12 January 2010


A group called Film Snobbery has released its list of the fifty most important religion films of all time. (Thanks to Christianity Today for referring me.)

For me, almost any film can become a religious experience, just as music --almost any type-- can become a religious experience for people. I wrote last Spring, for example, about the religious power of Clint Eastwood's character in the movie, Gran Torino. That is a provocative, tremendous, certainly religious movie -- so much so that I used it for the essence of my sermon on Good Friday of 2009.

While not identifying itself as religious, as such, Gran Torino's final scene (with Clint Eastwood's deceased character shaping the clear form of a cross) is beautifully religious. "Film Snobbery's" list identifies some all-time greats, for sure. I am glad that Dogma was included. The Last Temptation of Christ should also have been included.

However, my own nomination and addition to the list would be another movie that was implicitly religious, and even symbolically religious, but which rarely has been explicitly identified as such. It is Places In The Heart, with Sally Field in one of her best (though earnest) roles, joined by the inimitable Danny Glover and John Malkovich . The assembly of outcasts which brings in the first cotton crop is a striking allusion to certain Hebrew scholarship, which scholarship identifies the Hebrews who escaped Egypt in the Exodus as actually an assembly of outcasts.

Then, the final scene of Places in the Heart is one of the most overt representations of "Eucharist as heavenly banquet in the kingdom of God" that I have ever seen. Perhaps the religious sense of that scene requires that one know a bit about sacramental theology. Then again, one does not need to know theology to sense that Holy Communion is an experience of both the divine and the human -- all of humanity.

Again, any movie can point to the Holy. Any movie can be religious.

I do applaud this list for the movie it deemed number two on this all-time list: The Gospel According to St. Matthew, one of the rarely seen movies of the life of Jesus. One of this movie's many striking features, besides its portrayal of Jesus as so hard and fierce, is that the entire dialogue comes straight from the actual Gospel of Matthew; there is no other script used than that of the actual New Testament Book of Matthew.

Thus, it was difficult for people to complain that the movie made Jesus out to be a class-conscious Marxist (which it did), for it ascribed no other words to Jesus other than those in the New Testament. Even when we use the same words, each of us sees Jesus as someone different. See that movie!


  1. As always, I appreciate your comments, Sam. "Places in the Heart" has always been on my list of top religious films. The published list is bogus, a celebration of the trite and mundane. Why is there no "Babette's Feast"? No "The Apostle"? I could list a dozen others far more worthy. But I agree that Pasolini's film should be high on the list as well as the 1928 "Passion of Joan of Arc." I suppose "most important" means different things to different people. (sigh)

  2. Thanks, Dan:
    "Babette's Feast" is the sensuality of Holy Communion!
    "The Apostle" has one of the best baptism scenes in film.
    And "O Brother, Where Art Thou" has a fine baptism scene. Great stuff.