Wozu geht der Theologe ins Kino?

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Why do theologians go to the movies?

Andreas Kubik

The answer is simple: they go for fun. For entertainment. To let the mind drift for a while. In a word: for the same reasons everybody else does. This answer seems to be trivial, but in fact it is very important. I will come back to that later.

Once our theologians have opened their can of beer and started to relax and enjoy the film, they cannot help but notice certain things. Breaking the waves by Lars von Trier, for instance, reminds them of a passion play, and the death of the female lead of the sacrifice of Jesus. Forrest Gump may serve as an example of the benign simplicity[1] that Jesus proclaimed. The look on Sandra Bullock’s face at the end of The Proposal may feel like the universal homecoming after all is forgiven that the negro spirituals sing so faithfully about.[2] Theologians wonder why super heroes often go by the initials J.C. (Jesse Custer, John Carter etc.), and note that Superman has an illegitimate son called Jason Christopher – d’oh. Also, doesn’t Gandalf look an awful lot like a priest, a shaman or some other sacred figure, only with more action?

Let's recap: our theologians did not go to the movies intentionally to look for similarities like these. They went for fun. Yet these things just happen to strike them, and before they know it they're noting them down in their internal scrapbook. This exercise by no means diminishes their pleasure in the movie they are watching. On the contrary, it increases the fun. But then, after a while, they look around, remember where they are and think: “Oh c**p, I’m doing theological hermeneutics of culture. I walked right into the Gräb trap.”[3]

Now this is a harmless affair if our film-loving theologians just use their insights to provide background information (say, on the iconography of ‘sacred men’) to help others better understand the allusions, motifs and narrative origins of the film. But every once in a while, they leave the cinema and start to reflect on what has just happened to them, and they remember a passage in the works of Paul Tillich in which the cultural theorist recalls his encounter with a Botticelli painting:

“A moment in time that I can only describe as inspiration”[4]

And when this happens, they maintain that the film has a ‘religious dimension’, or that watching movies like these is part of an implicit ‘everyday religion’ which provides people with meaning and the patterns of interpretation they need to structure their experience.

Whatever the exact terms they use, our barefaced theologians are unashamedly claiming that the movie or the act of watching it has something to do with religion. And this is when that well-known objection comes in: ‘How can you call this religion when neither the writer nor the director nor the movie-goers with no theological background do so?’ A film is a film, not some object of reverence, and the people watching it are in the cinema, not in church. Are our theologians allowed to use the term ‘religion’ here? Are they right?

Yes, they are, under certain conditions. Firstly, and importantly, Tillich argues that the occurrence of religion is not restricted to organized religion or even to the cultural system called “religion”, the same argument, in fact, usually put forward by critics of the Church. To put it in terms of Christian symbolism: God is greater than the Church and reaches beyond the realm of religion. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh” (John 3:8). No theology of culture would be possible at all if it were tied to somebody using the word ‘religion’. Secondly, the theologians we're talking about here were not, initially, walking the world looking for religion (although they might do so later), but were passively affected by something that crossed their path. ‘Religion’ is first and foremost a term they use for themselves, a term to describe a personal experience. The fact remains that the experience prompted theological reflection and the need to spend time studying similar incidents and occurrences. Why would this need be felt if it were not for ‘religion’? What other reason might a theologian have for studying particular phenomena if they were not in some way related to religion? ‘Religion’ is in this case merely a label which theologians use as a way of saying “this cultural artefact affects me, my belief, my religious consciousness, my convictions as a theologian.”

If we look at it this way, theologians are justified in using the label ‘religion’ – as long as they avoid two dangers. Firstly, theology does not imply superior understanding and must not be used to assert that a film or the act of watching it was ‘in fact’ religious whatever the filmmakers or the rest of the audience may claim. On the contrary, a theological hermeneutics of culture is only meaningful if the object of interpretation claims not to belong to the realm of religion. Otherwise, no special hermeneutics would be needed to address its religious meaning. It makes good sense to maintain the non-religious character of watching movies or of the art of film and yet to address them as ‘religious’ from a theological point of view. Secondly, theology as such does not contribute to empirical research into religion. At least it is not its primary intent to do so. Its first objective is the future development of Christianity, and it prepares for this task by studying its sources, which are – according to Tillich – “Bible, church history, history of religion and culture”.[5] Theology does not, then, spend too much time deciding whether an object is ‘religious’ or not, but happily stamps the label on anything it encounters as long as it is of relevance for questions of the future of Christianity. There are many overlaps with empirical research, of course, especially when it comes to the day-to-day-work of university scholars. And yet is important to stress the different ends pursued by theology and empirical research into religion.[6]

But the question remains: What made the theologian use the term religion in the first place when the object in question does not claim to be religious? This can only be answered by using the theory of intentionality elaborated by Edmund Husserl and others. The reason for identifying the object (be it the whole film, specific motifs or narratives or simply the act of watching) as religious lies nowhere other than in the consciousness of the interpreting theologian. This is not necessarily a bad thing when we remember the basic phenomenological idea that things are perceived only in the particular and irreducible relationship between the act of intuition (noesis) and the object of intuition (noema). If we apply this idea to the problem at hand, we can formulate the following principle: If I am moved to label an object ‘religious’, it means that I relate to that object in the same way as I relate to objects that are uncontroversially religious.

The only method of validating this principle with regard to a specific object of interpretation is by compiling a ‘thick description’ of the state of mind brought about by my relationship to that object. This can be tiring and yet – hopefully! – enlightening. Think of the analyses provided by Husserl or Heidegger in their phenomenological writings.[7] The job is certainly not done just by making one or two interesting observations about the film the theologians just saw.


If this all seems a bit complicated, please remember: The theologians went to the movies for fun. They enjoyed it as much as the next person. They understood it the same way, laughed at the same jokes, cried the same tears. This is because they all share the same life-world (Lebenswelt), to use another term coined by Husserl. The life-world can be defined as the horizon of everything that is taken for granted, that which is evident to the extent that we do not even notice it anymore (“no, this is not a big steaming yellow dragon chasing you, but a subway approaching”). It provides us with basic patterns of interpretation, with constant ways of making sense of our everyday life. Anything that is of meaning to me must be – in one way or another – connected to my life-world. “The life-world is a realm of original self-evidences.”[8]

According to Husserl, the life-world is formed by a constant alignment of the ways I refer to reality with the ways the people around me refer to reality. It is responsible not only for the stability of the objects around me, but also for the reliability of the basic values and core beliefs that people share – without necessarily knowing that they do so.

Of course, the life-world can be upset by unexpected incidents or strange behaviour that cannot be processed in the normal fashion, but it also possesses an admirable ability to adapt, thanks to a deeper implicitness, a deeper set of implicit values and beliefs (Selbstverständlichkeiten).

The secondary religious sense that theologians make of a movie may not be obvious but it must still be related to the everyday sense of the life-world. The expression on Sandra Bullock’s face can interpreted only because the longing for family and ‘home’ is deeply rooted in our culture. In this case, the movie is an accurate depiction of the way we make sense of our everyday life. Cultural hermeneutics can therefore be understood as a hermeneutics of the hidden implicitness of meaning that constantly surrounds us.[9]

And this might be an absolute meaning: In 2012, the whole world might be falling apart, but all that matters to John Cusack is that his own family will be saved. Protecting the family – this brittle and endangered entity – becomes a matter of ‘ultimate concern’ and might therefore be termed ‘religious’.[10]

The basic idea of a life-world is that it is a phenomenon shared by every member of a culture. Taken-for-grantedness is its main attribute – to understand this, just imagine yourself in a totally different time, place and culture. As a result, however, theologians assume that the meaning they detect in the life-world is a shared one and presumably valid for others as well. There is no fixed interpretation of the life-world, of course, understanding it requires a permanent process of adjustment. But the notion of life-world per se implies that the meaning and values detected by reflecting theologians are, indeed, common ones.

(Please note that we are still talking movies here. No culturally alert theologian will regard explicitly Christian convictions as self-evident – not any more. They used to be, a long time ago. But then again… are certain common persuasions like the unimpeachable dignity of every human being not somehow Christian? Ah, well…)

Theological hermeneutics of culture cannot be pursued as if theologians were merely interpreting the meaning of others. There is always personal involvement and this cannot be denied. It is impossible to detect an element of meaning related to the life-word and simply to ascribe it to others. If an element of meaning really is part of the lived-in world, then it must apply to theologians too, or at least theologians must be prepared to consider that it may. Certain theologians bemoan the fact that everybody seems to be obsessed with youth and beauty – but can it be claimed that theologians are less so when they have their hair cut, work out, buy a new coat or put lotion on their face? And if not, is this just a cause for self-reproach (“oh God, I’m no better than anybody else”), or is it a sign of theologians neglecting the atmosphere of meaning that they too live by and breathe in? According to Husserl, one of the main tasks of science is “to bring to recognition the primal validity of these self-evidences”.[11]


But wait a minute: According to another famous author (Schleiermacher), hermeneutics presupposes something incomprehensible, something that you need help to understand. Hermeneutics presumes something strange. Here we face a problem. How can we be confronted with something unfamiliar in the life-world when the life-world itself is defined as the sum total of everything familiar? What on earth do theologians need ‘hermeneutics of the life-world’ for?

Indeed, the theologian experiences nothing unfamiliar when he goes to the movies. The actual film may be strange or even disturbing, but this in itself is not strange at all, it is a well-known effect. What, then, is the element of strangeness that requires hermeneutics?

If the theologian experiences nothing strange when he goes to the movies as a human being and as a participant of the culture he lives in, the element of strangeness must be due to his attitude (Einstellung) as a theologian. And this makes perfect sense. From a theologically elaborated Christian perspective, the structures of meaning embedded in modern culture are indeed "strange" in the narrow sense. Something is strange to me when I cannot work out what it means using my standard pattern of interpretation. I do not know whether it is friendly or hostile, but I know it will not go away.[12] Therefore I’d better come to terms with it.

Theologians perceive the same object (i.e. the sedimented meaning of the world we live in) as highly familiar and strange at the same time, depending on their attitude towards it. This affords a free view of what can be called the identity problem of modern Christian existence. I use the term ‘identity problem’ without a whiff of existentialist pathos, merely to describe a structural matter/phenomenon. Most Christians want to be ‘normal’ children of the modern world, but do not know how the meaning-making of Christianity relates to the values, beliefs and patterns of interpretation of modern culture as embedded in the life-world.[13]

This problem could be solved or, rather, avoided, only at the price of total separation from modern culture. And even this would most probably be futile, as modern culture would remain in minds and souls via the common language and hard-to-avoid cultural influences such as advertising or education. (You can take a Christian out of modern culture but you cannot take modern culture out of a Christian.)


Wow, this is becoming serious stuff. Are our theologians really still having fun? Yes, they are. We must not think of the identity problem as something necessarily oppressive. On the contrary, post-modern man usually delights in consuming contradictions, inconsistencies and ambiguities. There is no such thing as an integral approach to ‘life, the universe and everything’ (Douglas Adams), anyway.

I am going to claim, and, see, there is no need to feel bad about it, that our subjective identity problem is nothing but the manifestation of a deeper one which can be approached in two ways.[14] Firstly, there is the problem of the Churches, which can either strive to be culturally open, embracing new styles and new ideas but always in danger of losing their specific profile, or which can decide to remain a highly recognizable but culturally marginalized group with little public influence. And there is the problem of society. Society may emphasize the Christian roots of modern culture and require that people return to the idea of a ‘Christian Occident’ at the cost of culturally segregating millions of citizens, or it may sever those roots by formally treating all religions and world views equally, at the risk of disemboweling the everyday ethos. The Churches are as unsure about what to do with modernity as modern society is with respect to its own Christianity.


So, why do theologians go to the movies? They go for fun and for entertainment. And they go to interpret the meaning embedded in the life-world, as cinema is a core reflector of everyday meaning. They go to be reminded of their basic identity problems.

But every now and then, a picture, a snippet of sound, an actor’s expression, a bit of the story will stir up an idea, and the ghost of a new insight will waft from the screen and stick in the theologian's mind, permitting a glimpse into as yet unwritten explanations of what it means to live as a Christian these days. Theologians go to the movies to muse about the future of Christianity and modern culture alike. They use them as a potentially fruitful everyday religion which forms part of their own private syncretism.


The same is true of any other cultural form or habit.


[1] Cf. Michael Meyer-Blanck, Theologische Hermeneutik populärer Kultur – rezeptionsästhetisch; in: Joachim Kunstmann/Ingo Reuter, Sinnspiegel. Theologische Hermeneutik populärer Kultur, Paderborn 2009, pp. 63-75.

[2] As, for example, in the famous spiritual “Angel band”, a stunning depiction of the longing for the “immortal home”.

[3] The Gräb trap (Gräb-Falle) is an expression popular amongst young scholars in Germany who are simultaneously attracted and repulsed by the style of theological interpretation of culture made famous by Wilhelm Gräb; cf. for instance Sinn fürs Unendliche. Religion in der Mediengesellschaft, Gütersloh 2002.

[4] "[E]in Moment, für den ich keinen anderen Namen als den der Inspiration weiß" (Paul Tillich, Main Works Vol. 2: Writings in the Philosophy of Culture, Berlin/New York 1990, p. 99.)

[5] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, Chicago 1965, p. 40.

[6] From a Tillichean point of view, "empirical theology" would be a contradiction in itself.

[7] Cf. for instance Heidegger's particularly boring but extremely insightful interpretation of the phenomenon of boredom in a 1929 lecture (Martin Heidegger. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, Indiana 1995, pp. 78–164.)

[8] Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Evanston 1970, § 34d; p. 127.

[9] Peter Brenner, Kulturanthropologie und Kulturhermeneutik, Paderborn 1999: „Mit dem Einbringen des Lebensweltkonzeptes entwickelt sich die Hermeneutik zu einer Kulturhermeneutik.“ (20)

[10] Is this concern for the family specifically Christian? I would not want to be forced to decide.

[11] Husserl, op.cit., p. 128.

[12] As Georg Simmel writes in his famous ”Excursus on The Stranger”: The stranger is “the wanderer who comes today and stays tomorrow”.

[13] Usually, this is not a matter that ‘normal’ Christians are required to think about. Describing the problem and reflecting on its practical consequences is the task of theology.

[14] The following consideration is inspired by the famous 6th paragraph of “Praktische Theologie im Grundriß” by Dietrich Rössler (3rd edition scheduled for 2014).

Artikelnachweis: https://www.theomag.de/86/ak3.htm
© Andreas Kubik, 2013