Why does personal faith always look bad in films? Think about it: how many movie scenes have ever presented prayer, worship, or evangelism in a way that made you want to identify with the characters?
Even films of great believers, like A Man for All Seasons, are essentially about one man’s heroic struggle for “what he believes in,” usually part of a process of self-realization.
This is a serious problem. I will lay down some possible reasons below, and you can give your response to this quandary.
Answer #1: There is something about the structure of film that is extremely conducive to some aspects of life, and not at all for others. Decisions, passion, libido, insanity, revenge, self-realization, and bliss all go very well across the big screen. Faith does not. Neither do parenting, patience, or boredom. Movies are a medium, and they are forced within certain constraints, including our attention span, two dimensions, a beginning and an end, and the perspective of the camera, which is visual. Also: cuts between scenes, the lack of physical sensation, and the inability of the viewer to make decisions that affect the situation.
Answer #2: It’s the Hollywood script that eliminates all possibilities of personal devotion on the silver screen. Not only is God-content marginalized, but any plot structure that could portray faith is kept out. Maybe faith could be evoked if a filmmaker could create within a totally different plot structure. For example, The Seventh Seal, by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, is about a medieval knight who is losing his faith after being in the Crusades. Personified Death finds the knight, but the knight challenges death to a chess match and the plot moves forward with characters of various perspectives on faith and life, with interludes of the mortal chess match. Sound different? It is.
Answer #3: A picture shows us who we are from the outside, so we must look at ourselves from the outside in – which we rarely do. Possibly, our own faith actually doesn’t look that good. This is the toughest option. In other words, explicit acts of faith actually don’t look good from the outside. Try videotaping yourself praying.
Answer #4: We are chasing a red herring. The question, “Why doesn’t faith look appealing on the big screen?”, supposes that we are actually looking for authenticity in the faith of the movie portrayal. First of all, movies are not authentic; they are productions. Second, it is a mistake to look for a authentic religious practice because the substance of the religious practice is not authenticity. The substance of religious life is right living, right beliefs, right worship – these done sincerely, of course, but not always needing to feel sincere, authentic, desired, or real. That is – understanding a right relationship to God, rather than being in a relationship with God.
Answer #5: Quite the opposite. The relationship with God is primary. The crucial disjuncture of faith and film is that the film cannot let us in on the main character hearing God, being warmed by Him, or being devoted to Him. Faith does not look good in movies because faith is not “existential experience of faith” but an experience of a real God.
Lend your thoughts.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.