Teaching Religion and Film: A Review

As I have mentioned in other reviews of film and religion books, the interdisciplinary field is in something of its teenage years.  While it is a particularly strong field, it is at a point in its life where it must decide…or articulate…which path(s) it will take.  In his collection of essays, Teaching Religion and Film, Gregory J. Watkins brings together some of the finest thinkers, writers, and practitioners in the field to share their thoughts on possible next steps and the ways in which they are currently integrating the two in their classrooms.  In the process, the field takes a great leap forward.

While the title of this book may frighten off potential readers, it should not.  It proves to be an invaluable resource for both professors of religion and film and religion and film by themselves.  In fact, any teacher interested in using film in the classroom will have many take-aways as well.  While each contributor has a pedagogical focus, their essays all speak implicitly (or more often explicitly) about the nature and effectiveness of film.  Moreover, in placing film and religion in conversation with one another, they help shed light on new ways of engaging religion.

All of the articles here veer away from the type of film and religion/theology scholarship that seeks to theologize or uncover hidden spiritual meanings in particular films.  In fact, most of them favor a reverse hermeneutic in which film either becomes a unique medium for religious expression or challenges the ways in which we think about religion.  These, however, are two of four trends that have emerged in the development of the field.  Watkins notes the four briefly in his introduction:  “(1) using religion to interpret movies (what some call the ‘theological’ approach); (2) using movies to critique religion; (3) using movies to promote religion; and (4) using movies to expose cultural values (or what some call the ‘ideological’ approach)” (5).

While it is tempting to highlight every chapter in this collection, I do not have the time.  Instead, I will point to a few that I believe are most helpful.  The first chapter, “What Are We Teaching When We Teach ‘Religion and Film?'” by William L. Blizek and Michele Desmarais, unpacks the four-fold division that Watkins references in his introduction, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each.  In his essay, Conrad Ostwalt builds on his previous work with Joel Martin and adds a fourth approach to their theological, mythological, and ideological critiques of film.  To this, he adds “sensory criticism” which resists the dominant practice of narrativizing a film and instead relies on techniques that guide students/viewers in critical seeing and hearing.  This falls in line with some religion and film scholars’ assertions to allow the film to speak for itself, rather than having a particular theology imposed upon it.

In “The Pedagogical Challenges of Finding Christ Figures in Film,” Christopher Deacy takes Anton Karl Kozlovic to task over his frequent tendency to find Christ figures in film.  He challenges both his checklist for Christ-like status and his inability to find filmic characters that meet more than a handful of his criteria.  He writes, “When a film is not seen qua film but only for its affinity with scriptural accounts of Jesus’s divinity, then limitations to the ensuing exploration are inevitable” (133).  Watkins’ own chapter is especially helpful as he walks the reader through a syllabus of his course that introduces students to a variety of theories of religion through film.  Again, he, like other contributors, asks, “Do films make possible distinctive forms of religious expression and/or experience” (234).

The wealth of other essays cover a wide range of topics.  Even the chapters on using film for Buddhist or Islam courses will be helpful to professors of other religions.  The chapter on designing a film and religion course in India has great implications for classrooms around the world as well.  While these essays raise difficult theoretical and pedagogical issues, they do not do so without remaining accessible to even the casual reader.  Watkins’ collection shows that the field has a bright future indeed.  Here’s hoping that seminaries, divinity schools, and religious studies departments take note!