Theology at the Theater: Watching Film as a Communal Spiritual Discipline – Part 3
I’m looking forward to attending Sundance again this year and in light of that I am continuing my series on Theology at the Theater. If you need to catch up with the series, you can check out Part 1 and Part 2 first.
Theology at the Theater
Philosopher and theologian James K.A. Smith in his book Desiring the Kingdom helps us understand that at a gut level, we are creatures who love and desire. Thus we need liturgies, rituals and routines that reshape our desires. While he focuses on how worship gatherings could be better designed to shape our desires toward the kingdom, Craig Detweiler in Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century makes the case that our faith can be revitalized by going to movies. He talks about film as a form of mass, a common grace in which God can speak to us. Detweiler follows the path of Hans Urs von Balthasar by reversing the common approach to hermeneutics. Instead of starting with theology and special revelation, he starts with the creative (film), general revelation, and then moves toward special revelation. He is confident that the Spirit is able to “guide us from art (beauty) to ethics (goodness) and then to theology (truth)” (Detweiler 2008:31) since God first acts in creation, then in history (the exodus) and finally in Christ, the living word (Detweiler 2008:40).
In the same vein, Walter Brueggemann in his book The Prophetic Imagination quotes Asals book about Flannery O’Conner, reminding us of the power of the imagination. “The imagination, O’Conner discovered, might accomplish much more; it might become the channel of visionary awareness… For O’Conner, as for Aquinas, it is the imagination, with its roots deep in the human unconscious, that is the link between the depths of the self and the unseen reaches of the universe, that can reveal to finite man his apocalyptic destiny… the imagination for her is as dangerous a force as any named by Freud, for what it opens up to, in those shattering climaxes when it achieves release, are the unwanted visions that ravage the lives of her protagonist” (Brueggemann 2001:xiv).
Since the average American sees just over 40 films a year, and our desires are shaped deeply by our imaginations, it seems wise to do theology in the theater.
The fact of the matter is everyone is a theologian, and according to Moltmann, we can do theology wherever we happen to be. For Moltmann, “theology comes into being wherever men and women come to the knowledge of God and, in the praxis of their lives, their happiness and there suffering, perceive God’s presence with all their senses” (Moltmann 2000:xvi). He also reminds us that theology is not just an inner-church activity, but it is public theology, and it ought to be done in light of the horizon of God’s coming kingdom. So what does film watching as a spiritual discipline look like?
Obviously there is no set way that one needs to go about this. Here is one possible approach. Having been involved in an Ignatius group over the last six months, I have become familiar with the practice of lectio divina. And because God not only speaks through the stars in the sky, but also communicates through the stars in Hollywood, one way to approach film watching as a spiritual discipline is to engage in what I call cinematographeum divina – finding the sacred in film. I will talk about this in my next post.