Thursday, October 28, 2010

God in the Movies: When Banal Religion is Disguised by Humour

by Christine Barton

Religion plays such a large role in today’s society that it is not surprising that it finds its way into films (Hesion, 1947). But when we talk about religion in film, what exactly do we mean? Are we referring to films that are formally about religion or that tell stories of the Bible? Are we talking about films that discuss people’s religious beliefs and how they are tested? Does a religious film have to delve into philosophical discussions over the existence and meaning of God? Or, can a religious film simply have themes that relate to religion and spirituality in both direct and indirect ways? The cinema is a source of revelation about our place in the world. Movies reveal our hopes, our fears and what we value as human beings (Stone, 2000). Film offers us a creative and imaginative language that can bridge the gap between the rational and the aesthetic, the sacred and the secular, the church and the world, and thereby provide a refreshing take on old and often sad narratives (Stone, 2000).

Mahan (2002) describes “the effort to transform the written gospel accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus into a compelling film” as one “full of challenges”. The visual representation of Jesus has changed over the course of time, yet in the 6th century the portrayal of Jesus as Pantocrator, with long dark hair and a trimmed beard, became standard (Bakker, 2009). Over time the colour of his hair changed to blonde, but his beard was retained (Bakker, 2009). Long, loose hair was regarded as a symbol of divinity (Bakker, 2009), so it was only natural that this visual depiction was also used in the representation of Jesus in film. Critics argued that because Jesus was a man, he could be depicted in film, but a God who could not be depicted in words certainly could not be reflected in images (Bakker, 2009). So perhaps, as Bergesen and Greeley (2000) suggest, it is the representation of God on the big screen that is a challenge for Hollywood to undertake. Could this be because of Hollywood’s purported hostility to religion (Bergesen and Greeley, 2000) or does it simply boil down to difficulty in presenting a visual depiction of the divine, the transcendent and the almighty

Films about Jesus, God, or religion in general, face the same aesthetic and commercial challenges as any other movie, because as Mahan (2002) suggests, a significant subject does not necessarily always produce a compelling film. Mahan (2002) also argues that the attempt to portray on film the central narrative of religious communities has always been met with suspicion by believers and non-believers alike. Depicting God in film raises issues of whether any visual representation of divinity is acceptable and how this divine God should be interpreted, depicted and represented. Filmmakers attempt this task with their own assumptions and questions of faith in mind (Bakker, 2009; Mahan, 2002), yet through the process of mediatization, the representation of these religious images has become more oriented towards entertainment and the consumer (Hjarvard, 2008).

The media work as agents for religious change through the process of mediatization (Hjarvard, 2008). In fact, the media have become the primary source of religious ideas, by moulding religious imagination in accordance with the genres of popular culture (Hjarvard, 2008). The media have taken over many of the social functions that used to be performed by religious institutions and this is particularly evident through film. This has also led to a gradual secularization and has transformed a society that once had a close identification with religious values and institutions, to a visual culture that turns to the media for all aspects of social life and interpretations of reality.

The media are distributors of religious representations of various kinds and these representations are produced, edited and delivered through genres like film and television. This inevitably leads the media to begin distributing what Hjarvard (2008) refers to as “banal religion”. Holy texts and iconography contribute to the accumulation of banal religious elements that are open to religious interpretation (Hjarvard, 2008). The power relationship between banal religious representations and institutionalized religion may vary, but the increasing role of media in society seems to make more room for the former. As conduits of communication, the media have become the primary source of imagery and texts about magic, spiritualism and religion (Hjarvard, 2008). Consequently, institutionalized religion in modern, western societies plays a less prominent role in the communication of religious beliefs and instead, banal religious elements emphasised by the media move to the fore of society’s religious imagination (Hjarvard, 2008).

In contemporary society, watching movies has become as normal as eating, sleeping or using the computer (Johnston, 2006). Film is now one of the primary sources for telling stories and interpreting reality, with the power of the movie resting on each individual’s gaze (Johnston, 2006). Movies help viewers understand and critique culture, while also allowing them to form perceptions of themselves, their values and their social world (Johnston, 2006). Many also find cinema a rich depository of images that celebrate the human spirit and put us in touch with the divine (Leonard, 2006). While movies themselves are not scriptures, they have the ability to project scripture in a new light in terms of culture and medium (Aichele and Walsh, 2002). They also provide us with much of the imagery that we have previously associated religion with, and this occurs in both over-simplified and over-the-top fashions.

However, many critics have argued that the visual representation of God in film is “futile, indeed false” and that these images “obscure God’s glory and convey false ideas about God”, while also arguing that “God communicates best through word, not symbols” (Johnston, 2006). Reinhartz (2007) further argues that God’s presence in the narrative and his role as Jesus’ father can be shown only indirectly. However, cultural expressions, like films, function as important resources for theological reflection (Johnston, 2006), so it appears to make sense that stories of God are told through the medium of film; a medium that is engaged in by millions. Given the power of the media, becoming conversant with its mixed messages is an essential tool for Christian life, involving a process of inculturation in which viewers can discover where Christ is already active within a given culture (Leonard, 2006).

Instead of trying to catch the miraculous and unmediated light for the screen, filmmakers in more recent times have begun to take a different approach, one more complex, demanding and cogent (Mitchell and Plate, 2007). These filmmakers have chosen to focus on chronicling and analysing the encounter of ordinary people with the divine (Mitchell and Plate, 2007). Right on the cusp of the new millennium, a new kind of religious film began to emerge. This new breed of film steered away from traditional Biblical epics and instead took a more modern approach, incorporating the use of clever humour in order to achieve box office success. Instead of portraying stereotypical Christ-like figures, several films began to take these representations one step further and start portraying the Christian God in human form. Two such films to accomplish this are Bruce Almighty (2003) and Dogma (1999). Both of these films depict a God that has rarely been seen in film before; God as a black man and God as a woman, respectively. These films break out of the traditional pattern and in doing so mount a fundamental and explicit challenge to the links between scripture, history and faith (Exum, 2006). From the very beginning of these films we know we are in for a non-traditional glimpse of God. However, the films do not throw out God’s supreme power and transcendence altogether, but rather focus on how God’s divine presence effects those it strikes (Mitchell and Plate, 2007).

The theologically complex, Bruce Almighty, humourously wrestles with the interface of divine power and human freedom. In a highly entertaining fashion, this film appeals to popular culture by depicting aspects of truth, beauty and goodness (Johnston, 2006). The film portrays Bruce (Jim Carrey) as a man consumed by self-importance and insensitivity, especially to God. This flawed protagonist has the ability to make viewers repulsed, especially by his attitude to his (cleverly named), estranged girlfriend, Grace (Jennifer Aniston). Bruce is a television news reporter who wants to be a local news anchor and blames God for not producing this miracle. In the film he takes on the role of God, acting out humanity’s most ancient desire; to be God (Leonard, 2006).

Unlike many other religious films that have merely depicted God as a shining white light, or simply a voice, God in Bruce Almighty is portrayed in human form, visually depicted as an African-American, played by Morgan Freeman. Yet looking past this non-traditional visual representation, Bruce Almighty suggests that God operated on two fundamental principles: “You can’t mess with free will” and “you can’t do everything” (Leonard, 2006). Christian theology teaches that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving (Leonard, 2006). Bruce Almighty gives this a contemporary spin. Rather than positing God deficient in power, it suggests God has a self-imposed limit on the exercise of power (Leonard, 2006). The film raises interesting images and issues, attempting to ask the most basic religious questions in a modern context, with humour. But what the movie really is about is God’s argument that, “The problem is that people keep looking up, when they should look inside…you want to see a miracle – then be a miracle” (Johnston, 2006).

If religious ideas or experience can be put into an irreverent or interesting package, so much the better. This is the appeal of Kevin Smith’s edgy but God-affirming movie, Dogma (Johnston, 2006). Met with much criticism, this movie affirms the existence of God and tells the story of a woman’s recovery of faith, while at the same time mocking organised Christianity and questioning theology (Johnston, 2006). This movie steers away from everything deemed traditional about religious films, presenting images of a 13th apostle and a statue of the “Buddy Christ”, winking and giving the thumbs up (Johnston, 2006). While the movie was regarded as somewhat of a joke, it does affirm the importance of faith, the benevolence of God and the divinity of Christ (Johnston, 2006), in a way that keeps viewers in their seats and entertained.

Described as a “zany, daffy, sometimes crude and tasteless, over-the-top movie” (Greeley, 1999, p. 22), Dogma portrayed God as a woman; a woman who also performed cartwheels. Technically speaking, since divine-figures need only resemble or resonate with the behavioural characteristics and life events of the historical divine, female divine-figures can just as easily fit this functional definition (Kozlovic, 2005). While many critics described Dogma and this representation of God as a woman, as blasphemous, what they failed to remember was that blasphemy involves the intention to do harm to God, religion, faith or the church (Greeley, 1999). Dogma did not intend to do this, but merely represented God as a comedian, who in the end is seen as loving and gracious. This humour is in fact a prelude to making some very serious, and funny, theological points.

While these films are highly entertaining and clear in their messages, we still must question whether they are truly religious or if they simply represent elements of Hajarvard’s (2008) notion of banal religion. Products which are tailored for consumption by masses, and which to a great extent determine the nature of that consumption, are manufactured more or less according to plan (Adorno and Rabinbach, 1975). The masses are not primary, but secondary, and are always an object of calculation and of the culture industry (Adorno and Rabinbach, 1975). The practices of the culture industry rest almost solely on profit, and through the distribution of discourse and ideology to the masses, a profit is almost always made. Cultural commodities are formed because of their value (Adorno and Rabinbach, 1975) and this statement rings true of the film industry. According to Walsh (2003) cinematic images of the divine perpetuate an ideology of triumphant individualism, and Kozlovic (2005) further argues that these images are a legitimate pop-culture phenomenon. More than just media inundation, we have come to live in a “media-mediated” culture, where our understanding of life, reality and our own experience is filtered through film (Kozlovic, 2005). In fact, many people within today’s society, especially the young, believe that popular culture is culture, and so theology must begin to take such cultural expressions seriously (Kozlovic, 2005).

Films that reach out and break down barriers (like Dogma and Bruce Almighty) tend to elicit positive responses, while also allowing viewers to recognise the significance of religion in today’s society and culture. Religious films that fall into the comedy genre effectively portray stories that can be related to by non-believers and those uninterested in religion. These films make religion more accessible to people who normally regard religion as irrelevant, by framing stories of the divine and religious elements in a way that is entertaining and relatable.

Popular cinema has moved forward in its cultural interpretations of the divine, by making them appealing to a wider ranging audience. The movie industry has recognised the secularization of society and has transformed religious values, practices and beliefs into visually pleasing and often humourous films that society has come to rely on for interpreting reality. There is no single person, entity, organisation, institution or power in our society today that even comes close to rivaling the power of film and television to shape our faith, values and behavior (Stone, 2000).

The media, as Hjarvard (2008) suggests, have taken on the role of religious institutions in shaping our religious imaginations, particularly through the use of religious films, and by doing this have provided both moral and spiritual guidance and a sense of community. However, the banal religious elements that these films tend to portray, move into the fore of society’s imagination and have resulted in a society in which individuals can no longer tell the difference between fiction and reality. However, putting the banality of the religion in films aside, the cinema remains an important tool to illicit interest in the religious world and to encourage the youth of today to recognise its importance in today’s society.


Adorno, T. W. and Rabinback, A. G. (1975). Culture Industry Reconsidered. New German Critique, 6, 12-19

Aichele, G & Walsh, R. (2002). Screening Scripture: Intertextual Connections Between Scripture and Film. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International.

Bakker. F. L. (2009). The Challenge of the Silver Screen: An Analysis of the Cinematic Portraits of Jesus, Rama, Buddha and Muhammad. Boston: Leidon.

Bergesen, A. J. and Greeley, A. M. (2000). God in the Movies. New Brunswick, N.J: Transaction Publishers.
Exum, J. C. (2006). The Bible in Film – The Bible and Film. Leidon, Boston: Brill.
Greeley, A. M. (1999). The Catholic Imagination of ‘Dogma’. National Catholic Reporter, 36(8), 22.

Hession, Brian, the Rev. (1947. Religion in films versus religious films. Sight and Sound, 16(62), p. 53.

Hjarvard, S. (2008) The Mediatization of Religion: A Theory of the Media as Agents of Religious Change. Northern Lights, 6(1), 9-26.

Johnston, R. K. (2006). Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue. Second Edition – revised and expanded. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.

Kozlovic, A. K. (2005). Jesus covered in a secular wrapper: The Christ-figure in popular films. Kinema: A Journal of History, Theory and Aesthetics of Film and Audiovisual Media, 24, 33-54.

Reinhartz, A. (2007). Jesus of Hollywood. New York: Oxford University Press

Leonard, S. J. (2006). Movies That Matter: Reading Film Through the Lens of Faith. Chicago, Illinois: Loyola Press.

Mahan, J. H. (2002). Celluloid Saviour: Jesus in the Movies. Journal of Religion and Film, 6(1)

Mitchell, J. & Plate, S. B. (2007). The Religion and Film Reader. New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.

Stone, B. P. (2000). Faith and Film: Theological themes at the cinema. St Louis, MO: Chalice Press.

Walsh, R. (2003). Reading the Gospels in the Dark: Portrayals of Jesus in Film. Harrisburg, PA and London: Trinity Press International.


Kozlovic, A. K. (2008). Cecil B. DeMille: Hollywood Macho Man and the Theme of Masculinity within His Biblical (and Other) Cinema. Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality, 2(2), 116-138.

Forshey, G. (1988). Jesus on Film. The Christian Century, 105(26), 801.

Gilmour, P. (2005). Text and Context: The Passion of the Christ and other Jesus Films. Religious Education, 100(3), 311.

Greeley, A. M. (1997). Images of God in the Movies. The Journal of Religion and Film, 1(1).

Mel Gibson’s Lethal Passion. (2006). In Beal, T. K. and Linafelt, T. (Eds.) Mel Gibson’s Bible. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stout, D. A. and Buddenbaum, J. M.(2003). Media, Religion, and "Framing". Journal of Media and Religion, 2(1), 1 - 3

Films Cited

Bostick, M., Brubaker, J. D., Koren, S., Carrey, J., O’Keefe, M., Shadyac, T., & Shadyac, T. (Director). (2003). Bruce Almighty. United States: Universal Pictures,

Mosier, S. & Smith K. (1999). Dogma. United States: Miramax Films

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