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Film and Religion in America

Summary and Keywords

Religion intersects with film not only in film content, but also in the production and experience of film. From the earliest period, religious attitudes have shaped how religious individuals and communities have approached filmmaking as way to present temptation or salvation to the masses. Individual religious communities have produced their own films or have sought to monitor those that have been mass produced. To avoid conflict, filmmakers voluntarily agreed to self-monitoring, which had the effect of strongly shaping how religious figures and issues were presented. The demise of this system of self-regulation reintroduced conflict over film content as it expanded the ways in which religious figures and issues were presented, but it also shifted attention away from the religious identity of the filmmakers. Built on a foundation of “reading” symbolism in “art” films, and drawing from various forms of myth—the savior, the end of the world, and others—audiences became more comfortable finding in films religious symbolism that was not specifically associated with a specific religious community. Shifts in American religious demographics due to immigration, combined with the advent of the videocassette and the expansion of global capitalism, broadened (and improved) the representation of non-Christian religious themes and issues, and has resulted in the narrative use of non-Christian myths. Experimentation with sound and image has broadened the religious aspect of the film experience and made it possible for the viewing of film to replicate for some a religious experience. Others have broadened the film-viewing experience into a religious system. While traditional film continues to present traditional religions in traditional ways, technology has radically individualized audio-visual production, delivery, and experience, making film, like religion, and increasingly individualized phenomenon.

Keywords: auteur, African American, Bible, Catholicism, Islam, Jesus, Judaism, myth, Production Code, Protestantism, Yiddish


Any discussion of the relationship of religion and film is complicated by the difficulty defining each term, particularly because the ways in which each one is understood by the public has shifted over the past century, most dramatically since the 1960s. Here the term “religion” is primarily used as an expression of an institutional, collective identity—that is, as a denominational affiliation or “faith tradition” (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.); but it also explores some of the ways in which expanded notions of religion have become manifest in the human relationship with film. However, while the notion of “film” (or more specifically “movie”) has likewise expanded—into digital transmission, first viewed in a theater but then also (or exclusively) on television, on rented videocassette or DVD, and finally over the internet—here a more traditional notion is used (visual/audio-visual moving-picture entertainment, in either analog or digital format, that is presented in theaters to a general audience) unless otherwise noted. Additionally, while both religion and film are global phenomena, the emphasis here is on religion and film in the United States; some attention will be paid to the global film world, primarily (but not exclusively) from an American perspective. Finally, because of the shared transformational trajectories of both of the categories “religion” and “film” over the past century, this essay will follow a vague historical narrative in three main sections. However, the emphasis is on religion and religion-related issues: how various issues related to religion have emerged in film production, how they have been presented on film, and how they have been extrapolated from film.

Religion and Film Production

From the start, religion and religious identity have been factors in film production. In the earliest years of silent film, some members of various religious communities expressed concern that this form of mass entertainment (in moviehouses and their predecessors, the nickelodeons) not only was unrefined, but also presented working-class viewers with distractions that either would keep them from their obligations of family, work, and church, or would lead them astray morally by exhibiting inappropriate behaviors to be condoned (or worse: mimicked). Others saw this same venue as an opportunity to bring religion and positive religious values to the viewer, using film as a surrogate for disciples and believers, print materials, and, more recently, the radio to transmit what one scholar has called “celluloid sermons.”1 This dichotomy—film as either temptation or teacher—has been at the heart of the relationship of religion and film ever since.

Initially, this dichotomy reflected the attitudes of the Progressive Era (from the last few decades of the 19th century to the first few decades of the 20th), in which Christianity (specifically, white Protestantism) was synonymous with America, and clerical and lay leadership sought to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth by improving society and all in it. Film was seen as “low-culture” entertainment best suited for the native working classes and the swelling numbers of immigrants (many more from non-Protestant countries than at any previous point in American history), and film production was only moderately engaged in by established business elites. With the growth of the industry—which was initially clustered in the New York metropolitan area—those who had disdained the business now sought to exert control over it. Particularly important in this regard was inventor Thomas Edison, whose laboratories had developed some of the central technology used in film making and projection. Edison not only retained the patents but also sought to monopolize control of their use, forcing entrepreneurs and immigrants with sufficient capital to relocate from New York to southern California and beyond the control of his cartel. A significant number of those who relocated to establish a West Coast film industry were immigrant Jews: Polish-born film producer Sam Goldwyn, German-born Carl Laemmle (founder, Universal Studios), Ukraine-born Louis B. Mayer (cofounder, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), Canadian-born Albert, Harry and Jack and Sam Warner (founders, Warner Bros. Studio), Hungarian-born Adolph Zukor (founder, Paramount Pictures), and others. (Harry Cohn, cofounder of Columbia Pictures and also Jewish, was born in New York City.) They established the “studio” system that, in its most powerful years, employed writers and created (or obtained) scripts, controlled the contracts of actors and actresses, produced films, owned (or controlled) theaters, and controlled the distribution of films into those theaters. They also served as a platform to hire their own relatives; one joke attributed to this period was that the MGM of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer actually stood for “Mayer’s ganse mishpukhah” (translation: “Mayer’s entire [extended] family”). In part because of the ability of these (and other, Jewish and non-Jewish) studio heads to exert so much control over the industry, and in part because the presence of Jews—any Jews—as studio heads was an affront to continuing anti-Semitic attitudes of the period, American Judaism became linked in many ways with the relocated, mythic filmmaking world “Hollywood.”2

Of course, filmmaking was not an exclusively Jewish enterprise, nor was opposition to it entirely non-Jewish, and the initial disdain for film and filmmaking expressed by some cultural elites did not reflect a desire to ignore the industry entirely. In the years before and after American involvement in World War I, evangelical Christians began building a filmmaking infrastructure that, because it was designed primarily for use within the community and did not have the funding or networking distribution system of the Hollywood studios, went largely unnoticed by the media-based cultural elite, particularly in the years after the Scopes “Monkey” trial of 1925.3 Attracting more attention, and motivated by many of the same concerns and impulses, were the local and state ordinances designed to protect the public from lewd, lascivious, or blasphemous film content. Because a broader interpretation of the First Amendment’s “free-speech” protection was still in its infancy, state courts regularly upheld these restrictive ordinances. As early as 1915, the United States Supreme Court ruled that, because “the exhibition of moving pictures is a business pure and simple” and “not to be regarded . . . as part of the press of the country or as organs of public opinion,” governments could regulate them because they were “capable of evil,” even if they were “mere representations of events, of ideas and sentiments published and known, vivid, useful and entertaining.”4

Not satisfied with state and local mechanisms to protect viewers from dangerous film content, in the late 1920s Catholic religious and lay leadership created their own initiatives to safeguard their own parishioners. Their efforts were endorsed by Pope Pius XI, whose 1929 encyclical “Divini illius magistri” (“On Christian Education”) cautioned that “[m]ore than ever nowadays an extended and careful vigilance is necessary, inasmuch as the dangers of moral and religious shipwreck are greater for inexperienced youth.” “How often today,” asked the Pontiff, “must parents and educators bewail the corruption of youth brought about the modern theater and the vile book!”5 By the early 1930s, the “Legion of Decency” had been formed to be the official American Catholic moral voice on film content, and religious and lay leaders—including Martin Quigley, Joseph Breen, Fr. Daniel Lord, and others, under the auspices of Cardinal Mundelein of Chicago—had created guidelines to inform Catholics about a film’s moral content, or lack thereof. In his 1936 encyclical “Vigilanti cura” (“On Motion Pictures”), Pope Pius XI urged further action, congratulating the Catholic “Legion of Decency” for their work but noting that he was “deeply anguished to note with each day the lamentable progress . . . of the motion picture art and industry in the portrayal of sin and vice.”6

Because film production, distribution, and exhibition were linked, studios used the theaters they owned or controlled in large metropolitan areas to generate publicity and funds to justify producing additional film prints for broader distribution. Many of these larger metropolitan areas—New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and others—also had large Catholic populations, whose leadership increasingly threatened to urge their parishioners to boycott films deemed unworthy for viewing. The threat of a boycott—or the negative publicity of a threat—by the nation’s Catholic population encouraged studio heads to voluntarily submit to the creation of a “code” to be used in the production of any film, as well as a commission to ensure that the films (from script to print) kept to the code. Will Hays, as president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, adopted the guidelines as the Motion Picture Production Code on behalf of the studios, while Joseph Breen was brought in to enforce the code through the Production Code Administration. On occasion, disagreements between Breen and the studios produced friction, and it was not uncommon—given the significant presence of Jews who served as studio executives—for this friction to be expressed through anti-Semitic characterizations.7

In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled that the ways in which the film studios controlled film production and distribution constituted a monopoly. While the immediate issue was unrelated to religion, this decision had a profound impact on local and state controls. In writing for the court, Justice William Douglas noted that the court did not doubt “that moving pictures, like newspapers and radio, are included in the press whose freedom is guaranteed by the First Amendment.” Since that issue was not before the court, Justice Douglas was signaling to those involved in film production and restriction how the court might rule were such an issue presented to it, foreshadowing the demise of state and local censorship laws, as well as the control exerted over film content by the Production Code Administration.8 In 1952, the Supreme Court addressed directly the issue of content restriction based on religious objections when it ruled that New York could not prohibit the showing of an Italian film (The Miracle, 1948) simply because it had been deemed “blasphemous” by state officials. In a direct rebuke of the 1915 Supreme Court decision, Justice Tom Clark compared motion pictures to “books, newspapers, and magazines,” which, even though they are “published and sold for profit,” are not prevented “from being a form of expression whose liberty is safeguarded by the First Amendment.”9 In his 1957 encyclical “Miranda prorsus” (“On Motion Pictures, Radio, and Television”), Pope Pius XII took a clearly more conciliatory tone toward film, addressing those involved in its production rather than those charged with monitoring it, and acknowledging the benefits of the form.10 By 1964, when The Pawnbroker received the approval of the Production Code Administration despite nudity and sexual content, the power of the Production Code was already in steep decline.

Not surprisingly, the twin freedoms to produce films with greater constitutional protection and without a Production Code coincided with a marked increase in public protests related to the presentation of religion in film. Films portraying religious figures (e.g., the portrayal of Jesus in films such as Jesus Christ Superstar, 1972; the portrayal of Satan in films such as The Exorcist, 1973)—no longer bound by the limitations of the code—attracted the attention (and often condemnation) of members of religious communities who expressed concern about biblical, theological, or moral content. This attention still sought to encourage (or require) filmmakers to produce films that represented religious figures and ideals in particular ways, but by the 1980s, this critique was no longer divided along lines coincidental to the boundaries of the various faith traditions, with Catholic (and, to a lesser extent, Protestant) communities playing the role of community watchdog, and Jews playing the role of potentially exploitative entrepreneurs in need of watching. Instead, increasingly it conformed more to the religious realignment taking place more broadly in American culture, with representatives of the various religious communities taking “liberal/progressive” positions on artistic freedom and “conservative/traditional” positions on negative representation of religion or religious adherents in film.11 As a result, the role of the specific religious identity in the making of film generally diminished.

This is not to suggest that the significance of the filmmaker’s religious identity disappeared entirely. While its formative period may have been delayed, by the 1970s an evangelical Protestant film industry—still producing films that were mostly seen within the community—had more fully developed. One film, A Thief in the Night (1972), is credited with having been seen by three hundred million people since its release.12 Another American filmmaking subculture has emerged in the Mormon community, although unlike for evangelical Protestant filmmakers, the Mormon industry has more broadly focused on both internal and general distribution films, and is more of a network of professional filmmakers than a solely in-house film-production world.13 Likely one of the more obscure filmmaking subcultures, Yiddish film was established in the American Jewish community among filmmakers who both remained in New York and—because they did not represent a commercial threat—evaded the attention of the Edison cartel. While their films featured elements of Jewish religious practice that might be unfamiliar to non-Jews, and presented Jewish characters in ways that were often more sympathetic than the English-language films of the day, the plots often reflected concerns that were universal (or at least common) among working-class Americans and new immigrants: class and generational conflicts, economic distress, romance across religiocultural lines, and the strain of leaving family behind in another country. However, because they were in Yiddish—the lingua franca of central and eastern European Jews that is a linguistic blend of Hebrew, German, Russian, and other languages, and is written in Hebrew—audiences were generally limited to those who spoke the language: central and eastern European Jews. A derivative of the Yiddish theater that emerged in 1870s eastern Europe, Yiddish film (at the peak of its popularity in the United States, the 1920s and 1930s) provided entertainment and employment to the large wave of impoverished Jewish immigrants as well as American-born Jews, some of whom—Philip “Fyvush” Finkel, Paul Muni (born Frederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund), Molly Picon (born Malka Opiekun), and Edward G. Robinson (born Emanuel Goldenberg)—were able to translate their experience into success in the English-speaking film and television industries. Today, while Yiddish words and phrases often appear in television and film scripts—Mel Brooks, portraying a Native American leader in the 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles, stops his lieutenant from threatening an African American family by saying “Zeit nisht mishugeh,” which is Yiddish for “Don’t be crazy!”—the Yiddish film industry has almost entirely disappeared, reflecting not only the dramatic changes that have occurred within the American Jewish community, but also the more subtle but broader shift of public attention from the role of religious identity in film production to issues related to the presentation of religion on film.

Religion on Film

During the silent-film era, stories found in the Christian Bible served as regular sources of inspiration for filmmakers: they were free to use (so there were no permissions to purchase), they were familiar (meaning that the studios could save money by not having to splice into the film “intertitle” screens containing dialogue and narration), and they were biblical (in origin if not in final product), and therefore at least minimally shielded from clergy condemnation.14 Characters were often portrayed as visual stereotypes, in part for their ease of recognition in a medium without audible clues, and in part because of a lesser sensitivity toward social and cultural stereotypes. While most of the stereotypes were either mostly accurate (Catholic priests identified by their collars) or mostly benign (Protestant pastors identified by the well-worn Bibles in their hands), others were based on long-held prejudices of the dominant culture. In many early films, Jews were identified by their physicality (exaggerated noses and gesticulations, long dark outer garments, etc.).

By the time “talkies” permitted greater narrative nuance, the Production Code guaranteed that, while members of the clergy might be presented on film based on visual stereotypes, they were protected from negative treatment in the script unless they were ultimately unmasked in the narrative as fraudulent or corrupt. In addition to various requirements designed to keep immoral images from the screen—such as prohibitions against men’s chest hair and women’s navels—the code also required that good had to triumph over evil, and that criminals ultimately had to face the consequences of their actions. The result was a period of limited (and in many ways, comparatively bland) religious imagery. Some religious stereotypes remained common, particularly those considered ethnic or benign, or widely held to be true—negative portrayals of Islam through the use of negative representations of Arabs, for example. Race-based negative stereotypical representations of religion remained, as well; although seemingly progressive for its time by employing an all African-American cast, The Green Pastures (1936) presented God, angels, various biblical figures, and members of the African American religious community as naïve, childlike, and docile, with a rural-versus-urban dichotomy portrayed in a way that strongly suggests a preference for 19th-century antebellum life despite (or in response to) the fact that southern African Americans had been engaging in the “Great Migration” to northern cities since World War I. Such portrayals of African American religiosity would persist well into the Civil Rights era.

In contrast to such negative stereotyped film presentations, filmmakers within the African American community produced films with more nuanced, authentic, and multifaceted portrayals of African American religious expression and its place in the African American community. Unlike the Yiddish-language films already discussed, these films were accessible to any viewer and depended less on the religion of the filmmaker and more on the subject being presented. Neither financed as well nor distributed as broadly as the major-production-studio films, these films were like the Yiddish films in that—regardless of their accessibility—they tended to play to a particular audience. They also tended to represent religion as a complex social institution within the African American community, and those who were motivated by religion (clergy, but also adherents) as imperfect beings with a variety of motivations for good and bad behavior, which is to say, human.15

While film representations of religion during this period generally reflected the sensibilities of the viewing audience, they sometimes instructed audiences—if ever so gently—about religious issues of the day, or religious figures at the center of the narrative. Sometimes this could be of greater informative value for the audience than at others; for example, when the audience was seeing evidence of a religious issue, figure, or community that was not part of the mainstream. Going My Way (1944), about a young (almost “hip”) Catholic priest sent to replace an aging, accented, “old-school” priest in an urban parish, in many ways reflected—as well as presented to the viewing audience, many of whom were likely to be non-Catholics—the transition occurring in the United States at that time of American Catholicism shifting from seeming to be “foreign” to finally becoming “American.”16 Similarly, earlier films like Abie’s Irish Rose (1928) and The Jazz Singer (1927) reflected—but also revealed to a largely non-Jewish audience—the desire of immigrant Jews to fit into their new home in the United States: in the former film via exogamous marriage (as big a problem for Jews as for non-Jews), and in the latter by choosing a secular career over service to the religious community.17

The fall of the Production Code enabled the production of representations of religious issues, figures, or communities that often challenged the positions of religious institutions and leadership, but their popularity—or, at the very least, the willingness of production companies to provide funding for making them—suggests that many of these challenging films still reflected the views of a sufficient ticket-purchasing audience to make producing the film worth the financial risk. For example, as late as the mid-1960s, Jesus is presented as unambiguously divine (King of Kings, 1961; The Greatest Story Ever Told, 1965); even in the large-budget, star-studded film The Ten Commandments (1956), the presentation of Moses may have been a bit nuanced but was not complex or particularly challenging. However, by the early 1970s, after the demise of the Production Code and the lost monopoly in the cultural status of institutional religion, it is clear that divine figures more closely reflect the average person in the film-viewing audience. In the last decades of the 20th century, God is portrayed as a cigar-smoking old man (Oh, God!, 1977), a grumpy business manager (Time Bandits, 1981), a woman (Dogma, 1999), and an African American (Bruce Almighty, 2003). Jesus is presented as a hippie (Godspell, 1973); a rock-opera star (Jesus Christ Superstar, 1973); a person with a temper, doubts, and regrets (The Last Temptation of Christ, 1988); and an actor (Jesus of Montreal, 1989).

While these presentations elicited disapproval from some—The Last Temptation of Christ, directed by Catholic Martin Scorsese, was considered so controversial that it was not carried by major video outlets when it was released for rental in VHS format—it also opened up a discussion of religion as a concept not necessarily tied to a specific institution-based collective identity or faith tradition. Initially this conversation had its strongest foundation in post–World War II Europe, where religious identity may have been strong but there was no Production Code to limit presentations. Italian, French, and Swedish films (among others)—imported to the United States and shown in limited venues in the years just before and after World War II—presented religious issues that challenged American religious and aesthetic sensibilities. But the larger conversation over the location of religion received a profound boost from the public theology of scholars like Paul Tillich and Nathan Scott, and others, who made popular the concept of exploring the arts for their theological significance.18 The so-called art-house film—which included but was not limited to foreign-language film—came under much closer scrutiny for themes like salvation and grace than did most American-made films.

The 1950s introduction of the concept of the film auteur—which focused attention on the director as the “author” of the film—provided a powerful mechanism by which to interpret the presentation of religion in films (particularly “art” films).19 While this theory overlooks the role of script writers, actors, and editors, since the 1950s it has shaped conversations about such international filmmakers as Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer (Ordet, 1955), French director Robert Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951; Balthazar, 1966), Italian directors Federico Fellini (La strada, 1954; La notti di Cabiria, 1957) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (Il vangelo secondo Matteo, 1964; Uccellacci e uccellini, 1966), Japanese directors Akira Kurosawa (Rashômon, 1950; Ran, 1985) and Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu monogatari, 1953; Sanchô dayû, 1954), Spanish director Luis Buñuel (Nazarín, 1959; Viridiana, 1961), and Swedish director Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal, 1957; Wild Strawberries, 1957). Its use has continued to be popular, prompting many to consider the role of religion in the vision (as represented in the final product) of various directors working before the concept of the auteur became popular (such as Frank Capra) and since (such as Francis Ford Coppola and Joel and Ethan Coen).20

The ability (and willingness) to “read” films in this way enabled audiences to encounter and ponder religious aspects of film that were independent of institutional affiliation—that is, not specifically Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish. And because films are generally seen as stories that are told (or read), one of the more common religious “readings” has been by seeing film as representing (or retelling) a myth. The broadened ability to see “religion” rather than “Christian” in a film, for example, has enabled viewers to interpret films in which there is no specifically religious figure (divine or human) as transmitting religious meaning. An example that is a close parallel to the “Jesus-figure” film (based closely or loosely on the gospel narratives) is the “Christ-figure” film, in which a mythic (but not necessarily Christian, or even human) savior figure transcends particularly religious identity but functions in a way similar to the Jesus of films. The portrayal of such figures has been central for such genres as the Western (High Noon, 1952; Shane, 1953) and science fiction (Star Wars, 1977). Science fiction has also provided ample opportunity for the end-of-the-world myth—an adjunct of the savior myth—in which the end comes in astrological (Deep Impact, 1998), environmental (Waterworld, 1995; The Day After Tomorrow, 2004), epidemiological (Twelve Monkeys, 1995; Zombieland, 2009), or nuclear (On the Beach, 1959), as well as religious (The Rapture, 1991), forms.

Coinciding roughly with the demise of the Production Code, changes in immigration law in 1965—which enabled greater numbers of immigrants from non–western European countries to come to the United States—expanded the religious complexion of country as it increased the potential audience for films presenting non-Christian characters, topics, and themes. The invention of videocassette recording in the 1970s and the growth of global consumerism greatly eased the ability of these diasporic communities to enjoy films from their native countries. It has also generated increased domestic and international markets of viewers searching for materials suiting their tastes as they appeal to new audiences, as well as opened up opportunities for the use of non-Christian narrative structures; The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000; based on the 1995 novel by Steven Pressfield) maps the Hindu epic the Bhagavad Gita, with characters’ names paralleling those of the main figures of the sacred narrative (“Rannulph Junuh” as Arjuna; “Bagger Vance” as Bhagavan). Some religious blind spots continue, however, particularly in the presentation of Islam. The theme song from Disney’s animated feature Aladdin (1992) was changed when the film was released on video because the lyrics identified the Arabian world as barbaric, and action films like True Lies (1994) and The Siege (1998) seem to equate Islam with terrorism.21 As much of this seems to be driven by politics in the United States (since September 11, 2001) and abroad (since the occupation of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, 1979–1981) as it has been by the reliance in narrative upon archetypes of “good guy”/“bad guy”: Native Americans in the earliest film era, Germans and Japanese during and after World War II, Chinese and Vietnamese in the 1950s and 1960s, and Arabs since the mid-1970s.22

Religion from Film

Beyond a theological, cultural, or mythic reading of any film, however, is the audience member’s experience of that film, and in many films that has included what could be considered a religious experience. Some films of the 1960s used visual and audio aspects to create a psychedelic experience (as in the Beatles’ 1968 animated film The Yellow Submarine) that for some was considered a spiritual expression of consciousness expansion. Others, like The Exorcist (1973)—about a young girl possessed by Satan, which also replayed the coming-of-age scenario of Going My Way (with an older Catholic priest ultimately replaced by a younger one)—introduced seemingly authentic religious horror (mixed with profanity and gore) to the viewing audience. Some films with more specifically biblical content—like The Passion of the Christ, which was marketed specifically for religious use by church congregations and organizations who were encouraged to rent entire theaters for group viewings—have played on the empathy of religious viewers to enhance the viewing experience.23

A higher order of religious experience has emerged from films whose fans have brought into their own lives beyond the in-theater film-viewing-experience aspects of the film that have had a significant impact on their general identity. The “cult” film extraordinaire, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), for example, continues to attract viewers who not only have seen the film numerous times, but who know the script, interact with on-screen events, and engage the audience to participate with them. More religion-like, however, are films such as Star Wars (1977), whose hero inspired thousands of citizens in various countries to identify as “Jedi” in response to national census inquiries about religious identity.24 By the second decade of the 21st century, significant enough numbers of fans were identifying as Jediists, Matrixists (based on characters from The Matrix, 1999), and Dudeists (based on “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski, 1998) to capture the attention of both the publishing and the academic worlds.25 While adherents of these religions have not yet had the impact enjoyed by Pastafarians (adherents of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, some of whom have sued for the right to wear their religious headgear—a colander—in government rituals and settings), they do remind us of the aforementioned dilemma: what (beyond the institutional, collective, “faith-tradition” identity) do we mean when we say “religion”?

The Future of Religion and Film

The beginning of the 21st century saw a resurgence of the big-budget Bible film, based in part on the successful marketing of The Passion of the Christ (2004), but also on the recognition by the filmmaking industry that the potential ticket-purchasing audience contained many—evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, observant Jews, and others—who retained a traditionalist view of the world but who did not categorically condemn film as a form of entertainment.26 Some of these films have done better than others at the box office; none has matched the success of The Passion.

But while Bible films—or films based on the scripture of any religious community, or films about religious individuals, or touching on themes related to specific religions (or religion in general)—will continue to be produced, it may be the dilemma over what constitutes film that will have the most lasting impact on the relationship of religion and film from this point forward. The explosion of methods to transmit audio-visual materials has not only transformed what we might mean when we say “film,” but also what we mean when we talk about who can make it, how fast, or how cheaply, and how widely it can be distributed (or “go viral”). The impact this has had on the role of religion in the three areas discussed—production, content, and experience—is still being determined, but there can be little doubt that it has globalized film production, from Hollywood to Bollywood (India) to Nollywood (Nigeria) and beyond, and enabled more individuals affiliated with particular religious communities to present narratives to broader (even global) audiences, permitting them to present themselves or their communities in ways that they feel are more representative.27 In this way, as film becomes more individualized, it is following the trajectory of religion in American society.

Review of the Literature

Between the advent of film and World War II, literature focusing on the medium’s intersection with religion reflected the values of the Progressive Era into which film was born; materials largely spoke either to the religious promise of this form of mass communication, or to its dangers.28 This trend would continue into the 1950s.

The age of scholarly engagement of religion and film began in earnest in the 1960s. One of the most cited of these early works, Religion in the Cinema by Ivan Butler, was published in 1969, but seven years earlier a young Harvey Cox published “Theological Reflections on Cinema,” in anticipation of his much-read work on the nature of religion in contemporary American society, The Secular City.29 However, seeming to follow Protestant theologian Paul Tillich’s preference for “high” rather than “popular” culture, scholars and critics engaged overwhelmingly in discussions of the (primarily Christian) theological significance of “art” films by (mostly) foreign filmmakers.

In the 1970s, scholarship on the intersection of religion and film broadened its scope to match the expansion of the academic study of religion, and its placement in publications related to the academic study of religion helped bring it out of the seminary.30 One of the advantages of this was the introduction into the scholarship of non-Protestant perspectives. This is not to say that there was no Catholic theological analysis of film (but it does seem to have been the case that, for a variety of reasons that can only be surmised, there had been almost no Jewish theologizing of film). It is to suggest, however, that the overwhelming number of works by or about Catholic and Jewish involvement in film has been both more recent and less theological. In the case of Roman Catholics, scholarship has tended to cluster in three areas. One of the earliest works in the first cluster tends to focus on the ways in which things Catholic (priests, nuns, etc.) are presented in American film; a more recent volume uses specific films to explore Catholicism in America.31 Works in the second cluster have tended to examine how specific Catholic filmmakers approach their work; while works in the third cluster have tended to focus on the Production Code.32

Like the analysis of Catholicism and film, the analysis of Judaism and film also emerged largely after the 1970s and also has tended to cluster. One of the more benign clusters is the discussion of what constitutes a “Jewish” film.33 Of greater value are those works that examine the portrayal of Jews in film, a field largely built on the work of Patricia Erens and Lester Friedman.34 Also like Catholicism are clusters examining the historical relationship of Judaism and film—Sarah Blacher Cohen and Neal Gabler examine the earliest periods of Jewish involvement in film; newer work (such as that by Michael Rogin) has tended to examine issues of race, ethnicity, and gender—and Jewish filmmakers.35 Two clusters unique to Judaism are discussions of Yiddish film and analyses of the “Holocaust” film, both of which emerged mostly in the 1980s.36

The end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries saw a resurgence in the area of theology and film—with important work by Christopher Deacy, Robert Johnston, and Clive Marsh—as well as a wider focus on “world” religions.37 Greater attention has been paid to religious “fandom,” with groundbreaking work having been done by Michael Jindra, as well as to the intersection of race and religion, with important work having been done by Judith Weisenfeld on African American film and by Jane Iwamura on “orientalism” in film and television.38

Further Reading

Baugh, Lloyd. Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film. Kansas City, MO: Sheed and Ward, 1997.Find this resource:

    Lyden, John C. Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals. New York: New York University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

      Lyden, John C. Routledge Companion to Religion and Film. New York: Routledge, 2009.Find this resource:

        Marsh, Clive, and Gaye Ortiz, eds. Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997.Find this resource:

          Martin, Joel W., and Conrad E. Ostwalt Jr., eds. Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995.Find this resource:

            Mazur, Eric Michael, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion and Film. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011.Find this resource:

              Miles, Margaret R. Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.Find this resource:

                Mitchell, Jolyon, and S. Brent Plate, eds. The Religion and Film Reader. New York: Routledge, 2007.Find this resource:

                  Wright, Melanie J. Religion and Film: An Introduction. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006.Find this resource:


                    (1.) Terry Lindvall and Andrew Quicke, Celluloid Sermons: The Emergence of the Christian Film Industry, 1930–1986 (New York: New York University Press, 2011).

                    (2.) See Neal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (New York: Anchor, 1989).

                    (3.) For a complete history of this period, see Terry Lindvall, Sanctuary Cinema: Origins of the Christian Film Industry (New York: New York University Press, 2007).

                    (4.) Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, 236 U.S. 230 (1915), 244.

                    (5.) Pius XI, “Divini illius magistri” (“On Christian Education”), December 31, 1929. Retrieved from

                    (6.) Pius XI, “Vigilanti cura” (“On Motion Pictures”), June 29, 1936. Retrieved from

                    (7.) For a detailed account of this period, see Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Gregory D. Black, The Catholic Crusade Against the Movies, 1940–1975 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997). See also William D. Romanowski, Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

                    (8.) United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., et al., 334 U.S. 131 (1948), 166.

                    (9.) Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, Commissioner of Education of New York, et al., 343 U.S. 495 (1952), 502.

                    (10.) Pius XII, “Miranda prorsus” (“On Motion Pictures, Radio, and Television”), September 8, 1957. Retrieved from

                    (11.) See Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith Since World War II (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).

                    (12.) Dean A. Anderson, “The Original ‘Left Behind,” Christianity Today, March 7, 2012. Retrieved from

                    (13.) Lynita K. Newswander, Chad B. Newswander, and Lee Trepanier, “Mormonism,” in Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture, eds. John C. Lyden and Eric Michael Mazur (New York: Routledge, 2015), 501–518.

                    (14.) For a comprehensive list, see Richard H. Campbell and Michael R. Pitts, The Bible on Film: A Checklist, 1897–1980 (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1981).

                    (15.) See Judith Weisenfeld, Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929–1949 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

                    (16.) Eric Michael Mazur, “Going My Way? Crosby and Catholicism on the Road to America,” in Going My Way: Bing Crosby and American Culture, eds. Ruth Prigozy and Walter Raubicheck (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2007), 17–33.

                    (17.) Andrea Most, Theatrical Liberalism: Jews and Popular Entertainment in America (New York: New York University Press, 2013).

                    (18.) Paul Tillich, “Aspects of a Religious Analysis of Culture,” in Theology of Culture, ed. Robert C. Kimball (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 40–51; Nathan A. Scott Jr., The Broken Center: Studies in the Theological Horizon of Modern Literature (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966).

                    (19.) Andrew Sarris, “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” reprinted in Film Theory and Criticism, 6th ed., ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 561–564.

                    (20.) For entries on each of these directors, see Eric Michael Mazur, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Film (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011).

                    (21.) David J. Fox, “Disney Will Alter Song in ‘Aladdin,’” Los Angeles Times, July 10, 1993. Retrieved from

                    (22.) For a prolonged analysis of the “good guy”/”bad guy” dynamic in American popular culture, see Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003).

                    (23.) On the film-watching experience of the religious viewer, see Margaret Miles, Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies (New York: Beacon, 1997).

                    (24.) Michael D. Hernandez, “Faith in the Stars: Jediism Religion has Sprouted Worldwide,” El Paso Times, May 17, 2002, 1D.

                    (25.) See Erica Hurwitz Andrus, “Fandom in The Big Lebowski,” in Coen: Framing Religion in Amoral Order, ed. Elijah Siegler (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016).

                    (26.) For a traditionalist view of the film industry to that point, see Michael Medved, Hollywood vs. America (New York: Harper, 1992).

                    (27.) For discussions of “world” religions and film, see Julien R. Fielding, Discovering World Religions at 24 Frames per Second (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2008).

                    (28.) R. G. Burnett and E. D. Martell, The Devil’s Camera: Menace of Film-Ridden World (London: Epworth Press, 1932); Herbert A. Jump, The Religious Possibilities of the Motion Picture (New Britain, CT: South Congregational Church, 1911); Herbert Miles, Movies and Morals (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1947); Charles C. Peters, Motion Pictures and Standards of Morality (New York: Macmillan, 1933).

                    (29.) Ivan Butler, Religion in the Cinema (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1969); Harvey G. Cox, “Theological Reflections on Cinema,” Andover Newton Quarterly 55 (1962): 28–41, 342–357; Harvey Cox, The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective (New York: Macmillan, 1965).

                    (30.) W. Richard Comstock, “Myth and Contemporary Cinema,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 43 (1975): 598–600; Thomas M. Martin, “Approaches to Religion and Film Studies,” in Academic Study of Religion: 1974 Proceedings, ed. Ann. Carr (Tallahassee, FL: American Academy of Religion, 1974), 92–106.

                    (31.) Lester Keyser and Barbara Keyser, Hollywood and the Catholic Church: The Image of Roman Catholicism in American Movies (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1984); Colleen McDannell, ed., Catholics in the Movies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

                    (32.) For works on the approach of Catholic filmmakers, see Richard A. Blake, Afterimage: The Indelible Catholic Imagination of Six American Filmmakers (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2000); Peter Malone, ed., Through a Catholic Lens: Religious Perspectives of Nineteen Film Directors from Around the World (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); for works focusing on the Production Code, see Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Gregory D. Black, The Catholic Crusade Against the Movies, 1940–1975 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998); James M. Skinner, The Cross and the Cinema: The Legion of Decency and the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, 1933–1970 (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishing, 1993); Frank Walsh, Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996).

                    (33.) Matthew Stevens, ed., Jewish Film Directory: A Guide to More than 1200 Films of Jewish Interest from Thirty-two Countries Over Eighty-five Years (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992).

                    (34.) Patricia Erens, The Jew in American Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984); Lester D. Friedman, Hollywood’s Image of the Jew (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982); Lester D. Friedman, The Jewish Image in American Film: Seventy Years of Hollywood’s Vision of Jewish Characters and Themes (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1987).

                    (35.) On race, ethnicity, and gender, see Sarah Blacher Cohen, ed., From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Jewish-American Stage and Screen (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983); Neal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (New York: Anchor, 1989); Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); on Jewish filmmakers, see David Desser and Lester D. Friedman, American-Jewish Filmmakers (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993); Elijah Siegler, ed., Coen: Framing Religion in Amoral Order (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016).

                    (36.) For Yiddish film, see Judith N. Goldberg, Laughter Through Tears: The Yiddish Cinema (East Brunswick, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1983); Eric A. Goldman, Visions, Images, and Dreams: Yiddish Film Past and Present (Teaneck, NJ: Ergo Media, 1988). For later work, see Jim Hoberman, Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1995); Sylvia Paskin, ed., When Joseph Met Molly: A Reader on Yiddish Film (Nottingham, U.K.: Five Leaves Publications, in association with the European Jewish Publication Society, 1999). On the “Holocaust” film, see Judith E. Doneson, The Holocaust in American Film (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1987); Annette Insdorf, Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust (New York: Random House, 1983); Lawrence Baron, Projecting the Holocaust into the Present: The Changing Focus of Contemporary Holocaust Cinema (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).

                    (37.) On theology and film, see Christopher Deacy, Screen Christologies: Redemption and the Medium of Film (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2001); Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2000); and Clive Marsh, Cinema and Sentiment: Film’s Challenge to Theology (Carlisle, U.K.: Paternoster Press, 2004); on world religions, see Rachel Dwyer, Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema (Routledge, 2006); Julien Fielding, Discovering World Religions at Twenty-four Frames per Second (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 2008); and S. Brent Plate, ed., Representing Religion in World Cinema: Filmmaking, Mythmaking, Culture Making (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

                    (38.) See Michael Jindra, “Star Trek Fandom as a Religious Phenomenon,” Sociology of Religion 55.1 (Spring 1994): 27–51; Jane Iwamura and Judith Weisenfeld, Hollywood Be Thy Name; and Jane Naomi Iwamura, Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).