Religion & Spirituality in Film
By Heather Johnson
Spiritual and/or religious themes permeate films of nearly all genres and budgetary means, either blatantly obvious or nestled elusively between the lines. But whether low-key comedy or bold, intellectual drama, many films with a mission ultimately fall into the spiritual or religious category, as each category bears its own characteristics. What follows are two interwoven "sub-primers," if you will. The two subgenres have much in common, but use different approaches to get their message across. The spiritual film takes an inner-directed road to our quest for higher purpose. The film may point to divine principles, but it may also inspire us to forge our own path toward discovering our true nature. The religious film may cover similar uplifting themes, but does so within the context of a particular organized religion with specific guidelines that one must follow in order to reach that higher place of being.
For example, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind could be considered a spiritual film, with its exploration of love and identity, of past and present, while Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, a radical interpretation of the Bible's Crucifixion story, would be considered a religious film. In recent years, both spiritually minded and religious films have found their way to varying degrees of box office success, including spiritual titles such as Conversations with God and The Pursuit of Happyness, and religiously themed works such as Passion of the Christ and The Nativity Story.
You may not find God in a GreenCine primer, but we will try to bring to light the impact spirituality and religion have had on film through the later half of the 20th Century and beyond.
"What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters to what lies within us."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Inspired by transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, New Thought purveyors Phineas Quimby and Christian D. Larson, metaphysician Thomas Troward, and the laws of nature, art, science and philosophy, spiritual seekers such as Earnest Holmes, founder of the International Religious Science movement, and Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, founder of the Unity School of Christianity (the largest New Thought denomination of Christianity), helped bring the teachings of the movement and its take on metaphysics to a wider audience in the early 1900s. Their writings and talks discussed a universal presence of creative energy (aka God), that exists within and without everyone and everything; hence, the concept of "oneness." Our thoughts create our reality, so the teaching goes. Christian teachings echo this belief with the passage "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he."
In more recent years, author/speakers such as Wayne Dyer, Louise Hay, Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra and Neal Donald Walsch have carried the New Thought teachings forward, combined them with other Eastern and Western ideas, and brought them to an even wider audience through their respective best-selling tomes. As a natural, profitable extension, these books, and others like them, have found their way to the silver screen. Many of these films were made on a limited budget, some contain airy fairy music and sub-par acting, but the message generally transcends the flaws.
For a clear understanding of the relationship between the laws of science and spirit, take a look at What the "Bleep" Do We Know?, which examines quantum physics and how it affects our everyday reality. The film weaves documentary-style footage with the story of Alice (Marlee Matlin), a divorced photographer whose life slowly unravels, but is then reborn when she discovers the power of consciousness. Interesting visual effects and diagrams help explain the theories put forward by "radical scientists" such as David Albert PhD, Dr. Joe Dispenza DC, Amit Goswami PhD, Andrew B. Newberg MD, among others. A multi-disc DVD set, What the Bleep: Down the Rabbit Hole, Quantum Edition (2006), takes a deeper look at these ideas, with five additional hours of uncut interviews, more animation and a filmmaker Q&A.
Similar in format, albeit without the dramatic element, a DVD called The Secret has gotten some serious online attention over the last year, partly due to the producers' secretive marketing strategies and mentions on national TV. One can only view or download the documentary from the "authorized secret distributor," who claims the film holds the "great secret of the universe," aka the key to unlimited wealth, health, joy, youth and loving relationships. If you can get past the over-the-top introduction, you'll be rewarded with - here it is! - the secret: which is, as Deepak Chopra describes in his book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, the Law of Attraction. Again, interviews with scientists and spiritual thinkers cover one of the basic teachings in metaphysics: we create our lives with our thoughts and feelings, and the "secret" to having and becoming more in this life is to believe you already have it, and feel that you have it as well. In other words, act as if.
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