Going to the movies is not often considered a deep theological experience, but a new course being taught at Pilgrim Theological College is set to challenge that.
Later this month, Head of Pilgrim Theological College Dr Sean Winter and Associate Professor John Flett will teach the intensive unit ‘Watching for God: Theology, the Bible, and Film’.
Mr Flett says theological meaning can be found in even the most escapist Hollywood fare.
“One of the arguments of secularisation is that theology has nothing to do with everyday life,” Mr Flett said.
“That’s, of course, completely false. “Theology is everywhere. So theology in film is about showing that secular Hollywood or popular movies have deep theological themes that come through all the time.”
The course begins on 25 August with a full Saturday devoted to learning how to analyse film from a theological perspective.
Throughout five weeks students will discover the theology in the films Silence, Saved, Babette’s Feast, Magnolia and Samson and Delilah.
Mr Flett denied that the course was designed for book-shy students.
“There will be reading attached, we have to learn how to analyse but all courses should be enjoyable” he said.
Mr Flett said there has already been a lot of theological evaluation around Silence and Saved which both have overtly Christian stories.
“So for the first two weeks we’re going to give students those texts to help with the theological themes and how you might evaluate a film,” Mr Flett said.
“And then the next two weeks we remove those supports and get the students to use the skills they have developed to come up with something themselves.
“The students go from very clear theological themes to ones where you need to do a lot more thinking and a lot more working out what’s going on.”
Mr Flett believes Christians should engage with popular culture.
“It’s important to say that faith isn’t just something that happens on a Sunday morning,” he said.
“If you don’t engage with popular culture then you have no voice in popular culture. There’s no leavening influence. The fact is that people who might be wary of it still participate in it. It’s impossible to avoid.”
Mr Flett said a theological perspective helps understand and interpret trends in popular culture.
He said one of the major theological themes that has emerged since the 9/11 attacks has been depictions of the apocalyptic.
“There’s huge numbers of zombie movies, huge numbers of end-of-the-word catastrophe movies,” he said.
Mr Flett nominates the 2011 militaristic science fiction Battle: Los Angeles as an interesting example of this genre that displays a sense of paranoia for Western countries in an age of terror attacks that have come from both without and within.
“There is asymmetrical warfare going on,” Mr Flett said.
“That fits very easily into the binary view of black-and-white and that we’re getting invaded. It shows technology-based prowess being used by the attackers. “America is the land of plenty, green and lush, and people are coming to take from the native born.
“These narratives playing out actually become xenophobic.”
Mr Flett nominates Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War classic Apocalypse Now as a film with deep theological interpretations.
Mr Flett argues the film, which is inspired by the Joseph Conrad novella Heart of Darkness, explores themes of nihilism and colonialism culminating in rogue US operative Colonel Kurtz’s (Marlon Brando) final journal entry: “Drop the bomb, exterminate them all!”
“Apocalypse Now is exactly that inversion of life and death,” Mr Flett said.
“We think we live in an ordered place but it’s actually built on a range of destructive appetites and when you get to the end there’s clarity and someone bringing ‘peace’ and resolution.
“But the form of that peace and resolution is the nuclear weapon, wiping everyone out.”
Thinking theologically about visual narratives also assists in interpreting how issues are presented in TV news reports and other media.
Mr Flett said an example of this is the use of stock images of certain peoples as rocket-grenade-wielding terrorists.
“Everything we see, everything we do has a theological theme attached to it,” he said.
“People are going to use these images for a reason. There are tools to use and there’s theological insight to come from all of this.
“The course aims to give students a larger lexicon of how they can read what’s going on around them and how they can understand what’s going on around them.”