Silent Movies in Sacred Places

The Commercial Chaplainís Letter
Church Office, October 2002

At the beginning of this month there will be the second screening of a silent movie with live musical accompaniment in St Peterís. On 5th October there will be a rare opportunity to see The Farmerís Wife, a comedy directed by the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.

This is part of a developing partnership with Broadway Cinema. Earlier in the year we put on a successful Faith and Film course, looking at portrayals of Jesus on film. A shorter version of that course will be repeated next month (more details elsewhere in the magazine). On December 7th there will be a study day at Broadway looking at feelgood movies and the theology of hope - Frank Capraís Itís a Wonderful Life to Bend it like Beckham. The Revd Stephen Brown who inputs Faith and Film to the Leeds International Film Festival will be speaking.

The relationship between the church and the cinema has always been ambiguous, and some people might think it odd for St Peterís to be involved with such things. There have always been some Christians who have worried about the moral influence of the medium. In Britain some Christians have mobilised against particular movies, such as Monty Pythonís Life of Brian in 1979 and The Last Temptation of Christ in 1989. But the early magic lantern shows were often shown in churches or church halls, and many of the earliest films were straight recordings of passion plays, of which Edisonís Companyís The Passion Play of Oberammergau in 1898 was one of the first. More recently there has begun to be an increasing number of universities offering courses on theology and film. Cinema is a highly significant feature on the landscape of popular culture. What can be confusing is the curious mix of creativity and commerce that makes cinema what it is. On the one hand, film is art. Its production involves the combining of a broad range of artistic talents in ways that transcend the mechanical processes to attain insightful, magical or even spiritual experiences. On the other hand, cinema is very big business. Revenues are huge - Harry Potter and The Philosopherís Stone and Spiderman grossed over $90 million on their first weekends. With such high stakes the product has to be commercially viable. This means tapping into deeply rooted cultural values, quite often at the level of the unconscious. No wonder Hollywood is known as The Dream Factory.

It is important for Christians to engage with cinema because I firmly believe engaging with culture is part of what we must do to further the Kingdom of God. We engage with the culture, of which we are a part, as we try to relate faith and culture together. I donít think we should embrace cinema uncritically, but to some extent the stories we tell and enjoy - and at its most basic filmmaking is storytelling - reveal something of how our society understands the meanings of life.

The timeless stories of heroes, redemption, sacrifice, selfless love, the struggle between good and evil, are all theological themes. Engaging with cinema opens up opportunities of understanding our faith in new ways and enables theological reflection to tune in to the stories and cultural values which underpin our contemporary world.

Having said all this, we can just sit back and enjoy a good story. In the same way as we can admire a beautiful painting, or be moved by a stunning piece of music, a good film can be enjoyed as art and as entertainment with those finely tuned senses that God has given us.

David McCoulough


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Last revised 21st October 2002