16 February 2015

Introducing Spirituality and Cinema …
‘Who are these like stars appearing?’

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute

Monday 16 February 2015

Opening Hymn (475):

Who are these like stars appearing ...?

Opening Reading:

Mark 11: 1-11

Opening Prayer:

God of all power,
Ruler of the Universe,
you are worthy of glory and praise.

Glory to you for ever and ever.

At your command
all things came to be:
the vast expanse of the interstellar space,
galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses,
and this fragile earth, our island home.

By your will they were created and have their being.

From the primal elements
you brought forth the human race,
and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill.
You made us the rulers of creation.
But we turned against you,
and betrayed your trust;
and we turned against one another.

Have mercy, Lord, for we are sinners in your sight.

Again and again, you called us to return.
Through prophets and sages
You revealed your righteous Law.
And in the fullness of time you sent your only Son,
born of a woman,
to fulfil your Law,
to open for us the way of freedom and peace.

By his blood, he reconciled us.
By his wounds, we are healed.

– Eucharistic Prayer C, The Book of Common Prayer (TEC, 1977), p. 370.


Well, after that hymn, referring to the saints as stars, that dramatic Gospel Reading in the Church of Ireland table of readings for Morning Prayer this morning [16 February 2015], where Christ is the centre of the show and welcomed to Jerusalem like a star walking the red carpet into the Oscar awards evening, and that prayer referring to interstellar spaces and galaxies, we are going to turn to the Stars … the Stars of Hollywood and the movies.

Of course, not all who seek the limelight are role models, nor should we forget those who are kept out of the limelight. But there is a lot of deep spirituality, some deep spiritual messages, in many movies. They provide interesting opportunities to raise spiritual and pastoral concerns within the context of popular, secular culture, and they also teach us a lot about how to convey truth, values and messages in successive generations.

I knew someone who said he had a great familiarity with the Bible. I asked him how? Had he read the Bible thoroughly, from beginning to end? Was he a daily Bible reader? I knew he had never studied theology.

“No,” he told me. “Everything I know I learned from movies.”

Which movies, I asked.

“Oh, The Ten Commandments, The Robe, The Greatest Story ever Told, Ben Hur, and Spartacus.”

How many of you have seen Exodus, the new epic movie that was launched before Christmas with the hope of taking the place of Cecil B De Mille’s Ten Commandments in our collective, cultural consciousness?

Perhaps more of us by now have seen Noah, the new American epic biblically-inspired film directed by Darren Aronofsky, written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel, and based – or supposedly based – on the story of Noah and the Ark. The film stars Russell Crowe as Noah along with Jennifer Connelly (as Noah’s wife, Naamah), Ray Winstone (Tubal Cain, Noah’s nemesis), Emma Watson (Ila, Noah’s daughter-in-law and Shem’s wife), Logan Lerman (Ham, Noah’s son), Anthony Hopkins (Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather), and Douglas Booth (Shem, Noah’s son).

One reviewer has called the flood scenes in this movie “a bit too Cecil B Demented for me” and wondered at the sophistication of antediluvian orthodontists given there are so many white-toothed characters. I find it very peculiar that production was put on hold late in October 2012 while Hurricane Sandy hit New York with heavy rain and flooding, and I find it frightening to think that Hannibal Lector may live as long as Methuselah.

But, joking apart, the movie has had mixed receptions since its release in the US almost a year ago month (28 March 2014 in the US; 4 April 2014 in Britain and Ireland).

On the day of its release on these islands, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was quoted as calling Noah “interesting and thought-provoking” and “impressive” after Russell Crowe visited him at Lambeth Palace after the movie’s British premiere for discussions on “faith and spirituality.” (Church Times, 4 April 2014.)

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a leading Jewish Orthodox Jewish rabbi, described Noah as “a valuable film, especially for our times.” Indeed, Darren Aronofsky said he had worked in “the tradition of Jewish Midrash” in order to create “a story that tries to explicate Noah’s relationship with God and God’s relationship with the world as it has become.” For example, the name of Noah’s wife is Naamah. Her name does not appear in the Bible but Aronofsky derives it not from the collapse of the Irish property market (NAMA), but from the traditions of the Midrash.

Yet this movie makes no specific mention of God. Then, of course, neither does the Book of Esther. But the official Vatican newspaper, L’Avennire, labelled Noah a “missed opportunity” that ignores God. The Guardian pointed out, however, that the Vatican stopped short of calling for a boycott of the Biblical epic.

The movie became the subject of criticism by conservative religious groups in the US and was banned in many Muslim countries. However, the director of the Damaris Trust, Nick Pollard, described it as “wonderful gift for the Church.” Tom Price of the Oxford Centre for Apologetics, said Noah asks perceptive questions: “Is there a God? Has God spoken? What is with human nature – are we good deep down, or is there something broken about us?”

Tom Price made a very valid observation about movies in a comment in the Church Times: “Ten years ago, most Christians’ reaction to cinema was generally much more negative and cynical. They were either asking for censorship, or judging the film project for having too much sex. Now I’m seeing audiences all over the UK wanting to engage with the stories, the characters, and the question.”

Another new movie last year was Calvary (April 2014), an Irish-made black comedy drama starring Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, and Isaach de Bankolé.

Brendan Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle, a priest who is the flip side to Sergeant Gerry Boyle in The Guard. A good man intent on making the world a better place, he is continually shocked and saddened by the spiteful and confrontational inhabitants of his small country town. One day, his life is threatened during confession, and the forces of darkness begin to close in around him.

The recent movie Gravity (2013), starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney was a story about two astronauts involved in the mid-orbit destruction of a space shuttle and their attempt to return to Earth.

Some commentators have noted religious themes in this movie. Without destroying the storyline for those of you still want to see Gravity, the film uses motifs from shipwreck and wilderness survival stories about psychological change and resilience in the aftermath of catastrophe. They signal that there is a dimension of reality that lies beyond what technology can master or access, the reality of God.”

The storyline deals with themes such as clarity of mind, persistence, training, and improvisation in the face of isolation and the mortal consequences of a relentless ‘Murphy’s Law.’ The film incorporates spiritual or existential themes, in the facts of accidental and meaningless death of Dr Stone’s daughter, and in the necessity of summoning the will to survive in the face of overwhelming odds, without future certainties, and with the impossibility of rescue from personal dissolution without finding the necessary willpower.

‘The Passion of the Christ’ … released during Lent 2004, became the highest-grossing non-English language film ever

Eleven years ago, I brought my two sons to see The Passion of the Christ (2004), Mel Gibson’s movie that dramatises his interpretation and synthesis of the passion narrative in the Four Gospels.

The Passion of the Christ is an appropriate movie to consider as we prepare for Lent. It largely tells the story of the last 12 hours of Christ’s life, from the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane to (briefly, albeit very briefly) his Resurrection, with flashbacks to his childhood, the Sermon on the Mount, the saving of the women about to be stoned, and the Last Supper, with a constructed dialogue entirely in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew.

When the movie was released on on Ash Wednesday (25 February) 2004, it stirred considerable controversy, with allegations of anti-Semitism, the amount of graphic, if not exacerbated or gratuitous, violence, particularly during the scourging and crucifixion scenes, and serious questions about its interpretation of the Biblical text, narrative and message.

On the other hand, there were many claims of miraculous savings, forgiveness, new-found faith, and even one report of a man who confessed to murdering his girlfriend although police had decided previously she had died by suicide.

The Passion of the Christ was a box-office success – it grossed more than $370 million in the US, and became the highest-grossing non-English language film ever.

As we left the cinema, my then-teenage sons were not so much shocked as stunned. They noticed too how everyone left the cinema in silence.

The success and attention of the movie, apart from the media controversies, raises many questions for us:

● How do we convey and proclaim the message of Christ?

● Are we using means that are out-dated, not speaking to people, who are truly willing to listen and to learn?

● Where did we get the idea that no-one would come to church after confirmation age?

● Where did we get the idea that no-one would come to church and sit in the dark in uncomfortable chairs?

● Where did we get the idea that no-one would hear the Gospel story and still come out wanting to tell others and to share the experience?

Sometimes when movies ridicule the Church, I wonder: do we deserve it?

How many of you have bad experiences of weakly-thought out ideas at school assembly?

The Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies are probably important for conveying spiritual truths to many we never reach because they tell us:

● The importance of protecting the innocence of children.

● That those who possess power and authority (including parent-figures and religious leaders) are not always right, and don’t always possess a monopoly on truth and wisdom.

● That religious power and authority can be misused.

● That beauty and goodness are not always to be equated.

● That ugly are not bad because we see them as ugly.

● That simple people can be wise.

● That life is a journey, and a pilgrimage.

● That we must continue to hope and believe that, in the end, good will triumph over evil.

The Mission was the No 1 movie on the Church Times Top 50 Religious Films list

The Mission (1986), starring Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons, was chosen as the No 1 movie on the Church Times Top 50 Religious Films list. This movie provides us with:

● Challenging images of the church,

● Questions about the role of the Church in political issues,

● different models of the Church,

● a variety of models of ministry,

● different models of mission,

● a way of discussing the Church’s engagement with social justice issues,

● an introduction to the relevance of liberation theology today.

Some other movies you could use in your ministry include:

Amadeus (1984):

This movie gives an important background to the life of an important composer for Church music (Mozart’s Requiem, Coronation Mass, &c.). It can be used to discuss:

● Why is jealousy a sin?

● Why does God bestow genius on apparent fools?

● What happens when art becomes competition?

● How do we make peace with the gifts we are given instead of letting envy of others destroy our souls?

● What happens when we reduce prayer to bargaining with God, as in Salieri’s case?

● How do we cope when it appears God does not answer our prayers?

● The dangers of binge drinking among young people.

● Parental discipline.

Scripture passages that can help in the discussion group:

● Acts 7: 9-10, The Patriarchs are jealous of Joseph;

● James 4: 1-3, Jealousy and raving lead to conflict;

● I Corinthians 2: 12, Different gifts;

● I Corinthians 7: 7, God’s gifts vary;

● Luke 13: 30, Jesus warns the disciples about competition.

American Beauty (1999):

This could hardly be described as an overtly religious film. Yet it resonates with deep questions about the human condition:

● Who am I?

● Why am I here?

● Where am I going?

● What is the meaning of beauty?

● What is the meaning of work?

The Awakening (1990):

This movie is about a doctor working in the Bronx in the 1960s working with people with chronic mental illness. We can use to discuss:

● Great moments of awakening.

● When did you glimpse the transcendent and experience fullness of life?

Bladerunner (1982):

This is based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), and set in the year 2019.

It is a story of the alienated and the marginalised, the androids, with a limited lifespan, who seek to know the meaning of life, who question their place in society, want to have life and have it to the full, and question their ‘maker’, Dr Eldon Tyrell.

● Is it a grim story?

● Is it is a story of life and death, self-sacrifice, and of giving, emptying love?

● What is the meaning of life?

● How do we plan for the future?

Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001):

● Look at her desire for lasting relationship.

● Her search for her identity and self-worth.

Dead Man Walking (1995):

● Discuss the role of chaplains (prisons, and schools, hospitals &c.)

● Discuss the death penalty.

● The role of the church and pastoral figures in influencing public policy and morality.

● The value of individual life.

● Ethics in crime and punishment.

● Could be used to introduce a group to more serious, “high art” literature, such as Dostoevsky’s ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ in The Brothers Karamazov.

ET (1982):

● The incarnation,

● God’s intervention in our lives,

● Self-giving (see also Schindler’s List).

The Exorcist (1973):

There was strong criticism of The Exorcist at the time it was first released in 1973 from conservative Christians, and cinemas were picketed. Some scenes are shocking, even today, almost 40 years later. But the author and the director were Roman Catholics seeking to open people’s eyes to the reality of God and to highlight the awful nature of evil that distorts God’s creation. This movie could be used to discuss:

● The reality of evil, and the objectivity of God.

● Coping with psychiatric cases presented during pastoral work.

● Bad images in movies of the “other”: e.g., the opening scene conveys the impression that Islam inhabits a world of evil; there are similar portrayals of Islam as evil in Aladdin (Disney) at the introduction of Jaffar.

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994):

● The relevance of the church and ministry (the character of Rowan Atkinson).

● The funeral scene in terms of coping with death, grief and funerals in the course of pastoral ministry.

● Talking about sexuality and church membership, or the pastoral responses to HIV/AIDS.

● Talking about faithfulness in marriage and relationships.

Gladiator (2000):

● A strong theme of belief in the afterlife.

Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies:

● The importance of protecting the innocence of children.

● That those who possess power and authority (including parent-figures and religious leaders) are not always right, and don’t always possess a monopoly on truth and wisdom.

● That religious power and authority can be misused.

● That beauty and goodness are not always to be equated.

● That ugly are not bad because we see them as ugly.

● That simple people can be wise.

● That life is a journey, and a pilgrimage.

● That we must continue to hope and believe that, in the end, good will triumph over evil.

The Mission (1986):

● Images of the church,

● The role of the Church in political issues,

● models of the church,

● models of ministry,

● models of mission,

● The Church’s engagement with social justice issues,

● The relevance of liberation theology today.

Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (1979):

Be careful of who you choose to use it with, if you use it, and their sense of humour. But this movie may be used with some groups to discuss:

● Making the Gospel relative rather than relevant.

● Hermeneutics and Biblical literalism: ‘Blessed are the cheese makers’.

● What difference does the incarnation/cross make?

● What role has the church in criticising political life?

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) or Bend it Like Beckham (2002):

● The place of ethnic minorities within our community.

● Inter-church and inter-faith marriages.

● Love as the basic ingredient of long-term commitment and relationship.

A River Runs Through It (1992):

● Can we love without completely understanding?

● How do we cope with others rejecting our offers of help/friendship/love?

● How is faith passed on in families?

● How will you convey faith to your own children?

● How can painful memories be healed? Can we come to terms with them?

● How does remembering the past weaken/strengthen relationships with God?

● Do all things lead to God?

● This movie can be used too in ministerial formation and preaching programmes.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) and The Thin Red Line (1998):

● The horrors of war.

● Sacrifice and what we owe each other

● Compare Private Ryan with the story of the Good Shepherd and the Lost Sheep.

● Pastoral responsibility for the weak and the lost

Scream (1996):

This cult movie is about a teenage murderer in Paris in April 2000 dressed in the cape and mask that was the hallmark of this movie.

● Discuss the role of movies and the media in upholding or destroying societal values.

Shadowlands (1987):

● A good one because it is relatively short (89 minutes).

● There is the obvious Christian interest in the writings of CS Lewis.

● A story of love and death and of Christian hope.

● Suffering and how we understand pain.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962):

This is an obvious movie to use with mid-teens because it is on the reading list for the Junior Certificate. It can be used to discuss Christian values applied to:

● Compassion;

● Compassion for outcasts;

● The value of truth;

● The misuse of power;

● Understanding human weakness;

● Racism;

● Truth;

● Innocence and childhood;

● Ethics and crime and punishment.

Trainspotting (1995) and Traffic (2000):

A useful way with a youth group to discuss the dangers of drug misuse and the consequences of the narcotics trade.

The Passion of the Christ (2004):

● How do we convey and proclaim the message of Christ?

● Are we using means that are out-dated, not speaking to people, who are truly willing to listen and to learn?

● Where did we get the idea that no-one would come to church after confirmation age?
● Where did we get the idea that no-one would come to church and sit in the dark in uncomfortable chairs?

● Where did we get the idea that no-one would hear the Gospel story and still come out wanting to tell others and to share the experience?


If you find yourself using movies in pastoral, parochial, youth or spiritually-focussed groups, do not leave your humour outside the Church door. Reinhold Neibuhr once observed, ‘Humour is a prelude to faith, and laughter is the beginning of prayer.’

Or, as Conrad Hynes says in The Comic Vision and the Christian Faith: “If humour without faith is in danger of dissolving into cynicism and despair, faith without humour is in danger of dissolving into arrogance and intolerance.’ And Psalm 2: 4 notes: “Who sits in the heavens laughs.”

Closing Prayer (Collect of the Day):

Almighty Father,
whose Son was revealed in majesty
before he suffered death upon the cross:
Give us grace to perceive his glory,
that we may be strengthened to suffer with him
and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Some reading and resources:

Corley, Kathleen E., and Webb, Robert L., Jesus and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (London/New York: Continuum, 2004).
Denizen, Norman K., Images of Postmodern Society: Social theory and contemporary cinema (London: SAGE Publications, 1991).
Dickerson, Matthew, Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in the Lord of the Rings (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003).
Egan, Joe, Brave Heart of Jesus: Mel Gibson’s Postmodern Way of the Cross (Dublin: Columba, 2004).
Johnston, Robert K., Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000).
Leonard, Richard, Movies that Matter: Reading Film through the Lens of Faith (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2006).
Maher, Ian, Faith and Film: Close Encounters of an Evangelistic Kind (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2002, Grove Evangelism Series Ev 59).
Marsh, Clive, and Ortiz, Gary (eds), Explorations in Theology and Film (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).
McLaren, Brian D., The Church on the Other Side: Doing ministry in the Postmodern Matrix (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000 ed).
McMillan, Barry, in Michael Breen, ‘The Future Is Now: The Matrix as Cultural Mirror’, in Eamonn Conway and Barry McMillan (eds), Technology and Transcendence (Dublin: Columba, 2003, pp 22-35).
Mraz, Barbara, Finding Faith at the Movies (Harrisburg: Continuum/Morehouse, 2004).
Neal, Connie, The Gospel According to Harry Potter, spirituality in the stories of the world’s most famous seeker (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).
Pecklers, Keith (ed.), Liturgy in a Postmodern World (London and New York: Continuum, 2003).
Wright, Alex, Why bother with theology? (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2002).

Regular film reviews in the Church Times, &c.

Web resources:

www.hollywoodjesus.com – “Visual movies, reviews, with explorations into the deeper more profound meaning behind film, music and pop culture.”
www.damaris.org.uk – “Helps people relate Christian faith and contemporary culture.”
www.word-on-the-web.co.uk – Includes monthly film reviews.


For reflection:

● What would your three favourite films of all time be, and why?

● If you could be one character from a film, who would it be and why?

● Which film has had the most powerful impact upon you, and why?

● Can you recall a film that has challenged, disturbed, or strengthened your faith in God in any way?

● If you have seen any film portrayals of Christ, how realistic do you think they were?

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes and handouts were used in a presentation in the series of Monday morning reflections on Spirituality with MTh students on 16 February 2015.

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