Here is a small project for a chilly Thursday night: let's rethink the way we talk about religious movies. (In other words, if you’re at the end of a long work day, maybe go pour your drink of choice and get fortified to help me out with some vaguely philosophical inquiry.)

This reflection is provoked by the nagging feeling I've had—I suspect you have, too—that there's a wide gulf between the various definitions of religious movies that we've been using. But because we're using the same word, I think we too easily get confused and talk past one another.

Here’s one sense of “religious movie”: a film that self-consciously seeks to boost a particular religion, usually with the intent to evangelize the viewer into joining that religion. Let's call this Religious, capital R. It's a movie that is religious by virtue of being of its religion, which almost necessarily is the religion of the filmmaker(s).

Another sort of religious movie is one that deals with and depicts the specifics of religious practice, the type my friend Mike Leary listed here as being of use in the comparative religion classroom. This is a list compiled by someone who knows what he's talking about, and it includes some marvelous films. But I'm going to leave this out of definitions for now, because I don't think this is actually what most people mean when they talk about a religious film—perhaps, unfortunately, because we tend to think of religion as a system of organized belief, rather than a complicated structure of practice and belief. (But do check out his list.)

So I want to talk about another religious—religious, lowercase r. Lowercase-r religious movies explore, or provoke exploration, of questions that all religions explore. I'm going to do something a little ugly and reframe this in terms of politics to try and explain what I mean.

I've recently accepted the (scary) fact that I love political dramas. I watch as many as I can. I've never worked in politics and I've never been super “political,” but I'm completely fascinated when TV shows and movies portray the world of politics or deal with political questions.

Which brings up the point that I think we can also talk about capital-P Political movies, and also lowercase-p political movies. Capital-P ones are usually movies about the world of politics, set in a political context, usually in D.C. Or sometimes they propose—frequently via documentary—a particular point of view about a particular political issue in order to convert the viewer. (The worst of these are just straight-up propaganda.)

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Lowercase-p political movies, though, I think, explore the political questions, whether or not they’re set in a political context. For instance: what is man's nature, and how does that affect how we live together? What is justice? Who should be in charge? What is the best life? What are rights, and by whom are they granted, and how are they preserved? These are questions about what governs our life together.

A Political movie or show often winds up saying something about the political questions by way of depiction (I think here of Scandal), but is not primarily concerned with exploring those questions; a political movie or show—say, The West Wing—wouldn’t even have to be set in Washington or London or Ottawa or Moscow, because these questions are much larger than a particular political system. (Such a show, for instance, might be set in Pawnee, Indiana.)

And of course, a political movie could also be a Political movie. (This seems to be useful when we're thinking about Liberal/liberal or Conservative/conservative, but that's a different conversation.)

Okay, so: back to R/religion, by analogy.

I’d like to suggest that a Religious movie is one that depicts an organized religious system, frequently with intent to proselytize. Let me be clear—I have no problem with these existing. Plenty do it poorly or in ways I think are in fact antithetical to the system they want to promote, but it's a category that exists and need not be bad—I think. There are many movies that depict a religion; some, presumably, have convinced a viewer to convert. And I (obviously) hold particular religious beliefs, particular answers to these questions I think are correct, and practice accordingly.

But I want to consider religious, lowercase, movies as well. Because these seem like the category we have the hardest time talking about—and, perhaps not coincidentally, the category for which the audience is hardest to define and not, as of yet, very well tapped.

Lowercase religious movies are ones that explore or provoke in the viewer an exploration of the religious questions, which are the questions that religions or belief systems explore—from Christianity to animism to New Atheism. All, eventually, explore and attempt to answer: how did we get here? How will we end? Do we have souls? Who saves us? What is the nature of evil, and what is the nature of goodness, and from where do we draw those definitions? To what end ought we live our lives? What is sin? How are we—and can we be—redeemed?

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Given this, there is a sense in which we might speak of all movies as religious, of course. But some are more preoccupied with those questions—this year's Calvary certainly presents itself, or some similarly obvious examples, like Tree of Life. I'd like to think that a film that explores these questions without answering them—or that forces its viewers into exploring them without giving them answers ahead of time—also might qualify as a “religious film,” just as the fiction of Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh, for instance, strikes me as wildly religious without the sense of completion we're used to in particularly religious work. (I'd cite something from a religion other than Christianity here, but my vocabulary is still controlled by my context. Other examples welcomed in the comments.)

The reason I like this is that “Christian movies,” then, become movies that give Christian answers to these questions. And similarly, a movie would not be Christian if it weren’t first religious.

Which brings up an important question: could a non-Christian make a “Christian movie” under this definition?

Well, yes, and here I'll refer back to two people about whom I have complicated feelings but who said some useful things: Francis Schaeffer and his friend Hans Rookmaaker. In their treatises on Christians and art, both of them said that it would be possible for someone who was not Christian to make “Christian art,” and vice versa—which is to say that a Christian could make a non-Christian work of art, one that raises, and then gives, a non-Christian answer to these questions. Or, to expand, one that doesn't bother to look at these questions at all.

So last questions: can a religious movie be a Religious movie? Can a movie that searches for answers to the religious questions come up with ones that promote a particular religion, or that correspond to one without realizing it? Obviously, I think, yes—though I’d say it ought to be very, very careful about how it does so. (There is an element of self-awareness often missing.)

But can a Religious movie be a religious movie? Here is what I see: a film in which a particular religion is being self-consciously advanced can, sometimes, deal with these questions. But it does not always, partly because they tend to—at least in Christendom—start with a set of finalized assumptions about the answers to these questions, which is only a problem when the film fails to consider that the viewers may not buy in, and need to be convinced along. Such films often forget, too, that movies are not just about stories, but also about filmmaking: images, music, editing, portrayal of characters, all of which are part of a robust worldview.

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This doesn't seem necessary, but does seem often true.

On the other hand, a movie set in a Religious world can quite easily be religious, if only because Religious worlds—particular instantiations of religious practice, so, for instance, youth groups or parishes—often provoke the questions just as much as any other setting. Calvary does well at this; I'm thinking also of Doubt here, or The Apostle. Or we have Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy—three movies which are both political and religious, but not Political or Religious. Further, this at least gestures at the idea that the filmmaking itself (all the elements of the movie that aren't pure story) could provoke in the viewer religious questions without being outright "about" those questions.

And, finally: can a movie not speak to specifically religious questions, but provoke religious questioning? That seems transparently obvious to me: of course.

Which means that the definition of a “religious” movie depends, partly, on the watcher. So maybe the question is whether or not we are religious viewers. And when the answer is no, at least sometimes, the failing may be our own.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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