A Mormon theology of the movies; Part I

By May 10, 2008

Before we can ask whether a Mormon theology of the movies is a viable idea, I suppose that making the case that a theology of the movies in general works would be useful.

There are, it seems to me, two arguments that can be made here.

The first is incarnational. A basic principle of Christianity is that God communicates to us through making the divine manifest in the forms of the mundane world.  Christ ? the crowning revelation of God – of course, ?emptied himself, by taking on the form of a slave by looking like other menand by sharing in human nature.? (Ph. 2:7). Theologians with some regularity argue (as does Alma) that the natural world reveals God; its order, its beauty, its natural law illustrate and celebrate the attributes of divinity.And we, though wrecked vessels, are made in the image of God; the creations of our hearts, hands, and minds, then, reveal some flickering spark of our own divine nature through their flaws. Because we are his children we see God in the works of our own hands and in their making worship him through imitation.

Given this, then, all art is religious. Film, however, is a uniquely powerful medium of incarnation, for it replicates the completeness of the world with greater reach, power and scope than any other form of art, and therefore can find God in multiple and powerful ways.

Secondly, film is narrative. Narrative is fundamental to understanding Christianity. It is, of course, the basic literary means of Christian scripture, but, even more profoundly, the religion itself is explained through story. Its foundation is that we are uneasy, in trouble, that there is a problem in our very existence to be solved; and that, through a series of actions, God will aid us in solving them.

Movies tell us a type of story in a type of world ? but what type of story? Certainly not ?realistic,? which movies are often criticized for. But this is sort of the point, the stories in film are never ?realistic;? they work under certain limitations of running time, of plot (or not), of character. But, then, stories about faith are not ?realistic? either. The story told in Scripture is providential; it is selective to emphasize its points; it uses motifs and literary devices like repetition and typology ? it is, in a word, a ritualized narrative. It simplifies its stories in order to allow us to find their core, to make them usable for our own needs of meaning.

And this, of course, is what movies do.  Movies select some part of human life ? courtship and crime are two of the most popular ? and create a world which revolves around them. They intensify aspects of day to day living. They force the story and character to the core in order to reveal some truth; it uses motif of plot (the Meet Cute; the bride left at the altar; the final shootout) and of character (the heroic but loose cannon cop; the secretly adolescent man who just can?t commit) to help us lay a framework of meaning onto our own lives.

This is narrative as ritual; and, even, as liturgy.All liturgy is narrative ? the Lord?s Supper tells the story of Christ?s life and death; baptism tells of our own willingness to fit that life onto our own. The unique narratives of film, then, use this power to infuse God?s meaning into our own lives.

Robert Johnston has written, ?thinking like a Christian . . . is always a conversation between our faith and our culture, a dialogue between our stories and God’s story.? This, then, is what movies can do. They are our stories seeking God?s, for to Christians, God?s story is where ultimate meaning is found.

Now, what can Mormons make of this?

Article filed under Cultural History Theology


  1. I don’t understand how the limitations you list entail it isn’t realistic. Exactly how are you using the term?

    Comment by Clark — May 10, 2008 @ 5:47 pm

  2. Clark – two senses. First, the way my mother uses the term to complain about romantic comedies she doesn’t like; as she says, “People don’t act that way.” Surely.

    Secondly, to indicate that movies do not simply reproduce life; rather, they illustrate a type of life endowed with form and direction, and shape the way characters act and the seemingly random events that occur to achieve those things. Movies are providential in the extreme.

    Comment by matt b — May 11, 2008 @ 1:01 am

  3. “Now, what can Mormons make of this?”

    I think one of the first things we need to do is divest ourselves (or our art) of the Greeks’ influence–not completely, but of that which gets in the way of dealing squarely with a living God in the narrative. Much of what we see today is about the power of the individual–the Heroes Journey–and that approach can cause big problems with theodicy and determinism and other potential theological monkey-wrenches in the cinematic works.

    Comment by Jack — May 11, 2008 @ 10:14 pm

  4. To add to matt’s comment (#2)–

    I’d also say that movies do not (for example) have the power to convey love per se. But that can invite the viewer to think about it by how we react to the cinematic metaphor. Love is something that happens in the real world between two or more people. Movies are more representational than experiential.

    Comment by Jack — May 11, 2008 @ 10:21 pm

  5. Matt, certainly many movies have characters who act in unnatural ways. In that I’d agree. You’re point about providence and “form and direction” I’d disagree with. I think life is frequently like that. I kind of suspected that was what you were getting at. I think I just disagree.

    The issue of “representation” is also more complex I think. Any representation will always exclude much if not most of the thing represented. So to point to what is excluded (or compressed) as unrealistic seems incorrect. Certainly in one sense movies, books and even memories are selective. It’s not the same as being there. But that’s a rather weak sense to discount it as ‘realistic’ in my view.

    Comment by Clark — May 12, 2008 @ 11:58 am

  6. Clark – I think the distinction is this: in movies (with some exceptions), story rules. There is a arc along which all characters are bent; they exist for its purposes. Actions irrelevant do not make it into the reality of the film. On the other hand, daily life is chronicle, not history – it’s one event after another, and because of that the meaning-making we do there draws upon a multiplicity of narratives. This is one way in which movies are ritual; they drive to the core of things toward a particular end.

    Now, you’re certainly right to say that all ways in which we encounter reality – memory, books, etc – manage it to some extent. It’s too simplistic, though, in my view, to equate film with memory – film is managed self consciously to a degree which I don’t think we percieve ourselves reaching in daily life.

    I imagine we do disagree on your first paragraph; I tend toward lfw, and thus imagine life as a series of free agents bumping against each other, often uncomfortably. I don’t see divine plan in the unfolding of my own life, but rather, read Christianity as a narrative which helps me manage the chaos.

    Comment by matt b — May 12, 2008 @ 12:50 pm

  7. Jack – thanks for your comments.

    Movies are more representational than experiential

    I think, in and of themselves, that’s true. But at the same time, of course, movies are something we experience, and are a place (to draw on your own example) we learn how to express love.

    I recall reading somewhere that Coppola and Scorsese movies, for example, are wildly popular in the world of organized crime; they teach mobsters how to act.

    Comment by matt b — May 12, 2008 @ 12:54 pm

  8. matt b,

    Just to beat the dead horse a little more–

    I agree that we do have a real time experience with movies as we watch them. But that experience is primarily about how an art form informs our sensibilities by means of metaphor–while our experience in the real world is more about the realization of action and it’s tangible consequences.

    Re: Love–It’s true that we may be informed in some measure as to it’s expression by means of a cinema experience–but only as we intuit a connection to our real world experience with other human beings.

    Fun thread.

    Comment by Jack — May 12, 2008 @ 7:06 pm

  9. “cinema[tic] experience…”

    Comment by Jack — May 12, 2008 @ 7:08 pm

  10. But that experience is primarily about how an art form informs our sensibilities by means of metaphor?while our experience in the real world is more about the realization of action and it?s tangible consequences.

    Jack – I actually don’t think we necessarily disagree. I just see a connection between these two things. Why does, say, Johnny Lingo exist if not to teach us the consequences of actions like judging others, showing kindness, and cattle trading?

    Comment by matt b — May 13, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

  11. Actions irrelevant do not make it into the reality of the film. On the other hand, daily life is chronicle, not history – it?s one event after another, and because of that the meaning-making we do there draws upon a multiplicity of narratives.

    I’d simply note that this is exactly what memory does. As I remember (and then re-store the memory) I build a narrative based upon exclusions and connections to larger narratives. Meaning is inherently this making of connections.

    So if the point about realism is merely the time and exclusion factor then I’d agree, but it seems a trivial point. Further pretty well every event phenomena (remembering, facts, history, etc.) is also non-realistic according to your use.

    Comment by Clark — May 14, 2008 @ 12:03 pm

  12. (Whoops – wasn’t finished)

    I disagree with your claim that memory isn’t self-conscious. Admittedly it is often unconscious. That is we aren’t thinking about what we are doing when we are doing it. (Even if the doing is thinking) Yet I’d argue this is as true of making movies, writing books, and so forth. (And that’s without getting into the problem that movies are joint-works rather than individual works and thus have a phenomena very similar to the unconscious with respect to any one individual)

    Comment by Clark — May 14, 2008 @ 12:05 pm

  13. I disagree with your claim that memory isn?t self-conscious. Admittedly it is often unconscious. That is we aren?t thinking about what we are doing when we are doing it.

    This, I think, is important, and I’m fine with the term ‘unconscious.’ I would simply submit that the narratives our memories create are rarely (if ever) utterly unique; we build them through association, through the use of patterns and types, we instinctively know what is important and what is not based upon what we have internalized as true. There’s a fair amount of work out there, for example, on the ways converts to a new faith reconceive their memories accordingly.

    And story-telling – via film, fiction, non-fiction, etc – are where we find those patterns. Stories of whatever type construct them; those which endure provide powerful models.

    Comment by matt b — May 14, 2008 @ 12:40 pm

  14. I’m coming in to the discussion late, but I wanted to add some thoughts about love in film.

    Matt B., I find your thought that (what I’m assuming is) commercial cinema is ritualistic because of its elliptical structure absolutely fascinating. Film’s power to discuss and portray love is unique on one hand because of its elliptical structure (Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood for Love, or really any feature), or because of its simplicity (The Hairdresser’s Husband), but both of these are depictions of romantic love. Film, because of its unique ability to immerse and demand duration (neither the novel, painting, or music can display time in the way film does), especially in a non-elliptical structure, can show a more Christian love (i.e. mundane and service oriented?self sacrificing over time. The sacrifices of Mary and Martha versus the parting of the Red Sea).

    Great discussion. I wish I could garner this kind of discussion on my blog devoted to LDS cinema, the link to which I will shamelessly post here: “Toward an LDS Cinema”

    I can’t wait to see where the discussion goes.

    Comment by Trevor Banks — May 16, 2008 @ 7:25 am

  15. Thanks, Trevor. I think your point about duration is important, and tied to mine on ritualizing.

    This is a busy time. Hope to see you when I get part 2 up.

    Comment by matt b — May 18, 2008 @ 5:39 pm


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