in the Movies
Roy Anker. Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies. Grand Rapids, MI:Eerdmans,2005.
Roy Anker, in his book, Catching Light, has given students of religion and culture a thoughtful, provocative, and beautifully-written work that perceptively and sensitively examines how popular culture, religious ideas, and theological constructions interact in American society. Catching Light explores not only film content, but the medium of film as well, and argues that popular film in our culture can communicate religious ideas and in some ways function religiously for both the creators and consumers of movies. The book is an exploration of the complex interactions of faith, culture, theology, and psychology within the context of some of our most enduring cultural texts. And while there are many recent books on religion and film, few are able to bridge the gap between worlds like this one. Anker's book will be useful not only in certain college classrooms but will enliven church study groups and individuals interested in religion and popular culture. Catching Light is at once intellectually challenging and accessible to a broad audience; theologically provocative while orthodox; finely crafted and organized and entertaining. These qualities will ensure a broad readership for the book.
Anker begins his book with an appropriate and creative metaphor, "catching light," which both describes the process of creating and viewing films and, for Anker, the religious and theological task of making sense of the divine. Catching Light not only makes creating and watching movies physically possible, but it also describes the spiritual longing that Anker uses to describe the religious nature of human beings. Defining religion broadly by taking his cue from William James, Anker understands religion to be a kind of universal seeking for light, for meaning, that is experiential and fundamental. It is as if religious seeking defines humanity, and this is the light that guides one who is looking for the divine. It is this "common appetite" (to use Anker's phrase, 15) that gives rise to Anker's subtitle "Looking for God in the Movies." Human beings are seekers, looking for meaning, and Anker assumes that such meaning need not be confined to institutional religions but might be found throughout culture, including the movie theater. The metaphor is an effective one that he threads throughout the book, even when exploring the absence of light in those movies that catch the darkness of evil.
Through his exploration, Anker assumes and describes an important characteristic about religion in postmodern popular culture. The doctrinaire hegemony of Christian civilization can no longer be assumed, at least not in films that function religiously. Therefore, there is little common knowledge about God in our culture, and we cannot assume a common religious language operative in films. The films that Anker examines "are more about showing than naming" (11). And this "showing" tells us volumes about cultural religion. Postmodern culture is perhaps more visual than textual and in that sense, "showing" God can be more effective than textual theologies or sermons. And "the disclosure of the love of God" (17) or Light, or grace often comes packaged in ways not anticipated—through the evils of Vietnam, the sorrows of an alcoholic singer, the lostness of an extraterrestrial, or the surprise, revelatory moments of daily living.
Anker's book is straightforward in its organization and presentation. After the Introduction where he presents his "theology of Light," so to speak, the book proceeds through four sections modeled on Frederick Buechner's three-part book, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. Anker then provides close readings and analyses of films in the categories of tragedy (where evil dominates to veil any presentation of light), comedy (in the literary sense), fairy tale (Anker's "fables of Light," 215), and Anker's added fourth category that emphasizes revelatory surprise or religious search. There are three chapters in each part with the exception of Part Two which contains four chapters. Each chapter focuses usually on one film, with the exception of chapter ten which includes three Spielberg films. I mention this organization because the four part structure with thirteen chapters and an Introduction makes the book ideally suited for a semester-long college or church course. Each part is self contained, and each chapter provides a focused, ideal accompaniment to watching and discussing the films included for examination.
Part One focuses on films that highlight evil or darkness, The Godfather, Chinatown, and The Deer Hunter. These films trade on the notion of evil as the natural state of human beings, but in Anker's analyses these films often highlight the flip side of that state by presenting human beings as hopeful creatures seeking the "good." An example arises in Anker's treatment of The Deer Hunter. Anker concludes his analysis with the following words, an excerpt that also gives the reader an idea of Anker's skillful prose: "Against this stark intensification of evil—the 'blackness of darkness,' as Melville described the thematic core of Hawthorne's short stories—The Deer Hunter posits the radical affirmation of the incalculable goodness of life individually and communally....of the immense value and fragility of the exquisite gift of life, friendship, and love, gifts imparted by that mysterious Other whom Michael has belatedly encountered in the high sacred mountains of God" (117).
While all sections are of high quality, it is Part Two where Anker really excels in his treatments of Tender Mercies, Places in the Heart, The Mission, and Babette's Feast. The section on comedy presupposes that Light is necessary for human wholeness. Readers and viewers might need to revise their understanding of comedy before studying this section. By comedy, Anker "does not primarily mean material that is funny" but rather "a story in which initial dark and tangled circumstances get untangled and events and characters end well. . . ." (119). These films, in Anker's analyses, do not guarantee happiness for characters but instead allow grace to shine and come to Light. Nowhere in the book is this more clear than in Anker's superb analysis of Places in the Heart. For Anker, director Robert "Benton places at the center of the story the deep human longing for the repair of what afflicts humankind. . . . Places in the Heart ends with nothing less than an exultant vision of the reconciliation and restoration that is the healing of the world" (145). It is with this vision that Anker ends his analysis of the film, providing in my mind one of the best treatments available on the film's surprising ending.
Part Three focuses on fairy tale, or what Anker likes to call "fables of Light." Star Wars, Spielberg, and Superman fans will not be disappointed with Anker's take on the films here. Such fables allow films and their reviewers to experiment with expanded notions of the divine, morality, and other theological precepts such as incarnation. What intrigues me most is Anker's suggestion that these types of films have become popular in a time when institutional religion has in some ways stumbled or at least tried to restrain the divine. This suggests that religion and culture are dramatically related in our society and that normally secular cultural institutions like Hollywood can and do take over religious functioning from formal religious institutions. This dynamic relationship between sacred functioning and secular life receives further development and treatment in Part Four, "Found." In Part Four, Anker explores the surprising epiphanies that strike in the midst of mundane life, the sacred breaking into a secular world and taking unsuspecting characters by surprise. In traditional terms, revelation occurs and leads characters to a new place of wholeness. And with Part Four, the book abruptly ends with no Conclusion, reading list, or index.
The strengths of Anker's book are numerous and easy to spot. It is well-written and organized, accessible to a large audience that is educated and inquisitive. The overall quality of film and story analysis is strong, insightful, and at places, innovative. The book provides filmographies and extended information about films and directors in its helpful sidebars. Anker treats the topic from a Jewish-Christian perspective with numerous biblical and theological references (see page 154 for an example), but he does so in such a way to avoid confessionalism or doctrinal narrowness. The limitations of the book are few and more subtle. One might view the exclusive Jewish-Christian perspective as a limiting and narrowing standard. And indeed, this does narrow the treatment and the selection of films. However, Anker is forthright about his approach, and this is not a weakness as much as it is helpful information to guide readers in their own critical analysis of the book. The book has no index or bibliography which will make it more difficult for students and scholars of religion and film. And perhaps it is my own predilection or need for resolution, but a conclusion would round out the book nicely. But these criticisms are minor and are not meant to take away from what is otherwise an exceptional book about religion and culture.
Roy Anker has written a beautiful book well suited for certain college classrooms and church settings. The book will be important for anyone interested in cultural religion, film studies, and popular culture and religion.