‘Films have the power to invite reflections on religion and faith’

Photo: Vijay Pandey
Photo: Vijay Pandey

Edited Excerpts From The Interview •

Could you tell us about your experience with relating art and worship?
I have been able to worship god most often when it has been aesthetically prepared. Instead of going to a church service where there is 30 minutes of singing and 40 minutes of lecture, I have gone to a service where the whole event has an integrity, shape, nuance and is packaged in an artful way. When truth and aesthetics have been joined, I can, as a whole person, enter into the experience and meet god more easily.

In your experience, has there been a change in the way students approach religious studies?
According to a survey, 20 percent adults in the US said that the media, culture and arts are their primary sources of spiritual instruction, growth and experience. Not the church, not the institutions, but movies, music, art. Well, if that is the case, then we as church leaders need to ask how we understand that and find ways in which we can engage with that. This is very different from how things were 30 or 40 years ago. It represents a shift from a more rational approach in religion to one that recognises that the heart and the hands are also important. Students are keen on understanding how they can connect their experiences of beauty to their faith. I have also observed that in western culture film gives you permission to disagree strongly. It is one of the few areas in our culture where one can be polite yet impolite and open up discussions on religion and faith. Films have the power to invite reflections on religion and faith.

Is this true only for films based on religion/ religious texts or do you think it applies to other films as well?
It is important to tell stories based on religion, but my own orientation in my work is to look at those movies that you might not think of as religious movies. Any movie that deals with how a human should be invites reflections on religion and faith because what your faith is about is also what you think human beings are about. The goal of a culture’s understanding put together with an individual’s and a religious tradition’s understanding is to put him/her in a meaningful conversation to help him/her arrive at a better place. I am keen on looking at stories that scratch the surface to seek truth or portray goodness or beauty. I often ask students — what movie made you cry or reflect? Which story connected with my story or your story and made you question if is actually dealing with an ultimate concern?

Could you give us a few examples?
Titanic, for instance, is a story that could be told and understood in many ways. It is a story about a ship sinking. It is a story about a moment of hubris in which we thought we could control nature. The story was told by Rose who said that Jack saved her in every way that she could be saved. It is suggesting that the sacrificial love that Jack showed is not just accidental but is very much a part of what life is about. Viewers came out of the movie saying that I wish there was somebody who could save me like that. It made people cry. It was a movie that touched the soul. It was not a religious movie but it invited religious reflection. Or it invited you as a viewer to say “Do I identify with that? Is that how my life is? Is that how everybody’s life should be?”

Or, take for example Deepa Mehta’s Water. It wrestles with the question —what do you do when your faith and conscience clash? That is an ultimate question. What do you do when your formal religion and personal faith or personal sense of what is right don’t match — it is a perennial question that invites theological reflection. So, I work with students to help them reflect how a culture story — a film might dialogue with one’s personal story and with one’s understanding of “the ultimate story”… For Christians, it is the story of Jesus.

In theological analysis of films based on religion, there is a tendency to take the film as a textbook about the subject. What is your take?
We need to understand that if somebody wanted to write a textbook about a particular religious subject, they would have done so and not made a film. Our culture is increasingly committed to the importance of storytelling. It is unfair to reduce a work of art by pinning it down to “it says this”. We should instead look at it as something that invites new understanding, questioning or even commitment. This isn’t true for all movies, some of them are just popcorn movies. Also, many pastors and church leaders try to make movies based on dogma, but that is not the way to go about it. However, in my experience, a good movie helps you understand other people. They invite you to see a certain slice of the world that you wouldn’t see otherwise. A good story promotes tolerance, invites sympathy. We can think of any number of movies where we don’t necessarily condemn the bad guy because in the process of watching the movie, you have understood a little more about the complexity of their life. There are also studies that show that the structure of Bollywood movies is mythical. They are told in a way such that it evangelises the viewer. In fact, that is true for all stories. The storyteller is trying to see what is real — seeking the truth.

That kind of tolerance is rare. Noah was met with protests. How do you think we should approach theological analysis of cinema?
That film tells the story from the Jewish perspective. For the Jews, Noah was not a hero because he did not ask god why he killed all those people. For us Christians, it raises all kinds of questions and it is very interesting to see this story told in a different light. Many Christians did not like the movie because Noah becomes obsessed with righteousness as the only judgement rather than seeing righteousness as judgement and mercy together. So they thought that this was sacrilegious. But they were wrong. It was a movie made by someone who wanted to retell that story carefully and thoughtfully. There was 10 years of research. It should be a movie that invites our conversation, but good stories can make people mad and that is the other side. Not everyone should agree but there should be conversation and debate.

The first responsibility of a viewer while analysing cinema theologically is to look, listen and receive. If you go to a movie with an agenda, the movie never has a chance to work its magic on you. I say this to students as well as to myself. I let the movie take me in a direction. I have asked my students to write short reflections on the movie that was most spiritually significant to them in their lives and they can all identify one. I don’t define what spiritual means, I let them define it. For some, it means that their spirits were touched and they can say that their lives were transformed when they saw that movie, some say that they have learned more about their own faith through a particular story.

Name the movies that touched you the most.
I encountered god while watching a movie when I was 19. It was a very surprising event in which I saw the Academy Award-winning movie Becket in which I heard god say to me that you don’t have to necessarily be holy to serve me, just be obedient. I said I was happy to be obedient and god would make me holy over time.

The Theory of Everything is a story of two human beings who are dealing with adversity. It is a movie I would highly recommend. It made me think about my marriage to Cathy and how we relate as husband and wife. It made me reflect on the courage of a man who should have just given up. I walked away amazed at the possibility of a human being displaying such courage.


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