Basic religious and worldview questions

Unit 2. Jan 18-22


So what did you say religion is?

Using some contemporary films, we will introduce basic religious and worldview questions such as Who are we? What does it mean to be human? What is real? What is the relationship between the human experience and transcendence? What is the meaning of life?



One of the key pieces to the study of religion is recognizing that “religion” is hard to define. Usually definitions of religion are linked either to a particular “insider” position (e.g., “the worship of God” = monotheism) or to a particular discipline or theory of religion (e.g, phenomenological; functionalist; anthropological, psychological, etc.). Some definitions are too vague or too wide in meaning: “ultimate concern”; “the sacred.” With these definitions “religion” could be about anything. Some are too grounded in the experiential: e.g., “the feeling of absolute dependence”; “the feeling of wonder at a sunset.”

Jonathan Z. Smith (1995, 893) defines “religion” as cognitive and practical: “a system of beliefs and practices that are relative to superhuman beings.” For him, religious systems, or structures, consist of specific kinds of beliefs and practices such as myths and rituals.

Superhuman beings are those who can do things that mortals cannot, such as gods, goddesses, or ancestors that affect the living (they may be benevolent or malevolent spirits). As such, religion “presupposes another reality from the ordinary and another side of the human from that merely concerned with practical goals” (Ellwood 1993, 17). This is made evident through symbols and participation in rites.

A philosopher of religion named William Alston created a list of nine “religion-making” characteristics (see the handout with the readings). Although not ideal, nor complete, Alston’s list seems to be a good starting point for talking about religion. That said, it should not be used as a formula that says if you have x number of these characteristics you have identified a “religion”; “the most we can say is that when enough characteristics are present, we have a religion” (Kessler 2003, 37):

  1. Belief in supernatural beings (gods, spirits) or in the “set-apartness” of particular individuals (ancestors, heroes, kings, etc.) (the latter refinement made by Kessler 2003, 46)
  2. A distinction between sacred and profane objects
  3. Ritual acts focused on sacred objects
  4. A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods.
  5. Characteristically religious feelings (e.g., awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual, and which are connected in idea with the gods
  6. Prayer and other forms of communication with gods
  7. A worldview, or general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an overall purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it
  8. A more or less total organization of one’s life based on the worldview
  9. A social group bound together by the above


Whether explicitly religious or not, often films assume many of 1 through 6 and explore 7 through 9.

Kessler (2003, 46) points out that any definition of religion must encompass four dimensions: intellectual; experiential; practical, and social. It is the social, along with the practical (practice) that is missing when people say they are “spiritual” (with its focus on individual piety) but not religious (by which they often mean institutional adherence).

Ultimately there is no “true” or “false” definition of religion – our definitions are heuristic devices that allow us to usefully discuss the issues at hand. It is an issue to which we will return throughout the course as we explore various aspects of religious belief and practice as found in film.

In his book Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals (2003), John Lyden quotes Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion from “Religion as a Cultural System” (1966, 4), which highlights five aspects (2003, 42).

Religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in people by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.


Lyden argues that these are also features of films (2003, 41-48). Lyden particularly emphasizes the functionalist aspects of Geertz’s definition. On the one hand, I find this to be a helpful entry point into discussing religion and film. The problem, however, is that we have a “thing” we can point to and call a ‘film’ but we do not have a “thing” we can point to and call ‘religion’. “Religion” is, as Bill Arnal asserts, an invented scholarly category. Nevertheless, “religion” is an important functional category in its own right since it helps us in our effort  to comprehend (somewhat) shared human experiences.

More helpful, I think, is Lyden’s subtitle for his book, where religion is equated with Myths, Morals, and Rituals. Film can be linked to each insofar as film conveys worldview (myth); instigates judgments (morals); and defines behaviour (ritual). As Brent Plate writes, “I would put forth the hypothesis that film and religion are analogous in the first instance due to their activities of taking the world-as-it-is and inventing a new world through the dual process of ‘framing’ and ‘projecting’” (Plate, Representing Religion, 3). That is, for Plate (and for me), film may operate “religiously” in the sense that we can apply the tools of religious studies to examine the phenomena of film (cf. Kraemer 248-249). This doesn’t mean we can’t also examine the theological, mythological, or ideological content of specific films. But we can also move “beyond the particularity of individual film analysis and into a broader consideration of film as a medium in relation to religion as a medium. The concept of worldview, as it is disseminated by films and by religions, provides a starting point for searching out the intersections between religion’s function and film’s function.” (Dick 11). That is, we can move beyond reliance on film content to include film form (cf. Dick 11). This is key to understanding the argument that Plate will be making as we read through his book this semester. As he notes, “Religion and cinema both function by re-creating the known world and then presenting that alternative version to their viewers/worshippers” (2017, 3).



When we study religion and film – both religion in film and film as religion, we are researching worldview: “a group’s [or individual’s] most general, shared ideas concerning life and the world, coupled with the claim that they are somehow grounded in the nature of things” (Smith 1992, 1140). It is the “meta-narrative” by which we each, individually and collectively, construct our life. In an individual film, this may be the director’s own worldview. But when a film has cultural import – that is, when a film has wide appeal and impact – then it both reflects and constructs the worldview of its broader audience. “It is important to recognize that (popular) culture is the primary medium for the construction of self and community and for the ongoing human processes of meaning-making. Any form of study of the lived religious experience and practice of individuals and groups will inevitably raise questions about their engagement with media or other forms of popular cultural practices and resources” (Dick 15).


The film Sling Blade (Billy Bob Thornton, 1996) opens with Karl, a burly and slow-speaking man, sitting in a dimly lit room and telling his story to a college journalism student. Karl is a mentally handicapped man who lived his first twelve years in a shed outside his parents’ home and then served the next twenty-five years in a state prison hospital for murdering his mother and her lover with a sling blade. He has read the Bible on his own, slowly and labouriously, and does his best to live by it, or at least, by his understanding of it. Says Karl,


“It took me four years to read the Bible. I reckon I understand a great deal of it. It wasn’t what I expected in some places. I slept in a good bed for a great long while. Now they seen fit to put me outta here. They say they’re settin’ me free today.”


Shortly after his release from the state prison hospital, Karl befriends a boy named Frank, for whom he serves as a father figure of sorts. They first meet outside a laundromat, where Karl has sat down to eat his meal of french-fried potatoes. Karl offers to help Frank tote his heavy laundry bags home. As they walk along, Frank asks Karl about the books he is carrying. Karl responds:


“One of them’s the Bible, one of them’s a book on Christmas, and one of them’s on how to be a carpenter.”


This list of books has obvious Jesus echoes; we later learn that the book on Christmas is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. As the film progresses, Karl is presented as living into this identity that he has constructed; like Jesus, he sacrifices himself for another person.




While Karl can articulate what has impacted his own worldview, not everyone can or does. But we all have a framework by which we structure our world; a complex and personal ‘knowledge system’ that we use to interpret reality, our frame of reference for understanding reality. In other words, it is a narrative or mythology that defines who we are. The German word for this is Weltanschauung, which literally refers to the way one looks at (anschauen) the world (die Welt). It is our primary reality. A formal definition goes something like this: “the total of implicit and explicit presumptions, beliefs, and general concepts concerning oneself, other human beings, nature, culture and the whole universe that give a more or less coherent explanation of the phenomena related to the primary reality of an individual” (Hahn 1997, 229-30). It is a partly conscious, partly unconscious knowledge system that results from an ongoing adaptation process of socialization and re-socialization; it is not static but always evolving.


Everyone has an operative Weltanschauung that allows them to see the world in which they live in a particular way – it structures how one perceives reality and acts within it. Likewise, there are overarching narratives that define a culture, such as

the “American Dream”

the glorious past

the promised land

the “glory” of a colonial Empire

the reality of death

the promise of scientific innovation

Such cultural worldviews are not always positive, but they are always operative.


In Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) the film’s main characters, Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta), are hitmen for an organized crime boss. Before pumping a gun-load of bullets into their victims, Jules always asks: “Have you read your Bible? There’s a passage I got memorized, seems appropriate for this situation: Ezekiel 25:17. Jules recites this passage with the authority and conviction that befits the stereotypical Old Testament God of vengeance. But as anyone who attempts to verify this quotation soon discovers, it does not in fact exist, either in Ezekiel or anywhere else in the biblical corpus. Only the last two lines of the quotation are at all similar to Ezekiel:



The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.



[25:16] therefore thus says the Lord GOD, I will stretch out my hand against the Philistines, cut off the Cherethites, and destroy the rest of the seacoast. [25:17] I will execute great vengeance on them with wrathful punishments. Then they shall know that I am the LORD, when I lay my vengeance on them. [26:1] In the eleventh year, on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came to me….


In the movie’s epilogue, Jules and Vince are sitting in a restaurant mulling over recent events when two trigger-happy guests suddenly decide to stage a hold up. Without ever leaving his seat, Jules turns the tables and treats one of the robbers to a Bible lesson of sorts, all the while holding a gun to his head. Jules recites his version of Ezekiel 25:17 and then continues:


“I been sayin’ that shit for years. And if you heard it, it meant your ass. I never really questioned what it meant. I thought it was just a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker ’fore you popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this mornin’ made me think twice. Now I’m thinkin’, it could mean you’re the evil man. And I’m the righteous man. And Mr. Nine-millimetre here, he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could be you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’. I’m tryin’ real hard to be a shepherd.”

Jules then lowers the gun. In a small way, the Bible is invoked by Jules in the film as a symbol of his own “worldview.” In the first instance, it represents his justification for the carrying out of cold-blooded murder. In the second instance, it is re-appropriated for his “conversion” away from violence and towards a different path. Yet in both instances, the text reflects his own personal statement.



Story is not just a frill, an illustration, a diversion or an entertainment. Story is a way by which and through which we come to know and understand ourselves, others, the world around us. It is “storying” (Bradt 1997) rather than “storytelling”; the latter locates the action in the teller and perpetuates the mistaken notion that the listeners are merely passive recipients of the words, who do not influence, shape or affect the teller, the telling, or the tale. “Storying” affects both what is known and the knower. Participation in the storying facilitates the re-storying of self, past, present, and future. Like Karl and the Bible in Sling Blade, his reading of it became part of who he was. Story does not represent reality; it seeks to explore it, to consider its possible meanings and significances for us in our time and place

Additionally, each time we re-read a book or re-view a film we see it “differently.” Storying is now in the interpretation – how a text is interpreted tells us about the person doing the interpretation as much as it tells us about the “meaning” of the text. This was the case with Jules in his use of the pseudo-bible quotation in Pulp Fiction. As Brandt notes, “epistemologies produce paradigms, paradigms shape theory, and theory influences practice” (1997, 233). What is known very much depends on the perspective of the knower. What we know and call “reality” is actually created or constructed through the fictive participation and interaction of brain, mind and world, a theme that is explored in many films such as The Matrix; Twelve Monkeys; Big Fish; Blade Runner; and Avatar.

Films depict religious figures or traditions in different ways, with different functions (the following is adapted from Jolyon Mitchell, “Investigating Religion and Film”). For example, religion in the foreground can be seen in explicitly religious films such as films about the life of Jesus or adaptations of Indian epics such as the Rāmāyana or Mahābhārata. Often such films raise a wide range of questions about religious institutions, the nature of faith, and the dangers of certainty (e.g., Doubt [2008]), or, they can provide affirmation and certainty about faith (e.g., Oh, God!; Soul). When religion plays a part in the film but is not highlighted it is religion in the background. Often (but not always) these films are sympathetic to religion. For example, religion might be used to provide motivations for the characters (e.g., the examples of Sling Blade and Pulp Fiction used above.


When religion is not part of the main plot but is used to add local colour to the drama we can say it is religion on the sidelines. For example, Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2009) briefly portrays religiously inspired violence wherein Hindus cruelly attack Muslims, and in the midst of the rioting mob there is a small Hindu boy painted in blue representing the God Ram. Yet this is only a passing reference and not part of the main plot.


Beyond such explicit use of religious figures and traditions, however, there is also the broader issue that we talked about here and is explicted by Plate in our textbook (2017, xiv): “filmmaking and religion-making are bound under the general guise of worldmaking” and have a tendency to borrow from one another.


All of this to say that there is much to discuss in terms of religion and film, religion in film, religion of film, film as religion, and even religion against film. We can’t cover all of it in this course, but these are the type of issues we will be dealing with throughout the remainder of the semester.



Questions for Thought:


According to film director Paul Verhoeven: “People seem to have this strange idea that films can influence people to be violent, but in my sincere opinion film only reflects the violence of society.” Leaving aside the issue of violence, do you agree with Verhoeven? That is, do films simply reflect the wider cultural ethos or can/do films influence people to take particular actions or hold particular beliefs?


What does it mean that we live in a “post-modern” culture? Is there a single predominant North American “worldview”?


one of the hallmarks of postmodernism is the breakdown of a “meta-narrative”

some would question whether Canadians have ever had one; can you describe Canadian culture!

sub-cultural narratives are also eroding in today’s “global” economy

advertisers try to create a shared meta-narrative of consumerism = happiness




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