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Showcasing Student Work: Theology in Contemporary Film

In Spring 2018, students had the opportunity to enroll in United's course TR650: Theology in Contemporary Film taught by Dr. Jann Cather Weaver. Dr. Weaver selected a number of films from the last 18 years, and each week, students were assigned to view a film outside of class. After watching the assigned movie twice and doing class readings, each student wrote a paragraph on the religious and ethical themes in the film and posed a theological question to be discussed in class. Focusing on films that are not explicitly religious, the course teaches students how to see theologically, and explore implicit theologies in art.  

Several students from the course have volunteered to share their responses to films viewed in class, demonstrating how we can watch films "theologically."

 Responding to Snow Falling on Cedars (1999) directed by Scott Hicks.

"What is truth? Fact is not necessarily truth, yet it is the truth we believe that can obscure fact. The deep, thick fog and the raging blizzard in Snow Falling on Cedars are metaphors for the personal or communal truths obscuring the fact that Carl’s death was accidental and that Miyamoto was accused of that death simply because he had been there moments before and that he was Japanese. While it is not an actual fog or raging blizzard, the same effect happens when one group of people allows their belief of the truth to lead to events like the interment at Manzanar, to the murder of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis, and to the use of religion as an excuse for discrimination. It is not only the fact of hate that can be lost in the fog, but love as well. Ishmael taking the steps to expose the facts that freed Miyamoto simultaneously cleared the fog away from the bad memories of the end of his relationship with Hatsue and allowed them both to be free in the memories of their love. Cedar trees are often used to symbolize immortality, protection, and strength. What tools do we need, as faith leaders and spiritual caregivers, in order to embody the symbolism of the Cedar tree as we stand with others in the deep fog or raging blizzard?"

"When we live in a welcoming community, we value the dignity and worth of every person. Snow Falling on Cedars is a painful reminder that even today our nation is attempting to repeat the monstrous act of making people invisible. Director Hicks does an eloquent job of using nature to both reinforce the wrongdoing of oppression while also proclaiming God’s cleansing ability. In the opening scene, the fog obscures Carl’s boat causing him to meet with a tragic end while seemingly sealing the case against Kazuo. A severe storm knocks out the lights of the courthouse as Hatsue admits to withholding evidence in order to avert predestined prejudice against her husband. As the Japanese are driven away from their homes, the snow has downed an ancient cedar resulting in its removal, metaphorically pointing to the abrupt removal of the Japanese themselves."

Responding to Moonlight (2016) directed by Barry Jenkins 

"                                                                  'Notorious G.O.D.'
Little, Chiron, and Black: three different names played by three different actors for the one main character in Moonlight. As Chiron struggled to find his identity, he identified himself by names assigned to him by his community. Throughout human history people have assigned names that prescribe identities to generate cultural “norms” and pathologize difference. The same can be said for the practice of naming g-d. Is it possible to name g-d without inferring superiority? How does one’s individual experience and naming of g-d intersect with collective identification and communal worship? Is naming g-d a way of appropriation? What is the purpose for a universal name for g-d?"

Responding to Departures (Okuribito(2008), directed by Yôjirô Takita

"In Departures, Daigo’s first assignment as an encoffiner is to act as a corpse for an encoffinment training video: he is stripped, dressed in a diaper, made up, shaved, and handled by both a costumer and by his boss, Sasaki. In a later scene after having encountered his first corpse, Daigo forces his wife Mika to expose her belly and waist. He thrusts his face against her skin, then slowly moves upward on her body, almost breathing her into himself. A scene in which Daigo is objectified as a body is followed by a transference of objectification onto his wife. The forceful –even irresponsible– ways Daigo is handled and the way he handles Mika occur within a film that challenges of a societal prejudice about those who work with the dead. Throughout the film, the encoffiners’ work is depicted as careful, loving, and respectful, ushers the corpse from a thing to a person who is recognized by their family. In placing the life-giving handling of the corpses against exploitative uses of bodies between living people, how is the subject/object relationship between bodies critiqued, renegotiated, or fully transformed?  What does this say about God as handler?"

Responding to Billy Elliot (2000), directed by Stephen Daldry 

"Being yourself in a world that demands assimilation is a radical act of resilience.  Daring to embrace one's whole self, both as complex being with many intersectional talents and identities and as a beloved child of G-d, demands boldness in vulnerability and a generous leap of faith.  Differentiating ourselves from outside forces that have shaped us requires incredible spiritual endurance and emotional stamina, not only because of environmental and familial pressures and expectations but because the process of discerning our wants and needs, ideologies and values, can sometimes take a lifetime to understand.  I found the progression of Billy's differentiation of self to beautiful in its familiarity and wondrous to behold.  From his initial interest in ballet, to his undercover rehearsals and research, to the many conflicts with both his family and Miss Wilksinson, to the acceptance of his father through Billy's hard work, passion, and persistence, to his audition , and finally to his acceptance to the Royal Ballet School and eventual tole in Swan Lake, we see Billy wrestle with what it means to be himself.  We see his own doubts and fears, as well as the doubts and fears of those around him__his fear of his own ability and inadequacy, his father and brother struggling to keep their faith in the midst of the strike, their fear of what others will think of Billy if he follows his vocation, and their ow judgments of what it means to be a ballet dancer (sexual orientation, gender, patriarchal ideals of masculinity).  It begs the question: what does it mean to be ourselves and to embrace our own identity as a beloved child of G-d; how do we recognize the divinity within us?"

As the course nears its conclusion, students have the opportunity to choose from a number of exciting final projects, including: create your own film and theology curriculum, write a sermon using a film, and make a short movie with theological themes.  TR650: Theology in Contemporary Film can be taken as a general theology elective and as an elective for the Theology and the Arts concentration. 

Interested in Theology and the Arts at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities?

Max Brumberg-Kraus

Max Brumberg-Kraus is a 2020 alum of United, with an MA in Theology and the Arts. Max also works in marketing at United as a Digital Content Specialist. Max is a performing artist and writer in Saint Paul, MN, and a proud member of the queer artist scene.

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