chapter  7
To censor, shape, or engage with media and the arts?
Pages 18

Religions have had a mixed relationship with art and media. As argued throughout this book, it is impossible to separate religion from its mediations, which include the expression of religion in art, music, literature, and film. Yet, religions have often been concerned that, while image can lead people toward the sacred, it can also lead them away. After briefly describing this ambivalent relationship between religion and art this chapter looks at the presence of religion as a subject in the movies before turning to consider Christian responses to the cinema, particularly in the United States, as one example of the range of ways in which religious communities have responded to media. Some of the earliest extant human art that we know of, Paleolithic cave

paintings located in France, are religious or spiritual in nature. According to one scholar, “These grottos were probably the first temples and cathedrals. … Certainly they set the scene for a profound meeting between men and the god-like, archetypal animals that adorn the cavern walls and ceilings” (Armstrong 2005: 32-33). Other powerful esthetic mediations of religion are easy to find. Seek out the great Buddha statue in Bodh Gaya, India, or any of the countless images of the Hindu god Ganesh with his elephant head. Consider the icons of their saints treasured by Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians, or visit the Torah-themed Marc Chagall stained glass windows at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. Ponder the spare beauty of a New England Quaker meeting house or Istanbul’s

Understanding how the sacred finds expression through art and architecture,

through image, sound, and movement expands the description of religion. Yet, for all the evidence that religion is embedded in image, art, and architecture, art evokes a twofold religious anxiety. First, people in some traditions are concerned that the esthetic effort to express those sacred realities within the physical realm will become a substitute for the sacred they are intended to represent. Second, at some level art is a competing space of ritual and life-shaping narratives that like religion may call forth reverie, reflection, and emulation. Religion’s complicated relationship with the cinema provides one illustration of the range of ways that religion relates to art and media more broadly. Religious images have such power that religious conflict is often expressed

through attacks by one religious group on the images and objects that mediate other religions. Indeed, the word iconoclast is rooted in the destruction of religious images. Near the Roman Forum you can visit a Christian church built triumphantly within the columns of a collapsed Roman temple. When fourteenth-century Ottoman Turks captured the region of Cappadocia in present-day Turkey, they scratched out the eyes on the paintings of Christian saints in order to counteract the power of these images (Figure 7.1). During the sixteenth century, Christian followers of the Radical Reformation destroyed stained glass windows and art that they regarded as blasphemous. The theological, political, and esthetic conflicts that led to the destruction of

religious art and architecture continue in more recent times. Seeing some forms of popular culture as a competing source of ritual and meaning, religious leaders sometimes seek to control or destroy them. In areas of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban, music and movies are banned, in part for their capacity to carry with them Western values. When rock and roll emerged in the United States,

this day conservative Christian congregations sometimes destroy CDs and DVDs they find immoral or blasphemous. The publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005, and subsequently elsewhere in Europe and the United States, can be seen as a reversal of this pattern. The secular society asserts its moral power over religion, not by destroying religious art, but by publishing images that some Muslims regard as blasphemous. The development of the movies, both as a technology and as a set of narra-

tive and visual genres, happened fairly quickly, moving from quirky innovation to popular entertainment over a period of just 25 to 30 years. Considering how religious communities expressed their attitudes, and sometimes anxieties, about the new medium helps to illustrate the range of ways that religious communities reflect on mediation more generally.