God and Oscar®: Whispers of Faith in the Motion Picture Academy

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In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Image editor Gregory Wolfe rejects the assertion that:

Whereas in the 20th century there were literary giants who grappled with faith—T.S. Eliot, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor—our own time is devoid of distinguished writers exploring religious themes.

…In The New Republic in 2008, Ruth Franklin noted that “the absence of God from our literature feels so normal, so self-evident, that one realizes with shock how complete it is.” Last month in a New York Times Sunday Book Review essay entitled “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?,” Paul Elie suggested that “if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature.”

Really? From where I stand, things don’t look that way.

Wolfe then lists several well-known ‘secular’ authors who are also people of faith, such as Annie Dillard and Elie Wiesel. ‘In short, the myth of secularism triumphant in the literary arts is just that–a myth,’ Wolfe concludes.

Have artists of faith mistakenly conceded the ground to secularity in other art forms? Is it possible, as Wolfe suggests about literature, that we don’t have to see the art world as hostile territory, but instead as a welcoming environment for honest wrestling with difficult questions?

This year’s crop of Oscar® Best Picture nominees evidences a willingness to engage frankly with the questions of faith. The most obvious example is Les Misérables, which is the most religious cinematic adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel that I have yet seen. Multiple glimpses of Valjean at prayer, and especially (spoiler ahead) the presence of the Bishop of Digne at Valjean’s death, speak to the religious motivation behind Valjean’s conversion of life.

In addition, Life of Pi‘s story, within the film, is described as ‘a story that will make you believe in God’. The main character, a Muslim Catholic Hindu, begins with a narrative about how he came to practice all three religions – before the real fantastic narrative that is the meat of the movie takes place. Prayer – pure, naked, unapologetic prayer – is a regular occurrence in this film.

There are whispers of God even in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which at moments touches on characters’ religious motivations for the passing of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery. In addition, the film Beasts of the Southern Wild is a southern Louisiana ‘folk tale’ that has been compared to religion by its director:

That’s the thing about a folk tale: It is always addressing incredibly key issues about how you should live and what the right thing to do is, which is really what I’m the most interested in—like the questions that religion takes on. And I think that, for those of us that aren’t religious, we need, or I need, art that stimulates the same kind of thinking about what it is to be a mensch, or a good man, things like that.

Finally, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty deal with the religiously-influenced political conflict between the Christian West and the Muslim East.

Is the prevalence of religious themes in this year’s crop of Oscar® contenders evidence of a religious turn in Hollywood? Probably not; if one looks at all the past Best Picture/Outstanding Motion Picture nominees, from 1929 onward, not a decade goes by without at least one major religious film among the nominees – everything from The Ten Commandments and The Song of Bernadette, to A Man for All Seasons and The Mission, to last year’s The Tree of Life. 

It seems that religious questions have exercised a consistent fascination for the Academy, and continue to do so. I hope that pattern may give those of us who are artists of faith the confidence to wrestle with the questions of our faith in public, trusting that the secular art world will find them at least as interesting as we do.

Cole Matson is a second-year PhD candidate in the Institute for Theology, Imagination & the Arts, dissertating on the ethics of the artist-audience relationship in the theatre. He is the Guest Contributions Editor for Transpositions.

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  • Cole Matson is an actor, producer, and arts administrator. He received his PhD from the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts in 2016.

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