May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
December 13, 2011
I recently saw an advertisement for an intensive film and theology course at a local seminary, and it jogged loose a few thoughts about how these courses are typically conducted. It is not my intention to lampoon this upcoming event, as I am happy to see any hint of good cinema becoming part of the seminary experience. But the way this course was framed seemed so old hat that it made me consider what such a course would look like should I ever conduct (curate?) one again.
To that end, here are five proposed rules for a seminary theology and film class:
1. Don’t watch movies.
In the average theology and film class, there is a strong temptation to play that game in which every movie is strip-mined for sermon illustrations. In order to avoid this crippling and graceless hermeneutic, it is best to begin every course with a stern warning that participants actually stop watching movies until they are willing to push themselves past the Redbox toward films that defy such simple analogies. The proper study of cinema begins at the same place as the proper study of theology: a consideration of the way in which Divine acts of love take personal and historical shape. If you signed up for the course for any other reason, try again later.
2. Be critical.
In the average theology and film class, there is a lot of talk about theology. This is fine. However, you must also talk a lot about criticism. We need to start with Bazin. Then read some Agee, Kael, Ebert, Canby, Farber, Haskell, Dargis, etc… We are going to discover that at its best, film criticism is gripped by wondering why and how things are meaningful. Consider these: “Lessons in Wonder.”
3. Be meaningful.
There is a difference between talking about cinema and talking about theology. They draw on different resources; they mean things in differently. We are going to resist the temptation to collapse theology and film-watching into one mode of thinking because this tends to devalue their potentially life-altering distinctives. Theology provides the ethical rationale for investing our time in seeking out and understanding good cinema – film studies provides raw material for this journey. We are just going to let this tension abide.
4. Get redemptive.
If we don’t begin with the fundamental theological idea that cinema is meaningful because God is present in history, I think we have misunderstood both theology and cinema. This wiring has always been pretty loose in typical Evangelical analysis of cinema and culture, but it is time to get bold and start connecting some circuits. Incarnation, reconciliation, justice, apocalypse – this is the kind of stuff we have to work with.
5. Get personal.
I am not sure why this final rule is important, or what shape it takes in the classroom. But I do know that once you find your way to a director or genre or body of film that clicks with you, this is where the good work of theological response begins. The tendency in theological analysis of cinema is to turn films into textbooks that correspond to our own ideas about God and the bible. This is not the right way to go about things. You are going to find things in cinema that seem weighty and important to you. Our job here is to figure out why.