A new book has made an exciting contribution to the on-going study of the relationship between film and religion. Film and Religion: An Introduction by Paul V. M. Flesher and Robert Torry is an example of the kind of serious "religious critique" of films that must take precedence in this field if it is to thrive. Flesher and Torry are keenly aware of the socio-political influences on films and how the use of religion in film can be a way to respond to social crises of the day. Unlike many books on film and religion, this one includes discussions of films that treat Jewish, Islamic, and Buddhist inspired films as well.
In the introduction to their book, Flesher and Torry rightly assert, "Our approach examines the interaction between film and cultural issues and aims to explicate how films use religion in that interaction. This book does not use films to illustrate moral principles, religious ideals, or theological points. While some books take this approach, their neglect of films cultural context renders them inadequate for our purposes" (2). They frame their study by distinguishing between films that are overtly religious (The Ten Commandments) and films that are overtly secular but draw upon religious ideas or themes (The Matrix or The Natural). In both cases, they realize the necessity of going "outside the film into the social and political culture within which and for which a film was created" (xi). In doing so, they bring together three areas of knowledge in their engagement with these films: the films themselves, religious features in them, and the cultural concerns they address (xi).
Though they draw from these three areas in each chapter, some more strongly than others, they also take an additional approach when critiquing explicitly religious films, especially ones based on Christian scripture. For these films, Flesher and Torry resort to a cinematic form of targumic interpretation. This is a reference to ancient Jewish translations of the Hebrew Bible called targums that combined "exactingly accurate renderings of the Hebrew text into Aramaic with additional material" (12). Thus, they begin with the awareness of the differences between films and their scriptural predecessors and analyse the implications of these differences for a cultural reading of the film rather than simply ending with a realization that the films have somehow altered or added to the text.
After a general introduction to their study, Flesher and Torry divide their book into four sections. The first section looks at films from the 1950s and the ways in which they respond to two social crises, the atomic bomb and the Cold War. Science fiction films are especially adept at responding to fears of the atomic bomb while a film like The Ten Commandments responds to both issues.
The second section looks at four Jesus films from the 1960s and beyond. This is perhaps the strongest section of the book as it reveals the diversity of their research within one specific genre of film. Looking at the 1961 version of King of Kings as an atomic, Cold War response, they then move to an anti-establishment reading of Jesus Christ, Superstar, a "psychological" reading of The Last Temptation of Christ, and a truly troubling reading of The Passion of the Christ that argues that Jesus exhibits divinity by his request for and ability to endure unspeakable torture at the hands of the Romans (I say troubling because they are so right). Where this section starts off strong as a cultural analysis of these films, I fear they lose some steam as the move forward with their discussion of Last Temptation and Passion. If Nicholas Rays King of Kings is one response to the Cold War, to what cultural issue does Mel Gibsons obsession with Jesus torture respond? What does it say about our religious audiences that they would flock to this limited, violent depiction of Jesus?
The third and most diverse section of the book analyzes how different genres of film make use of religion. Here they look at horror films, science fiction films, and what could be called "church" films, "films from different genres in which devout religious believers commit crimes and bring scandal upon themselves and their church" (4). Here, their critique of The Exorcist is extremely interesting as they "center on the religious and cultural implications of its use of sound and speech." They continue, "These stress the clarity of the Word and all that term implies about truth and the necessity of a culture united against the threatening and disorganizing powers of noise, otherness, and falsehood. Despite the powerfully disquieting nature of its imagery "The Exorcist is equally ocncerned with auditory effects that form a crucial aspect of its portrayal of the threatening and demonic" (178). To top it all off, their comparisons of films like The Apostle and Saved! are not only insightful studies of the bad behavior of some religious folk, but are occasionally humorous as well. In one of the numerous vignettes (a brief discussion of another film from the same genre) with which they conclude each chapter, Flesher and Torry write of Saved!, "The film suggests that the Christian community around the school deals with scandal by getting rid of it, but that this strategy fails because the pillars of the community are those who are most scandalous" (220). Pillars of faith indeed.
The final section moves away from a Christian emphasis and examines films that draw from Jewish, Islamic, and Buddhist sources. Like many Jewish films, the ones that Flesher and Torry analyze deal with assimilation and the effects of the Holocaust (The Chosen and The Quarrel). The Islamic films (Destiny and My Son the Fanatic) on which they focus examine the tension between faithful adherence to Islam versus Islamic fundamentalism. Films that draw from a Buddhist (Little Buddha and The Legend of Bagger Vance) perspective deal less with dogma and more with ways of seeing, and being, in the world.
Again, this is a welcome contribution to the field of film and religion in which so many books use films to teach moral lessons or authors jump at every chance to see a Jesus/Christ figure in a film. In their introduction to the book, Flesher and Torry claim, "We are interested in interpreting the film itself, not the details of how it was created" (5). While I understand their intentions here, I do disagree slightly. Some of the most telling, and interesting, information about a film and its responses to the socio-political climate in which it was created comes from the details of its creation from internal studio memos, interaction with the ratings board, and interviews with the cast and crew. Nevertheless, this is an entertaining read, a great introduction to how this study should be done while including in-depth analysis at the same time.
Paul V. M. Flesher is a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Wyoming.
Robert Torry is Associate Professor of English and Adjunct in American Studies and Religious Studies, University of Wyoming in Laramie, Wyoming.
Is there such a thing as too much historical context? Flesher and Torry, both academics, make an important point at the start of these loosely confederated essays about the religious themes of American major-release films since World War II: that it is crucial to understand films in the historical context in which they were written and released. Fair enough, but the execution can be clunky and obvious: historical overviews about religion in America could be more seamlessly integrated into the much better discussions of various films, ranging from the overtly religious (The Last Temptation of Christ; The Ten Commandments; Little Buddha) to the prophetically spiritual (Field of Dreams; Close Encounters of the Third Kind). The book is worth it for the film discussions, because whether they are analyzing supernatural horror flicks like The Exorcist and The Omen or dissecting the surprising Hindu themes latent in The Legend of Bagger Vance, Flesher and Torry often have valuable and incisive observations about the ways films both reflect and shape religious culture. Though of use primarily for the college classroom (and with a teachers preface to this end), serious students of film and religion will discover interpretive nuggets.
- Publishers Weekly