In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Religion and Film

  • Introduction
  • Prolegomena
  • Reference and Bibliographic Works
  • Introductory Texts
  • Anthologies
  • Dissertations and Theses
  • Media Products
  • General History
  • Religion in Historical Contexts
  • Silent Era
  • Jewish Cinema
  • Biblical Epics
  • Jesus Films
  • Christ Figures
  • Science Fiction Messiahs
  • God in Popular Culture
  • Scripts and Production Notes
  • International Directors
  • Ingmar Bergman
  • Genres
  • Horror Films
  • The Devil
  • Apocalyptic and Fantastic Cinema
  • Fantasy and the Religious Imagination
  • Animation
  • Critical Review Collections
  • Devotional Collections
  • Individual Film Analyses
  • Church and Movies
  • Religious Production
  • Church History Films
  • Film Morality
  • Historic Culture Wars
  • Contemporary Culture Wars
  • Religious Confessions
  • Programming Religious Exhibitions
  • Pedagogy
  • International Texts
  • Marginalia

Cinema and Media Studies Religion and Film
Terry Lindvall
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0180


In 1911 one of the earliest documents examining the nature and function of cinema came from the Reverend Herbert A. Jump of Connecticut, a pamphlet entitled The Religious Possibilities of the Motion Picture. His thoughtful reflections on the novel medium envisioned a fertile marriage between the moving pictures and the church, leading to revival and reform. However, his work was practical and apologetic, particularly to a readership that would soon divide over whether the moving pictures were a handmaiden to theology or the devil’s camera. His work followed a presentation of ideas in the periodical The Congregationalist, indicating that the pioneering work done in the two disciplines of religion and film came from the more entrenched queen of the sciences, from theologians and clerics. Directors such as the Methodist D. W. Griffith waxed on eloquently about the eschatological “universal language” of the cinema, and Vachel Lindsay poetically mused on film’s spiritual aspects as “photoplays of religious splendors.” Perhaps the first filmmaker/critic to articulate the religious aspects of the moving picture was French critic Jean Epstein, who in the 1920s described the effect of the image to intensely affect, transport, and transform spectators, offering an “essentially supernatural” experience. Nevertheless, religious writers dominated the publications in this area, with the first flood of publications coming in the 1970s. Only recently, with the work of Nolan, Hendershot, and others, would scholars in film theory and history contribute to the conversation. The following sections map out both historical and conceptual perspectives.


Certain philosophical and communication works have had significant impact and implications on the field of religion and film. While scholars debate various contributions (and all are quite persuasive given a person’s tradition and methodology), certain texts make for provocative and heuristic backdrops for delving into the two disciplines. These works are not intended as an authoritative canon but as a stimulant to elicit consideration of the scope of preparatory work that influences the field. Hoover and Venturelli 1996, for example, echoes the sentiment of many working in the cross-fertilization of media and religion, who felt marginalized from colleagues in their own discipline and sought to introduce religion into the naked public square or on the public screens. McLuhan 1999, Ong 1982, Adler 1978, and Wuthnow 1998 function as visionaries and seers whose insights continue to find relevance in film studies. Allen and Gomery 1985 and Bordwell, et al. 1985 supply foundational texts for understanding films, their contexts, and their modes of production. Plate 2002 explores visual manifestations of world religions. Finally, Morgan 1999, which focuses on 19th-century mass-produced, visual religious communication, revises conceptions of religious iconophobia and the impact of the visual on religious spectators.

  • Adler, Mortimer J. Art and Prudence: A Study in Practical Philosophy. New York: Arno, 1978.

    Adler presages debates about rhetoric, art, beauty, censorship, wisdom, and media as he draws from Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and numerous other philosophers who provide foundational insights for those engaged in understanding the religious nature and functions of film. Originally published in 1937.

  • Allen, Robert C., and Douglas Gomery. Film History: Theory and Practice. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985.

    Allen and Gomery masterfully present a comprehensive methodological approach to film history, arguing compellingly for attention to the aesthetic, economic, technological, and social/cultural aspects of film.

  • Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203358818

    Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson provide a foundational overview of the relation of modes of production to the classical Hollywood film structure providing one of the most important theoretical groundings of film history.

  • Hoover, Stewart M., and Shalini S. Venturelli. “The Category of the Religious: The Blindspot of Contemporary Media Theory.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 13.3 (September 1996): 251–265.

    DOI: 10.1080/15295039609366978

    In the context of the hegemony of the rational, the authors conceive of the religious as radically located within the secular, providing greater theoretical and conceptual understanding to the realms of meaning, ontology, and cultural practices, particularly in the world of contemporary media. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion. Edited by Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szlarek. Toronto: Stoddart, 1999.

    Catholic futurist Marshall McLuhan envisioned the influence of the mass media throughout the global village, recognizing how hot media like film are messages, carrying spectators into a world of creative configurations outside his or her control.

  • Morgan, David. Protestants and Pictures: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Age of American Mass Production. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    Building on his work on visual piety (Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), Morgan examines a plethora of Protestant images produced before 1920 and shows how illustrated Bibles, children’s literature, and prophetic tracts functioned as mass entertainment, religious instruction, proselytizing, and domestic devotions, all as precursors to early film exhibition.

  • Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge, 1982.

    American Jesuit Walter Ong distinguishes among societies where orality dominated, with fundamental shifts of thought exhibited among societies with literacy, where the technology of writing transforms human thought from dependence on sound to that of sight. A second orality coincided with the advent of communication media.

  • Plate, S. Brent, ed. Religion, Art, and Visual Culture: A Cross Cultural Reader. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

    Working with a construct of visual communication, this work covers how meaning is made and disseminated through the visual expressions of world religions.

  • Wuthnow, Robert. After Heaven: Spirituality in America since 1950s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520213968.001.0001

    After his landmark book, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), sociologist Wuthnow continued to document the changes in institutional, civil, and personal religion in the United States. In this volume, he charts the evolution of spirituality and the shifting location of the sacred in the American cultural landscape, from a spirituality of dwelling, through one of seeking, to one of practice.

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