Many pundits declared that 2014 would be Hollywood’s “year of the Bible” due to the number of explicitly religious movies slated for premiere — Noah, Son of God, Heaven Is for Real and Exodus: Gods and Kings, among them. Then there were the films built that touched on spiritual themes, such as Calvary, Wild, St. Vincent and Interstellar. Yet when the Academy Awards are presented on Feb. 22, only a few of the contenders in 24 main categories will have religion in their stories or backstories. What happened?
This edition of ReligionLink looks at the religion/spirituality themes in movies made in 2014, some of them up for Academy Awards, and asks, what is the current relationship between Hollywood and religion? Has it blossomed or shriveled since the groundbreaking debut of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the the Christ a decade ago? Or has the relationship moved to television, where popular shows such as The Good Wife, Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy have all tackled themes religion usually deals in — redemption, forgiveness, belief and the meaning of life?
- ABC maintains a list of this year’s Oscar nominees.
- Oscars.org is the official website of the Academy Awards.
- America magazine, a Jesuit publication, regularly reviews major Hollywood releases and other, smaller films, both from the U.S. and abroad.
- Read “From an ex-gay pastor to Bible scams and Scientology defectors — Sundance goes to church” by Peggy Fletcher Stack, writing in The Salt Lake Tribune on Jan. 24, 2015.
- Read “How secular Hollywood is unwittingly promoting the Christian faith” by Jonathan Merritt writing for The Week on Jan. 15, 2015.
- Read “Documentary Draws Ire From the Church of Scientology” by Michael Cieply for The New York Times on Jan. 15, 2015.
- Read a Jan. 14, 2015, story by Sarah Pulliam Bailey at Religion News Service titled “Here’s the faith in the ‘American Sniper’ you won’t see in the film.”
- Read “The long march from ‘Exodus’ to ‘Selma,’” a commentary by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin for Religion News Service on Jan. 2, 2015.
- Read “Will Angelina Jolie’s ‘Unbroken’ disappoint Christians? It depends” by Sarah Pulliam Bailey for Religion News Service on Dec. 5, 2014.
- Read “‘Son of God’” kicks off flood of flood of religious-themed films in 2014″ by Tierney Sneed writing in U.S. News & World Report on Feb. 27, 2014.
2014's movies with a faith factor
- American Sniper*
- Exodus: Gods and Kings
- God’s Not Dead
- Heaven Is for Real
- The Identical
- Left Behind
- The Song
- Son of God
And movies to watch for in 2015:
* Film has at least one Academy Award nomination in the 24 main categories for 2014.
The Rev. Richard A. Blake, a professor of film studies at Boston College, is a film historian and author of Afterimage: The Indelible Catholic Imagination of Six American Filmmakers. He reviews films for America magazine.
Douglas Cowan is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. He is an expert on the neo-pagan community and has written about the community’s use of the Internet to communicate and share ideas about faith and rituals. He has also published about Mormonism and evangelical practice in North America and on religion and film.
Michele Desmarais is the associate editor of the Journal of Religion and Film and an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. She specializes in Buddhism and other Eastern religions.
Andrew Flescher, religion professor at California State University, Chico, has taught a course on religion and film that looks at religion and self in contemporary American society; religion, redemption and recovery; and religion and ethnicity. He also directs the Center for Applied and Professional Ethics, where he focuses on religion, ethics and society. He is the author of The Altruistic Species: Scientific, Philosophical and Religious Perspectives of Human Benevolence.
John Lyden became editor of the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Journal of Religion and Film in 2011. He was professor of religion at Dana College from 1991-2010 and is now director of the Liberal Arts Core at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. Lyden is the author of Film as Religion: Myths, Morals and Rituals and editor of The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film. He says that any popular film that affects people’s understanding of war, life and death is arguably religious. Movies, he says, can function religiously, providing a ritualized form of “meaning-making activity” through stories that express values and beliefs about the world.
He says one reason religion gets the back burner in films such as Unbroken and American Sniper is an unwillingness by some in Hollywood to alienate the nonreligious, and he points out that those who claim no religion now make up one of the largest “religious” groups in the U.S. As for films such as Exodus: Gods and Kings and Noah, they may be examples of Hollywood trying to have it both ways — a biblical story for Christian/Jewish filmgoers with a “blunted” religious treatment.
Eric Michael Mazur is a religion professor at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Va., where he teaches courses on religion and popular culture and Judaism and film. He is the editor of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Film. He says that if Americans are looking for spiritual expressions as opposed to institutional forms of religion, it’s logical they will seek spiritual themes in film.
He says that in terms of reaching a religious audience, Hollywood has it tough — attempts at pandering to a single religious group through a story often fail in its treatment. At the same time, evangelical Christian moviegoers have become more sophisticated since The Passion of the Christ and expect more from movies.
S. Brent Plate is a professor of religious studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He has written about religion, art and visual culture. Religions, he notes, discuss the creation of the world, and films work on re-creating the world. He’s interested in how film has “come down” off the screen and infiltrated rituals. His books include A History of Religion in 5-1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses; Religion and Film; The Religion and Film Reader; Blasphemy: Art That Offends; Re-Viewing the Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics; and Representing Religion in World Cinema.
He sees spiritual/religious themes in many of the current Oscar films, including Boyhood, Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Theory of Everything: in the way they grapple with the effects of time, aging and the inevitability of approaching death — all historically of interest to religious traditions.
More ReligionLink resources
Read “Faith and film: ‘Holywood’ goes to the Oscars,” a ReligionLink edition from 2010, to compare that year’s religion/spirituality-themed movies and this year’s.