Religion goes to the movies (again and again)!

The relationship between religion and film is one of those tales “as old as time.”

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: 

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.


Sources and experts

  • Act One

    Act One is a nonprofit that trains Christians for careers in mainstream film and television. It is in Hollywood, California.

  • Reza Aslan

    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, 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

    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

    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.

  • Christian Filmmakers Network

    The Christian Filmmakers Network is a forum for Christians working in the film industry, putting on events like “Content,” a Christian media conference.

    Contact: 540-829-8101.
  • Heather Choate Davis

    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.

  • Grace Hill Media

    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.

    Contact: 818-762-0000.
  • Amir Hussain

    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

    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

    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

    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.

  • Ed McNulty

    The Rev. Ed McNulty is a retired Presbyterian minister and publisher of Visual Parables, a journal that examines faith in films, and the author of Jesus Christ: Movie Star. He can talk about the Star Wars canon from a theological perspective.

  • David Morgan

    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.

  • National Center for Jewish Film

    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

    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

  • S. Brent Plate

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

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