Things around Pop Theology have been somewhat lax over the past few weeks with end of the semester deadlines and a trip overseas. Now, with all that behind, you can expect more frequent posts. To celebrate (belatedly) the re-vamping of the website, I am giving away a copy of Tim Cawkwell’s The Filmgoer’s Guide to God. Read on for a review of the book. For those who respond with a comment about a film that revealed something about God to them, I will randomly select a response and send off a copy of the book to the author of the response.  I’ll keep the “contest” open until Friday night.  This post might move from the featured section to the print section, but will still be easily accessible. 

On one level, Tim Cawkwell’s The Filmgoer’s Guide to God is like a host of other film and religion books that discuss how films illustrate or embody religious concepts or beliefs. However, Cawkwell’s book is different, and better, than many of its counterparts because he examines the films as films, letting the narrative, the direction, cinematography, actors, and even production notes speak for themselves. Rather than forcing a square peg into a round hole, Cawkwell’s analyses consider how films not only fall in line with established Christian doctrines or images, but how they contribute fresh perspectives on these issues as well.

Throughout his text, Cawkwell keeps his eye on four directors, Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Roberto Rossellini, and Andrei Tarkosvsky, discussing at least one of them, or more, in every chapter. However, he also brings a host of other films and directors into discussion with them as well from Robert Duvall to Martin Scorsese to Francis Ford Coppola. Throughout, Cawkwell is admittedly focused on American and European films and the God to which he points is a Christian one, vascillating between Protestant and Catholic theologies. He explores specific terrain: films which engage with the meaning and purpose of human existence as it might be found in faith in a trinitarian, Christian God. Cawkwell argues early on that an increasing distrust in religious institutions have driven believers and nonbelievers to more individual interpreters of the world, most notably filmmakers. Numerous filimmakers, Cawkwell argues, resisted the “death of God cinema” and instead posed theological and religious questions in fresh ways.

Cawkwell divides his text into several themes: God’s grace and God’s silence, faith, salvation by water, violence, guilty as sin, oppression, pieta, crucifixion, resurrections, heaven, and a concluding chapter on the image of Christ (Jesus films). Cawkwell also offers a brief guide for suggested reading and how to find the films he discusses. Cawkwell doesn’t let these themes restrict him, but rather allows his discussion of directors and their films to seamlessly guide him from one concept to the next, another unique aspect of his book. Throughout each theme, Cawkwell examines how filmmakers (directors, actors, cinematographers, editors) all make decisions that directly affect the film’s religious or theological voice. A decision as “simple” as employing professional actors, like Bergman often did, greatly contributes to the resulting theological, religious, or spiritual tone.

In his discussion of “God films,” Cawkwell analyzes three “priest films” and the ways in which their characters interact with the divine. In the chapter on faith, he pays special attention to the films of Tarkovsky, who claimed that art could make visible things we cannot see. In the “salvation by water” section, Cawkwell explores “Baptist” films and apparently uses the denominational affiliation quite loosely in his analyses of films like The Apostle and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?. In his discussion of violence, Cawkwell claims that the American gangster film “offers a context to explore the suffering of the world not just by the willed evil in living and dying by the sword but also in ideas of guilt, redemption from evil, and ultimate salvation.”

Cawkwell’s “guilty as sin” chapter analyzes films that reflect the disorder of sin and the necessity of redemption through love. Oppression, pieta, crucifixion, resurrection: all of these themes necessarily emerge from the disordered sinfulness of the human experience. In these chapters, Cawkwell analyzes a variety of films from Rome, Open City to Mouth Agape to The Passion of Joan of Arc. In his discussion of heaven, I wonder if Cawkwell doesn’t limit his view too much by arguing that few of the films previously discussed do not readily portray heaven on earth. This assertion runs contrary to his previous discussion of human interaction that directly embodies Jesus’ call to kingdom living. Cawkwell’s concluding chapter on Jesus films, while interesting, is not particularly innovative.

In the end, The Filmgoer’s Guide to God is an entertaining and informative read that will, I imagine, introduce the casual and even more intense filmgoer to a host of new films of much spiritual importance. Cawkwell’s book emerges from work done with a film group at the Norwich Cathedral Institute. In fact, each chapter of his book would be a perfect starting point for a film and religion group in a local faith community.

So what film or films have been a helpful guide to God for you?