Shining a Light…

The world of theology and film studies may well be the most popular and fastest-growing field in theological education. We have seen a rush of books to the shelves ranging from The Gospel According To‘s to Theology and Who/Whatever. Some of these texts offer brilliant interpretations of much-loved films and television programs. Fewer still offer significant contributions to theological study. Even fewer manage to walk that fine where film criticism and theology inform and illuminate one another. Craig Detweiler‘s latest book, Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century, is one of those rare texts.In Into the Dark, Detweiler looks to an unlikely source to guide his movie selection, The Internet Movie Database. For Detweiler, this fan site becomes a place of serious reflection on films given users’ impassioned reviews that often lead to heated discussions. Detweiler offers a couple of appendices that illustrate his resource, The Top 250 Movies as Voted by IMDb Users on January 1, 2007. From this list, he culls the 45 films made in the 21st century. He returns to the list on April 15, 2008 and finds that 53 21st century films occupy the list with new ones added, some disappearing, and others repositioned higher or lower on the list. For Detweiler, this list represents a developing new cinematic canon. He writes, "The IMDb offers both a long view of cinematic history and an immediate snapshot of a film’s relative popularity and power. […] The IMDb offers an unparalleled, highly democratic portrait of films that have moved the human spirit" (27).

Through his survey of these popular films, Detweiler detects consistent themes. Broadly speaking, these themes deal with individuality, community, and history. More specifically, these films challenge the myth of the ahistorical, autonomous individual. They cause us to recognize and unmask our sin. They examine postmodern relationships. They focus on communities in crisis and everyday ethics in community. They address our need to engage with our past in order to move into the future. They provide moments for and a critique of nostalgia. All of these, identity, community, and history, Detweiler argues, provide a strong starting point for theological reflection.

Few writers in this field so clearly and directly outline their theological methodology for interacting with film the way that Detweiler does. He argues for a return to the notion of general revelation to accompany our (over?)emphasis on specific revelation. If God could speak through Balaam’s ass, then surely God can speak through one of Paul Schrader‘s scripts. Detweiler relies heavily on the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Jurgen Moltmann. Balthasar argued that beauty can lead to goodness and truth, thus reversing the Enlightenment notion that dogma necessarily drives ethics. Detweiler explains, "Our ethical notions flow out of God’s beautiful and dramatic actions. The law arose after God freed Israel from slavery in Egypt. Paul’s doctrines for the early church followed in response to the embodied faith and practices of Jesus” (40).

Like Gusteau in Ratatouille, who claims that everyone can cook, theologian Jurgen Moltmann claims that everyone, including atheists, is a theologian. Moltmann advocates a public theology that relies heavily on general revelation. Detweiler writes, "Anybody can be a theologian if they’re willing ot ask the hard questions, to address God directly with their deepest hurts and darkest doubts. This is where enduring films begin" (38).

The films that he discusses throughout his book do just that. Within each chapter, Detweiler references a host of films, but he focuses on two that serve as particularly important examples of the themes he discusses. For identity, he focuses on Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The first questions our notions of objectivity and the second “gives us the pleasure of romantic pursuit but then unravels it” (108). For his discussion of community, he examines Crash (communities in crisis) and Talk to Her (everyday ethics in community). Talk to Her, like Million Dollar Baby, focuses on end of life issues but in a shockingly more complex way. For history, he turns to Finding Neverland and Spirited Away. The former addresses the presence of nostalgia and imagination in history while the latter represents our need for fantasy and our desire to return to and tend the garden from whence we have come.

Far from leading him away form the church or scripture, Detweiler relies on both for his film criticism and relies on films to help enrich his reading of scripture and participation in the Church. He writes, "I am suggesting that a close reading of Eternal Sunshine might reawaken our neglect of potent but underexplored biblical passages like Song of Songs. Our wearying life experiences that resonate with Eternal Sunshine may find fresh connections in Ecclesiastes" (118). He ends with something of a shocking conclusion given the cinematic focus of his text: "The Holy Trinity invites me to join their community, to follow their conversation, to join their sacred song. Sometimes I praise God through the natural world. Other times I find Christ revealed in Scripture. The Holy Spirit still sneaks up on me, in the dark. But much to my surprise, that transcendent moment now occurs more often in the Eucharist than in the movies. What a surprising conclusion to this highly cinematic story" (279). On the other hand, this is not necessarily surprising, for while Detweiler lets the films speak for themselves, theologizing as they will, he still watches and writes with a theological framework that recognizes God’s love and desire for us to be in peaceful, loving communion with her and one another.

Into the Dark should now be one of the first resources to which students of theology and film turn. It is insightful and entertaining. Detweiler’s theology and film criticism also evidence a keen perception of the state of our contemporary society. Theology and film make for a great diagnosis of social ills and simultaneously point to the cure. His book can and should be employed in the classroom and the congregation. His thematic divisions just beg for application in church film clubs or seminary courses. Thankfully, he claims, "The next generation of pastors, teachers, and therapists must not only learn the language of film but also develop the art of interpretation–seeing and hearing what’s happening on big (and small) screens" (29). Here’s hoping that we can all rise to the task.