Sunday, June 28, 2015

Christianity is Cinematic

A lot has been said on the trouble with Christian movies.  So often, Christian movies have been conflated with the oft-maligned American Christian film industry.  The two are not inherently the same.  The distinction is extremely important as there is nothing inherently inartistic or uncinematic about Christianity so criticisms of certain movies should not be overly broad.  In fact, the opposite is true!  Christianity is cinematic!  I intend to point out reasons for this that even a secular person can mostly relate to.

Many of literary and film history's most common tropes and themes are Biblical.  This includes all the different types of Christ-figure.  Other common tropes include David and Goliath, the Good Samaritan, attempting to control the Divine, the tempting fruit, and evil sacrifices to idols among others.  While the Greeks and others have certainly lent different tropes down the years, they have not had nearly the profound impact of the Bible.

Moving beyond the Bible, Christian history is quite epic.  This includes big events from the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, to the Crusades, to the Christian stand against Communism in the last century, among others.  For us Catholics, we also have the lives of the saints who are not only examples of holiness, but are often examples of high adventure and drama, too.

Drama is about high stakes.  This is why many movies are built around life and death scenarios.  Christian theology has the one set of stakes that are even greater than life and death: Heaven and Hell.  Centuries of Christian martyrs have witnessed to this.  Morality provides compelling drama.  Relativism often means meaningless action.

Movies are about sight and sound, but especially sight.  What is the most powerful recurrent image in all of human history?  The crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  Jesus is history's greatest muse.

The Crucifixion, Giotto, 1311-20

Mond Crucifx, Raphael, 1602-3

Christ Crucified, Velasquez, 1632

The Yellow Christ, Paul Gaugin, 1889
still from The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964

My final point is more of a stretch than the others.  Psalm 19 states, "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork."  All of the empirical universe, the most immediate subject matter of a movie, was created by God, belongs to him, and is a reflection of his glory.  Nothing is truly secular, only not explicitly sacred.  Many people go out into nature to experience God, while, admittedly, some are unmoved by such things.  When I think of creation as a reflection of God's glory, I think of the landscapes of John Ford.

Catholicism and Orthodoxy are Christianity's two most cinematic expressions.  They are sacramental churches, meaning their spirituality is built with outward, visible signs.  The empirical world is an expression of spiritual truths.  Catholic and Orthodox spirituality are built around sight, sound and even aesthetics, as well as God's Word.  Our rituals and our beautiful churches show this.

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