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Saturday, December 24, 2016

Secular Films with Religious Meaning: Film as a Potentially Deep Medium

A film need not be explicitly religious to proffer spiritual meaning. In fact, gritty stories that wrestle with thorny problems that people have faced or may face in everyday life can be more gripping even theologically than stories based on religious idealism, such as The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Ten Commandments.  

Hidden Figures, for example, “has no obvious religious message. Rather, it is a feel-good drama about unsung black heroines in the NASA space race of the 1960s.”[1] Yet this didn’t stop Fox from hiring Wit PR to market the film to churches. Wit PR invited several “opinion-leader” pastors to watch filming, one cleric remarking, “I came away really interested in using film to explore faith.”[2] The “aspirational story about women who have faith in themselves” could be used as fodder in a sermon on the Christian theological virtues of faith and hope—the key being to keep having faith in spite of insufferable obstacles.

Yet just as secular films such as Hidden Figures need not have an explicit religious leitmotif or thesis in order to be conveyers of deep meaning, so too such meaning in such films need not be evoked in a religious context. That is to say, even secular films can bypass the religious organizations altogether to bring principles with religious import to people directly.

The Matrix, for example, prompted much discussion not only about philosophical solipsism, but also Neo as the One. Although non-Christian Plotinus utilized this term to mean God in the second century, the Christological reference would not be lost on many Christians. In the film, Morpheus is convinced that Neo is the One who would go on to save humanity from the clutches of the machines. Morpheus’s faith, even in spite of the apparent impossibility in Neo’s death, never wavers. Christian viewers would hardly need a sermon to drive the point home. For non-Christians, the critical question of whether the assumption that one person should save humanity isn’t artificial was debated far outside of explicit religious circles. 

Film is indeed an incredible medium in being able to render even ubiquitous assumptions transparent and thus able to be critiqued and discussed. That even a secular film can put religious assumptions in a new, and thus transparent, light—whether the implications are critical or affirming for a particular religion or religion itself!—brings cinema into the business of engaging deep meaning. In fact, with such meaning at the subterranean level in a secular film, assumptions can all the more readily come to light. It is a paradox that religious meaning from the pulpit is typically readily apparent and thus the undergirding assumptions are rarely exposed to the open air.

To be sure, assumptional analysis of religious beliefs can be explicit on-screen. In The Da Vinci Code, for example, Robert Langdon and his former colleague debate the theological import of whether Jesus had a child—unknowingly right in front of the last descendant of Jesus Christ. The debate is actually about whether the historical Jesus is the Son of God: the One (not in Plotinus’s sense of the word). Such an on-screen exercise is of great value too—to Christians and even non-Christians. Again, the value lies in rendering religious assumptions transparent so they may be realized and even thought over. Film is indeed a valuable medium in that it can flush out truth (and untruth) hidden in clear view.

[1] Brooks Barnes, “Secular Hollywood Quietly Courts the Faithful,” The New York Times, December 24, 2016.
[2] Ibid.