Robert POPE. Salvation in Celluloid: Theology, Imagination, and Film. London: T&T Clark, 2007. pp160. $120. ISBN 056703206X.
Reviewed by Richard SHIELDS, University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, ON. M5S 1J4 Canada

Film is often a staple in theology and religious studies courses. Whether to explore the religious in popular culture or to find a language to bridge students’ experiences and theological truths, film has become an area of interest for theologians. Pope raises the question: how seriously can film be taken as a locus theologicus? Or, as a student once commented: “I’ve been ‘Matrixed’ to death! How can one movie have so many meanings?”

Robert Pope, a lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of Bangor (Wales), offers a sober and intelligent account of the limits and potential of film as a theological medium. Pope’s book falls into two parts, the first constructs a theological and aesthetic framework for interpreting film, the second, examines several different genres of potentially religious films from the perspective of the methodology.

The first two chapters provide an analytic review of the literature of cinema and theology. Pope points out that not every theological approach is open to cinema’s potential to forge an interface with revelation or the human openness to God. Theology’s interest in films assumes that culture (and its products) can be revelatory of the divine reality in the world, as well as powerful means of engaging the audience in the profoundly human questions generally described as religious. Pope finds that the religious interpretation of film often reflects the theologian’s understanding of the film as text, a static symbol whose meaning can be construed as a message with religious relevance. Theologians draw parallels between the film-narrative and biblical passages hoping to create a dialogue that sheds meaning of what is believed and penetrates deeper into the meaning of human experience. But Pope objects that film is a text best read in the experience of the viewer and that “there is little empirical research…to ascertain how cinema audiences themselves view and interpret the films they watch.”

Pope’s own view (chapters three and four) is that practical theology, rather than analyze the message of a movie theologically, needs to explore what is going on in the viewers. In order to do this, Pope suggests, theology needs to pause and reflect on how the imagination draws on “disparate and separate images in novel ways simultaneously making sense of the world and enabling the future to come into being.” The imagination is paradigmatic (works from existing paradigms), noetic (interpreting), and ontological (constructive). Even where a director intends to express theological/religious meaning through film, the connections necessary for a film having theological significance depends on what imaginative encounter of the audience with the film. Without prior religious paradigms, the experience of viewing a movie is not likely to be theological.

Can a film be a religious experience, without being a theological one? Theoretically, of course, the answer is affirmative. In reality, how many people experience film a simply entertainment or escape? How do even deeply moving films impact on the thinking and behaviours of viewers when the movie is over? Pope cautions practical theology: do not read religious or theological meaning into films, without first paying attention to what viewers experience. (What my student described as being over-“Matrixed”.)

In the second part of Salvation in Celluloid, Pope applies his theological critique to portrayals and interpretations of Christ and Christ figures in cinema and the potential of myth and fantasy, animation in and disaster movies to waken the theological imagination.

Pope’s contribution is to be found in his ability to undermine overestimating the theological reach of any particular film, while pointing out theologically legitimate approaches. Could it be that religious educators/theologians have been reading too much into cinema? In what might be called a theology for the theological reading of cinematic texts, Pope has constructed a credible critique. On the down side, Pope’s discussion of particular films often fails to escape the tendency, which he criticizes in part one, to focus on their message and narrative. Indeed, the quality and sharpness of writing seems to weaken in the latter chapters and the epilogue sets out to discuss yet another film, rather than pull Pope’s thesis together.

Specialists in religion and film (popular culture) will find little in this book that groundbreaking or original. Nevertheless, for non-specialists, especially educators who use film frequently as a theological medium, it is a must read, providing several critical measures for a reflective practical-theological practice. But can they afford the price?

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