Monday, December 10, 2007

Christopher Deacy: Film, Pop Culture, Myth and More

Christopher Deacy is head of religious studies at the University of Kent (United Kingdom) and a member of the UK Theology, Religion and Popular Culture Network Group. A member of Interfilm, he has sat on the Ecumenical Jury of international film festivals at Locarno and Karlovy Vary. His publications include Screen Christologies: Redemption and the Medium of Film (2001), Faith in Film: Religious Themes in Contemporary Cinema (2005), and Theology and Film: Challenging the Sacred/Secular Divide (co-authored with Gaye Ortiz, 2007).

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Deacy, thank you for your willingness to answer a few questions related to theology and film. I have benefited from your research and writings and hope that as a result of this interview your work is exposed to a new group of readers who can benefit from it as well. In my own personal and professional life I am increasingly interested in exploring a "practical theology" wherein theology engages popular culture, and particularly film. How did you come to be involved in theology and popular culture, and particularly in film studies?

Christopher Deacy: I began to be interested in this area in the mid-1990s when I was undertaking an MA in the University of Wales in the area of Christian eschatology. One evening, I took some time out from preparing for a seminar on the topic of Christian perspectives on Hell in order to watch a film. The film was The Witches of Eastwick (George Miller, 1987) in which Jack Nicholson plays the role of the Devil. What especially caught my attention was the way in which, on the one hand, my MA work entailed having to read up on all manner of erudite theological musings on Hell that I could glean from academic books and journals. On the other hand, the film seemed to synthesize a variety of film genres – comedy, romance, drama, horror, supernatural, etc. – in order to say something about an ostensibly similar subject matter but in a much more accessible and populist way. (That said, though, in his 1994 biography of Nicholson Patrick McGilligan wrote that in preparing to play the role of the Devil Incarnate the actor “pored over Gustave DorĂ©’s illustrations for Dante’s Inferno, and delved into St. Thomas Aquinas”, so there may not be quite such a discordance between the academic and the populist.) This really appealed to me. It was clear that the film broached theological territory and that this was on display to a much wider constituency of people than any of the academic writings on death and immortality that my MA work encompassed. I also felt disappointed that there was at the time little scope for drawing on a film such as that in academic study – as a passing footnote, fine, but at that point in my career it had never occurred to me to even contemplate using anything other than traditional academic sources to document an academic essay (the issue had simply never come up).

When I decided to embark on a Ph.D., the impetus for this was my growing interest in film. I thought that there were disciplinary boundaries to be crossed. Of course, I discovered in due course that there had already been plenty of attempts to bring together the worlds of theology and film within theology and religious studies – though nothing like the volume of literature that has come out since the mid-to-late 1990s. I thought that if I was going to commit myself to studying something in detail for the next 3 or 4 years, I wanted to have a personal connection with the material. I studied film in conjunction with theology and found that there was scope for a much greater synthesis than I had previously expected.

Morehead's Musings: You work in a cultural context in the U.K. that is obviously different than that of the U.S., but is there an increasing need in both countries for theologians to interact with popular culture and film in late modernity?

Christopher Deacy: Yes, I believe so. Religion is very much in vogue at the moment – both in the light of 9/11 in the US and the 7/7 bombings in the UK as well as in relation to the phenomenal success of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and other writings on the New Atheism. Yet, much of the treatment of religion accorded by authors such as Dawkins tends to miss the point of where religious expression tends to be located in contemporary society. Dawkins sees religion as an inescapably negative thing – a virus, no less – but there are less fundamentalist (and for that matter less monotheistic) types of religiosity out there, and when I argue that secular agencies such as film can have theological dimensions to them (as wonderfully encapsulated by Clive Marsh in Cinema and Sentiment in which he draws analogies between church-going and cinema-going) I feel that many people see this as a somewhat spurious area precisely because they tend to see religion as having very strict, and clearly demarcated, boundaries. The sort of work I do on the interface between theology and film is still sometimes met with derision within theology: I remember a class I taught to divinity students training for the priesthood 18 months ago in which the mere mention of popular films was met with a cry from at least one student of ‘blasphemy’ and a general consensus among the students that the ‘serious business’ of theology was being dumbed down.

At the same time, however, we live in a world – and this is particularly in evidence in modern America – in which conservative forms of Christianity are increasingly back on the agenda and there is an innate suspicion of secularity. Only films which are suitable for family viewing and which promote family values can thus be countenanced (see the writings of Michael Medved to this end). Even films shown in IMAX cinemas, often located in science museums, are problematic – in 2005, 12 such cinemas in the US refused to show films that refer to evolution for fear of a backlash from conservative Christians. In order to properly understand the world today, we can do nothing other than bring culture and theology into serious dialogue. Otherwise, debate is stunted. Conservatives like Medved deplore the way violence seeps into films, but they overlook the very real sense in which religion and violence are historically inter-connected. Whether we are talking about the Day of Atonement in Judaism or the Cross in Christianity, violence is not some external ‘other’ which is at odds with the ‘non-violent’ nature of religious traditions. And the way in which conservative critics applauded Gibson’s Passion of the Christ as passionately as they denounced Tarantino’s Kill Bill only serves to illustrate the point that, for some, violence will be condemned in one context, only to be condoned in another, for no other reason than that the said violence is believed in the former case to have a Christian telos or goal. You can’t have it both ways! Theologians must indeed interact with popular culture in late modernity to help fine-tune and contextualize a debate which has become too one-sided of late.

Morehead's Musings: You are the author of a number of books and articles on film. One area that you have written on I found very helpful, and that is what you have called the "uncritical appropriation of cinematic Christ-figures." Can you summarize some of your thinking here in terms of how some film viewers, particularly Christians, have read Christ-figures into film inappropriately, and what might serve as helpful correctives to this tendency?

Christopher Deacy: This is the tendency to try and forge often contrived analogies between the Jesus of the New Testament and the protagonists in such films as Cool Hand Luke, The Green Mile, Edward Scissorhands and The Matrix. Some have even gone so far as to develop typologies whereby a film character either is or is not a Christ-figure in view of the extent to which such characters perform miracles, have twelve disciples, are betrayed, die with their arms outstretched in a cruciform pose or are born again (literally or figuratively). My concern here is that Christian symbolism is being imposed on films. We lose sight of film qua film. The scenario is almost Gnostic in nature whereby the themes are often deemed to be hidden in a film, with the theologian’s job one of prizing them open. My concern is that though superficial analogies do of course abound – Andy Dufresne’s ‘cruciform’ pose towards the end of The Shawshank Redemption certainly amounts to a ‘new life’ of sorts – but there is often a point of departure between the film character and the New Testament Jesus. In The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976), e.g., the David Bowie character may come down to earth in a take on the Incarnation in order to save his dying planet, but his lapse into drunkenness by the end makes him powerless to effect change. By this stage, he is not even interested in present life let alone eternal life!

If any of the Christ-figure material is to have any real theological value, more substantial questions need to be asked concerning what theology is in the business of doing. There is more to theology than forming superficial parallels between texts. Rather, I am more interested in wider theological questions which ‘Christ-figure’ films raise. Instead of a debate about whether The Green Mile’s John Coffey is a Christ-figure because of what he says or does, I am more interested in the questions of institutionalization, non-conformity and racism which underlie the picture. I am always somewhat mistrustful of attempts to read Christ-figures into films because it tends to come across as trying to bring theology in through the back door and/or to (somehow) make audiences ‘more religious’ in the guise of serving them up escapist entertainment. There are also issues to do with what happens when a film has more than one Christ-figure in it (does this not break the analogy?) and when parallels can be forged with other scriptural characters (Adam, Elijah, Job, Judas) – which of these takes precedence and why? If we start paying more attention to the aesthetics of a film and less to its structural characteristics, I think a much richer and more challenging debate can emerge.

Morehead's Musings: You contributed a chapter in the new volume Reframing Theology and Film titled "From Bultmann to Burton, Demythologizing the Big Fish: The Contribution of Modern Christian Theologians to the Theology-Film Conversation." I'd like to touch on a few aspects of this chapter if we could. One comment you made in passing is very significant in my view where you said that "theology is so inescapably contextual" which you then applied to the theology-film conversation. How might the tendency among many theologians to utilize systematic theologies that are more universal and timeless need to be rethought in light of the reminder about localized and contextualized theologies?

Christopher Deacy: My thinking here is that no theology is conducted in a vacuum. Karl Barth may have espoused a theological position that allowed no scope for the vagaries of humanly constructed systems of thought – since he believed God to be Wholly Other, with God only able to be known through God’s own revelation – but at the same time Barth’s neo-orthodox position was informed by his realization after the First World War that liberalism (with its accommodation to human values) was an untenable position at a time when humanity was utterly lost before God. It was, after all, Barth who thought that Christians should hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. No one can claim immunity from their cultural environment. The impetus behind my chapter in Reframing Theology and Film was that in a film-permeated Western culture we cannot pretend that film has no role to play in the way we think, move and have our being – and thus ‘do’ theology.

Morehead's Musings: In what ways might we understand film as a reflection of the theological concerns of a culture?

Christopher Deacy: To give an example, many of my students will not have heard of Barth before taking a module on modern Christian theology. Yet, when Barth revisited Calvin’s teaching on predestination, it is apparent that many of these sorts of ideas find a strange resonance in aspects of our popular culture. Consider, for example, the success of the Final Destination trilogy in which a group of young students attempt to find ingenious ways of cheating death, only for it to become apparent that they have been predestined to die if not at a particular time then at least in a particular order which is immutable. This may not be the most fertile breeding ground for theological reflection, but the way these films ask questions about death, fate, predestination and the ultimate futility of humans to try and rise above their mortality does find a certain resonance in theology. There are differences, of course – Calvin and Barth were Christo-centric in their theological teachings and grappled with such questions as eternal salvation versus eternal damnation and whether there was a case for universal salvation. The Final Destination films deal with none of this, but sometimes knowing these films somehow makes Barth and others much less abstract and ivory tower theologians than they are sometimes perceived to be. One of my students once quipped that it is not so much God that is dead as the contemporary relevance of Barth and many other twentieth century theologians. But, the very issues with which theologians are engaged – the function of myth (Bultmann), being a person for other persons (Bonhoeffer) and a future hope (Moltmann and Pannenberg) – are hardly dissimilar from what many filmmakers are interested in exploring. Myth plays a big role in films (see, e.g., The Golden Compass, Pan’s Labyrinth), Bonhoeffer’s teaching is relevant to films which deal with the theme of the importance of others (consider the recent Oscar-winners Crash and The Lives of Others) and the importance of hope can be seen to underlie everything from The Shawshank Redemption to Hollywood’s recent obsession with apocalyptic-themed films (e.g. The Day after Tomorrow).

Morehead's Musings: In many courses on film and theology film is used to illustrate certain doctrines or theological themes. You take a different approach in the chapter in Reframing where you suggest that "films can (and should) be used not so much to illustrate theology but to enable us to (re)examine, critique, and challenge the efficacy of the work of a number of prominent twentieth-century theologians." How did you arrive at this thesis?

Christopher Deacy: I came to this following disenchantment with the Christ-figure material. When I first looked at Christ-figures in Screen Christologies, it was with a view to raising broader questions about how we categorize different conceptions of Jesus Christ as human or divine along the lines of early Church debates (Antiochene and Alexandrian), and whether anti-heroes in films tend to correspond to the former while supernatural heroes are analogous to the latter. In later years, though, much of the debate has surrounded the way in which we use Christ-figures to merely illustrate theology rather than to be theological conversation-partners or a portal into theological debate. I am thus more interested in asking how films can be a springboard for doing theology, along the lines of the argument at the heart of my chapter in Reframing in which I suggest that it is not so much that Big Fish (Tim Burton, 2003) is relevant to a discussion of Bultmann because both are interested in the subject of myth, but because Burton’s film demonstrates a fundamental flaw with Bultmann, namely the assumption that myth is an anathema to modern men and women. Bultmann thought that it is impossible to subscribe to the mythological picture of the New Testament while living in a technological age, but Big Fish is a useful corrective to Bultmann’s deconstruction agenda in the way it shows that if you demythologize a story (as Bultmann believed was necessary) all you do is take away a story’s essence and vitality. I find that films can be a useful way into theology – indeed, we cannot ‘do’ theology without constantly finding an intersection with cultural forms and agencies.

Morehead's Musings: At one point in your chapter where you compare the theologies of Cupitt and Bonhoeffer with the film Christmas with the Kranks you state that “the church should reconsider its relationship to the secular world, thereby rendering the distinction between the sacred and the secular an artificial and somewhat outmoded one.” It has been suggested that with the desire for a more holistic view of life and spirituality in late modernity or postmodernity that the church is often perceived as being more secular and dualistic than much of the so-called secular world. Would you agree with such an assessment, and how might the church's sacred-secular split impact its relationship with film?

Christopher Deacy: The Church is not performing its mission properly if it understands the Church to be the (exclusive) agency of salvation and redemption. I was drawn to Bonhoeffer’s work precisely because of his concern that so long as there is a distinction between the sacred and the secular then ‘secular’ culture will always be seen to be in conflict with what the Church is doing. We had this earlier in the twentieth century when, for example, sexual themes in films gave rise to prohibition and censorship. In 1929 the Catholic Movie Code called for such censorship and called on film studios to reinforce religious and family values against what it saw as the decadence of the film industry. We see plenty of traces of this today, as well, in the so-called Bible Belt. Bonhoeffer is an important figure because he believed that by forging a separation between the sacred and the secular then the unity of God and the world is severed. For Bonhoeffer, God became reconciled to the world through the Incarnation, and so there is no God apart from the world. If God is in the world – and not just in the Church – then theologians ignore or dismiss what is going on in culture at their peril. To claim that ‘Church is good, film is bad’ misses the whole point of the Incarnation in my view. We may not like everything that goes on in our culture but the idea that filmmakers should only explore territory that is conducive to fostering Christian values is patronising and absurd. As I indicated earlier, violence may not be an intrinsically good thing but Christianity is inextricably connected with violence, and it would be more profitable in my view for those more conservative voices who denounce violent films to pay more attention first to consider just how elementary a part violence played in the origins of Christianity. In more recent times, also, Bush and Blair saw no incompatibility between so-called Christian values and the decision to go to war in Iraq which just reinforces the point.

Morehead's Musings: I was struck in your chapter’s conclusion by your quotation of Margaret Miles who said that Christian churches "have relinquished the task of providing life-orienting images" and that now, as Clive Marsh has argued, "the multiplex may be the modern cathedral." What is the way forward for Christian theologians, artists, and filmmakers?

Christopher Deacy: The way forward is to move away from binary oppositions – between the sacred and the secular, between Church and the world, and (in a Dawkinsian sense) between religion and science. The boundaries here are much more fluid than these positions indicate, to the point that when Clive Marsh talks about the multiplex as the modern cathedral this need not be viewed as a threat to the Church. Cinemas may be doing Church-type things, and Churches may be doing cinema-type things (indeed, it is very common today for churches to include the use of film as part of its worship, as Clive has shown). In the world of both evangelical Christians and Richard Dawkins (here, the differences are not all that pronounced – Dawkins is in a very real sense on an evangelical crusade to rescue science from the evils of religion and he admits in The God Delusion that his intention is to convert wayward readers), there is a right and a wrong. For Dawkins, religion is bad, science is good, and there can only be peace in the world when religion disappears and is supplanted by science. For evangelicals, it is religion that is a force – the force – for good, and it is atheistic thinking that must be rejected. Surely, though, we are more grown up than that. Religion in my view is alive and well in the twenty-first century, but since it is not bound up with God, the Bible and the Church in quite the way Dawkins thinks, the debate is too often an incomplete and impoverished one. Instead of seeking to ask whether religion is good or bad, a more fruitful discussion would concern the definition of religion. Unless more nuanced questions are asked, religion will be perceived as being under threat from secular film. Perhaps, in reality, film and religion are involved in the same sort of activity and can mutually inform one another – now that really would be a giant leap forward!

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Deacy, thank you again for your thoughts on these things. You've given readers a lot to consider and some indicators that theology and film is an exciting field for continued reflection.

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