I ended my last post suggesting “the relevance of cinema to Christian orthodoxy.” What exactly does this mean? On one level the answer is easy: award-winning films have portrayed dedication to Christ with respect, such as The Mission (1986, Roland Joffé) and the recently streamed A Hidden Life (2019, Terrence Malick), about a martyred Austrian, beatified in 2007, whose prayer-filled faith enabled him to endure intense torture while defying Nazi hegemony. (Interestingly, both films show love of Christ conflicting with the political interests of church leaders.)

In addition to celebrating faith infused films such as these, Christian scholars have extracted spiritual insights from popular Hollywood movies in which Christianity has no apparent role. I have been enlightened and nourished by their profound theological perspectives. However, of the fifty-plus essays and books I have read on faith and film, nineteen on Jesus-films alone, almost every single one has ignored changing theories about film aesthetics and language about the cinematic devices shaping film form. This strikes me as comparable to someone writing a book on the atonement without ever acknowledging the difference between Ransom, Satisfaction, or Penal Substitution theories, and hence failing to grapple with the varying approaches taken by Origen, Anselm, and Calvin. It can be done, of course, but much is lost about historical understandings of Christ as the medium of salvation. I therefore felt led to write Salvation from Cinema in order to fill a gap in Christian film scholarship.

Not coincidentally, I subtitled the book with Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism The Medium Is the Message. Indeed, that phrase applies to the history of Christianity as much as to the history of film. As I argue in the book, when it comes to writing about cinema, many endorsers of the Incarnation seem more Gnostic than Christian. Emphasizing hidden knowledge that can be extracted from a movie, they imply that the medium itself is merely an entertaining illusion that conveys truth, much as Christian Docetists in the third century regarded Jesus as an illusionary conveyor of God’s presence rather than as a flesh and blood medium. As I did research for the book, however, I discovered that authors from other religious traditions were Gnostic in their analyses of cinema as well. At least they had better excuses, for they were embedded in belief systems that either celebrated escape from the body or else dismissed doctrine about the Incarnation, assuming that no Transcendent God would deign to take on flesh.

Because I explored these multiple religious approaches, my publisher encouraged me to pivot from writing about “Christianity and film” to the more general topic of “religion and film,” which took a lot more work but ended up being a blessing in disguise. For now, Salvation from Cinema is read in courses on religion and cinema at secular universities. Here, then, is a passage celebrating Christian orthodoxy that non-Christians are required to read:

Failure to engage with and assess the visual medium is especially ironic for Christian scholars. Doctrine hammered out in the first five centuries of the church—often in defiance of Gnosticism—emphasizes that salvation is mediated not through stories and insights spoken by Jesus, but through his material body hung upon the cross, a medium seen after the resurrection. During the third ecumenical council, held at Ephesus in 431 CE, church leaders therefore borrowed a Greek philosophical term, hypostasis, meaning underlying substance, to argue that Christ’s human nature cannot be separated from his divine nature: it is a hypostatic union. Inspired by this ancient doctrine of Christianity, confirmed at Chalcedon in 451 CE, Salvation from Cinema argues for a hypostatic union of medium and message in film scholarship: an emphasis relevant not simply to Christian scholarship but also for the broader discourse of religion and film.” (Salvation from Cinema, 26)

In order to accommodate discussions about movies with Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu perspectives, the publisher asked me to remove material about specific Christian doctrines, one anonymous referee saying, “I don’t have time to teach my students about the Trinity.” Once again, this was a disguised blessing, providing significant material for another book: one that can explore in depth the important relationship between orthodoxy and cinema studies. As suggested in my last CSR post, Dorothy L. Sayers guides this project, not only due to her interest in cinema but also because her book about creativity and the Trinity, The Mind of the Maker (1941), anticipates secular theories about film aesthetics. An emphatic endorser of dogma established at the first four Ecumenical Councils, Sayers despaired over Christians who reduce the Incarnation to naught. Critiquing the naught-y who “practice a kind of artistic Gnosticism” by focusing on “Knowledge with a capital K,” she suggested such practices imply “that it is beneath the dignity of the son to dwell in a limited material body, and postulate for him a body which is a pure psychical manifestation, retaining all the supernatural qualities of the divinity.”

Sayers’s critique, of course, applies to more than the visual arts. The Incarnation should make a difference to the way Christians teach and practice scholarship in all the liberal and applied arts. As Jenell Paris beautifully put it in a recent CSR post, Christian scholarship in the classroom “is about neither the urgency nor the beauty of delivering content. It’s about the glory and honor of our students’ lives, and the lives of those they will one day serve, each one created just a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8). Quality teaching, like quality cinema, is considerably more than a content delivery system.

Crystal L. Downing

Wheaton College
Crystal Downing is Co-Director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College (IL)