The Value of Religious Films

October 13, 2011 — 10 Comments

I do not like preachy films. This goes for all films, religious or otherwise. I don’t need some movie trying to sell me the idea that Christianity is the path of salvation, nor do I need a movie selling me on a political ideology. I love stories. Good stories. Those stories can have meaning, or theme, or even a point they’re trying to make, but no good story can be preachy. Why, then, am I so often attracted to films about religion or religious people?

I can break it down into three types of religion-themed films, which interest me:

  • The first is the bible story/myth. I’m talking about adaptations of stories in holy texts. The Ten Commandments. The Passion of the Christ. That sort of thing.
  • The second is the “religious people” film. These films are about people who live in a religious society, are often religious themselves, and are often wrestling with their beliefs on some level. Recent examples would include A Serious Man and Of Gods and Men.
  • Finally, there’s the religious allegory film. These are films that play on religious and spiritual themes, or recall religious stories in order to elevate their material. Superman being a mixture of Moses and Jesus is a good example. Though Close Encounters of the Third Kind is not really at all about religion, it definitely recalls a certain religiosity or spirituality.

I find all three of these types of films fascinating. Though I’m not religious, I very much enjoy the stories from the Bible, and I find the literary value in them nearly endless. Like great works by Shakespeare or Dickens, Bible stories provide a lot of room for amazing thematic interpretation. Similarly, though I don’t really wrestle with my belief in religion, I do sympathize with belief, and as such I find myself deeply interested in the personal quandaries of those who do believe. More importantly, the questions these characters are asking, are usually not as simplistic as “is there a God?” They’re dealing with questions of how to live a good life and remain hopeful in the face of adversity. What greater themes could you find in a film?

The literary allusions associated with religious films also make them very rewarding. Even the smallest allusion to a Bible character or story can bring to mind themes that elevate the subject matter of a story. Sometimes it’s cloying and silly, but when done right, it can be the perfect little addition to film.

I do not care for evangelical films. I get why they are made, but they are preaching. Instead of attempting to tell interesting stories, they are concerned with proselytizing. That’s boring, and it’s insulting when it’s so brazen. Last year, for some silly reason, I watched one of those religious films. It was basically an It’s a Wonderful Life kind of story, though it was more clearly a knock-off of the Nicolas Cage film, The Family Man. Really. It was basically the exact same film. The only difference was that in the religious film version, the main character’s original path would have been to become a pastor. It was awful.

Keep those types of films away from me, but give me more religion. Give me The Passion of Joan of Arc, or The Last Temptation of Christ. Give me The Life of Brian and Black Narcissus. I love these films passionately. They are grand in theme, and personal in execution. They are also often complex. Not simply content to take their stories at face value, but to really examine the meanings behind the religious themes involved. They represent filmmaking and storytelling at its finest, and though I do not believe, I can still appreciate a damn good story.

And I apologize for swearing at the end there.

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10 responses to The Value of Religious Films

  1. 

    Agreed. Preachy films are the worst. I always find myself hating them even if I agree with some of the ideas.

    The whole evangelical movement of film is rooted in this harmful and narrow-minded mentality that Christians should create an alternate culture instead of engaging the culture. So far, it hasn’t helped their cause much, but it has made a lot of terrible art.

    • 

      That’s interesting, the idea that they are creating an alternate culture. Like they’re creating their own culture motivated purely by a born-again belief in Jesus. I totally understand why they’d do that, but it seems to me like they’re missing out on the beauty of a larger shared culture with a wide variety of viewpoints.

      Also, the movies suck, which can’t be fun.

  2. 

    I’m not a fan of preachy films either. Particularly in religious films as I come from a Catholic background. I don’t mind if it has some kind of message to display but if it drags the story, then it no longer becomes a film but rather narrow-minded sermon that just beats you in the head over and over again.

  3. 

    What’s not to like about evangelical films? It makes every plot instantly resolvable, no matter how complicated the setup. A character in crisis accepts Jesus, God loves you, the end.

  4. 

    It’s just so sad that religion seems to become an increasingly touchy topic. That is if you do anything that is the slightest provocative, mocking or critical. Recently Terry Jones said that he thought Life of Brian couldn’t have been made today. I’m afraid he might have a point.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2047661/Monty-Python-star-Terry-Jones-Life-Brian-today-political-correctness-religious-extremism.html

  5. 

    I love religious films because they often resonate the struggle I have with applying and living out my faith– whether the film is about Chris tians or Muslims or Hindus or general “faith” in something unseen.

    I also dislike evangelical films. There’s been a couple by the Billy Graham association that haven’t been too bad, at least until the end. The film Fireproof had some good moments. But they have yet to make a really good film because they aren’t interested in art, but in the message. Like all mediums, I think that they could use their restrictions for art, but they haven’t yet.

    This doesn’t mean that preaching is bad. There are some great films that preach. Ordet has a marvelous, silent sermon. Pulp Fiction has some wonderful preaching by Samuel L. Jackson. Do The Right Thing has some of the most straightforward preaching in a film, so subtlety there. We just don’t like hearing the same sermon again and again.

    • 

      I think that in film there’s a difference between characters preaching and the film preaching. As much direct to the camera preaching as we get in Do the Right Thing, the messages of the film as a whole feel a lot more nuanced and complex than any straight up preaching could allow.

      Sam Jackson, might quote scripture in Pulp Fiction, but as we find out later in that film, it was always just a show. Only at the end does he consider the meaning of that passage, and through his own interpretation decides on a path for the rest of his life. But even then, the movie isn’t preachy about it. We see nobility in Jules’ new take on life, but the movie doesn’t outright say that the only way to lead a good life is to follow in Jules’ footsteps.

      It’s an important distinction to make.

  6. 

    I agree with that distinction.

    And the preaching of Jackson in PF I was only talking about the last scene. Although his quoting of Ezekiel is one of the finest Scripture quotations ever.

  7. 

    I would prefer preachy movies to movies that try to discredit a certain religion.

    The begin of lies, Paul and the such likes bore. They end up being poor in selling the New Age.

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