Of Pilgrims and Fire: A Review

Roy Anker, Of Pilgrims and Fire: When God Shows Up at the Movies (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 2010)

Of Pilgrims and Fire actively encourages Christians to consider seriously the relationship between theology and film.  Appealing to a popular Christian audience rather than academics, Anker left his readers anxious for him to unpack his proposed links between film and theology further.  Unlike Marsh and Oritz’s Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning, Anker provides a book that is less a theological enquiry and more a theological guide for Christians engaging with film either individually or in small groups.

The book begins with “a dozen tips for smart film viewing,” which provide the occasional insightful comment but have a tendency to be somewhat patronising. Following these, Anker splits his work into 6 clear sections which explain one of the ways he sees film as being relevant to theology.  These are as follows (I provide one example used for each point in italics):

1.     Film reveals something of the original “light” of the world that is lost due to the Fall and encourages us to embrace the world in all of its haunting beauty (American Beauty).

2.     Film teaches us that the world is permeated with evil and explores the difficulty faced by those who wish to turn towards morality and light (The Godfather Part III).

3.     Film can raise awareness of the “surprise of love,” the conversion of a person from darkness to light (The Apostle).

4.     Through the medium of storytelling, film can help to explain truths through metaphor in a manner analogous to the parables (Superman: The Movie).

5.     Film can express the human thirst for reconciliation with each other as well as with the Divine (Babette’s Feast).

6.     The use of signs and wonders in film asks questions about the meaning and significance of events (Magnolia).

Unfortunately, Anker does not spend longer than two or three pages unpacking theses theological theories and quickly embarks on how he sees certain films illustrating each point.  The films that he chooses range widely across many genres and while this is advantageous in showing the extent to which all film can be seen as theologically significant, the disadvantage remains that his treatment of each film never feels extensive enough to support his theological point.

For each film, he provides a comprehensive and concise explanation of plot followed by “things to look for,” that are often both interesting and insightful.  The reader is then offered limited “post viewing comments,” where Anker more explicitly argues why this film relates to his given theme.  It is at this stage in each chapter that Anker’s work finds its strength and purpose.  By providing thought-provoking and varied questions relating each film to both theology and society, he encourages his reader to think about film more seriously.

The main problem that this book faces is that the project is almost too ambitious.  If anything, the theological points were incredibly thought provoking, but they were not explored enough for a reader with an academic outlook.  One issue that remains untouched throughout the book is the appropriateness and the implications of assigning theological meaning to a film which may not have been intended to be interpreted in this way.  Nevertheless, this book would be incredibly useful as a resource for Christian groups both in churches and universities.  Even younger groups could benefit from the questions raised from engaging with films such as E.T., and all could be inspired to view films in a way that is relevant to theology.

Katie Bradley, originally from Northern Ireland, is a PhD student at University of St. Andrews researching the theology of the musicals of Rogers and Hammerstein. She is also involved in the production of numerous plays in and around St. Andrews.

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