BOOK REVIEW: REEL SPIRITUALITY – THEOLOGY AND FILM IN DIALOGUE by ROBERT K. JOHNSTON

A MINOR SPOILER BOOK REVIEW:

REEL SPIRITUALITY – THEOLOGY AND FILM IN DIALOGUE by Robert K. Johnston


Photo by Chris Mich

Fully admitting that I’m double-dipping here. For those of you who follow this blog to any degree, you may recall a posting about an academic paper I presented at BEA2022 in Las Vegas on The Blob (1958).

That paper is under consideration for publication in an academic journal. After submitting the paper, the journal’s reviewers informed me I needed to do some additional research on Biblical films. While Reel Spirituality by Robert K. Johnston was not on their recommended reading list, the paperback was in my path as I searched bookstores at the Jersey shore. There’s a good chance that I very well may have picked this text up the same day I took my cowboy photo for my True Grit book review.

Johnston’s book did prove valuable in my research. It is also a fascinating read packed with tons of film history and wonderful insight into the artistic and theistic potential of movies. 

Johnston’s task that he set up for himself is not an easy one. He needs to convince the non-religious crowd that he isn’t trying to usurp their intentions of their film but find truth (with or without a capital “T”) in their work and acknowledge the insightful mirror of life that we call cinema. For the believers, he needs to carry them over hurdles they often place in front of themselves, denying opportunities to see films that aren’t labeled “Christian,” “inspirational” or other feel good, safe genre titles. To accomplish this, Johnston needs to provide both modern day examples of films that reach into our collective human experience as well as be honest about what churches and Hollywood have done to each other to cause the rift. On the other hand, churches and Hollywood have been intertwined from the start – and, for better or worse, created parameters of what and how films are made. I’m looking at you, Will Hays, and your Production Code. However, let’s face it: the Code was necessary at the time and inadvertently gave us wonderful Screwball comedy films (and more) cleverly working their way around censorship.

After Johnston gives us what he calls “a brief history of the Church and Hollywood,” he dives into film being considered art (versus commerce), the importance of story, and the mechanics of filmmaking. Not going to lie, this is pretty basic stuff and more for those who never thought critically about film. Johnston does an excellent job of sprinkling application of his theories via current films (circa 1990s-2000s) throughout the book but relies heavily on classic films such as The Godfather (1972) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). His analysis of the conclusion of The Godfather was particularly eye-opening to me – and we covered The Godfather on our blog a decade ago!

Other classic films touched upon in Reel Theology include but are not limited to: Caged Heat (1974), Rocky (1976), It Happened One Night (1934), On the Waterfront (1954), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), The Last Tycoon (1976), The Deer Hunter (1976), Soldiers of the Cross (1900), The Sign of the Cross (1932), The Ten Commandments (1923), The Outlaw (1943), Public Enemy (1931), Blonde Venus (1932), The French Connection (1971), The Pawnbroker (1965), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Alfie (1966), The Graduate (1967), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Hardcore’s (1979), Shane (1953), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Annie Hall (1977), and The Pink Panther (1963). 

Photo by Chris Mich

In Reel Theology, Johnston also wrote one of the most in-depth studies of the opening of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) that I have ever read. Edwards and Mancini fans, please read page 128.

When he isn’t praising Henry Mancini, Johnston really wins me over when he ties modern films to predecessors. Such is the case with his write-up on Saving Private Ryan (1998):

“In the case of Saving Private Ryan, this would be its concerns with the value of human life. This film’s portrayal of humanity provides the interpretative center of this movie. I am reminded of the line by William Holden in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) where he observes that the point is not to die like a gentleman but to live like a human being.” (p. 81)

Here’s a link to our take on Saving Private Ryan, BTW: Saving Private Ryan 

If your faith is important to you and you love movies, too - this book is for you. If you simply want to know more about the relationship between Hollywood and various faiths, both in the recorded past and possible future, this book is also for you. If you couldn’t care less about Hollywood or faith communities, it’s okay to pass. However, Johnston does point out, boycotting serves little purpose these days. He much rather have a meaningful dialogue on film begin…and this book is a good place to formulate that dialogue. 

Special thanks to Out of the Past blogger Raquel Stecher for hosting the 2022 Classic Film Reading Challenge. This post is an official entry. To join us in this fun summer endeavor, visit her blog for more details. 

#classicfilmreading


Comments

  1. I didn't think Hollywood had much to do with the church and other faith's when it came to moves nowadays. The last movie I would have thought had a religious connection was the Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson. Apart from that, you see those extreme religious one that seem to be released exclusively by Christian groups in the US. Anything else is normally a reflection of life, when it comes to religious connections. But what do I know

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    1. Always good to get your perspective, that's what I know. Thanks for reading and your comment.

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  2. Great review. It's not really something I would usually read but it definitely sounds like it helped you alot.

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