Religion and Movies

DVDs.jpgWhile guest-blogging at The Wild Hunt, John Morehead proposed using science fiction movies as a basis for interfaith dialogue. His idea and the post itself are fascinating, and I strongly encourage my readers to check it out.  It’s certainly a concept I want to think over and explore more closely.  In the meantime, though, I’d like to turn my attention to one of the responses that John’s post generated.  Hadiah Starlight commented a bit on the poor representation of Wiccans and other Pagans in cinema in general:

I agree that cinema is a reflection of what is going on socially in our
world, but as a Pagan I find it very sad, and disheartening that we are
still not presented in a more “positive light”, and that people’s idea
of witchcraft is the Harry Potter films, or The Craft. We are briefly
presented in a more positive light, in the Lord of the Rings series,
but until we are presented as anything other than “Science Fiction” we
will never be taken seriously.

Leaving aside the question of whether or portrayal in cinema really affects how seriously we’re taken (I’m personally inclined to think that if any causation between the two points exists, it’s more likely to run in the opposite direction), this comment caused me to wonder how Christianity and religion in general fairs in cinema.  So I walked over to my media cabinet, combed through the 300+ DVD’s I currently owned, and started pulling out any DVD I felt had some sort of religious portrayal in it.  I ended up with about 25 DVD’s (a smattering of them are represented in the picture attached to this post).  Furthermore, I felt my choice to include some of the titles might have been a bit generous.

While I don’t claim that my personal DVD collection is a representative sample of all cinema out there, I do think that the relatively low percentage of titles I pulled that I felt had some religious content is quite telling.  It would seem that a great number of movies simply don’t have much to say about religion at all.

I began to comb through the titles that I had pulled out and started considering the similarity between how religion was incorporated into the movie.  I began to notice that the titles seemed to fit a few different categories.  The first and most obvious category were those movies that were intended to offer editorial commentary on religion or certain aspects of some religious subcultures.  Two such examples are Saved! and Dogma.  As these kinds of movies tend to be heavy in satire and highly critical, I’m not sure we as Pagans sould be in a hurry to see these kinds of movies about our own faith traditions.  They may be helpful in the future as our traditions become more established and could benefit from such criticism.  But for right now, I think we’re better off being grateful that our religions aren’t being represented by these kinds of movies.

Unsurprisingly, a considerable number of movies in this category were science fiction movies.  In these movies, religion became framework for understanding the classic battle between good and evil that drive these movies.  The Exorcist, Ghost Rider, Constantine, and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe are all good examples of this category of movie.  Indeed, the abundance of these kinds of movies suggests that it’s not just Pagan religions that are most easily explored, represented and expressed through science fiction.  So that’s a limitation we may simply need to accept for now.

I will note, however, that Christian-themed science fiction does appear to be of a theologically superior quality than Pagan-themed science fiction most of the time.  Each of the movies I listed above spend a great deal of time exploring a cosmology and theology that explains the world where these fantastic and even supernatural stories take place.  The nature of heaven and hell as well as their relationship to the “natural world” is explored in Constantine in fascinating detail that suggests a worldview far more complex than anything seen in The Craft.

But when one considers the amount of Christian theology and cosmology that is readily accessible to the average screenwriter, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Many of them probably grew up learning about it.  Almost all of them have spent their lives surrounded by it.  And then there are simply libraries full of books that they can learn about it from.  And some of the best religiously-themed science fiction — such as the Chronicles of Narnia — have been written by Christian theologians themselves.

Compared to this, Pagan theology and cosmology (in its numerous forms and variations, no less) isn’t as easily accessibe.  There’s not nearly as much written about it.  Most people have not learned it first hand, nor do they come into contact with it regularly.  Is it any wonder that Pagan theology is less well developed in the movies then?

The final general category of movie I found was those movies in which religion somehow influenced the plot and created.  The best examples of this in my collection include Latter Days and Rock Haven, which are movies about young men who find themselves facing romantic and sexual feelings that their religious says are sinful and must be changed or repressed.  These movies then center around that conflict, the effects it has on the characters, and the eventual resolution.  Similar movies exist that deal with other faith struggles, such as understanding and coming to terms with tragedy and loss.

Personally, I would love to see similar movies from a Pagan perspective.  I would love to see movies where a Pagan character tries to reconcile his faith with life issues or find comfort and guidance through tragedy and difficulty from his faith.  The problem is, writing such a movie again requires a deep understanding of Pagan theology and philosophy, as well as how the affect the rest of an adherent’s life.  This is not the kind understanding that the average screenwriter is going to possess.  In short, Hollywood isn’t going to make this kind of movie simply because it’s ill-equipped to do so.

If we as Pagans really want to see positive portrayals in cinema, I think we’re going to have to find those in our community who are ready to be the story-tellers and the screenwriters who will do it.  After all, we are the only ones who can portray our lives because we are the only ones living our lives.

So as much as I’d love to see better portrayals of my faith on the big screen, I won’t hold my breath until I or another fellow Pagan is prepared to write them and try selling them to a movie studio.


8 thoughts on “Religion and Movies”

  1. Thanks for a very interesting post.

    Perhaps the best way to get good pagan movies is for pagan writers to write good pagan books. I’ve read a couple of books by pagan authors, but most of the ones I’ve read so far have been excruciatingly bad.

    A film with pagan undertones, which I thought was good, was Pan’s labyrinth. I’d be interested in your thoughts on that one. I’ve also blogged about it here:

    link to

    And it was a blog post by John Morehead that made me want to see it.

    The best film I have seen dealing with my religion is Ostrog (The Island.

  2. Steve: I’m glad you found my post interesting. I tend to agree with you that writing good Pagan books would be a good way to go. To be honest, I can’t say as I’ve ready any explicitly Pagan books. I’d be curious to hear why you felt the ones you’ve read were excruciatingly bad. I find myself wondering if it’s for the same reason that so much “Christian fiction” here in the states is excruciatingly bad: the authors seem to care more about pushing the worldview than telling a good story.

    One of the things I found interesting was Tolkein’s own forward to a re-publishing of The Lord of the Rings. He made it clear that he had not intended his book to be read as allegory (in fact, he had some scathing things to say about allegory), but merely sought to write a good epic story. I wonder if that’s why he was so successful.

    Worldview is good, but only when it shapes the story in some way. At least that’s my opinion.

    I have yet to see Pan’s Labyrinth. I may check it out this coming weekend.

  3. I haven’t read many pagan themed novels, but one I remember as particularly bad was “Brisingamen” by Diana Paxson. Though perhaps that’s because I regarded Alan Garner’s “The weirdstone of Brisingamen” as particularly good, and so found it disappointing, though I’m not sure that the later would be regarded as pagan.

  4. The Pagan SF writer that I would recommend is Liz Williams. Her books are really good. She also has a PhD in history and philosophy of science.

    Another Pagan writer I enjoyed was Rosemary Edghill with her Bell, Book and Murder trilogy. Not great literature, but a fun romp through the world of early-nineties Pagan New York.

    I also enjoyed Starhawk’s Fifth Sacred Thing.

  5. Good piece, in reply to a good piece.

    One thing I do note is that often the films which are not intended to have an explicit (or even sub-textural) religious element can be the ones which move a viewer to a feeling of religious experience… literally as well as metaphorically.

    Certainly a religious/spiritual or even magically effective emotional experience can come from films designed with spiritual themes (‘The Holy Mountain’ & ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ spring to mind). But sometimes others do too… (I had heavy mystical experiences in some odd flicks in my time, ranging from ‘Ghost’ to ‘The Doors’ and the animated Batman film ‘Mask of the Phantasm’ in the more mundane end, to ‘Baraka’ and ‘INLAND EMPIRE’ and especially ‘The Fountain’ at the other.)

    A great character for pointing this out is Mason Lang, the Bruce Wayne-like figure who funds and assists ‘The Invisibles’ in Grant Morrison’s graphic novel series of that name.

    Mason Lang is obsessed with the hidden messages he perceives in movies, which to him concern the evolution of mankind and other occult matters. His deconstruction of ‘Speed’ and ‘Pulp Fiction’ are… interesting.
    (I put them up the relevant quotes here, to save space: link to )

    And when you consider that ‘The Invisibles’ was the main source of, er, shall we say ‘inspiration,’ for ‘The Matrix’… one wonders what result an actual Invisibles movie might have had in its stead!

    (PS– I will try to forgive the mildly-positive reference you made to the appalling Constantine movie! Though a reading of Hellblazer back-issues may help you see just why that film should have been glorious if done well – and cast correctly – and ended as an gross insult to the character. Yes, I am still bitter about this years after the fact…)

  6. CatVincent: Thanks for the comment and welcome to my blog. I know what you mean about the flims not intended to have a religious element moving a viewer to a feeling of religious experience. I may have to check out some of the movies you mentioned and have never heard of.

    As for Constantine, I appreciate your forgiveness. I’ve heard a number of complaints about the movie from Hellblazer fans before. Please understand that as someone who never really got into graphic novels, I had no point of reference when watching the movie.

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