Wednesday, December 05, 2007

John Lyden: Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals

John Lyden is professor and chair of religion at Dana College in Blair, Nebraska. He is the author of Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals (New York University Press, 2003), as well as numerous articles about film and religion. He is currently cochair of the Religion, Film, and Visual Culture Group of the American Academy of Religion.

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Lyden, thank you so much for participating in this interview and sharing your interesting thoughts on film, popular culture, and religious studies. As we begin, can you share a little bit about how you became interested in the study of film as a theologian?

John Lyden: I have always been a film-lover, but I never really related film to my study of religion until about ten years ago. At that time, I began to see more study in this area, but I was not very impressed with the quality of most of it. It seemed to me that many of the people writing about religion and film had not developed a coherent method of analysis, and were simply applying methods from film studies without considering how religious studies might approach this subject, or they were applying theological ideas without really paying attention to the content of the films. In either case, there was little advancement by way of understanding the films better from a religious perspective. I began to develop my own method of approaching film, as a religion scholar and theologian, to try to address that lack of methodology in the field.

Morehead's Musings: In some of your writings, particularly your book Film as Religion, you state that we cannot separate culture from religion. This may come as a surprise to some evangelical Christians who seem to assume a clear separation is possible. Can you share a little about what you mean by this and what the implications are for a theological engagement with popular culture?

John Lyden: Religion is ultimately a part of culture, as it is a human construction just as any other part of culture. We may want to think of it as separate because it may have a transcendent subject matter, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is also human. You could think of this in analogy with the Christian understanding of the nature of Christ; the fact that he is divine does not take away from his humanity. Conversely, we can argue that the divine or religious is everywhere in culture, even when it is not recognized as such. I view this as a positive thing for dialogue between religion and culture, as it shows that the opposition between them is illusory. It means that we can take popular culture seriously as a dialogue partner and recognize that it has a tremendous influence on people’s religious views, whether we like it or not.

Morehead's Musings: You have also talked about the ways in which popular culture and media, particularly, film, is similar in function to religion. Can you elaborate on this for us?

John Lyden: I utilize a functionalist definition of religion drawn from the work of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. This allows us to see that religion exists in whatever aspects of culture meet those functions, for example: it supplies a set of symbols that acts as both a model of reality (how it is) and a model for reality (how it should be, ideally), and so a worldview as well as an ethic; it involves rituals that help us to enact the ideal and make it real; it helps us deal with how to find meaning amidst the experience of chaos and evil, etc. I have found that films seem to supply all these functions, to some extent, in their meaning-making and symbolic capacity, in the values they propose, and in the way in which those are enacted for audiences who are invited to participate in the worldviews of various films.

Morehead's Musings: As someone with an intercultural studies background involved in interreligious dialogue, I found your suggestion that the dialogue between popular culture or film can be understood as an interreligious dialogue most intriguing. Can you summarize your thinking here for us?

John Lyden: If popular culture or film acts religiously for people, then it stands to reason that the dialogue between popular culture and those aspects of culture we normally call “religious” is really a dialogue between religious views. One can then apply the same sort of analysis and norms to that dialogue that have been used in interreligious dialogue as a way of creating better understanding and interchanges. The history of the interaction of religion and film bears this out. For example, the early days of sound cinema were filled with critiques of popular movies by the churches, largely because film was viewed as in fact a religious competitor, offering up a different set of views and values. Later, films were more appreciated by religious leaders when they found they had some theological value, but they still tended to homologize the films to Christian understandings. Recent interreligious dialogue has proposed moving beyond turning the “other” religion into either a demonic view to be rejected, or a mirror-image of my own tradition, to seeing it as a genuine dialogue partner, which is both similar and different from my own tradition. In this way, we can begin to actually hear and fairly evaluate the other view, whether we call it religion or culture.

Morehead's Musings: In your fascinating book one of the things you discuss in the section on method is myth. Can you define your discussion of myth for us, and touch on why this is significant in a theological engagement with film, particularly in a late modern Western context?

John Lyden: Myth is a much-maligned term, implying to many people a falsehood, but mythic understandings are not going away. We always hear stories mythically whenever we move beyond the literal narrative to invest them with symbolic meaning. Even when we try to “factually” evaluate the justice of invading another country, we quickly move beyond arguments about literal threats to national security to more mythological concepts—viewing ourselves as saviors of the world, for example, thus legitimizing our action. Politics is full of mythological rhetoric about nations and destiny and purpose, but people don’t see it because it isn’t called “religion.” All of culture is like this; films are full of myths promoting various worldviews, such as the myth of redemption through violence, the myth of romantic love, etc. And I want to emphasize, myths are not all bad! We can’t live without myth, but we need to identify the myths we are using, and be able to evaluate what myths we want to live by.

Morehead's Musings: Your book also includes a consideration of various genres of film. Given my interests I was pleased to see your inclusion of fantasy, science fiction, and the thriller or horror film. Unless you're a fan of these genres, I think most viewers are tempted to dismiss them as containing little important content, particularly from the perspective of theology or religion, and in my experience evangelicals are even more prone to dismiss these genres. Why did you include them in your study, and can you provide an example of what your research found in theological engagement with these genres?

John Lyden: These genres are clearly important ones to engage from a religious perspective as they tend to go beyond realistic narrative to the supernatural or fantastic, and in that way, they are like religions. Often they will utilize ideas explicitly drawn from Christianity or other religious sources. For example, Superman Returns was explicitly Christological, and The Matrix utilizes Buddhist and Gnostic religious ideas. But even when they don’t borrow explicitly from religions, they have a form that looks very much like the form of religious stories, in which we learn about ourselves by seeing analogous characters in a fantastic setting that somehow heightens the moral choices they make. It may be harder for people to appreciate horror, in particular, as it seems exploitative at times, but it deals very clearly with the reality of evil and the proper response to it. That idea is certainly at the center of religious discourse.

Morehead's Musings: In your chapter for Reframing Theology and Film you state that it is your "hope that Christian theologians who are interested in popular culture will see the relevance of viewing films-as-religion to their own task" and that you hope this dialogue moves beyond a simplistic embrace or rejection. In your view, are we starting to see more theologians engaging film, and in the way in which you suggest?

John Lyden: Definitely. The field is maturing rapidly, as a variety of scholars are coming to the study of theology and film from many backgrounds, and also filmmakers are getting more involved in the discussion. I have been very pleased with the quality of discussions on this topic now as opposed to ten years ago, when it seemed like we were stuck in the embrace-or-reject dichotomy. There are a lot more sophisticated analyses now of how film operates on us, how audiences appropriate films, and how films utilize and develop religious themes in creative ways.

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Lyden, thank you again for answering these questions and sharing the results of your research in this interesting area of theology and popular culture.

John Lyden: It’s been my pleasure!

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