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 . . .

Book Review, Part 2—The Psalter as Witness: Theology, Poetry and Genre

This is the second, and final, part of this review of The Psalter as Witness: Theology, Poetry and Genre, Dennis Tucker, Jr. and W. H. Bellinger, Jr. (editors), Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2017. 216pp. hb. $49.95, ISBN 978-1-4813-0556-3

Part 2: Theological Themes in the Psalms

Human Transience, Justice and Mercy: Psalm 103, Johannes Schnocks

In this contribution Schnocks uses a combination of approaches which consider both the shape of the Psalter (synchronic methods) and the shaping of the psalms (diachronic approaches) to explore the nature of divine mercy in Psalm 103. He does this by considering the theme of human transience raised in Psalm 90 (the first psalm of Book 4). Psalms 102 and 103 are seen to deepen the intermediate position proposed in Psalm 92. This ongoing dialogue provides a firm context within which Psalm 103 articulates the nature of the forgiveness of sins offered by YHWH. Schnocks shows how the three strophes (vv.6–10, vv.11–13 and vv.14–18), at the heart of the psalm, present a theology of divine mercy which is a rich reflection on God’s nature and his covenant relationship with Israel. This chapter is not only interesting in its own right but it also provides a helpful illustration of the potential for exploring the dialogue between the psalms made visible by synchronic approaches which recognise the shape of the Psalter.

 

The God of Heaven in Book 5 of the Psalter, W. Dennis Tucker Jr.

Zion Theology has long been recognised as a central theme of the Psalter. Zion Theology is explored helpfully in terms of its key motifs and with awareness that it underwent a shift in emphasis, albeit not a straightforward linear one. The spatial nature of the language in Book 5 which refers to YHWH is explored. Tucker also examines the fivefold use of the phrase ‘maker of heaven and earth’ in Book 5, noting that it is not found in the other four books. The use of this term, almost an appellation, is part of a shift in Zion Theology necessitated by the destruction of the First Temple. The evidence in Book 5 is shown to point to the term ‘God of Heaven’ becoming increasingly important in the light of defending the inviolability of Zion. Interestingly, despite YWHW’s identification as ‘God of Heaven’ the psalmists who wrote and edited Book 5 testify to the nearness of God. Indeed the motif of ‘God of Heaven’ is used in a manner consistent with YHWH as ‘Divine King [who] will intervene into the history of his threatened people’ [pp.98–9).

 

The Theology of the Poor in the Psalter, Johannes Bremer

Bremer opens by identifying what he sees as five threads of thought that run through the Psalter from a synchronic perspective. One of these is a theology of the poor. It would have been helpful at the outset for more to be said concerning what features of the psalms can be said to constitute a theology of the poor. Notwithstanding this point, Bremer shows that a theology of the poor is a key concept within the first David Psalter (Pss.3–41) in that each of the recently recognised four sections concludes with a psalm (Pss. 14, 24, 34 and 41) within which various elements constitute a theology of the poor. With reference to the work of Hossfeld he argues that the second Davidic Psalter mirrors this theology of the poor. He also points out that all of these Davidic psalms are from a perspective of close familiarity with the poor. This is not the case, however, with the Asaphite psalms in which there is a clear distance between the psalmist and the poor. The theology of the poor in Book 5 is rather uneven. The theme is all but absent from the Psalms of Ascents but important in the various Hallelujah/Hallel psalms (Pss. 104–106, 111–113, 115–117 and 146–150). The chapter closes with a brief outline of the diachronic explanation of the synchronic whole with which the chapter has been largely concerned.

 

The Elohistic Psalter: Formation and Purpose, Frank-Lothar Hossfeld

The chapter commences with a helpful reminder that Herman Gunkel was not only concerned with form criticism but devoted some attention to the formation of the Psalter. In particular he attempted to explain the existence and nature of the Elohistic Psalter (Pss. 42–83) with which Hossfeld is concerned. Hossfeld suggests that Gunkel was unwise to attempt to account for the shape of the Psalter by giving so much attention to its middle. Hossfeld briefly sketches the legacy of Gunkel’s account of the Elohistic Psalter before favouring some recent studies that have provided alternative explanations for the use of divine names in the Elohistic Psalter. He concludes that the Elohistic Psalter is part of the middle of the story of the shaping of the psalms as well as the middle of the Psalter. More specifically he suggests that its origin lies with the activities of the Asaphites who edited the second Davidic Psalter, as well as some of the Korahite psalms, namely Pss. 42–49. The chapter concludes by building on this with the very specific evidence from (i) two parallel psalm pairs: Pss. 14/53 and 40:14–18/70 , (ii) the inclusion of the second David Psalter (Pss. 69–71), (iii) the content of the second part of the Korahite Psalter (Pss. 84–85, 86–89). By way of conclusion the argument is drawn together with regard to the implications for an understanding of the formation of the Psalter.

 

The Elohistic Psalter: History and Theology, Joel S. Burnett

This chapter functions as something like a sequel to the previous one. Burnett considers three theological emphases of the Elohistic Psalter. The first, and most obvious, is the preference for the divine name Elohim which seeks to shroud YHWH in mystery whilst simultaneously identifying him as the deity behind other divine names. The second is the clear presentation of the supremacy of Israel’s God among the other gods. Burnett argues that this is not just a static theme, but one that culminates climatically in the penultimate Elohistic psalm (Psalm 82), in the portrayal of the divine council and Elohim’s superiority over its members. The third emphasis is the portrayal of divine judgement on earth as in heaven. In this way a hope is described whereby the calamitous events of Exile can be reversed. With these three themes in mind, Burnett considers how the first Korahite collection (Pss. 42–49) provides a lead-in to the Elohisitc Asaph-David collection and the second Korahite collection (Pss. 84–85, 87–88) cogently follows this literary unit. At a later stage he suggests that Psalms 2 and 89 were added to foster the joining of  the first Davidic Psalter to the Elohistic Psalter.

 

Part 3: Genre and Theology

The Psalter as a Book: Genre as Key to its Theology, Egbert Ballhorn

Ballhorn starts by recognising both the innovation, and yet also the limits, of Gunkel’s form criticism (Gattungskritik). In particular he laments the effort of some commentators in the 1920s to reorder the psalms. The revolution created by the recognition of the literary character of the psalms as a Psalter is celebrated before he moves on to consider the Psalter’s ouverture. Psalms 1–3 are explored as this ouverture, although rather surprisingly there is no mention of Robert Cole’s 2013 monograph on these psalms: Psalms 1–2: Gateway to the Psalter. Ballhorn helpfully adds further insight as to how these first psalms function as a hermeneutical lens by recognising how Psalms 1 and 2 connect with the language of the Pentateuch (Psalm 1) and that of the Latter Prophets (Psalm 2). Psalm 3 is also singled out as the first of the psalms that conforms to the expectation of what constitutes a typical psalm. In this way Ballhorn sees the first three psalms as teaching readers that addressing God in prayer is only possible by building on the twin pillars of torah and trust in the promise of God’s anointed seated in Zion.

 

Genre, Theology, and the God of the Psalms, Rolf Jacobson

This final chapter, rather appropriately, considers what sort of God it is that the psalms testify to. More specifically the ‘prayers of help’ (individual laments) and Royal Psalms are used to answer this question. Jacobson is aware that some scholars, such as Gerstenberger, view such an enterprise as impossible; decrying the possibility of a singular theology of the psalms—Gerstenberger famously speaks of theologies of the psalms, in no small measure because for him the pursuit of Sitz im Leben eclipses more recent canonical endeavours. In examining the ‘prayers for help’, God’s impassibility and immutability in terms of his being, character and election of Israel is first recognised. At the same time the psalms also assert, however, that when it comes to  more specific actions for Israel and for the individual, God ‘is far from impassible’ [p.175]. The election of Israel in the Royal Psalms is considered by first noting the rich semantic field within the Hebrew Bible which is not fully echoed in the psalms. What the psalms do is rather more specific. They focus on the election of specific people, most notably David. These two threads come together in witnessing that YHWH is a God of  relationships—he hears the cries of the weak and is in covenant with Israel, releasing his people’s divine purpose.

 

Final Comments

Edited books of this type can often feel rather haphazard but here the twelve contributions have been shaped together well. This results in a sense of common endeavour among the twelve contributors to collectively advance the canonical approach. For me two of the contributions stand out because they not only make the most of the new canonical consensus but they have wider theological promise too. The first is Brack Reid’s paper which offers some interesting possibilities and potential for reading the psalms Davidically in terms of a theology of suffering. The second is Bremer’s contribution on a theology of suffering. These two also cohere in terms of their focus. Several other contributions remind the reader that a theology of the poor is a key concern of the Psalter.

So to conclude this volume is highly recommended to advanced students and scholars with either an interest in the Psalter or the interplay between synchronic and diachronic approaches to the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament. A knowledge of Hebrew is necessary to get the best from most of the contributions and the collection. This contribution indicates that the synchronic approach has reached a level of genuine maturity and consensus. Undoubtedly scholars still have much to explore. There is also a vital need to ensure that the broad insights of the new consensus can be appropriated within the Church to enable the Psalter to function fully as life-transforming Scripture.