Sanctuary Cinema: A Review

The contemporary state of affairs between Hollywood and the Christian church betrays a complex history that entails cooperation, appropriation, and rejection. Speaking broadly, the church today, and for quite some time, has leaned towards the latter, taking a highly critical approach to the perceived encroaching secularism of Hollywood. However, with the advent of cinema, nearly every Christian denomination recognized the (potential) value of motion pictures and even invested in their own projection system to exhibit films. Some churches and religious organizations, frustrated by the lack of suitable pictures coming from Hollywood, even began creating their own films. Anyone remotely interested in the history of film or Christianity’s response to modernity/popular culture will thoroughly enjoy Terry Lindvall’s Sanctuary Cinema: Origins of the Christian Film Industry, which explores the earliest stages of the film/religion relationship.

In Sanctuary Cinema, Lindvall provides something of a narrative structure to his earlier book, The Silents of God:  Selected Issues and Documents in Silent American Film and Religion, 1908-1925, a collection of documents that highlight the various religious responses to silent film. In this book, however, he also provides a historical context through which to examine Christianity’s reaction to film, specifically its previous interactions with icons and the theater. Lindvall writes, “Examining the reception of the cinema within the context of these two ancient ways […] of communicating religious messages enables us to escape a temporal entrapment and chronological snobbery, of thinking that all responses are novel and unique” (20). Obviously, this is a welcome reminder for both religious critics and critics of religion who observe Hollywood or Christianity’s relationship to it. Lindvall also notes how landscape painting and visual sermons served as cultural predecessors that positively influenced the church’s reception of the cinema.

While Lindvall is most interested in Christianity’s responses to Hollywood, here, he is only interested insofar as they contribute to the Church’s quest to create their own sanctuary cinema.  So, in a sense, he is outlining the birth of the Christian film industry, a heretofore largely ignored topic.  Importantly, he defines Christian films as films “of, by, and for the people of the church, not aspiring to high aesthetic values nor aiming for economic profit, but seeking to renew, uplift, and propagate” (1).  He adds, “[…Just] as icons were fashioned not to draw attention to their craftsmanship but to draw spectators into worship, so Christian films have been crafted primarily to preach rather than to entertain, to emphasize moral and religious concerns rather than aesthetic delights” (1-2).  This concern marks much of Christian film production throughout history, and it is certainly ironic that the reverence that Christians have for the Gospel message does not translate into a desire to make aesthetically pleasing films.

After he establishes his historical context, Lindvall discusses the development of a sanctuary cinema, spurned on by the revolutionary, yet largely unknown, Rev. Herbert A. Jump, the foremost advocate of the use of films in congregations. Next, he analyzes the most popular religious films that flooded the sanctuaries. He then takes a look at the nonsectarian side of religious filmmaking, the search for “better” films, and the rapid decline of religious filmmaking in the silent era. He concludes with an insightful analysis of the influence that this early relationship had on both film and the church.  Not only did film alter the religious culture, but it also became something of a new religion itself, espousing its own mythologies in direct competition with Christianity’s.

As someone researching the contemporary iteration of this relationship, Lindvall’s text is a helpful reminder that there is truly nothing new under the sun. Far from simply providing a historical context for this research, Lindvall’s text can help us better understand the attitudes and actions of contemporary filmmakers like Alex and Stephen Kendrick, media ministers in Albany, Georgia. The plots of their films (Flywheel (2003), Facing the Giants (2006), and Fireproof (2008)) are not drastically different from those of their silent, morally uplifting forebears like The Stream of Life (1919). This is not to slight the work of the Kendrick brothers or those early silent filmmakers because both (have) found enormous popularity and financial reward within their intended audience. The Kendrick brothers’ motivation for making their own films finds historical precedent as well. Lindvall writes of the silent era religious filmmakers, “Making films became as important as showing them, in part because the church believed that Hollywood was out of touch with its values and needs. Thus, an ecclesiastical mission evolved among many lay church leaders to make and market the films themselves” (160-161). Echoes of such frustrations can be heard in Alex’s assertion that “Hollywood tends to focus on the world views in New York and California, and we try to tell stories relatable to middle America, for the rest of us if you will.”

While the Kendrick brother’s are riding high, if Lindvall’s history is any indication, it could be short-lived. Lindvall shows that just as soon as Protestant filmmaking rose, it began to decline. One can blame this demise on a host of reasons from the transition to sound which necessitated more expensive production costs, radio broadcasts, and a growing suspicion of the corruption of Hollywood. Lindvall, however, recognizes that the church itself is not above reproach. He writes, “[…The] church chose not to invest sufficiently in the material culture in which it found itself embedded. This was one of the most salient causes for film’s ultimate failure to establish a religious foothold” (208). Perhaps this is both a financial and an intellectual failure. Having just finished reading Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, I was mindful of his assertion that the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there has been no evangelical mind and that evangelicals have failed to contribute to the intellectual and cultural vitality of our culture. Perhaps this scandal also crippled religious groups as they failed to create engaging narratives and chose instead to simply critique Hollywood’s output. To be sure, Hollywood sex and violence is attractive, but so are intellectual, complex, and engaging scripts.

In the end, Lindvall’s Sanctuary Cinema is one of the most informative and entertaining books about religious cinema, and film in general, that I have read in quite some time. Read it!