What is REELigion?

We’d like to make a small claim about a large subject: Religion is all over the movies. It always has been, and always will be, because film imprints the world upon itself, and the world drips with religion.

As the image in our header suggests, when filmmakers first started using cameras to capture the world, they captured religion. (That header may have changed by the time you read this post, so click the link.) Thomas Edison’s Seminary Girls, shot in 1897, is but one of his many experiments with the Kinetograph, a motion capture invention he used to record a world bustling with all kinds of human activity—trains pulling into stations,women boxingcities parading. And pious tourists at the River Jordan and on a crowded Jerusalem street. And in our header, girls at a religious school cutting loose and getting busted by that familiar figure who would go on to haunt a thousand films, the over-strict nun.

Edison’s vignettes are far from the only instances of religion-on-film in early cinema history. One of the chief inventors of celluloid (a rollable plastic film strip coated with an emulsion that burns away when touched by light) was an Episcopalian minister named Hannibal Goodwin. Goodwin’s work was inspired by his desire to better captivate his congregants with gospel stories—he was looking for a way to capture and project Bible scenes. Other ministers followed suit, and Passion Play films were an important early genre for film experiments in the late 1800s. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Passion Plays helped cinema build a vast general audience and to mollify clerical concerns that the medium was inherently profane.

Much more could be said here—every era of film history, every decade, indeed every genre has its own history and context of religious representation, religious criticism, and even, at times, attempts at actually being religious.

At one level, none of this is unsurprising—all art has always been invested with religious concerns. But religion in film continues to be understudied and under-appreciated in both academic and popular film discourse. Religious aspects of major movies often go unnoticed, and many religion and film discussions are limited in their purview.

Without looking too hard, we can see fascinating, frustrating, and otherwise interesting religious themes in movies of all kinds—war films, superhero films, melodramas, documentaries, crime films, animated films, adventure films, you name it. But these themes are not highlighted often enough or with enough clarity to get sustained attention, and so you get, for example, the likes of (the often excellent) Manohla Dargis writing a review of the recent Paul and saying that its sustained critical treatment of fundamentalist Christians is “startling…especially for a big studio release.” (Ms. Dargis,we need to talk.) And you get academic discussions of film that seem blind to clear religious content, as if it only makes sense to talk about religion in films such as The Passion of the ChristThe Seventh Seal, or Babette’s Feast. Those don’t even scratch the surface of all that’s happening in religion and film.

Not that good and smart attention isn’t being paid to religion and film. The field has its own rich history and excellent current practitioners. We’re grateful for the likes ofThomas DohertyS. Brent PlateBryan StoneMelanie Wright, the Journal of Religion and Film, the IMAGE journal, and more. We’ll feature all their work here, as well as the work of popular film critics who get it.

We just think the intersection of religion and film is a huge space with lots to explore and discover and learn. What we plan to do is pay attention. And we hope you’ll pay attention with us.