Review: Paul Tillich and the Possibility of Revelation through Film

Cinema, Theater, Movies
State Theater, Portland, Maine. Photography by Tyler Aldrich.

Jonathan Brant, Paul Tillich and the Possibility of Revelation through Film. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, xi + 235pp., 270pp. with appendices and end matter. £71 hardcover.


In this volume of the Oxford Theological Monographs Jonathan Brant, the Oxford Pastorate Chaplain for Postgraduate Students, provides what appears to be his first academic monograph after many works of fiction and religious non-fiction aimed primarily at young adult readers. As its title suggests, Brant devotes his text to examining the ways in which film may offer “the possibility of revelation” and how that possibility has been made clear through Paul Tillich’s theological treatment of culture (3).

In the book’s introduction, Brant lays out his methodology for approaching film as a possible source of revelation: “I am convinced that the best account of the possibility of revelation through film may be produced by first presenting a strong and particular theory and then refining the theory through careful and respectful attention to empirically generated data” (8).

Brant commences his inquiry into the “possibility of revelation through film” through a critical engagement with Paul Tillich’s theological writing, building a summary understanding of Tillich’s theology of revelation through culture. In his summary, revelation (as experienced through culture) comes to be understood as “the gracious inbreaking of the Spirit of God into the human world in healing, shaking and even saving power” (235).

If such a theoretical framework seems overly familiar in its reliance upon Tillich it is Brant’s willingness to push such a theory into the realm of empirical assessment that marks his project apart from the rest. Brant attempts to test his theory through a series of surveys conducted among film-goers in Argentina and Uruguay exploring the respondents’ film going habits and tastes, their experience of personal connections with the films they have seen, and the possible theophanic nature of those experiences. These surveys are followed by personal interviews with respondents who identified some experience of personal connection with a film. These interviews delve more deeply into the specifics and contexts of such experiences. Brant expresses the hope that the method he develops might be used later, and by others, to explore revelation through media within various cultural contexts.

This is clearly a well-considered and helpful work. At times the structure appears to make it difficult to discover the core of Brant’s argument apart from the fact that he is clearly arguing in favour of the titled possibility, though chapter seven, ‘The Theory in Light of the Empirical Research,’ goes a long way in making up for this. It is in this chapter that, after seeking to root his understanding of Tillich’s theory in relation to his research, Brant turns to (among others) Paul Ricoeur and Rowan Williams to add theoretical support to his findings. This seems particularly important as Tillich’s theology emphasizes the response to a visual work of art, whereas Brant’s respondents speak primarily of narrative as the principle characteristic of a film which led to moving experiences, rather than the cinematography. By turning to the extensive consideration of revelation through narrative offered by Williams and Ricoeur, Brant more effectively situates his data within a solid theological foundation.

More generally, as a voice pointing out the parallels between sacramental theology and experience, Brant joins a growing group of theologians, Hans Boersma and David Brown especially, whose work provides additional approaches to interests such as Brant’s but which are overlooked in this volume nonetheless.

Despite Brant’s convincing argument as to the theoretical possibility of revelation through film, the central challenge of providing a reliable distinction between psychological processes–the experience of film–from spiritual transformation–the experience of divine revelation–was not well addressed. While Brant asks his subjects if they sensed “a presence or a power…distinct from your everyday life,” I was left wondering if a ‘sense’ of something greater than the ordinary was sufficient to declare an experience revelatory rather than simply psychologically effective.

It is possible that further engagement into the psychological impact of film as well as its revelatory power would have made his conclusions that much more compelling. As it stands, the reader is left accepting that revelation may well be possible, but wondering how one discerns its experience from that of intellectual, moral or emotional affect.

To be sure, Brant anticipates his own empirical quandary. Describing his methodological ambition as one seeking “illuminations” rather than empirical answers, Brant admits that “questions and mystery remain; it is to be hoped that, in and of themselves, as questions and mysteries, they are illuminating” (217).

As it stands, Paul Tillich and the Possibility of Revelation through Film will be a satisfying read for those interested in practical theology and the methods of empirical research that might be beneficial for understanding the working out of theological theoria. It will also be of benefit to those interested in the way in which cultural art forms are received by audiences, especially those interested in the “burgeoning academic discourse that marries theology or religious studies with film studies and film theory.”

 

Reviewed by Thomas C. Brauer, PhD candidate, St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews.

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