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May 05, 2006

Faith in Film


"Religion and art are parallel lines which intersect only at infinity, and meet in God." - Gerardus Van Der Leeuw

Maybe my belief that writers for Reuters are smarter is unfounded. I read an article on-line titled What Would Jesus Direct?. It is somewhat odd that the last name of the author is Parsons. I am troubled by this article for a couple of reasons. This points back to the superficial nature of the mainstream media in most stories covered, but the story reinforces certain ideas that seem not to be questioned, or at least not more visably questioned. Considering that my readership is relatively tiny, I cannot expect much of an impact, but I hope to get some more reasonable dialogue going.

I consider myself to be a person of faith. I am not, though, a Christian. I have to question the equation of faith with what is presented as a generic form of Christianity. I am concerned when the keywords of "faith" and 'uplift" are discussed in conjunction with Passion of the Christ, as if it was the epitome of spiritual expression in film. While I am not going to begrudge Mel Gibson's own passion in using his own money to make a truly personal film and the commercial success of that film, one would wish there was a deeper examination of how faith is expressed in film. Does faith in film mean pandering to an audience that appears to have uncritically taken Mel Gibson to its collective bosom while condemning Martin Scorsese for his own equally sincere expresson of faith? Ralph Winter of 20th Century-Fox is quoted as saying: "Movies that raise issues are more interesting than movies that try to give answers." To me it seemed that the reason why Gibson's film was so successful was because for many audience members, it supplied answers.

In terms of my own faith, I am a Buddhist. I have to explain to people that my practice has nothing to do with Zen or the Dalai Lama. The most commercially successful film about my particular sect of Buddhism was What's Love Got to Do With It. Brian Gibson, the director, is also a Buddhist. No one seemed to catch on to his recurring visual motif of using mirrors, a literal metaphor for the scroll that Buddhists chant to, self-reflection as enlightenment. I have known of a few people who actually became Buddhists as a result of Tina Turner's story. I have also seen on several occassions, the two films that comprise The Human Revolution, a Japanese epic about Buddhism that I have had to question because I felt it too close to the Cecil B. DeMille school of religious expression on film.

I have also had a lifelong interest in religious films. Maybe it was the same impulse that directed me to Buddhism. I would like to think that whatever sincerity I have in my faith is what helps me recognize and value the expression of faith of other filmmakers. The film pioneer Henry King discussed his conversion to Catholicism with me when I had asked about his film The White Sister. I bring this up because the current discussions of faith and film acts as if Mel Gibson was the first filmmaker to make a film motivated by his religious beliefs. The quote above is from a favorite book, "Transcendental Style in Film" by Paul Schrader. I wish more of the people who discuss faith and film would read his book, even if they disagree with Schrader. In the films he has written and directed, Schrader has attempted to realize some of his theories.

If there is an audience that sincerely wants films with what Parson's calls "strong spiritual and moral messages", how come they aren't flocking to see the films of Robert Bresson? If millions of people can fill theaters for a film in Aramaic, what's preventing them from seeing a movie in French? Ideally a fraction of this audience would discover the spirituality of Au Hasard Balthazar, or the moral lesson of L'Argent. In her article, Parsons tosses various buzzwords, and quotes statements, without question or challenge of any kind as if matters of faith or film should be accepted at face value.

Maybe there will be an article that looks into the actual discussions at the Tribeca Film Festival more deeply. For myself, based on personal knowledge, I already know what Jesus directed.

Posted by peter at May 5, 2006 04:00 PM


Great post, Peter. It's not often this issue is addressed with such grace and eloquence, in place of cliches and knee-jerk condemnations.

Posted by: Martha at May 6, 2006 07:26 AM

Well done. Did you see the list of 100 Best Films Depicting Faith? it was arguable, like all lists, but it was striking how many truly brilliant movies were included. The theme brings out the best in so many directors, even if they're explicitly rejecting the notion of faith, as did Bunuel. I love that you picked that scene from Viridiana. The movie was a watershed experience for me, a visual explanation of my own total lack of faith.

Posted by: Campaspe at May 6, 2006 11:17 AM

Interesting comments and interesting link.

Have you seen the information about the new Catherine Hardwicke project nativity due out dec. 1st of this year.

I'd be interested in what you think about that project (i've made a few comments a couple days ago on my own blog...but more about the project not further thoughts).

--RC of strangeculture.blogspot.com

Posted by: RC of strangeculture at May 6, 2006 01:42 PM

I have read about Hardwicke's forthcoming film. I liked 13 by the way. The story of Mary also offers various points of discussion to put it politely. I recently read Nick Tosches' book, King of the Jews, which is suppose to be about gangster Arnold Rothstein, but also includes Tosches covering such topics as how The Bible (Old and New Testament) has been translated and edited, the literal interpretation of the King James translations, and the suggestion that there may not have been, in historical fact, the person identified as Jesus Christ. Part of my attraction to Buddhism is due to the understanding that in spite of differences in the kinds of Buddhism practiced, everyone understands that the Sutras are all symbolic. There is also an understanding that the historical facts regarding Siddartha are based on the best available information.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at May 6, 2006 04:36 PM

Very well said, Peter. Thanks for pointing me to this post!

And I didn't know you're a Buddhist. My husband is a Buddhist, and we go to the monastery in Seattle regularly :-)


Posted by: Kim Voynar at May 8, 2006 09:08 PM

Peter, you first quote Ralph Winters saying, "Movies that raise issues are more interesting than movies that try and give answers."

Then, you write that, "To me it seems that the reason why Gibson's film was so successful was because for many audience members, it supplied answers."

Christians wept openly in "The Passion" as we each saw that the answer to why Christ was so badly beaten and then crucified was because of our sin.

An answer like that one raises issues, not on film but, within one's soul.

Gibson's film was not successful because the answers were so easy to swallow, but rather, that issues they raised were so hard to forget.

Posted by: Eric Cooper at May 11, 2006 01:06 AM

While I am not a biblical scholar, there are a couple of main points to Gibson's film that trouble me. My perception of the film was that Gibson emphasized the decision of Jewish leaders and the Jewish community to have Jesus crucified, while portraying Pontius Pilate as conflicted. Let me recommend to you Elaine Pagels' book, "The Origin of Satan" which may clarify the relationship of Jesus, the Jewish community of Jerusalem, and the Roman government.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at May 11, 2006 08:36 AM

Peter, if you think "The Passion" emphasized the Jews guilt while playing down the Romans, I would ask you to watch the film again. The Romans came off far worse. Nevertheless, you are missing the point.

Either, Jesus was divine and therefore in control of things and doing what he wanted... namely dying for our sins... in which case we are each individually responsible for his death.

Or, Jesus was just some guy and Judas, Jewish leaders, Pilate and Harrod all conspired, without Jesus's knowledge, to have him killed.

If it's the second scenerio, then big deal. Who cares? Why should I care about some dusty guy in sandals I have no connection to, who was killed 2000 years ago, by some other bearded guys, I don't know. It becomes a non- story because the personal aspect of how it relates to me has been completely removed.

Frankly, if the Jews or the Romans really had this Jesus guy where he was so powerless to do anything, then the whole story falls apart! What a snooze fest.

It's only when it's made personal that it becomes a great story. You mean God came to earth in the form of a man and loved me so much that he died on a cross for me? Wow! Now, you've got my attention.

Then the sword to my side that I didn't expect... it was MY sin that put him on that cross. And, I do it over and over again to Jesus each time I sin? There's a story that is relevant for everyone today!

That's why when you left the theater troubled by the depiction of the Jews in "The Passion," hundreds of humbled Christians like me shuffled by you, head hung low. We saw who really killed Christ.

Posted by: Eric Cooper at May 11, 2006 02:09 PM