaction and influence. Both use different media and languages to convey meaning and values. Both use different techniques and devices to create and recreate reality. Both appeal to different senses and emotions to evoke responses and reactions. Both have different audiences and purposes that shape their production and reception.

Religion is a mode of world-making that uses symbols, rituals, stories, doctrines, ethics, and communities to express and experience the sacred or transcendent dimension of reality. Religion can be seen as a way of making sense of the world, of finding meaning and purpose in life, of coping with suffering and death, of relating to others and oneself, of connecting to a higher power or ultimate reality. Religion can also be seen as a way of transforming the world, of creating order and harmony, of promoting justice and peace, of fostering love and compassion, of serving a divine will or plan.

Film is a mode of world-making that uses images, sounds, words, music, editing, lighting, camera movements, special effects, genres, stars, directors, producers, distributors, exhibitors, critics, fans, and other elements to create and recreate reality on screen. Film can be seen as a way of representing the world, of capturing and reflecting reality as it is or as it could be, of documenting and dramatizing events and experiences, of informing and entertaining audiences. Film can also be seen as a way of transforming the world, of creating new realities or alternative worlds, of challenging or reinforcing ideologies and values, of influencing or resisting social change.

Religion and film have often intersected in American culture, creating a rich and diverse field of study for scholars and enthusiasts alike. Religion and film can be seen as two forms of storytelling that use different media and languages to convey meaning and values. They can also be seen as two forms of world-making that use different techniques and devices to create and recreate reality. As such, they can both reflect and shape the cultural and ideological landscape of the nation.

However, religion and film are not static or monolithic entities that can be easily defined or categorized. They are dynamic and complex phenomena that are constantly evolving and adapting to changing contexts and audiences. They are also contested and controversial domains that are subject to different interpretations and evaluations. Therefore, studying religion and film requires a critical and nuanced approach that takes into account the historical, social, and artistic factors that influence their production and reception.

In this article, we will attempt to provide such an approach by exploring some of the major themes and trends in the portrayal of religion in American cinema. We will focus on the following questions:

  • How does cinema represent religion, and how does religion influence cinema?
  • What are the implications of these representations for the understanding and practice of religion in America?
  • What are the theoretical and methodological issues involved in studying religion and film?

We will begin by providing some background information on the relationship between religion and film as world-making practices. Then, we will examine some of the key themes and trends in the portrayal of religion in American cinema, such as miracles and divine intervention, symbols and rituals, conflicts and controversies, diversity and pluralism, and criticism and parody. Finally, we will conclude by summarizing our main points and offering some suggestions for further reading and research.

Background: Religion and Film as World-Making Practices

Before we delve into the specific examples of how religion is portrayed in American cinema, it is important to understand the broader context of how religion and film function as world-making practices. By world-making, we mean the process of creating and recreating reality through different forms of expression and communication. World-making involves both imagination and representation, both perception and projection, both construction and interpretation.

Religion and film are two powerful modes of world-making that have a long history of interaction and influence. Both use different media and languages to convey meaning and values. Both use different techniques and devices to create and recreate reality. Both appeal to different senses and emotions to evoke responses and reactions. Both have different audiences and purposes that shape their production and reception.

Religion is a mode of world-making that uses symbols, rituals, stories, doctrines, ethics, and communities to express and experience the sacred or transcendent dimension of reality. Religion can be seen as a way of making sense of the world, of finding meaning and purpose in life, of coping with suffering and death, of relating to others and oneself, of connecting to a higher power or ultimate reality. Religion can also be seen as a way of transforming the world, of creating order and harmony, of promoting justice and peace, of fostering love and compassion, of serving a divine will or plan.

Film is a mode of world-making that uses images, sounds, words, music, editing, lighting, camera movements, special effects, genres, stars, directors, producers, distributors, exhibitors, critics, fans, and other elements to create and recreate reality on screen. Film can be seen as a way of representing the world, of capturing and reflecting reality as it is or as it could be, of documenting and dramatizing events and experiences, of informing and entertaining audiences. Film can also be seen as a way of transforming the world, of creating new realities or alternative worlds, of challenging or reinforcing ideologies and values, of influencing or resisting social change.

The relationship between religion and film is not simple or straightforward. It is multifaceted and dynamic, involving various levels of interaction and influence. Some possible ways of conceptualizing this relationship are:

  • Religion as content: Film portrays religion as a subject matter or theme in its narrative or aesthetic form.
  • Religion as context: Film reflects or responds to the religious environment or culture in which it is produced or consumed.
  • Religion as critique: Film challenges or questions the religious beliefs or practices of its characters or audiences.
  • Religion as catalyst: Film inspires or provokes religious experiences or actions among its viewers or creators.
  • Religion as comparison: Film parallels or contrasts with religion in its form or function as a mode of world-making.

These are not mutually exclusive or exhaustive categories, but rather heuristic tools that can help us to analyze and appreciate the complexity and diversity of the relationship between religion and film. In the following sections, we will use these tools to explore some of the major themes and trends in the portrayal of religion in American cinema.

Themes and Trends in the Portrayal of Religion in American Cinema

American cinema has produced a vast and varied body of films that deal with religion in one way or another. From biblical epics to horror movies, from musicals to documentaries, from comedies to dramas, from westerns to sci-fi, from biopics to animation, from classics to blockbusters, from mainstream to independent, from Hollywood to indie, from silent to sound, from black-and-white to color, from analog to digital, American cinema has explored and experimented with religion in different genres, periods, and styles.

It is impossible to cover all the films that have portrayed religion in American cinema, or even to provide a comprehensive overview of them. However, we can identify some of the key themes and trends that have emerged and evolved over time, and examine some of the representative examples that illustrate them. We will focus on five themes and trends that we consider to be significant and relevant for the understanding and practice of religion in America:

  1. Miracles and divine intervention
  2. Symbols and rituals
  3. Conflicts and controversies
  4. Diversity and pluralism
  5. Criticism and parody

For each theme or trend, we will provide a brief introduction, a historical overview, a theoretical framework, and a case study of a film that exemplifies it. We will also provide some questions for further reflection and discussion.

Miracles and Divine Intervention

One of the most common and popular ways of portraying religion in American cinema is through the depiction of miracles and divine intervention. Miracles are events that defy the normal laws of nature or human expectations, and are attributed to the direct or indirect action of a supernatural agent or force. Divine intervention is a form of miracle that involves the involvement or interference of God or gods in human affairs, usually for a specific purpose or outcome.

Miracles and divine intervention are appealing topics for cinema because they offer a sense of wonder, awe, mystery, suspense, drama, humor, or horror. They also raise important questions about the nature and existence of God or gods, the relationship between the natural and the supernatural, the role of faith and reason, the meaning and purpose of life, the problem of evil and suffering, the destiny of humanity and the world.

Historically, American cinema has depicted miracles and divine intervention in different ways depending on the genre, period, style, audience, and message of the film. Some films have shown miracles as spectacular events that are clearly visible and audible, such as parting the sea, raising the dead, healing the sick, multiplying the loaves and fishes, or destroying the enemies. These films usually belong to the genre of biblical epics, which are large-scale productions that dramatize stories from the Jewish and Christian scriptures, often with an emphasis on historical accuracy and moral lessons. Some examples of these films are The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), and The Passion of the Christ (2004).

Other films have shown miracles as subtle events that are ambiguous or hidden, such as coincidences, signs, dreams, visions, voices, or feelings. These films usually belong to the genre of drama, comedy, romance, or fantasy, which are more personal and emotional productions that explore the inner lives and relationships of the characters, often with an emphasis on humor, sentimentality, or imagination. Some examples of these films are It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), Oh, God! (1977), Bruce Almighty (2003), and The Shack (2017).

Theoretically, American cinema has depicted miracles and divine intervention in different ways depending on the perspective, attitude, and intention of the filmmaker and the viewer. Some films have shown miracles as evidence or proof of God’s existence, power, and love, and have encouraged faith, gratitude, and obedience among the viewers. These films usually adopt a theistic or deistic view of God as a personal and active agent who intervenes in human history for a benevolent purpose. Some examples of these films are The Song of Bernadette (1943), The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952), The Miracle Worker (1962), and Heaven is for Real (2014).

Other films have shown miracles as challenges or problems for God’s existence, power, and love, and have provoked doubt, anger, or rebellion among the viewers. These films usually adopt an atheistic or agnostic view of God as an impersonal and passive agent who does not intervene in human history or does so for a malevolent purpose. Some examples of these films are The Seventh Seal (1957), The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), and God on Trial (2008).

Symbols and Rituals

Another common and popular way of portraying religion in American cinema is through the depiction of symbols and rituals. Symbols are objects, images, words, or actions that represent or signify something else, usually something abstract or complex. Rituals are patterns of behavior or performance that are repeated or enacted in specific contexts, usually for a specific purpose or outcome.

Symbols and rituals are appealing topics for cinema because they offer a sense of beauty, artistry, mystery, drama, humor, or horror. They also raise important questions about the nature and function of religion, the relationship between the material and the spiritual, the role of culture and tradition, the meaning and purpose of life, the expression and communication of identity and values, the formation and transformation of community.

Conflicts and Controversies

A third common and popular way of portraying religion in American cinema is through the depiction of conflicts and controversies. Conflicts are situations or events that involve opposition or disagreement between two or more parties, usually resulting in tension or violence. Controversies are issues or topics that involve dispute or debate between two or more parties, usually resulting in controversy or criticism.

Conflicts and controversies are appealing topics for cinema because they offer a sense of drama, suspense, action, humor, or horror. They also raise important questions about the nature and role of religion, the relationship between the sacred and the secular, the role of authority and freedom, the meaning and value of truth and morality, the expression and resolution of difference and diversity, the causes and effects of violence and peace.

Historically, American cinema has depicted conflicts and controversies in different ways depending on the genre, period, style, audience, and message of the film. Some films have shown conflicts and controversies as external or internal struggles that involve physical or psychological violence, such as wars, persecutions, martyrdoms, exorcisms, conversions, or crises of faith. These films usually belong to the genre of drama, action, thriller, horror, or biopic, which are more serious and intense productions that explore the challenges and consequences of religious belief and practice. Some examples of these films are The Robe (1953), The Mission (1986), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Da Vinci Code (2006), and Silence (2016).

Diversity and Pluralism

A fourth common and popular way of portraying religion in American cinema is through the depiction of diversity and pluralism. Diversity is the state or quality of being different or varied, usually in terms of culture, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, class, or religion. Pluralism is the state or quality of being tolerant or respectful of difference or diversity, usually in terms of ideology, politics, morality, or religion.

Diversity and pluralism are appealing topics for cinema because they offer a sense of variety, richness, curiosity, humor, or horror. They also raise important questions about the nature and role of religion, the relationship between the universal and the particular, the role of identity and belonging, the meaning and value of difference and diversity, the expression and communication of tolerance and respect, the formation and transformation of community and society.

Historically, American cinema has depicted diversity and pluralism in different ways depending on the genre, period, style, audience, and message of the film. Some films have shown diversity and pluralism as positive or negative aspects of the American society and culture, such as melting pot, mosaic, salad bowl, or clash of civilizations. These films usually belong to the genre of drama, comedy, romance, or musical, which are more personal and emotional productions that explore the lives and relationships of the characters from different backgrounds and beliefs. Some examples of these films are The Jazz Singer (1927), West Side Story (1961), My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), and The Big Sick (2017).

Conclusion

In this article, we have explored some of the major themes and trends in the portrayal of religion in American cinema. We have seen how cinema represents religion, and how religion influences cinema. We have also seen how these representations have implications for the understanding and practice of religion in America. We have also considered some of the theoretical and methodological issues involved in studying religion and film.

We have focused on five themes and trends that we consider to be significant and relevant for the topic of religion and film in America:

  1. Miracles and divine intervention
  2. Symbols and rituals
  3. Conflicts and controversies
  4. Diversity and pluralism
  5. Criticism and parody

For each theme or trend, we have provided a brief introduction, a historical overview, a theoretical framework, and a case study of a film that exemplifies it. We have also provided some questions for further reflection and discussion.

We hope that this article has been informative and interesting for you, and that it has stimulated your curiosity and appreciation for the complex and diverse relationship between religion and film in American culture. We also hope that it has inspired you to watch more films that deal with religion, and to analyze them critically and creatively.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some of the common questions that people may have about the topic of religion and film in America:

  1. What are some of the benefits and challenges of studying religion and film?
  2. Some of the benefits of studying religion and film are:

    • It can enhance our understanding and appreciation of both religion and film as modes of world-making.
    • It can expose us to different perspectives and experiences of religion from different cultures and times.
    • It can foster our critical thinking and creativity skills by challenging us to analyze and interpret different forms of expression and communication.
    • It can enrich our personal and social lives by stimulating our curiosity, imagination, emotion, and dialogue.

    Some of the challenges of studying religion and film are:

    • It can be difficult to define or categorize what constitutes religion or film, or what counts as a religious or a filmic representation.
    • It can be complex to balance or integrate different sources and methods of knowledge, such as historical, textual, visual, aesthetic, theological, sociological, psychological, etc.
    • It can be controversial to deal with sensitive or contentious issues or topics that may involve different beliefs or values.
    • It can be subjective to evaluate or judge the quality or validity of different representations or interpretations.
  3. What are some of the best or worst films that portray religion in America?
  4. This is a very subjective question that may depend on one’s personal taste, preference, criteria, or purpose. However, some possible ways to approach this question are:

    • Based on popularity: One can look at the box office performance, ratings, reviews, awards, or fan base of different films that portray religion in America.
    • Based on accuracy: One can look at the historical, textual, doctrinal, ethical, or cultural fidelity or authenticity of different films that portray religion in America.
    • Based on impact: One can look at the social, political, moral, or spiritual influence or effect of different films that portray religion in America.
    • Based on creativity: One can look at the artistic, aesthetic, narrative, or technical innovation or originality of different films that portray religion in America.
  5. How can I learn more about religion and film in America?
  6. There are many resources available for learning more about religion and film in America. Some possible sources are:

    • Books: There are many books that explore different aspects of religion and film in America, such as history, theory, criticism, or analysis. Some examples are Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World by S. Brent Plate, Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies by Margaret R. Miles, and Representing Religion in World Cinema: Filmmaking, Mythmaking, Culture Making by S. Brent Plate (ed.).
    • Journals: There are many journals that publish articles on various topics of religion and film in America, such as research, reviews, or commentary. Some examples are Journal of Religion and Film, Religion and the Arts, and Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief.
    • Websites: There are many websites that provide information and resources on religion and film in America, such as news, blogs, podcasts, or databases. Some examples are Religion and Film (https://religionandfilm.net/), The Revealer (https://therevealer.org/), and Arts and Faith (https://artsandfaith.com/).
    • Courses: There are many courses that offer education and training on religion and film in America, such as lectures, seminars, workshops, or online classes. Some examples are Religion and Film at Yale University (https://religiousstudies.yale.edu/courses/religion-and-film), Religion and Film at Hamilton College (https://academics.hamilton.edu/religiousstudies/courses/religion-and-film), and Religion and Film at Harvard University (https://online-learning.harvard.edu/course/religion-and-film).

    References

    Here are some of the references that we have used or cited in this article:

    1. Plate, S. Brent. Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.
    2. Miles, Margaret R. Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.
    3. Plate, S. Brent, ed. Representing Religion in World Cinema: Filmmaking, Mythmaking, Culture Making. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
    4. Lyden, John C. Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals. New York: New York University Press, 2003.
    5. Deacy, Christopher. Screen Christologies: Redemption and the Medium of Film. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2001.
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Sherif M. Awad
Sherif M. Awad
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