Is film a religion?
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Date: 22 March, 2004

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'He explores the theory that religion enables people to get to grips with critical questions that the everyday throws up.'

Charlotte Haines Lyon is fascinated by a book which argues that watching films is one of society's religious functions

Approaching film as interfaith dialogue might sound a tad bizarre. But if you watch a lot of films, then this really is intriguing brain food.

John Lyden argues that films provide a religious function in society, regardless of how religious their actual plot is. As he delves into the work of various anthropologists and theologians he begins to build up quite a convincing argument.

He explores the theory that religion enables people to get to grips with critical questions that the everyday throws up: “Can good triumph?", "What does sacrifice mean?", "What do we do with the violent feelings we sometimes harbour?”

Films, Lyden reckons, help us to work with such quandaries in a similar way.

For example when I watch a romantic film I may feel various emotions including as sadness and joy as well as empathise with some of the characters’ quest for love. When I watch a thriller, I feel a certain satisfaction when the goodies win.

However, often gangster films seem to make me side with the gangsters and then make me question how I could
support such nasty people. Is there a human side that I can love in all people no matter how evil they are?

Church does similar things; I feel moved at certain points of a service,
experience different emotions during particular rituals and am forced to wrestle with key questions about God and life.

I don’t think Lyden meant his readers to turn the tables round and question church, but I now have to ask myself whether church is actually a well directed piece of entertainment. Nevertheless, he has certainly provided a useful method to think about film.


Rather than simply criticising a film because of its lack of overt Christian content, Lyden encourages us to look at how we experience a film.

What has it made us think, question and feel? Have we been changed by it? How has it affected our view of the world? By picking up on some of the tools of interfaith dialogue, Lyden shows how to glean truths from something that is not overtly Christian or religious.

Despite occasional tenuous conclusions, and the admitted need for further research, this is an important book. Considering watching films is a major pastime in the western world, anything that can help us engage critically is most welcome. Especially interesting considering the current Passion fever.

Film As Religion: Myths Morals and Rituals, John Lyden, published by New York University Press, 287pp

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