Interdisciplinary Glances: the study of religion and film [Paper]

In the first semester of 2018/19 I wrote an extensive paper on the academic study of religion and film. A condensed outline of my argument was presented at a student conference of the UvA and the UU in January 2019. I publish the full paper right here.

Interdisciplinary glances

Methodological and theoretical considerations
in the study of religion and film

Tim Bouwhuis
Utrecht University

There is an increasing interest among scholars from several disciplines to probe substantial entanglements of religion and film. The Journal of Religion and Film is fully devoted to the study of this relatively new field of research. Its first issue dates from April 1997. In the initiatory editorial, William L. Blizek stated that the journal had mainly resulted from the increasing need among his students for a general source on the topic of religion and film. The modest and somewhat informal set-up of the first issue(s) can easily be linked to the fact that there was no pre-existing framework for this topic. Even in his own companion on the field, released twelve years later (2009), Blizek remarked that research on religion and film was still in its infancy.[1] The timeframe was not the only reason here; as Blizek also pointed out, there was not (and there still is not) that much agreement with regard to any uniform methodology.[2] Scholars use a plethora of methods from several parent disciplines: literary studies, philosophy, media studies, anthropology, (cognitive) psychology, and cultural studies.[3] In fact, the idea of interdisciplinarity is already inherent to the construction ‘religion and film’. We may search for methods that serve to investigate how these two phenomena influence one another, but we have to keep in mind that religious studies and film studies are already broad and diverse fields when treated separately.

The lack of consensus on a consistent (set of) method(s) is no reason to shy away from this field of study. To the contrary: scholars should be kindly encouraged to embrace interdisciplinary perspectives, especially in their methodological considerations. It is this particular line of thought that I hope to clarify and substantiate through my own reflections on the methodological and theoretical orientation(s) in the study of religion and film.

This paper consists of two sections. For the first one, I made a quantitative overview of the types of approaches (ultimately leading to particular methods) that were used in the issues of the Journal of Religion and Film published between 1997 and 2018. I chose the journal because it gives scholars who are interested in this field the opportunity to trace approach-based developments throughout the years; whereas any selection of the available companions and monographs would have provided me with many particular cases to date, the Journal of Religion and Film has a more or less vast circulation of issues, and they are all stored online.[4] Before I discuss the outcomes of my quantifying efforts and the conclusions that can be drawn from them, I will clarify how I distinguished between different types of approaches and how I dealt with possible flaws concerning the processes of gathering, presenting and interpreting my data. The second section, then, serves to situate my own theoretical understanding of religion and film within both religious studies and film studies. I intend to demonstrate that this process of positioning myself already invites to particular modes of research, in which future projects can find their final shape.    

I: Methodological approaches in the Journal of Religion and Film

Up to now (early 2019), the Journal of Religion and Film released 22 volumes of two or three issues each. An average issue contains five to nine regular articles. If we look at the evolving index of the journal throughout the years, we see a gradual expansion: vol.3 (iss.2) has the first film review section, and from vol. 16 (iss.2) onwards book reviews appear as well. The editors started to visit festivals in order to write about potent religious subtexts in new films (Sundance >vol.3, Slamdance >vol.17, Toronto >vol.20). The first international conference on religion and film took place in 2014. Themed issues relating to conferences were already included before; vol.8 (iss.1) was devoted, for instance, to a set of papers on Mel Gibsons The Passion of the Christ (2004). In total, I counted and included 340 articles, spread between 48 separate issues. For this analysis, I was mainly interested in methodological approaches, which meant that I had to pass aside other relevant concerns. I will briefly touch upon some of them at the end of this section.

Why turn to the approach perspective? Because the current lack of consensus about proper methodological approaches in the field provides us with the challenge to think and rethink methodology for long term-purposes. Whereas it might be nearly impossible to detect adequately the plethora of theoretical perspectives in the journal, I considered it feasible to trace the development of methodological approaches throughout the 22 volumes.

I did not do in depth-studies of all these articles; instead, I worked from the presupposition that the abstract and/or the first two pages would have to touch upon the predominant type of approach. I say type, because a concession I had to make in order to see some patterns was to perpetuate general distinctions between types of method, rather than particularities. This appeared to be difficult enough already, since there were several authors who merged (usually) two types of methodological approaches within the same article. In other cases, I was struggling to detect any type of approach at all. Doubles weren’t allowed, but some of my question marks made it into a separate category (type 15 in attachment 1).

The reader is encouraged to reflect upon the use of approach-based distinctions featuring in attachment 1. The scheme contains the results of my counting, presented per volume in order to prevent an oversized X-line. I chose to conduct a quantitative analysis because it would enable me, I hoped, to detect some trends and developments that might have remained unseen from a more particular qualitative perspective. However, the numbers should not be taken for granted entirely. In lack of a pre-existing classification system, I had to trust my own assortments of similarity and difference to draw strict categorical boundaries. Moreover, the amount of counted articles per volume is not equal, so the increases in, for example, volume 20 should be properly contextualized. I have been very hesitant to include additional graphics with percentages, implying a higher representativeness. In the end I decided not to do so, because in the end my aims are still qualitative. Furthermore, any attempt to ameliorate my data would not add that much to my pivotal considerations. Within this paper, my interest in the methodological choices of preceding scholars is based on broader trends rather than particularities.

That being said, it is evident that research into (a) particular film(s) has been the main approach from the first volume onwards. This has not changed that much in more recent years, but we do see a shift from mere ‘religious’ content (see also the third category on Biblical narrative and characters) towards the political and ideological implications that this content has. Volume 4 features the first article with a type 2-focus on the process of uncovering, in this case, gender politics.[5] Volume 8 contains the first concerns with orientalism/postcolonialism. The counting for this type is steadier from volume 15 onwards. I take it that this volume is a rough counterpoint for increasing interests not only in ideology and politics, but also in film style (type 7 and 12) and the entanglement of film and religious subtexts from literature and philosophy (type 4). Content-wise, the approaches become more and more specific and academically grounded (structural analysis, critique of ideology, philosophical hermeneutics, cultural studies approaches). Authors are increasingly aware of the need for precise modes of research (Seung Min Hong in vol.16 iss.2) and theoretical concepts that suit the scholar’s case (the single entry on type 17 underlines, however, that much work still has to be done here).[6]

I do not want to overemphasize a particular assessment of the prevailing perspectives, but it is obvious that the amount of articles aimed at the expression of particular moral or emotional author responses (type 11) has decreased significantly. This is an approach, I argue, that does not appertain to academic journal features. Here, the authors foreground their theological subject-positions, thereby undermining any potential to come up with a convincing scholarly argument, which is what you ideally expect to encounter in every journal article.[7] Fortunately, figure 1 shows that the blue dots for type 11 gradually lose terrain in favor of, in this case, type 2 and type 4.

Figure 1: philosophy/literature and ideology/politics vs. moral/emotional responses

There are not that many articles with a focus on audience and spectatorship. We see singular cases of authors that situate their research in a broader cultural context of spectatorship and meaning making (type 10) from volume 5 onwards. In this particular case, the limited frequency can be linked to the editor’s considerations: in the 2009 Companion Blizek states how he regards research into audience as a trademark of the social or communication sciences rather than the scholarly study of religion and film.[8] This decision to exclude rather than include does not correspond with my own preferred attitude towards this field. I already discussed how the construction of ‘religion and film’ already involves the need to think interdisciplinary. It would be a pity, then, to artificially refrain from ventures into social or communication sciences, that could actually enrich the future methodological grounds of the field. Therefore, the increasing interest for audience and the rise of cultural studies approaches will hopefully steer future efforts in and beyond the journal. These issues will be addressed in the upcoming section, where I will sketch some developments in religious studies and film studies in order to position my own research considerations.

To conclude my elaboration on methodological approaches in the Journal of Religion and Film, I want to stress that some significant issues have remained underdiscussed here. Recurring instances of theologically grounded articles raise the need to reflect upon the distinction between religious studies and theology, (again) in and beyond the journal. Moreover, the inclusion of a separate type of approach (3) on Biblical narrative and characters already suggests (rather correctly) that the journal is Western-minded. Because the data are on method rather than the subject or area focus, the fact that there is more and more attention for non-Christian contexts had also deserved more emphasis. Important efforts on the cinema of other cultures and continents are made by, among many others, scholars such as S. Brent Plate.[9]

II: Scholarly positioning in religious studies and film studies

How to understand ‘religion’ in a digital and mediated environment, that is, religion as a broad phenomenon that is portrayed and represented in and through movies and other media? To begin with, it is important to discern different modes of combining religion and film. There is a specific reason for my own use of the catchphrase ‘religion and film’; I take it that these two phenomena are so susceptible to processes of entanglement that more encapsulated combinations (‘religion in film’, ‘film as religion’) suggest too much exclusion to serve as scholarly points of departure.

The idea of religion in film is deceptively simple: the scholar is interested in the manifestation of (a) particular religion(s) in film. The representation of Jesus in Bible movies is an obvious example here, but there are countless possibilities. My most significant argument against the extensive use of ‘religion in film’ aligns with my reluctance to overemphasize the fixed character of (a) particular religion(s). One thing that struck me while reading some of the ‘older’ companions on religion and film (Blizek, 2009; Lyden, 2009[10]) was that I encountered quite some presuppositions about the appearances of (institutionalized) religion in film that remained relatively unquestioned. I take Blizeks introduction as an example: ‘’as the influence of Hollywood diminishes (…) and the influence of world cinema (italic by the author) increases’’, he states, ‘’more movies will be made that deal with Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.’’[11] His subsequent conclusion is that the future of (the study of) religion and film will likely ‘broaden’ its focus to include at least the major religions of the world. In this schematic compartmentalization of religion(s), (institutional) boundaries appear clear-cut and uncontested. Furthermore, Blizek establishes a connection between world cinema, a broad and yet firmly contested term to designate ‘the rest of the West’, and three major ‘world religions’. Not only does this affirm rather than challenge the legitimacy of the term world cinema, it also implies that the boundaries of institutionalized non-Western religions (Buddhism, Hindiusm and Islam) determine which vast religious configurations can be deemed important in the future study of religion and film.

The second combination, ‘film as religion’, raises pressing questions that tend to defy any wish for a neutral scholarly perspective. It implies a problematic theological conception of film as a medium that can be ‘perceived’ as ‘religious’. There is a third combination of religion and film that I would like to (pre)mention here: religious institutions or groups can deliberately use the medium to spread a certain idea or message. I will get back to these instances of audience framing when I discuss ideology in the context of film studies. 

I conceive of ‘religion’ as a broad but useful umbrella term for the variety of ideas, symbols, practices and myths that permeate our (visual) culture(s) in an age of media(tion) and globalization. In this regard, my understanding of religion aligns with a relatively recent conception of religious studies scholar David Chidester:

‘’Studies of religion and media have taken up this challenge (i.e., the tracking of religious mobility) by reconfiguring religion as mediation, thereby enabling new understandings of imagery, sound recordings, video films, machines, and other media as material religion in motion. Studies of religion and popular culture, more generally, have given new meaning to religious diffusion. Anticipated by Thomas Luckmann’s ‘invisible religion ‘- independent of religious institutions, diffused through modern societies – studies of religion in and as popular culture have explored the plasticity of religion in a variety of cultural formations.’’[12]

Within the scope of this paper I do not intend to engage in the heated scholarly debate concerning the use of the term religion and the problematic nature of its definitions.[13] Instead, I stress that the diffusion of religious phenomena in the media age (see Hoover, 2006) demands a very broad, open and inclusive attitude towards the continuous circulation of these pre-existing ideas, symbols, practices and myths that merge with new ones in evolving and shifting forms of media. Whereas definitions of religion often serve to exclude, I take it that we are living in an age of inevitable inclusion: Christian symbols intertwine with expressions of paganism, several new religious movements are on the rise and Buddhist spiritual notions effortlessly dissolve into Western modes of individualized spirituality. These cultural developments, I argue, are mirrored by the dozens of movies and tv-series available for home and theater viewings. Scholars in religion and film can embrace the challenge to unpack these flowing webs of meaning. I conceive this task to be relevant because films and tv-series are a major part of our society and their predominance only increases due to broader processes of digitalization, technological progress and ongoing globalization. Moreover, we are dealing with cultural products that are closely tied to human fabrications, interactions and understandings of their own world, both on-and offline.   

Now that I have discussed my scholarly understanding of religion in relation to film, I turn to a more specific reflection on the medium within the theoretical context of film studies. This is a field that has been evolving since its formal emergence in the course of the twentieth century, although it still shares the potent ‘lack’ of a consensus on a  methodological point of departure. It is not my intention to provide an exhaustive overview of these struggles here, but I do think it is useful to highlight some of the theoretical considerations and questions that have framed and colored former scholarly efforts.

A main preoccupation of contemporary film theorists (see Allen, 1995) in the 1960s and 1970s was the framing of ideological content through film. These theorists conceived of ideology as a form of knowledge in which human beings are blind to the fact that what they believe is merely a product of the language they use, rather than the way the world is.[14] Film, they say, is never innocent, because it imposes ideological messages on its audience, thus strengthening the hegemonial position of the producing elite. One might recall Marxian and Althusserian positions here, as well as Adorno and Horkheimers critique on popular culture as a tool for elitist mass communication.[15] And indeed, contemporary film theorists frequently adhered to (neo-)Marxian critiques of ideology and other presuppositions that steered the objectives of some leading cultural critics from the Frankfurter Schule.[16]

Around the same time, structuralists that were inspired by the semiotics of De Saussure probed the possibilities to ‘read’ and understand film as a text. The most important name to mention here is Christian Metz. In Film Language (1974), this French film theorist proposed a semiotic conception of film form to inform predominant methods for film analysis. The ‘film as text’-debate continued throughout the decades to come. There were scholars who defended Metz (Heath, 1981), but we also see a chain of poststructuralist actions and reactions (Derrida 1967, Eco 1976) centering around the presumed arbitrary nature of signs (and thus of the cinematic image). The idea of cinema as a tangible semiotic structure got replaced by theories focusing on more ‘invisible’ processes of representation: Laura Mulveys landmark essay on the male gaze (1975), informed by Lacanian psychoanalysis, coincided with Metz’s own shift towards a psychoanalytical understanding of cinema.[17]

Scholars in religion and film have to be aware of this discursive background to understand current shifts (presumably from the 1990s onwards) towards (cognitive) theories of active spectatorship and cultural studies approaches that try to situate viewer experiences within concrete contexts that are not necessarily informed by a suspicion of ideology. A leading scholar is David Bordwell, who has written numerous books and articles on the need for empirical spectatorship, that is, insights on viewing experiences that are informed by cognitive psychology, evolutionary theory and neuroscience.[18]

My intended research into religion and film brings some of film theory’s leading questions and considerations to the fore. First and foremost: it is not that difficult to locate the possible connections between religion and political ideologies, but how to deal with the fact that it is precisely the suspicion of ideology in relation to presumed passive spectatorship that has become obsolete in film studies respectively my own (aforementioned) understanding of ‘religion’? The advent of subjectivity and cognitive spectatorship provides ample munition to reject film theories that are solely informed by abstract notions of ideology and a passive, generalized audience. Recall, moreover, that I proposed to move away from fixed political and institutional conceptions of religion to propose a notion of cultural ambivalence, at least in the mediated areas of my scholarly interest. I do not think there are easy or fully satisfying answers to the ideology question, mainly because every answer has to be discussed and re-evaluated in relation to the paper or research project related to religion and film. On the other hand, a proper middle ground is accessible when scholars accept questions of power and ideology as a necessary part of the cultural contexts that they’re investigating on the premise of subjectivity and active meaning making. I take it that any scholar can be susceptible to these considerations without feeling the need to assume that any cultural product is automatically steered by ideological interests.

My second question is a response to the film as text-debate. The question is rather straightforward: can we conceive of film as a text, in order to adopt textual modes of analysis? Here I am rather outspoken: I assert (see also Copier & Vander Stichele, 2016) that the semiotics of a written text are significantly different from the moving images of film. Scholars in the field need to be attentive to, if not focused on, exclusively visual conventions and exceptions in film editing, staging, lighting and cinematography, in order to conduct proper research.


We have seen in the Journal of Religion and Film that much terrain has yet to be won with regard to methodological perspectives on film style – we count not more than 25 examples of style-based approaches (type 7, 12). Luckily the past few years have yielded some articles in which the authors concentrate on style without being blind to matters of ideology and interpretation (12). On the other hand, audience and spectatorship approaches (10) circulate only modestly, and the gap between profound content and style analysis and actual audience responses is bridged rather seldomly.

Ideally, I foresee a future for religion and film in which scholars neatly relate themselves to current, paramount changes in digital environments. The processes of cultural meaning making increasingly transcend living localities, since the internet only grows to be a hot spot for expressions and reactions to everything, including religion, film and their countless crossroads. The search is one for methods serving to probe the variety of ideals, symbols, practices and myths as they appear in both the film products and the (internet) culture(s) surrounding them. ‘Religion’ is a useful umbrella term that demands further unpacking within the particular political and socio-cultural contexts of research. It is this particular line of thought that I hope to follow in the near future. Along the way, it is only my modest wish that my efforts might be of interest to other scholars, seeking to find their own interdisciplinary perspectives in a field that is expanding rapidly.



Allen, Richard. Projecting Illusion: Film Spectatorship and the Impression of Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Blizek, W.L., ed. The Continuum Companion to Religion and Film. London: Continuum, 2009.

Campbell, J. Film and Cinema Spectatorship: Mimesis and Melodrama. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004.

Copier, L. and C. Vander Stichele. Close Encounters between Bible and Film: An Interdisciplinary Engagement. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016.

Lyden, J., ed. The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Metz, C. Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema. Translated by Michael Taylor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.


Bordwell, D. ‘’The Part-Time Cognitivist: A View from Film Studies’’. Projections 4 (2010): 1-18.

Chidester, D. ‘’Beyond Religious Studies? The Future of the Study of Religion in a Multidisciplinary Perspective’’. NTT Journal for Theology and the Study of Religion 71 (2017): 74-85.

Clark, L.S. ‘’Why Study Popular Culture? Or, How to Build a Case for your Thesis in a Religious Studies or Theology Department’’. Chap. 1 in Between Sacred and Profane: Researching Religion and Popular Culture. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007. 5-20.

Hanegraaff, W. H. ‘’Reconstructing ‘’Religion’’ from the Bottom Up’’. Numen 62 (2016): 577-600.

Various authors. Essays and articles from the Journal of Religion and Film. Accessed and downloaded December 27th and 28th, 2018.

Attachment 1: Method in the Journal of Religion and Film

Considering the many problems that occur when I try to implement attachment 1 (my empirical scheme on the several approaches in the JORAF), you can e-mail me (see my personal page) in order to receive a pdf or word-file with the scheme.


[1] W.L. Blizek, ed., The Continuum Companion to Religion and Film (London: Continuum, 2009), 7.

[2] Blizek, The Continuum Companion, 2.

[3] J. Lyden, ed., The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film (New York: Routledge, 2009), 1.

[4] The journal also makes it easier to trace the chronology of developments within the field. See: (Accessed Thursday 10th, 2019).

[5] Joel W. Martin, Anti-feminism in Recent Apocalyptic Film. Vol. 4. Iss. 1.

[6] On the other hand, there are multiple (more recent) articles that use René Girards theories on violence and the ‘scapegoat’ to understand the content of particular films. The articles are included in type 1 because there is a difference between theory and method-type here, but it helps to see that articles are increasingly grounded more theoretically.

[7] I do not want to argue that these authors should have remained ‘objective’ or neutral, since I take it that every person is undeniably subjective in one way or the other. Instead, I support the attitude of most scholars to perpetuate an academically transparent discourse in which personal convictions are of inferior importance.

[8] Blizek, The Continuum Companion, 4.

[9] See: Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World (2009).

[10] I mention these companions here because Blizek was also the predecessor of John Lyden as main editor of the Journal of Religion and Film.

[11] Blizek, The Continuum Companion, 3.

[12] D. Chidester, ‘’Beyond Religious Studies? The Future of the Study of Religion in a Multidisciplinary Perspective’’, NTT Journal for Theology and the Study of Religion 71 (2017), 82.

[13] See, among others: Hanegraaff (2016).

[14] R. Allen, Projecting Illusion: Film Spectatorship and the Impression of Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 2.

[15] L.S. Clark, ‘’Why Study Popular Culture? Or, How to Build a Case for your Thesis in a Religious Studies or Theology Department’’, in Between Sacred and Profane: Researching Religion and Popular Culture (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), 7.

[16] Allen provides the best (critical) overview of these theories that I know, notwithstanding that his book is almost 25 years old.

[17] Psychoanalytical film theory didn’t lead a long life either: as Jan Campbell has argued, psychoanalysis has more or less been ‘left behind’ within the rigorous realm of screen or apparatus theory, an approach to film that got abandoned after the 1980s. J. Campbell, Film and Cinema Spectatorship: Mimesis and Melodrama (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004), 3.

[18] D. Bordwell, ‘’The Part-Time Cognitivist: A View from Film Studies’’, Projections 4 (2010), 7. See also:  Bordwells initial work of reference on the need for cognitive film theory, Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (1996).

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