When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominations for the 95th Academy Awards in January 2023, the contenders included movies with religion angles and actors with faith backgrounds.
A short list for the ceremony, to be held March 12, includes the eco-spiritual themes of Avatar: The Way of Water, the revivalist roots running through the Elvis biopic starring Austin Butler and Tom Hanks, themes of “faith and fatness” in The Whale with Brendan Fraser, the Bible Belt cultural cues that are felt but never fully seen in the melancholic To Leslie, and confessions and questions of whether God cares about miniature donkeys in The Banshees of Inisherin.
And then there is Stranger at the Gate, directed by Joshua Seftel, considered a favorite in the best documentary short film category. The film:
… is about an Afghan refugee named Bibi Bahrami and the members of her little Indiana mosque, who come face to face with a U.S. Marine who has secret plans to bomb their community center. But Mac McKinney’s plan takes an unexpected turn.
Beyond awards season, 2023 has a slew of new releases sure to catch a religion journalist’s attention.
After the hallmark Miami Jewish Film Festival in January comes the premiere of Jesus Revolution, starring Kelsey Grammer, on Feb. 24. The movie is based on the story of pastors Chuck Smith, Lonnie Frisbee and Greg Laurie, who opened the doors of Smith’s church to the “hippie generation” in the 1970s, helping launch the “Jesus movement” and its two most famous evangelical institutions: Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard Movement.
This is just one of the many films with faith angles coming in 2023.
There is the Roma Downey-produced On a Wing and a Prayer (starring Dennis Quaid); Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, based on Judy Blume’s book about an adolescent exploring everything from bras and boys to having a very personal, if disorganized, relationship with God; and The Pope’s Exorcist, about the Rev. Gabriele Amorth (played by Russell Crowe), who performed tens of thousands of exorcisms on behalf of the Diocese of Rome; all three are set for April releases. Beyond April, we have another Exorcist reboot in October, Dune: Part Two in November and even some religious references and locations in Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, the seventh film in the Tom Cruise-starring spy-thriller movie series, premiering in July.
Meanwhile, in Bollywood, the success of star Shah Rukh Khan’s latest film — Pathaan — was influenced by the Indian film industry’s trend toward Hindu nationalism in recent years, including the Telugu-language, Oscar-nominated RRR.
To say the least, there is plenty of fodder for journalists looking to explore the religion angle in this year’s movie news.
In this edition of ReligionLink, we provide helpful background, in-depth resources, relevant stories and excellent sources to cover the many intersections between religion and film in 2023.
Background and resources
To quote the Disney animated classic Beauty and the Beast, the relationship between religion and film is one of those tales “as old as time.” Or, at least, as old as filmmaking itself.
All the way back in 1911, when newsreels and motion pictures were still in their infancy, one of the earliest commentaries on cinema’s character and potential uses came from the Rev. Herbert A. Jump of Connecticut. In The Religious Possibilities of the Motion Picture, Jump “envisioned a fertile marriage” between the “moving pictures” and religion.
Since then, the relationship between religion and film has evolved. At times contentious, at other times copacetic, religion and the movies have been closely linked, with religious themes finding their way into films and religious movie makers, writers and performers all finding a way to express their spirituality on the silver screen.
Here on ReligionLink, we have covered the topic with source guides several times (see below). And rightly so. It’s almost impossible to go the movies, or engage with any kind of pop culture for that matter, without running into religious themes, characters, plots or producers. In fact, Edward McNulty, author of Jesus Christ, Movie Star, writes that other than Sherlock Holmes, James Bond or Godzilla, Jesus is one of “the longest-running characters in world cinema.”
Beyond faith tie-ins and religiously motivated, and produced, films, there are also ways to think of the very religiosity of movies and the industry itself. Religion scholar S. Brent Plate wrote that “religion and cinema share a capacity for world making, ritualizing, mythologizing, and creating sacred time and space” in his 2017 rerelease of Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World.
Others, like historian of U.S. religion David Morgan, view movies — religious or not — as modern forms of visual piety, like stained-glass windows and the European cathedrals of old.
To say the least, there is plenty for a newswriter to explore when it comes to religion and movies.
Below are some resources to get you started on your research and to provide some helpful fodder for your take on faith and film:
- Read Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World, by S. Brent Plate.
- Read Faith in Film: Religious Themes in Contemporary Cinema, by Christopher Deacy.
- Read Religion and Film: Representation, Experience, Meaning, by Stephanie Knauss.
- Read Muslims in the Movies: A Global Anthology, edited by Kristian Petersen.
- Read The New Jew in Film: Exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema, by Nathan Abrams.
- Read Silver Screen Buddha: Buddhism in Asian and Western Film, by Sharon A. Suh.
- Read Avatar and Nature Spirituality, by Bron Taylor.
- Read The Challenge of the Silver Screen: An Analysis of the Cinematic Portraits of Jesus, Rama, Buddha and Muhammad, by Freek L. Bakker.
- Read a selection of books on film and religion at JSTOR.
- Read articles from the Journal for Religion, Film and Media, from the University of Graz, Austria.
- Read a selection from the Routledge Studies in Religion and Film Series.
Recent relevant stories
There’s a lot going on with the intersection between religion and film. As the stories below show, religious narratives, characters, and plot points help movie makers — and the industry itself — wrestle with some of the most critical and controversial cultural issues.
From Bollywood hits to the long-running James Bond series, faith angles are to be found in a range of films big and small. And, as the following collection of reporting, commentary and analysis illustrates, subjects such as Hindu nationalism, spiritual abuse, debates about gender and sexuality, and more are all being explored in movies with religious themes.
- Read “Breaking down Pathaan, the most popular movie in the world,” from Vox on Feb. 10, 2023.
- Read “In Knock at the Cabin and Beyond, M. Night Shyamalan Explores the Horrors of Faith,” from The Escapist on Feb. 10, 2023 (Commentary).
- Read “10 Great Movies About Religion That Anyone Can Appreciate,” from Collider on Feb. 9, 2023.
- Read “The best Jesus film? Here’s why I choose ‘The Chosen,’” from The Salt Lake Tribune on Feb. 7, 2023 (Commentary).
- Read “‘Left Behind: Rise Of The Antichrist’ The Latest Installment In Apocalyptic Thriller Franchise,” from Religion Unplugged on Feb. 7, 2023 (Commentary).
- Read “M. Night Shyamalan Calls Lady in the Water a ‘Religion’” from Comic Book Resources on Feb. 4, 2023.
- Read “From ‘Mission Majnu’ to ‘Pathaan,’ How Bollywood Packages Islamophobia,” from Collider on Feb. 3, 2023.
- Read “What to know about the new Lifetime film on Gwen Shamblin Lara,” from The Tennessean on Feb. 3, 2023.
- Read “‘Women Talking’ Traces Web of Faith, Forgiveness, and Rage,” from Sojourners on Feb. 2, 2023 (Commentary).
- Read “After 30 years, Buddhist-inspired message of ‘Groundhog Day’ still holds spiritual power,” from Religion News Service on Feb. 2, 2023.
- Read “I grew up evangelical. Terrifying rapture films scarred me for ever,” from The Guardian on Feb. 1, 2023.
- Read “‘You People’ is the Black-Jewish movie of the year,” from Religion News Service on Jan. 30, 2023 (Commentary).
- Read “When ‘The Chosen’ Jesus met giant serpent Satan: Jonathan Roumie dishes on 16-foot python co-star,” from USA Today on Jan. 15, 2023.
- Read “Movies by faith-based studios hit on Christian themes,” from the Amarillo Globe-News on Jan. 15, 2023 (Commentary).
- Read “Latest from Mormon Land: Why all ‘R’-rated movies aren’t a no-no for Latter-day Saints,” from The Salt Lake Tribune on Jan. 13, 2023.
- Read “Review: The Offering,” from RogerEbert.com on Jan. 13, 2023.
- Read “Religion Page-to-Screen Adaptations in 2023,” from Publishers Weekly on Jan. 12, 2023.
- Read “Turner Classic Movies is airing a ‘Jewish Experience’ series of films this month,” from Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Jan. 12, 2023.
- Read “Here we go again: Hollywood doesn’t ‘get’ America, so maybe religion is part of that?” from Get Religion on Jan. 11, 2023 (Commentary)
- Read “25 Films That Do A Great Job Discussing Religion And The Trauma It Can Cause,” from BuzzFeed on Jan. 4, 2023 (Commentary).
- Read “Spirituality of the Multiverse,” from Sojourners in January 2023.
- Read “‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’s Exploration of War and Religion Makes It More Than Just a Puppet Story,” from Collider on Dec. 18, 2022.
- Read “Makers of ‘Jesus Revolution’ hope to inspire fresh spiritual revival in America,” from Baptist Press on Dec. 14, 2022.
- Read “‘His Dark Materials’ Works Because It Isn’t Afraid to Criticize Organized Religion,” from Collider on Dec. 9, 2022.
- Read “‘Everyone gets their love story’: How Christmas rom-coms have taken over the season,” from Religion News Service on Dec. 2, 2022.
- Read “Spielberg tells his — and Hollywood’s — Jewish story,” from Religion News Service on Nov. 30, 2022 (Commentary).
- Listen to “Why ‘She Said’ Is a Must-See + Alissa Wilkinson and Christine Emba,” from Religion News Service on Nov. 24, 2022.
- Read “Santa Clauses Will Address Christmas’ Religious Origin, Says Tim Allen,” from Screen Rant on Nov. 15, 2o22.
- Read “Religion, James Bond Religion,” from Patheos on Sept. 30, 2022 (Analysis).
- Read “From polygamy to murder to MLMs — a look at recent Mormon movies,” from The Salt Lake Tribune on Sept. 25, 2023 (Analysis).
- Listen to “‘Honk for Jesus’ is an uneven but entertaining saga about scandal and redemption,” from NPR on Sept. 9, 2022.
- Read “Adamma and Adanne Ebo question religion in Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” from Digital Trends on Sept. 2, 2022.
- Read “Shia LaBeouf found religion playing a saint in new movie: ‘God was using my ego to draw me to Him’” from Entertainment Weekly on Aug. 25, 2022.
- Read “RRR is an incredible action movie with seriously troubling politics,” from Vox on July 20, 2022.
- Read “Why Marvel Has Issues With God,” from Religion Unplugged on July 13, 2022 (Analysis).
- Read “What Can We Learn From Abortion Movies?” from Religion Unplugged on July 6, 2022 (Analysis).
- Read “Mark Wahlberg Wants to Focus His Career on ‘Faith-Based Content’ and ‘Things That Will Help People,’” from People on April 11, 2022.
- Read “What The 2022 Oscars Hit (And Miss) About Religion,” from Religion Unplugged on March 25, 2022 (Commentary).
- Read “These 5 Movies Sparked Religious Controversy,” from MovieWeb.com on March 9, 2022 (Commentary).
- Read “These Are the Best Religious Horror Movies of All Time,” from MovieWeb.com on Jan. 25, 2022 (Commentary).
- Read “Critics speak: The 25 best movies about religion of all time,” from WNCT News Charlotte on Jan. 21, 2022.
Sources and experts
Act One is a nonprofit that trains Christians for careers in mainstream film and television. It is in Hollywood, California.
Reza Aslan worked as a research associate at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy. He is the author many books, including Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization and No God But God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam. He is the founder of AslanMedia.com, an online journal for news and entertainment about the Middle East and the world. He and Sam Harris are frequently on the opposite sides of issues about Islam.
Lisa Bahar is a licensed marriage and family therapist, clinical counselor and adjunct faculty member for Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology. Bahar has written on the role faith plays in Hollywood.
Donald Braxton is a professor of religion at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. He has planned a conference on and written about transhumanism and can speak to issues related to religion and film.
The Christian Filmmakers Network is a forum for Christians working in the film industry, putting on events like “Content,” a Christian media conference.
Heather Choate Davis is a writer, musician and theologian based in the Los Angeles area. She is co-creator of Concordia Seminary’s annual Faith and Film Festival, a gathering to screen and ponder Christian themes in contemporary cinema.
The Studio City, California, consulting firm Grace Hill Media was founded by Jonathan Bock to bridge the gap between Hollywood and religion that causes so many debates. Grace Hill Media worked on the Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia movies and The Da Vinci Code’s official website, among other projects.
Amir Hussain is professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is a former editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.
Björn Krondorfer is a professor of religious studies at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. He is an expert on Western religious traditions and has particular interests in cultural studies, Holocaust studies and gender studies. He is also an expert on Madonna images in both religion and popular culture.
Bertha Alvarez Manninen is professor of philosophy at Arizona State University, where she teaches biomedical ethics, applied ethics, philosophy of religion, and philosophy and film.
James F. McGrath, a professor of religion at Butler University in Indianapolis, has taught a course called “Religion in Science Fiction.” Read the syllabus and introduction with extensive bibliography and links. He is editor of the book Religion and Science Fiction and co-editor of a book about religion and the long-running BBC television series Dr. Who. His blog, Religion Prof, sometimes touches on religion and science fiction.
David Morgan is a professor of religious studies with a secondary appointment in art history and visual studies at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He is an expert in the history of religious visual culture, art history, and religion and media. He is the author of The Forge of Vision: A Visual History of Modern Christianity and The Lure of Images: A History of Religion and Visual Media in America.
The National Center for Jewish Film is a nonprofit that stores, preserves, studies and promotes films with Jewish themes. It has the largest collection of Jewish content film in the world, outside of Israel.
Abby Olcese is a freelance writer based in Kansas who writes about “the weird, the nerdy, and the profoundly artsy corners of popular culture” — with a focus on faith and film — for various outlets, including Sojourners, Rotten Tomatoes, and RogerEbert.com.
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.
Stephen Prothero is former professor of Religion in America in the Department of Religion at Boston University. He is the author of numerous books including Religion Matters: An Introduction to the World’s Religions (W.W. Norton 2020), Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (HarperOne, 2016), God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter (HarperOne, 2010), and the New York Times bestseller Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t (HarperOne, 2007). He has also written about American Hindus. Prothero has commented on religion on hundreds of National Public Radio programs, and on television on CNN, MSNBC, FOX, and PBS. He lives on Cape Cod, and he tweets @sprothero.
Maureen Sabine is a Hong Kong Academy of the Humanities Fellow, with a special focus on theology, sexuality and religion in literature and film. She is the author of Veiled Desires: Intimate Portrayals of Nuns in Postwar Anglo-American Film. For media inquiries, contact the Hong Kong Academy Society directly.
Sikhlens seeks to provide an outlet for sharing Sikh heritage and culture with the rest of the world by creating awareness for work that is “Sikh-centric,” showcasing talent and instilling pride in the community. The festival seeks work from artists in a variety of fields, including but not limited to movies, books, music and art. It creates appropriate avenues for this work to be shared with the rest of the world.
Teemu Taira is senior lecturer in the study of religion, University of Helsinki, and docent at the department of study of religion, University of Turku, Finland. His research has focused on three areas: religion in the media; the new visibility of atheism and nonreligion; and discursive study of the category of “religion.” He has published on paganism in Nordic countries.
Bron Raymond Taylor is a religion professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he helped to launch a graduate program in religion and nature. Taylor was also instrumental in the formation of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture and served as its first president from 2006-2009. He is considered a leading scholar on religion and nature, and his books include (as editor) the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature and (as author) Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future.
Alissa Wilkinson is a writer, professor and film critic. She covers film and culture for Vox and teaches at The King’s College in New York City. Contact her through her website.