Skip to main content

Mystery, says Joseph G. Kickasola in this essay, is a key component in any film seeking to approach the transcendent. Mystery is a dialectical process, moving between paradox and miracle. The basic characteristics of religious mystery, as articulated by the theologian Louis Dupré, take thematic and formal shape in Paul Haggis’ 2005 Academy-Award winning film Crash. Mr. Kickasola is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Baylor University.

Mystery, says Joseph G. Kickasola in this essay, is a key component in any film seeking to approach the transcendent. Mystery is a dialectical process, moving between paradox and miracle. The basic characteristics of religious mystery, as articulated by the theologian Louis Dupré, take thematic and formal shape in Paul Haggis’ 2005 Academy-Award winning film Crash. Mr. Kickasola is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Baylor University.

Introduction: Louis Dupré Goes to the Movies

He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him….No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. Daniel 2:22, 27-28 (NIV)

God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen. 1 Timothy 6:15b-16 (NIV)

The large question looming over this essay is “how does one express, approach, and/or convey religious transcendence through the cinema?” This has proven important as the religion and film discipline moves to a new stage of maturity.1 Likewise, there is a rising interest in questions of spirituality in American culture,2 and, unsurprisingly, the fantastic and supernatural have become dominant themes in contemporary media. The rise of this “new supernaturalism” is precisely a general fascination with the extraordinary, fantastic, and broadly spiritual dimensions of human experience and it has not escaped critical attention.3

This essay provides a stepping stone toward an answer for that larger question by engaging the philosophical theology of Louis Dupré, and focusing on a more narrow argument: that “mystery” should be a key term in any real consideration of the transcendent in media. Considering how much Christian theology turns on Divine paradox, it seems that all effective films approaching the “unapproachable” should engage a mystery that baffles yet enchants, appears counterintuitive but rings utterly true.

There are no talismans; neither theology nor cinema will “solve” these mysteries, and no medium, including film, is guaranteed to give one a transcendent experience. However, what some films can do is point, encourage, nudge, and open up a transcendent view. They can bracket away the distractions, refocus our spiritual vision on what we have missed or suppressed, and/or formally convey something like the transcendent experience, provoking spiritual reflection.

In this light, such films reflect a negotiation with spiritual hope, either in the diegesis, in the audience, or both. Mystery is the primary sign of this negotiation. It is not an expressly theological commitment, but it is a step away from a materialist, atheistic, and autonomous perspective, as the coming dialogue with the theologian Louis Dupré will reveal. We might say that the “process,” if it can be called that, is a dialectical one, moving between paradox on one hand and miracle on the other, with the key term “mystery” constantly mediating between them.

A “paradox” is a contradiction and, perhaps, nothing more. It defies present rationality and is perceived as a problem that will, eventually, be rationally explained. Paradox may also be just “weird,” as in the funky screenplays of Charlie Kaufmann (Being John Malkovich), offering pure fancy and conventional tinkering, but little impulse to follow it all through metaphysically. A miracle is a full-fledged gesture toward the supernatural, a temporal contradiction expresslyas index of Transcendent order (though the nature of that order may remain hidden and little understood). Mystery is a paradox with a suggestion, even a whisper, of the supernatural or transcendent order.

In the first section of this essay, I will consider Dupré’s Religious Mystery and Rational Reflection, for the setting of boundaries on our terminology, receiving guidance as to the place of Divine mystery in contemporary culture, and consideration of its ramifications for the cinema. In the final section, I will explicate the mystery dialectic through two scenes from a popular film: Paul Haggis’ Crash, which won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Picture. This is not to say that this film is the ultimate transcendent film, but rather to show that the religious mystery rubric can operate in even the most “popular” works of culture.

Dupré on Religious Mystery

Dupré opens his book on religious mystery by calling it “essentially ungraspable.”4 Essentially, this is all film can do as well: film is no better equipped than Dupré’s philosophical theology to “explain” the mysteries of God and existence. It does, however, help us understand our relation to/with those mysteries, and, in certain very remarkable films, it can help us to engage those mysteries, as the only way to grasp an aspect of a mystery is to live in it. That aspect might be called “the beckoning,” which is the call of the transcendent, the hint of temporal meaning as synecdochal for larger, metaphysical transcendent order.

Dupré considers the heart of any religious act to be that truth is given, not projected by the subject. In other words, we experience truth as received from an outside source. Dupré, drawing on Henri Duméry, calls this a “radical receptivity that lies at the ground of all active projection of meaning.”5 This is where mystery starts, where the Source is not only given, but “experienced as surpassing the mind.”6 Religious “rituals, myths, and institutions … serve as privileged symbols allowing the transcendent meaning to penetrate all of reality.”7

“Symbols” for Dupré are the conduits for mystery, and symbolic vehicles like films may encourage a donning of the “religious mind” Dupré describes. Symbols are the way we articulate religious mysteries, not to represent them comprehensively, but to “concretize” them, so that we might experience aspects of them in focused ways. In this light we might consider cinema a “living symbol” that is closer to a phenomenological enterprise than a semiotic one. Michael Bird, drawing on Mircea Eliade, has suggested we employ the term “hierophany,” an instance of the transcendent penetrating the immanent in particularly revelatory films.8 In the same way, Rudolf Otto’s (1958) classic description of the mysterious, Divine “numinous” may be the consummate “Other,” but it still lurks among us as the “mysterium tremendum.”9 Dupré suggests traditional religious symbols allow the numinous to “penetrate” temporal reality. It seems that the cinema, as living symbol, can recast our vision of that reality.

One of the oldest arguments against transcendence is the notion that cinema really only gives us the material world, and an approximation of it at that. Yet, Dupré’s position on the finite/infinite theological opposition leaves room for mysteries perceived within the finite and material reality, and declares that the discovery of “reality” is not so much a matter of circumventing “materiality” or “culture” as it is a type of receptive posture. Vulgar mysticism largely forsakes the finite for the infinite, yet: “[I]n Christianity all unitive mysticism moves beyond a mere denial of the finite. … Instead, God appears as the ultimate dimension of the finite, the inaccessible within the accessible.”10 Dupré likewise refers to God as “the ultimate dimension of the real.”11 To clarify, and avoid a major pitfall, Dupré states:

[I]t does not suffice to embrace the finite as if it were infinite. Abolishing the distinction between one and the other can merely result in an aesthetic pantheism incompatible with the transcendence so essential to all genuine religion. What actually happens appears to be this: the spiritual person comes to view the world in a different perspective. Underneath ordinary reality he or she recognizes another dimension. At the very core of each creature, the contemplative finds an otherness that compels him or her to allow it to be itself and to abstain from the conquering, objectifying attitude that we commonly adopt. This does not reveal a new idea of God; rather, it allows reality to reveal itself.12

Regardless of whether one assents to Dupré’s phenomenological and moderately negative theology, one must bear in mind that even the most orthodox of theologians have always had a conception of religious mystery, particularly in relation to God’s Being. One must consider even some basic Scriptures that, when taken together, express the Divine infinite/finite paradox:

In Him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28, NIV)

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?”“Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 11:33 – 36, NIV)

So, what does religious mystery have to do with our largely secular age? According to Dupré, after modernism we are left with two general types of people, reacting to a massive cultural sense of “radical contingency”:

This awareness, almost universal in a world whose awesome complexity and unimaginable vastness modern science has revealed, discourages many from probing beyond the mystery that science itself discloses. … For others, the mystery of inexplicable gratuitousness points to a transcendent horizon.13

As G. K. Chesterton once pointed out, using the newfound vastness and complexity of the universe as an argument against Theism is a bit like telling the prisoner that his prison is more vast and sprawling than he ever imagined. It is the freedom that counts, not the material dimension of things,14 and Dupré sees little evidence of spiritual freedom in our age. 

This may explain why religion, against all odds (it seems), survives, and supernaturalism continues to be entertained in the culture. In this vein, Dupré sees an essential connection between the emptiness in the secular heart, and the Transcendent emptying process of the Christian mystic. The paradox is that losing oneself is the best way to gain oneself; emptying oneself is the best way to find fulfillment:

It is precisely the private and reflective nature of religion in a secularized culture that explains its inward trend, as well as the present interest in mystical literature…. [W]hat attracts the modern believer to the masters of spiritual life is, I think, less affinity of disposition than the fact that in an atheist culture there is nowhere to turn but inwardly. The mystics start their spiritual journey from within, and that is the only place where the believer must begin, whether he wants to or not. But a major obstacle arises at once, for what the believer encounters in himself is the same absence that surrounds him. His own heart remains as silent as the world in which the creatures have ceased to speak in sacred tongues. Yet it is precisely in the deliberate confrontation with this inner silence that I detect the true significance of the believer’s current urge toward a spiritual life. For only after having confronted his own atheism can the believer hope to restore the vitality of his religion.15

In other words, the inward, mystical path is the only road left for a culture that is radically suspicious of institutionalized religion, and “the desert of modern atheism provides the only space in which most of them are forced to encounter the transcendent.”16 We do not forsake ourselves because we despise our identities and seek a loss of individuality for a union with the cosmos. Rather, we forsake ourselves because we do not know who we are, but sense that God does. In this light, even the “ironic” mysteries that end in tragedy are given an apologetic call: will you suppress the intuition that such occurrences are not random?17 In the spirit of Otto’s overwhelming “creature-consciousness,” inward “feeling” plays a primary role in beholding the numinous: you cannot explain the mystery, but you may feel compelled to bow before it. So, ironically, in this age of information and control, the way of humility and mystery is the order of the day.

Encounter: Cinema, Mystery, and Paradox/Miracle Dialectic

So, the hallmarks of the encounter with religious mystery include:
• Creature-consciousness and a sense of “radical contingency”—in a world of increasing knowledge, our sense of control often paradoxically feels less, not more
• Ineffability—words often fail us• A mingling of the finite with the infinite, the immanent with the Transcendent
• A cosmic measure of time and space—that the significance of time and space is not adequately assessed by the clock or the map
• A paradoxical Divine presence through absence

Consider the paradox-miracle dialectic as it plays out in a few scenes from Paul Haggis’s Crash (2004). The hallmarks of mystery emerge here through the aesthetics of intersection and time and space modulation. The mystery is present in the “why” questions present in the narrative, but also in the forms of cinematic “Being” (time and space, sound image, narrative). What matters is not that the process “results” in a miracle onscreen, or in the viewer, nor that the narrative produces a happy, “redeemed” ending for the characters. Indeed, some miracles prove not to be quite as supernatural as we first thought, and others seem bitterly ironic in their tragic “coincidence.” What is important is the “beckoning,” the call to reconcile our diverse metaphysical intuitions, the call to order from Order itself, the beckoning that emerges from our sense of the “radical contingency” of things. This results in a negotiation with spiritual hope.

The Aesthetics of Intersection

The film does not open with a typical establishing shot, but a series of pulsing, amorphous, and abstract images, ending, in focus, on a man’s face (Figures 1-3).

Man: It’s the sense of touch …

Man (cont’d): … in a real city you walk, you know… you brush past people, people bump into you …

Man (cont’d): In L.A., nobody touches you…

Man (cont’d): … always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, we crash into each other just so we can feel something.

A policeman and a woman come into view next to him.

Policeman: You guys OK?
Woman: I think he hit his head….
Man: You don’t think that’s true?
Woman: Well, I think we got rear-ended. I think we spun around twice. And somewhere in there one of us lost that frame of reference. I’m gonna go look for it.

By denying us a standard control feature of the classic Hollywood style—the context-orienting establishing shot—the audience is already placed in a position of vulnerability and bewilderment, and so we are primed for mystery. We do not know where we are, we do not know our context, and the conversation we witness can only be understood within the widest possible “frame of reference” (hence, possibly, even unto the spiritual realm). Indeed, we come to see that this “accident” is precisely what is needed for this character, as the “frame of reference” to which he is expected to adhere is too limiting. The car accident serves as a shock to his materialist system, a bracketing of the everyday approach, and an openness to the whispers of the Transcendent. He needs a miracle, outside the standard temporal frame. By the end of the scene, he is to witness a dark “coincidence” that may be conceived as a dark miracle—a judgment, or, at least, a tragedy—on a metaphysical scale.

I have argued elsewhere that abstract images are particularly valuable for expressing the transcendent, in that they subvert our categorical, sense-making cognitive patterns and force us to re-conceive time and space in more open terms.18 In a metaphysical context, we would say these terms are cosmic, eternal. Note how the scene ends with a wide, overhead shot of the Los Angeles streets, crisscrossing, intersecting, in the same way that our characters’ plot lines will intersect at various points in the story. The “aesthetics of intersection” is the description Glen Man has given for this sort of story, which David Bordwell has labeled “the network narrative.”19This narrative structure has seen a revival in the last 20 years, initiated by filmmakers such as Robert Altman and Krzysztof Kieślowski, and it immediately ushers in the question of providence, as we unavoidably wonder why things happen when they happen, and why they happen in the manner they happen.20Note how the film ends with a similar image. The fact that we do not know who these characters are (yet) also forces us to see them in more open terms, synecdochal of the whole of humanity.

We note here, at the beginning of the film, the hallmarks of religious mystery: a sense of the radical contingency of things, the unexpected “accident” (later to be revealed as a “network narrative,” where characters are more thematically connected than “happenstance” would lead us to believe), a cosmic measure of time and space (encouraged by the abstract images), a certain ineffability (suggested in the communication disconnect between the main character and his partner), and a paradoxical breakthrough of the transcendent perspective in this most immanent of car crashes. We can explain how this crash came about, and the film will show us the event in detail later, but we must first consider the significance of the event, and that is a matter science cannot fully explain.

Mystery of Existence (Time, Space, Sound, Image)

Later in the film, a locksmith, Daniel, gives up trying to fix the lock of a shopkeeper’s store. That night, the store is utterly ransacked. The shopkeeper, Farhad, loses everything, and seeks revenge, as he believes the locksmith set him up for the crime. He follows the locksmith to his house, confronts him in the yard, and attempts to shoot him. As the gun is fired, the locksmith’s young daughter jumps in front of him. Numerous cinematic techniques come together here to form the dramatic moment, and it is eventually revealed that the child is unharmed. Amid everyone’s stunned silence, the girl alludes to the “really good cloak” that her father had given her (an imaginary trinket he gave her one night when she was afraid).

Again, the fact that a “rational” explanation for this miracle is revealed later is not an argument against mystery, as the narrative structure foregrounds and prioritizes the significance of the event experienced as mystery. The questions that make this scene work, for us and for the characters, still remain: Why did this unexpected chain of events happen in this order, just when each of these characters needed this “miracle” to occur? In other words, the screenwriters and directors recognize that the important thing is not whether or not a supernatural suspension of physical laws occurred. Rather, they recognize that the desire for personal intervention, and wonder regarding a larger control of events beyond our local volition, will never be completely demystified. Belief begins on this ground, as Dupré has noted, out of the desert of the real, where all is materially explained, and, ironically, the need for Transcendent Order looms larger.

By contrast, we might note that Quentin Tarantino’s cynical Pulp Fiction(1994) ironically does preserve a “miracle” in a very similar scenario (a miraculous intervention with a bullet with no material explanation given), but remains a paradox (that is, it does not graduate to the realm of religious mystery). This is largely because the significance of the event is underplayed and undervalued amid the carnage. There is no doubt that the bullet is a miracle of sorts, but it is also clearly plot convention that the postmodern Tarantino garishly highlights as such. The character development that it spawns—the “conversion” of the assassin—is equally facile. That is not to say it has no value, or cannot be seen as an index of some contemporary spiritual significance, but only that it does not directly encourage serious reflection on the transcendent.

To return to Crash, two additional cinematic elements in this scene are worthy of short explication, as they help us understand the mystery the scene engenders. First, at the climactic moment, the natural ambient sound of the scene drops away to silence (culminating in a large, “silent” scream of agony from the father).21 Walter Ong famously notes that sound interiorizes the world, unites our experience, and phenomenologically places us in the center of the cosmos.22 By stripping sound from image, we are stripped of our sense of control, and pushed into the blunt encounter with radical contingency. We lose our diegetic place of observation, our cinematic security, if you will. Paired with the provocative aesthetics of intersection, we look for something—or someone—to order our existence. In this case, a miracle intervenes, and a later scene shows the would-be assassin acknowledging this miracle: “She’s my angel….”

One might also notice the dolly/zoom, a technique made famous by Hitchcock in Vertigo (and many others since). It generally preserves the size of the primary object (in this case, the father’s face), but warps and distorts the environment around it through a simultaneous dolly-in and change of perspective (telephoto to wide-angle lens) (Figures 4-7). We experience this moment as a temporary but

dramatic rift in the space-time continuum. Given all the hallmarks of mystery noted so far, we can see this as a transcendent gesture, pulling the subject from the everyday temporal world into a charged, subjective zone of metaphysical agony. The scream here bears iconic, transcendent significance precisely because it is silent (ineffable), and suspended in a non-Euclidean dimension of space.

The great filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky once wrote that cinema’s greatest virtue was to “take an impression of time,”23 and, indeed, the other, crucial element in this scene is time’s alteration, largely accomplished through slow motion. Again, given all the previous markers of transcendence, we can justifiably see this effect as a suggestion of eternal time, a zone of cosmic metaphysical significance unhindered by local temporality.

And behind this scene lies an enormous amount of contemporary speculation on the chronological element of existence. The mystery of time has only grown deeper and more enchanting in the face of contemporary efforts to understand, harness and control it. There is not space here to digress into all the ways we have sociologically complicated (and accelerated) our experience of time, nor can we survey all the enchanting paradoxes of time quantum physics presents us. We should only note that both of these themes are abundant in contemporary media, showing up ubiquitously on both television and the theatrical screen.24

In this light, it should not surprise us that the philosophy of Henri Bergson is making a comeback, given that his view of time was unusually fluid, to say the least. The philosopher most responsible for Bergson’s revival, Gilles Deleuze, also wrote two of the most important books in contemporary film theory—Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image—which largely hinge on Bergsonian theory. In effect, Deleuze returns to Bergson as a foundation for understanding experience, and differing, fluid, multiple, simultaneous experiences of time (“sheets of time”) form the core of the theory.25 Though Deleuze seeks to examine the multiplicity and polysemy of existence from a decidedly atheistic, postmodern perspective (exemplified in his argument for a “Rhizome vs. taproot” model—an argument that “connections” are celebrated, but do not point to metaphysical order), some have suggested Deleuze is actually more metaphysically “classical” than he is typically conceived in his pursuit of a non-scientific, subjective, interior truth structure.26 Others have argued this is akin to a type of post-postmodern mysticism that cannot be completely divorced from religious mystic history.27

However, the theologian Dupré very directly connects Bergson with our contemporary longings for (and intuitions of) the eternal:

Bergson has shown that time, essentially a mental process, reluctantly submits to the homogeneous measuring of movement in space. The experience of internal duration incessantly resists its spatial projections. No experience of duration entirely resembles another. The mind grudgingly accepts the flattening homogenization of a “standard” time imposed by the bodily need to move around in a homogeneously spatial universe. Human beings internally resist this flatness and feel compelled to express duration in gestures that, though spatial themselves, nevertheless break through the continuous structure of the spatio-temporal28

Whether or not we are willing to commit to Bergson’s full conception of reality, his conception of subjective time experience does explain the impact of cinematic slow motion, as exhibited in our chosen clip.

So what does this mean for media that aim at the spiritual realm of experience? The formal characteristics of this clip (the slow motion, the rupture in image and sound, the spatial distortion) all couple with the metaphysically-laden narrative context to express something that defies modern, temporal explanation. This scene potentializes hope even as it, paradoxically, cosmicizes tragedy. It provides no dogma of certainty, but still transcends its own temporal shackles for the restoration of chronological/historical brokenness.


There is a danger in this sort of analysis: that we might begin to see the formal elements analyzed here as a “recipe” for cinematic epiphanies. As mentioned, no scene or technique can bring the miracle of belief into being. Indeed, our problem may be one of poor posture, a techno-futurist desire for control, be it through theological explanation or simple “naming,” “labeling,” or “categorizing” the mysteries we encounter, with no expectation of a miracle. If we are not careful, the cinema, as a technological product, could very well function in this trend, a commodification of mystery that temporalizes and neuters it, placing it beyond any position of spiritual power. Dupré warns us:

The first task here is not one of recreating a more viable system (if that were sufficient, theology would have solved our problems long ago) but of a different outlook on the real. It is hard to describe what does not (yet) exist. But I can think of no better characterization than the one implied in the Latin term pietas, an obedient attention to possible messages, or the one Simone Weil has appropriately defined as waiting in expectation. We must first remove the principal obstacle to the perception of the transcendent dimension of the real. We must not expect to come up with a new name for the merging transcendent, but only to acquire a new perceptiveness for detecting it.29

The process of transcendence in media cannot be reduced to a prescription, but, rather, emerges as a dialectic, as mystery plays the mediating role between paradox and miracle. In the end, we may believe, but may we not take the miracles for granted, as mystery emerges again and demonstrates new paradoxes that challenge our narrow conceptions. As the Apostle Paul suggests, “His ways are beyond tracing out” (Rom. 11:33, NIV), but it is within them that we encounter Him. Yet, as Crash’s admirers will attest, many find themselves persuaded of the mystery, and that is the first step toward miracle.

But what of the uncanny tragedies that have lurked around this discussion? As mentioned, Crash presents us with mysteries that are tragic as well as redemptive. Could God be a Designer with a sadistic streak, even as the young man carrying a St. Christopher figure ironically meets his end by this very religious trinket, intended to protect him? There is not space here to address the problem of evil, but Dupré’s remarks suggest a start: that the absence of God is the paradoxical beginning of an encounter with His presence. In the same way, the uncanny coincidence in contemporary film, be it redemptive or tragic, is a marker of the radical contingency of the universe and the mystery that abides within it. The walk of faith is one of struggle—in Christian terms, the cross—a dialectic and a negotiation with spiritual hope.

Cinema may offer us even less of that aspect of mystery than real life does, but it can also re-present us with aspects we overlook in ordinary experience. For instance, by living through suffering, we can sometimes grasp the mystery of suffering—that the suffering itself is spiritually valuable. If one reaches that extraordinary, mystical moment, no cinematic rendering of the experience will do it justice. However, many (if not most) of us miss that opportunity. We find ourselves overcome by the experience such that we are blind to the grace abiding within it. The philosopher Gregory Currie, in his simulation theory of cinema, states that films are opportunities to “run our emotions off-line”;30 that is, they permit us to experience danger safely, suffering, joy, and so on, without the risks involved in those emotions in real-life contexts. Cinematic representations may give us just enough room to replicate the emotional suffering without enduring its overwhelming elements. In other words, we may learn the grace abiding in suffering, or might come to the experiential realization that such grace is there, through the cinema. 

Such is the mystery of evil in the world; Dupré declares all efforts toward theophany impossible, but, on the contrary, holds the experience of living through the mystery of evil to be an extraordinary spiritual experience, much in the manner that Isaiah describes the suffering servant (Is. 52-53, NIV).31 It may be said that the cinema gives us an open forum to run our own experiences of these mysteries “off-line” and over once again, to call our attention to what we missed the first time, and to amplify the beckoning call.

Rudolf Otto wrote about the rational and non-rational as the “warp and woof” of the religious fabric,32 without both together you have threads and tatters. Mystery is notsufficient in itself, but for our inward-looking, cynical, and sensorially overloaded culture, it may be the best place to start.

And the mystery is just a start, a step beyond mere paradox toward the direction of miracle and full-fledged belief; it is a middle ground of questioning, even as it begins to acknowledge the human inability to understand and control fully. There are miracle films, but they are few and far between. This is partly because faith is a matter of now and, yet, not yet. Films that traffic in mystery often present us with a first step toward the miracle of faith. As Dupré notes:

Faith will, more than ever, remain what it always was: a leap beyond experience. But, contrary to what fideists often claim, that leap was never blind. It always led from partial insight to total acceptance. The same structure is maintained today when the “believer,” dissatisfied with the shallowness of a closed, secular world, abandons the conquering, grasping attitude for a more receptive one.33

In the end, mystery is most satisfying when it is articulated, not explained; given, not taught. The mystery is not a pantheistic, New-Age suggestion that God is all and smiles on everything. It is a marker of His “Otherness” and His “identity” in and through the immanent world. It is a wrestling with the miracles and tragedies of our existence, a negotiation with Being, and a call to worship: “As Hegel once remarked, only in actual worship are believers capable of overcoming evil.”34 The best films show us the mysteries that charm and vex us, but also the reasons to hope, and keep waiting.

Cite this article
Joseph G. Kickasola, “The Mystery Dialectic in Cinema: Paradox, Mystery, Miracle”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:4 , 425-440


  1. See Robert Johnston’s edited collection Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerg-ing Discipline (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007) for an excellent survey of the discipline and its current trajectory.
  2. Just one of the many interesting discoveries in Christian Smith, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2005).
  3. Consider the many supernatural-themed films and television shows like Lost, The Event, etc. (progeny of The Sixth Sense and The X-Files). To give one of many critical examples of this sort of focus in film, consider Margo Jefferson’s review of Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her: “Suddenly Onscreen, it’s All about Wonder,” TheNew York Times (online), February 8, 2003, accessed April 9, 2009, In the art world, this ripple has also been felt: see James Elkins, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art (New York: Routledge, 2004), who makes a careful distinction between spirituality and religion, associating the former with a “new, unconscious” religion of the postmodern sublime (1, 95).
  4. Louis Dupré, Religious Mystery and Rational Reflection (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998), vii.
  5. Ibid., 11.
  6. Ibid., 18.
  7. Ibid., 17-18.
  8. Michael Bird, “Film as Hierophany,” in Religion in Film, eds. John R. May and Michael Bird (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982), 3, 21-22.
  9. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 13. Otto: “ Let us follow … up with every effort of sympathy and imaginative intuition wherever it is to be found, in the lives of those around us, in sudden, strong ebullitions of personal piety and the frames of mind such ebullitions evince, in the fixed and ordered solemnities of rites and liturgies, and again in the atmosphere that clings to old religious monuments and buildings, to temples and to churches. If we do so we shall find we are dealing with something for which there is only one appropriate expression, “mysterium tremendum.”
  10. bid., 126.
  11. bid., 140.
  12. Dupré, Religious Mystery, 140-141.
  13. Ibid.,pp. 135-6.
  14. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith (New York: Image Books, 1936), 62.
  15. Dupré, Religious Mystery, 137.
  16. Ibid., 139.
  17. Consider the opening to Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Magnolia, where the notion of “mere coincidence” is directly challenged.
  18. See Joseph G. Kickasola, The Films of Krzysztof Kieślowski: The Liminal Image (New York: Continuum, 2004), ch. 2.
  19. “Robert Altman’s Multiple Narratives” presented March 3, 2006 at the Society of Cinema and Media Studies conference, Vancouver, Canada, and David Bordwell, The Poetics of Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2009), 191. My thanks to Glen Man for permission to quote his excellent paper. I might add that the idea of a traffic intersection (and car accident) was presaged in several films of superior quality (in my judgment): Kieślowski’s No End, Blue, and Red, as well as Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarittu’s AmoresPerros.
  20. For more on Kieślowski and his influence on contemporary cinema, see Joseph G. Kickasola, “Kieślowski Crosses the Atlantic” in After Kieślowski: The Legacy of Krzysztof Kieślowski(Detroit: Wayne State U.P., 2009).
  21. It is true that non-diegetic music swells into the vacancy. It is debatable whether or not this stylistic choice enhances the effect. In the work of more austere filmmakers of the “transcendent style” (such as Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu, and Carl Dreyer, as described by Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film [New York: Da Capo, 1972]), music would likely be excised.
  22. Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy (London: Routledge, 1982), 72.
  23. Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), 62.
  24. The film Donnie Darko and the television hit Lost are but two examples of many.
  25. This idea pervades both of the Cinema books: Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986) and Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minne-apolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).
  26. See Alain Badiou, Deleuze: The Clamor of Being (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 16 and throughout. We should note this is a minority (and controversial) position.
  27. See Michael Goddard, “The Scattering of Time Crystals,” in Deleuze and Religion, ed. Mary Bryden (London: Routledge, 2001).
  28. Dupré, Religious Mystery, 79.
  29. Dupré, Religious Mystery, 141. It is also worth noting that Dupré sees this as a discipline as much as a theology.
  30. Gregory Currie, Image and Mind: Film, Philosophy, and Cognitive Science (Cambridge: Cam-bridge University Press, 1995), 146, 158.
  31. Dupré, Religious Mystery, 46, 59.
  32. Otto, The Idea of the Holy, 2-3.
  33. Dupré, Religious Mystery, 142.
  34. Quoted in ibid., 64.

Joseph G. Kickasola

Joseph G. Kickasola is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Baylor University.