Introduction: Interpreting Religion and Film

  • M. Gail Hamner
Part of the New Approaches to Religion and Power book series (NARP)


This Introduction has four parts. First, I briefly situate this book relative to other research on religion and film; second, I provide a reading of John Woo’s Face/Off (1997) in order to exemplify both the pedagogy of self I outlined in the Preface and the theoretical assertions I delineate in more detail in Part II of the book; and third, I offer a discussion of the book’s subtitle, “The Politics of Nostalgia.” Finally, I delineate the basic structure of the book’s chapters.


Subject Position Pure Possibility Film Text Subjective Intention Ideology Critique 
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  1. 1.
    See, for example John R. May and Michael Bird, eds, Religion in Film (Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1982); Joel W. Martin and Conrad E. Ostwalt, Jr., eds, Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth and Ideology in Popular American Film (Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1995); Margaret Miles, Seeing and Believing: Religious Values in the Movies (Boston: Beacon, 1996).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    I develop this notion in Part II, Chapter 1, by drawing on Roland Barthes’ discussion of myth in “Myth Today,” in Mythologies, trans. Jonathan Cape, Ltd. (New York: Hill and Wang), 1972 [1957].Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1992).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1989).Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke University, 2000), 19.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Donna Haraway writes that “facts are theory-laden, theories are value-laden, and values are history-laden.” This nested box of terms has remained crucial to me since I first read Haraway’s analysis of it. See Donna Haraway, “In the Beginning was the Word,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 77.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    Christian Metz, Film language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, trans. Michael Taylor (New York: Oxford University, 1974).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 16.
    Gail Hamner, American Pragmatism: A Religious Genealogy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  9. 17.
    Some citizens celebrate America’s deviation from its “Christian past” as progress; others denounce it as the source of all our troubles. But rarely does public, political discourse question the narrative itself. Importantly, I have never heard a politician celebrate the increasingly secular character of the United States (which is itself a debatable presumption; in some ways the population has never been more religious than now). What Benedict Anderson would call the “imagined community” of the United States remains trenchantly Christian and profoundly anxious about the encroachment of non-Christian peoples and narratives. To me this anxiety suggests, in limited ways, that “being Christian” means being white and androcentric, a counterintuitive claim that would require a separate project to substantiate. See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised edition (New York: Verso, 2006).Google Scholar
  10. 20.
    Debbora Battaglia, “Multiplicities: An Anthropologist’s Thoughts on Replicants and Clones in Popular Film,” Critical Inquiry 27, no.3 (2001 Spring): 511.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 26.
    Secondness is existence, reaction, this “something that refers to itself only through something else” (Cinema 2, 30). Thirdness is relation, concept, or law, “something that refers to itself only by comparing one thing to another” (30). This chapter cannot go into these relationships in detail. Deleuze summarizes them for his purposes (30–34). Any text centered on Peirce will elucidate his semiotic triadology. See, e.g., John K. Sheriff, Charles Peirce’s Guess at the Riddle: Grounds for Human Significance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 1–16.Google Scholar
  12. 31.
    William Faulkner, Mosquitoes (1927; repr. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1957), 96.Google Scholar
  13. 32.
    For thorough discussion of the Utopian impulse, see Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso, 2005), especially Chapter 1, “Varieties of the Utopian.”Google Scholar
  14. 33.
    The first decade of the twenty-first century has witnessed a resurgent interest in nostalgia, especially in terms of the affects of loss, trauma, mourning, and melancholy in our post-9/11 world. See, for instance Peter Fritzsche, “How Nostalgia Narrates Modernity,” in The Work of Memory: New Directions in the Study of German Society and Culture, ed. Alon Confino and P. Fritzsche (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2002); David Eng and David Kazanjian, eds, Loss: The Politics of Mourning (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); and Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004). The two texts most pertinent to my argument on nostalgia are Sylviane Agacinski, Time Passing: Modernity and Nostalgia, trans. Jody Gladding (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003 [originally published in French as Passeur de temps in 2000]); and Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001). I draw inspiration also from Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000). In my recent teaching of Guy Debord and the Situationists, I also came upon the following helpful essay, Alastair Bonnett, “The Nostalgias of Situationist Subversion,” Theory, Culture & Society 23, no.5 (2006): 23–48.Google Scholar
  15. 36.
    See Perry Anderson, The Origins of Postmodernity (New York: Verso: 1998); and John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon, God, the Gift and Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1999). The canonical texts for the shift to globalization include Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2000) and Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004); and Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, Harvard University, 2007). See also Bruce Ellis Benson and Peter Heltzel, eds., Evangelicals and Empire: Christian Alternatives to the Political Status Quo (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2008).Google Scholar
  16. 40.
    Theodor W. Adorno, Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, MA: The MIT, 1967), 227–241.Google Scholar
  17. 51.
    Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1971), 82; emphasis added. Being conscious of the nostalgia of transcendence is precisely the difference between Benjamin’s intense attention and the paradigm I suggest in this section. The practical positing of an unrecognized nostalgia leads me, in the following chapters, to extract the ethical questions and political possibilities of these three films and of religion in postmodernity generally; that is, since the relations of gaze and space internal to the signaletic material of these three films focus viewer attention but do not name a specific politics, then it requires the creative activity of viewers to elicit the name generated by each film’s constructed attention to a specific problematic. Viewers add the relations of reflection, then, through a pedagogy of the self. As an external means of holding “time” for the creation of meaning, such naming or reflection by viewers is an act of transcendence, one extending from the screen through to the immanent material plane of human life and human politics.Google Scholar

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© M. Gail Hamner 2011

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