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Spring Books

Author seeks the sacremental in film’s visceral art


By Robert K. Johnson
Baker Book House Co., 236 pages, $16.99


Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue is not what one would expect. It is not a sentimental hide-and-go-seek through familiar movies in order to catch glimpses of God in unsuspecting places. Nor is it a guided tour of obscure films to reveal God beyond symbolism. Instead, Reel Spirituality is a reconfiguration of film and theology in order to create a venue for Christians to fully engage in film and for film to fully engage Christians.

Robert Johnson, a professor of theology and film at Fuller Theological Seminary, begins with the premise that Christianity and cinema are not antithetical. Perceiving them as such prevents us from participating in spiritual discourse with culture as well as allowing God’s presence to find us in a new way. Instead, Johnson redefines these concepts to illustrate their compatibility. Right away Johnson pulls theology out of the realm of academia and into the everyday. Theology is what we engage in as we ponder the what ifs, when we experience the mystery. God waits for us both in church pews and stadium seating.

Johnson provides a framework in order for this conversation to take place. He begins with a history of film as it pertains to the present enmity between the church and Hollywood. This provides insight into the origins of the stereotypes each has of the other and shows the boundary between the two as permeable. Johnson illustrates his point through Biblical precedent in which the secular world provided instruction for the people of God. The compiler of Proverbs, for example, uses 30 sayings from the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope, a pagan source. If we believe that God has blessed all of creation, then we must also believe that God is in all of human culture. Movies can offer wisdom and insight into culture as it grapples with the mysteries of existence.

Johnson encourages an examination of the continuum of theological approaches to film. He explores perspectives from avoidance (“Cinema is the devil’s instrument”) through appropriation (“This is a Christian film”) to his own approach -- divine encounter.

In Johnson’s model, film is a vehicle for the sacramental. Unlike other art mediums such as literature or painting, film offers a more complete visceral experience. Andrew Greeley affirms film as suited for creating epiphanies because of its “inherent power to affect the imagination.”

Believers must recognize then that the heart of film is the story. Moreover, film’s story captures the sacred in the ordinary: people’s hopes, fears, loves and aspirations. In so doing it can inform our understanding of the Christian story. Johnson’s challenge then to the moviegoer is clear: “These human stories must be put into conversation with God’s story -- with scripture.”

Johnson illustrates this challenge when he recounts his wife’s response to the 1982 film “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Billy Kwan, a main character, poses Tolstoy’s question, “What then must we do?” in response to the dire poverty of Jakarta, Indonesia, that is central to the film. Johnson’s wife, Catherine Barsotti, left the theater plagued with that very question. This question, posed by Kwan, echoed by Tolstoy and found in Luke’s gospel, propelled Barsotti into a time of prayer, discipline, observance, thought and then action. For the past 17 years, Barsotti has worked less, in order to volunteer with her church and community for financial and political struggles and to study crosscultural theology and ministry. Herein is the power of film.

In fact, it was through the 1964 film “Becket” that Johnson experienced God calling him to Christian ministry. Like St. Thomas Becket, Johnson realized that God was not calling him to be holy or saintly but simply obedient.

Johnson points out that we recognize and expect film to touch us emotionally, cognitively and even physically. But do we consider the realm of the spirit? If God’s ongoing narrative is the heart of our story as Christians, it is essential that we recognize God’s sacramental presence in the ordinary in order to fully engage in film and to allow film to fully engage us. Our dialogue with and about film is incomplete if we leave God at church or in the Bible.

Being a professor of film and theology, Johnson provides detailed explanations of the paradigms with which to analyze film: theological perspectives, the tools of film making, various approaches to film criticism, and film’s distinct characteristics as an art form. The casual reader may become mired in the dense details, theological allusions and diagrams. However, what resounds loudly and clearly from Reel Theology is that “conversation between Christians and Hollywood should be two-way and open-ended, a dialogue and not a diatribe.”

Mary Silwance teaches English at Bishop Miege High School in Shawnee Mission, Kan. Her e-mail address is silwance@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2001