Faith in Action – Episode 4

Cate Wheatley – Faith in Film


Richard: Hello, I’m Richard Sargeant, and this is Faith in Action, a podcast about how faith affects the way we live and work today. Film has always been closely connected with the portrayal of religion, and yet is the only art form not to originate from within the church. With me to discuss faith in film is Cate Wheatley, a senior lecturer in film studies at King’s College, London. Cate, why did you choose to look at faith in film as part of your academic work?

Cate: The way in which my faith and film come together in my research is partly to do with questions of faith and partly to do with questions of culture. On the one hand, I was seeing more and more films that were coming through, particularly European cinema but American film too, which were tackling questions of religion, and Christianity in particular, and there’d been a big gap in both cultures where we hadn’t seen very much Christianity in film, and I was interested in why that was. And in a more selfish sense, I thought this was a very good way of making sure that I read my Bible more often, and kind of made my theological research also my academic research at the same time, so it was a nice way for me of spanning a personal interest and a professional interest.


Richard: Is that a new thing, that faith has been a more popular subject for film?

Cate: Again, I think using the word faith is slightly problematic in this context. Religion and film have got a very long and complex history: some of the very earliest films that were made, within five years of film being invented, were Bible stories, but also, in Indian culture, for example, some of the very first Indian films that were made were Hindu stories. So, there’s an intimate binding up, but actually, there’s also a theory that says that film is the only art form that’s not come out of the church originally, and so, it’s possibly the secular art form of our time, and so, you get this kind of divergence from the very early onset of film between film that tells Bible stories and film as an art form that doesn’t have Biblical origin, or a Christian origin. You then have films which tell stories, I think Bible stories, or potentially illustrate theological points, and I think that’s very different from tackling the question of faith. The films that have come out in recent years, and I’m talking since probably 2000, 2001, go in two directions. On the one hand, you have these big, Biblical epics, things like Ridley Scott’s Moses adaptation, The Passion of the Christ, which tell Bible stories in very spectacular ways, and they look back to a certain period during the 1950s when Hollywood was making these kind of films as well, and the Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille’s film, would be the obvious example. On the other hand, you have a body of films that are coming out of Europe at the moment which tell the story of contemporary Christians, and an example which some of your listeners might be familiar with is John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, which came out in 2014. I don’t know if you’ve seen that.


Richard: I have. It’s a fantastic film.

Cate: A really fantastic film. I think it will be hard to call that a pro-Christian film, or, you know, a Bible film in the way that, despite the fact that it’s a loose adaptation of Christ’s sacrifice for us all, but it is a film that looks at where Christianity is today, how we wrestle with questions of faith in the wake of some of the scandals that have hit the Catholic church, and how, individual men and women carry on being Christians at a time in our history when it’s not necessarily particularly well thought of, actually, within Western society.


Richard: Do you think that that resurgence of faith in film, religious film, since 2000 has focused principally on remaking Biblical stories, or has it given a human portrait of the faith of lay people, whether in Christianity, or Islam, or other traditions?

Cate: So, my sense is, and there is research that backs this up to some extent, that both from the North American context and the European context, these films are a response to a greater presence of Islam within Western media, and that might be the fact that you now see a lot of Iranian films circulating in film festivals like Cannes, or it might be the fact that we’re seeing Islam on our screens, and it’s not just film but also television screens, a lot more frequently. And I think that, again, it’s a slightly sort of reductive binary, but you have the Bible adaptations, which seem to be very triumphant, they’re almost propagandistic portrayals of America, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they are Old Testament stories mostly, so we have this one nation under god, all creeds, all people, but largely based in a Judeo-Christian tradition. The films that come out of Europe seem to be dealing much more frequently with both the clergy and lay people coming to terms with questions of Christianity, and it’s a kind of cultural inheritance, I’d call it. It’s been part of our culture for such a long time, there’s a return to looking at those stories and what that cultural inheritance means for us today.


Richard: Do you think that just religious films, faith in film, has been largely reflective of those cultural attitudes, the examination of ourselves, or has it been formative, has it shaped cultural attitudes towards faith?

Cate: That’s a really interesting question. I think that it’s television that is more formative, both in terms of news footage and those kind of media portrayals, and also in terms of the fact that television has a much faster turnaround time, and so, it responds to trends, but then, in a very nascent way, shapes them. I think film, on the whole, is more reflective. So I think probably the news coverage of 9/11 and then certain television series that came after that pre-dated it, it’s four or five years before you start seeing the first film responses to 9/11, such as the Oliver Stone film or some of the films about the Iraq war that circulate afterwards, and I’m thinking of things that, produced by Ridley Scott again, actually. He’s a really interesting filmmaker in that he makes films about the contemporary political situation as well as the Biblical epics. That said, there’s no doubt that films like Scott’s Exodus try and unify, I think, their audiences. Film is a very communal experience in a way that television-watching isn’t. There’s something about, you go to the cinema, we sit together as a congregation of sorts, we share an experience in a very ritualistic sense that television doesn’t offer, and I think that maybe there’s something about the communal experience of film. There is a company called Walden Media, who made the Narnia films, as well as a film called Bridge to Terabithia, and they are actually a film [house] that have a very clear religious agenda, Christian agenda, and they market their films to Christian audiences, and so, there will always be studios and production companies that do try and be formative.


Richard: We’ve seen perhaps an increase in the number of allegorical films. Is that an effective form of presenting faith as culture experiences it?

Cate: I think the problem with films like the Star Wars films and the Matrix, and Inception would be another one, actually, that’s done the rounds a lot recently, is that they’re great for teaching theological points, and you find them being used a lot in theological departments, but I think they’re so open to interpretation that we can as easily say that the Matrix is a film about Cartesian skepticism as we can any kind of religious viewpoint, and certainly, the filmmakers themselves have said that it’s influenced by Buddhist philosophy. They’re useful films. I’m not sure that there’s anything new about them. You could probably look through film history, and the films of Ingmar Bergman, for example, and the Seventh Seal, and lots of films that can be used to discuss existentialism or metaphysics in a much broader sense can also be co-opted for those purposes, and it’s one of the things that, actually, I’m trying very hard to do in my research, is to avoid taking a moral out of the narrative of film and to look much more at the way in which films use their film form and the medium itself to try and invoke an experience of transcendence or faith in particular.


Richard: Why are you Christian? Where do you draw inspiration for your own faith?

Cate: So, I wasn’t a Christian before I met Chris, my husband, and did the Alpha Course. It took me quite a long time, and I think I would describe it as, I was waiting for the thunderbolt and it never happened, and in fact, it was a much more gradual process of falling in love, to use the analogy. I couldn’t tell you that one day I was a Christian and the next day I wasn’t a Christian, but more that, one day I was aware that I was a Christian, and I now can’t really see the world in terms other than that, and it seems to be everywhere that I look. We’ve had a slightly rough time with one of our children recently, and there’s been a lot of instances, I think, where I could’ve thought, oh, this is all terrible, and instead, you think about the things that didn’t happen and how much worse it could’ve been, and I suppose it’s in all of those moments, just the small connections, little things that I see God and Jesus all around us.


Richard: Do you think that people that you work with that you are around perceive you as Christian? Is there any sense that that is difficult when it comes to being an objective academic?

Cate: Absolutely. It’s slightly strange working in a university, it’s probably like this in other workplaces as well actually, in that we have to be quite careful about what we say to the students, and so, we have a pastoral role, and there have been numerous occasions when I would have really liked to have offered to pray for a student, but that would be very much treading a line. I’m open about being a Christian. I wear a cross around my neck and I do that as a conscious decision. If anyone asks me, because I teach an undergraduate course on film and religion, what my faith is, then I’m very clear about that. In terms of my colleagues, I find that most academics, certainly with the arts and humanities, tend to be very left wing. I have a huge number of gay colleagues, I think, who are quite wary. I often think, actually, that if I was an ‘out’ Jewish person or Muslim, they would be a lot less nervous around me than they are as a Christian.


Richard: And does faith give you a different perspective on life to the one that you had before you were Christian?

Cate: Yes, I think I used to think of myself as the center of the universe, and I certainly used to think of myself as being in control of everything, and that, if something didn’t go well, it was my fault, and if something did go well, it was because I’d worked for it and it was my achievement. I don’t feel like that anymore at all, I feel very much a small part of a much bigger schema, and I feel a lot more accountable, actually, to God and to Jesus, but also to my fellow human beings, beyond just my immediate family and friends.


Richard: To finish, have you got a favorite film?

Cate: There’s a film called Ida by Pawel Pawlikowski. I think it might have won the best foreign language film, actually, at the Oscars, and that’s possibly my favorite of the last twelve months. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough, actually.


Richard: Could you recommend a film to banish winter blues?

Cate: I’d probably send everybody to James Bond at the moment.


Richard: Cate Wheatley, thank you very much.

Cate: Thank you very much.