Reel Spirituality: My Top 10 ‘Theological’ Films

Top 10 lists can be rather self indulgent. And if you find them so you might want to skip this post! I am hoping, however, that this post might have some value in celebrating the role that good cinema can have on our personal spirituality. I am hoping that this post will inspire some dialogue—please comment below, politely please!

The films below are not ‘Christian films’—although a small number are meant to be religious, or spiritual, to some extent. They are films that have been made by people at the top of the cinematic game who want to shed light on the big issues of life, as well as no doubt having other motives too. Such films when viewed through our vision of Christ, and imagination informed by faith, have the potential to enrich our minds and hearts. Films can also be a tool for sharing our faith.

This is not a film review and I want to avoid spoilers, but some elements might be given away so please don’t read the supporting text if you are a purist and have not seen one of the films.

Number 10 on my list is The Thin Red Line. This film seems like a typical, albeit very good, war film at the start of viewing. It is towards the end of the film that events and words work to achieve a special depth and profundity. The film’s conclusion also makes sense of other earlier elements in the film. Even if you normally don’t watch war films why not give this one a go? Like many of the films below it does have some gritty aspects—these help root the film appropriately in the full horror that is war. I would recommend you check all of the film’s below in terms of their rating/classification before watching—I know not all Christians approve of various adult themes in cinema.

The next film, Of Gods and Men, is closely based an a true story. This adds to a sense of growing concern for the monks, who are centre stage, as you watch this film. It becomes increasingly apparent that there won’t be a classic happy ending. This film, like a number of others here, raises questions about the value of life and to what extent we stick with the calling that God makes on us in the face of extreme hostility.

Number eight on my list is a film that I find to be as beautiful as it is at times harrowing. It shows the gospel and the Church being worked out in South America. To my mind, it simultaneously celebrates the gospel whilst casting an immense shadow on some aspects of the Church as institution. The film also has one of the most remarkable portrayals of conversion to Christianity that I have ever seen on screen. Like all the films here it contains tears. In each film the tears are shed in different contexts. Here the tears are shed as awareness of sin comes home to someone who has trafficked uncountable people, and even killed his own half-brother.

Number 7 on the list, Silence, takes place at a similar time to The Mission. I can’t say a lot without giving too much away. What I can say, is that it is difficult to watch the terrible experiences that so many converts to Christianity experienced in Japan’s early years of engagement with Europeans. It raises profound questions about how to respond to religious persecution in its most life-threatening forms.

Signs is an unusual film. And it is one where it is important to play close attention to what’s going on right from the outset, otherwise the deeper aspects of the film will be missed. In particular the opening minute, or so, reveals key information about the main protagonist, Graham Hess, played by Mel Gibson.

Next, at five, on my list is Life is Beautiful. This film tackles the most disturbing events of the Twentieth Century. Some viewers might find its handling of the subject matter of the horrors of the holocaust have overstepped a line. It is certainly vital to note that from the outset it claims to be ‘a parable’. Never has a film had a more bittersweet conclusion.

Less controversial is the next film on my list, Bladerunner. This film has become a cult film and I won’t get into the issues surrounding the existence of multiple versions of the film. I will however recommend the Director’s Cut for those who need to make a choice without wanting to investigate further. Like other films on this list the real (reel?) revelation occurs in the closing minutes. These closing minutes contain some of the most amazing dialogue in any science fiction film, as well as some less than subtle imagery. The philosophical questions explored in this film are also central to this film’s wonderful sequel, Bladerunner 2049.

Number 3, Gran Torino, is another film which seems to be something different at the outset than what it is later revealed to be. The film does have a lot of bad language, because of the realistic portrayal of one of the sub-cultures that it a key part of the film. The film has, in my view, one of the profoundest ends to any Hollywood film. When I watched this with one of my teenage son, last year, the closing credits felt like a religious experience.

I struggled to choose between the next two films and I’m having second thoughts even as I type. But a ‘joint first’ seemed inappropriate. Terrence Malick is the only director to appear twice on this list and I know he does not appeal to everyone. But please give this film a go if you haven’t seen it. It is a truly amazing film and is undeniably unique. It’s weakness, for some, is that the plot is difficult to piece together on the first viewing. Once the plot is pieced together it reveals an amazing and rich journey of faith. A faith journey as messy, complex, yet full of grace, as many of us in the audience can testify to.

A dialogue spoken at the beginning of the film is a vital lens through which to see the whole film:

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.

My top choice proves to be a difficult film for some. It is certainly long, but not overly so for me. It has Tom Cruise playing a ill-spoken misogynist who make me cringe. Yet, this film is nothing less than biblical in some ways. Most obviously, all of the film’s many characters are united by an event straight from the Book of Exodus. Even the title is a deliberate play on the Latin term magnalia Dei, the Mighty Acts of God—a reference to the God of Israel’s deeds in the exodus of his people from captivity in Egypt. At a more subtle level, the lives of the characters, like those of the Patriarchs, have repeating patterns. The film can be understood as a reflection on Providence, but of course its probably not quite what Paul Thomas Anderson had in mind. Like number two on this list, The Tree of Life, this film is meant to be seen through the lens of an opening dialogue, After the portrayal of some remarkably unbelievable stories the narrator concludes:

It is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just “something that happened.” This cannot be “one of those things”. . . This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can’t. This was not just a matter of chance. . . These strange things happen all the time . . .

In faith, of course, such words connect with us with the central faith and hope we have in Christ.

Please feel free to disagree and offer your own suggestions below.

Already I’m concerned that I’ve found no place for A Hidden Life . . .

Reflecting on the Christian Hope: War Cemeteries

The Christian Hope, of a future heaven and earth, is often an appendix to traditional theologies. More thorough-going theologies rightly make the ‘life to come’ an integral part of theology. From a biblical perspective it should not be any other way. The Bible tells of the good creation of the past and its frustration in pre-history. It reveals how, in Christ, new creation has come. This new creation is both ‘now’ and ‘not yet’. This bifocal eschatology is well-known from Saint Paul’s pneumatology, in which he argues that the Spirit is a seal and deposit guaranteeing a future inheritance (1 Corinthians 1:21–22 and Ephesians 1:13–14). The past frustration of creation is remedied first by Christ’s past deeds, culminating in his rising from death as a first fruit, evident now in the work of the Spirit but only complete in the age to come.

This post is the first of three that reflect on the Christian Hope in terms of experiences of things and events that are important to me. These reflections arise from a conviction that we can be too slow to recognise the impact of our future with God, here and now. One remedy is to look to diverse experiences and interests to fire our imagination about the full promise of our bodily redemption. Each of these posts concerns a subject matter that is of special interest to me. I hope others too, can find some promise in how these specific topics speak of the greatest of all promises.

It is very much my hope that it will be evident that the chosen topics are not simply helpful illustrations. Rather, in each case, there is something that illuminates our future with God in a profound and organic way. The first of these subject matters is the emotive, even pathos-laden, topic of war cemeteries. For some this might sound unhelpfully morbid even if the obvious explicit presence of death at the heart of the subject connects firmly and bluntly with the question of ‘life after death’.

This reflection began during my family holiday in Normandy in France in June of 2019. Our holiday took place just after the 75th Anniversary celebrations of D-Day. In part, it was the historical legacy that took us to France this past summer—partly my continuing lifelong fascination with the events of 6th June 1944 and their immediate aftermath, and partly a wish to ensure my three children knew more of the second world war and its legacy today.

It was only when we arrived in Normandy that we appreciated that the lovely farm that provided our week’s accommodation was right next to the largest German war cemetery on French soil in La Cambe. Even as we drove past it the first time, looking for the farm, it made for a sobering experience. Our visit later that week proved to be more so as I’ll explain below. Before we made it to La Cambe’s cemetery we went to the famous American war cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer and the British one at Bayeux.

During our visits to these three war cemeteries it become clear that they unsurprisingly had a common impact—the all too obvious horror of grave-after-grave of both known and unknown combatants evoke the Psalmist’s most frequent question of lament, “why?”. In addition to this common ground, however, each had something different to say when viewed from the stance of resurrection hope.

The British War Cemetery in Bayeux echoes an English garden not least because the gravestones are surrounded by plants typically found in an English country garden.

Whatever the intent of the designers of this cemetery I could not escape seeing it as fusion of English gardens with the age to come. Almost certainly there is an element of reading far more than is intended into the layout and form of the cemetery. But for me it hinted at the unfortunate linking of biblical hope and British nationalism that is evoked by the hymn Jerusalem which uses words from William Blake’s poem: And did those feet in ancient time? This poem and the hymn Jerusalem ask:

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

These words might only ask questions, but these seem rather rhetorical, and at the same time plainly false and unhelpful. My reflection is of course not a criticism of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who manage the Bayeux cemetery and so many more sites around Europe—one can only wonder at such a remarkable effort made over so many years.

Elsewhere in the cemetery there is a clear allusion to the Book of Life (Psalm 68:29 Philippians 4:3, and Revelation 21:27) with the bold claim that ‘Their name liveth for ever more’, see photograph below. The availability of written records, made readily available, is almost a sacramental echo of the heavenly book. The principles of the Commonwealth Ward Graves Commission include ensuring the uniformity of the headstones and making no distinction on account of military rank, race or creed. Such principles seem fitting giving the twofold levelling we all experience in first dying and then being redeemed in Christ.

This principle of uniformity of headstone is taken in a different direction in US war cemeteries, including the one at Coleville-sur-Mer, pictured below. The headstones are styled as crosses in most cases on the basis that every soldier was a Christian unless they claimed otherwise. This uniformity of headstone and the precision of their geometry in rows and columns adds more anguish to the vexed question, “why?”.

The dominance of the cross also speaks powerfully of the foundation of our hope. It also echoes the poignant iconographic use of similar crosses in some of the works of the British artist Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) whose life was never the same after his experiences in the First World War. The use of white crosses to denote the idea of resurrection dominates his monumental paintings at Sandham Memorial Chapel.

Spencer was infamous for identifying his beloved home village of Cookham as heaven. But his imagination ventured to the day of resurrection and he perceived the dead rising from their graves, whether on the battlefield as Sandham Memorial Chapel or in the graveyard of Holy Trinity, the parish church in Cookham.

Of course, not everyone buried at Coleville-sur-Mer was a Christian and some headstones reflect this, for example a star of David is evident in the photograph above. If British war cemeteries echo a future idyll of heaven awash with roses and American ones speak of ‘the glorious dead’, what of La Cambe’s war dead?

Putting it in words is difficult. The iconography of gravestone and statue is heavy and chunky as if it would have been inappropriate to aim at beauty. This is especially so in the cross and figures which top the central mound, which is a mass grave for around 300 bodies, both known and unknown. It is also seen in the small crosses, each of which typically marks the grave of four people.

The visitor’s centre is sobering but in a very different sense. It tells the life story of some of those buried in the cemetery. In reading these stories we discover, although we should have known, that many of the dead here are very ordinary men. Men with no strong political view, nor driven by any nationalistic ideals, but men who would rather have stayed at home in a Germany that chose a path of peace. We also find men who only wanted peace after inflicting their worldview on other nations. Some of these men not only killed soldiers on the battlefield but they also killed civilians, men, women, and children.

Just as there are very different approaches to war cemeteries so to each person buried is unique. Only God knows the extent of virtue or vice in each life. He also knows which of these men, struck down before their time, will rise again to resurrection life. This, of course, is not on the basis of the magnitude of our virtues or vices, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God—but on the basis of our hope and belief in the sure and certain hope of resurrection life.

Humility in the Time of Corona — Romans 12:1–3

What? — Defining Humility
God calls us to future perfection in Christ but for now we are to attempt to lead a good life. This is not about an attempt to earn salvation. Our future with Christ, and our loving Father, is established in Christ’s death and Christ’s resurrection. We will one day be made good, once and for all because Christ himself is wholly good. In the present we should live a good life because we follow a God who defines goodness. Goodness is arguably the most fundamental characteristic of God. His glory, his wisdom, his love, his grace, they are all intertwined with his fundamental goodness.

Of course, the very concept of goodness, as well as humility more specifically, is not a priority in the modern world. Humility is not typically a topic in self-help manuals—I am not commending self-help manuals but simply pointing out that humility is not a modern preoccupation, nor in many eyes a desirable trait. Humility is not generally a theme in secular management training. Humility is arguably not the best attribute for getting to the top in business, politics, law, performing arts, science, or anything else.

Pride, of course, is the opposite of humility. The self-confidence, the self-reliance, the self-belief that can lead to pride, they are more often celebrated as keys to success. In contrast to self-confidence, self-reliance, and self-belief, humility can be perceived as weakness. Even in Church circles it is questionable whether humility is anywhere on the list of attributes we normally look for in our ministers and leaders.

And yet the Bible celebrates and champions humility. We have the near-paradox of an almighty God being revealed best in a humble man who set aside power and glory. For Jesus Christ—the best of us, the only perfect human to have graced creation—was humble. As Paul put it in his letter to the Church in Philippi:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Philippians 2:5–8, NIV

Perhaps Jesus Christ is the place to start to define humility? What happens when we do this? We can note that his humility is not the one-dimensional passivity we sometimes equate with humility. The same Jesus who surrendered himself to death, even death on a cross, overturned traders’ tables. The same Jesus who wept over Jerusalem, confronted, without fear, cold-hearted religious leaders and proud authorities. The same Jesus who did not raise a hand, or a voice, in the face of violence to his person rebuked his disciples in the boldest terms.

Romans 12:3 defines this sort of humility without even mentioning the word:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

For Paul, our humility is a static underpinning reality. We should exhibit humility. We should see ourselves as creatures before God our creator. This requires sober judgement. As both creatures and broken humans we are brought down to size. In Christ we are mercifully made whole again. This is our dependence on God which leads to humility. But humility is also a dynamic thing. The nature of our humility will change. It is according to the measure of our faith. As our faith deepens so our humility changes. The greater our faith in what Jesus Christ has done for us the greater our dependence on him the more we can boast in him.

How? — A Renewed Mind
Our ability to show humility brings to mind the maxim that used to be found on school reports in days gone by—a phrase that would be frowned upon today I think:

“Could do better.”

When it comes to humility, we could arguable all do better. This means different things for different people. For most of us we need to take verse 3 in its simplest sense and think of ourselves less highly than comes naturally. For a few of us we might need to transform a broken meekness, grounded in a feeling of lack of self-worth, into wholesome humility by thinking of ourselves in Christ more highly. But either way, how can we display humility as seen in the life of Jesus? How can we be good by being humbler? How?

Romans 12:2 provides an answer to this question:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Humility, as the opposite to pride, is also the opposite to conforming to the world. It was pride that set the ball-rolling in Genesis 3. It was pride that is captured so powerfully in the vanity project called the Tower of Babel a few chapters later. Pride rears its ugly head in wider society, time and again as well as continually in us as individuals. Moral theologians often suggest that pride—the opposite of humility—is the foundation of all sin. So, if we are already wired this way—conformed to a pattern of thinking that is the natural way of human flesh—how are we to be transformed?

We have already defined humility through Jesus. But the meaning of the word in English is also a help to us. The word humility has the same origin as humus, or earth. Humility is about being earthy, lowly. It’s about being grounded. It’s about remembering where we came from. The Bible tells as that we were made from earth. In Hebrew adamah means earth, hence Adam:

. . . then the Lord God formed adam from the adamah, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the adam became a living being.
Genesis 2:7

Being humble means remembering where we came from and where we are, in one sense at least, going. As Ecclesiastes says:

All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.
Ecclesiastes 3:20, NIV

Such sobriety before God is the foundation of a healthy spirituality. Being grounded in this way means recognising our earthiness is not a firm foundation. It is God our rock, it is the teaching of Jesus Christ, that we should build upon. Humility makes room for the grace that we so desperately need in our lives—this is the grounding we need.

Humility means standing on the earth from which God made us and looking to him in all his majesty. Unless we do these basics, we return to our Eden factory settings, one hour at a time. There is grace that comes through being together in fellowship. Never underestimate the grace that we can show to one another. In the face of Corona, and limited gatherings and self-isolation, let’s work hard to find ways to be available.

If some of us do get more time at home over the next few weeks and months, use your imagination to find ways to improve your time with God. Store up treasure for life after Corona. Be transformed by the grace of God. Humility should be a foundation for disciplined dependence—a realisation of our need to pray and listen to God’s word.

Why? — Being Living Sacrifices
Humility is the foundation of other virtues. It is the foundation of the good life lived before God. How can we serve God unless we understand ourselves in relationship to him?

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
Romans 12:1, NIV

Don’t miss Paul’s point here, spiritual worship has real physical consequences. Paul knows nothing of a distinction between the physical and the spiritual. In a time of pandemic, we can show Christ to those around us. The simple acts of avoiding the excesses of panic buying, stockpiling at the expense of others, and  the discipline of washing our hands. These are a start, but only a start.

Washing your hands in the current context is a remarkable picture of humility. Each time you wash our hands you have no idea whether this is preventing the spread of disease. In most cases it won’t make that difference. But its only by doing it regularly and frequently that it works—it is a discipline. Persistence is everything in this as in spiritual disciplines. So, see each 20-second hand wash as a necessary step of humility putting the needs of our healthcare system and the frailer members of society ahead of yourself. Such a frequent discipline will on occasions make an unseen difference. But, on every occasion it can be a celebration of our collective frailty—our dependence on a loving God. Like any discipline each and every occasion can help shape us, change us, and transform us.

Life in the time of Corona can remind us of our lack of control—our dependence on God—the very basis for humility. In a time of pandemic we can make a difference. We have the love of God that eclipses fear. Humility enables us to be living sacrifices for God.

Over the next few days and weeks let’s be creative and attentive to how we can support one another and minister to our neighbours. Let’s do what Christ always makes possible—the turning of darkness into a place where his light shines all the brighter.

Surely our faith in Christ, our trust in our Father, can make a real difference in the time of Corona?