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Toward a Definition of 'Religious' Cinema
Here is a small project for a chilly Thursday night: let's rethink the way we talk about religious movies. (In other words, if you’re at the end of a long work day, maybe go pour your drink of choice and get fortified to help me out with some vaguely philosophical inquiry.)
This reflection is provoked by the nagging feeling I've had—I suspect you have, too—that there's a wide gulf between the various definitions of religious movies that we've been using. But because we're using the same word, I think we too easily get confused and talk past one another.
Here’s one sense of “religious movie”: a film that self-consciously seeks to boost a particular religion, usually with the intent to evangelize the viewer into joining that religion. Let's call this Religious, capital R. It's a movie that is religious by virtue of being of its religion, which almost necessarily is the religion of the filmmaker(s).
Another sort of religious movie is one that deals with and depicts the specifics of religious practice, the type my friend Mike Leary listed here as being of use in the comparative religion classroom. This is a list compiled by someone who knows what he's talking about, and it includes some marvelous films. But I'm going to leave this out of definitions for now, because I don't think this is actually what most people mean when they talk about a religious film—perhaps, unfortunately, because we tend to think of religion as a system of organized belief, rather than a complicated structure of practice and belief. (But do check out his list.)
So I want to talk about another religious—religious, lowercase r. Lowercase-r religious movies ...1