Movies and Religion: A Match Made in Heaven

MaryAnn Sheridan uses film to help students understand religious faith.

MaryAnn Sheridan

According to renowned Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese, in his life there are only two things: movies and religion.

Saint Joseph’s faculty member MaryAnn Sheridan, M.A., knows why Scorsese would say that. In fact, she has seized on the intersection of these two topics to teach engaging theology classes for Saint Joseph’s College students, both the younger on-campus students and the adult online students alike.

What do religion and film have in common? According to Sheridan, writers of the Gospels and filmmakers both walk the terrain of the symbolic to deliver their message. They understand the power of elemental symbols such as light, water, wind and fire.

One of Sheridan’s goals is to get her students to understand how a film director carefully constructs an environment and embeds messages that move the story along and speak to what transforms along the way. The 2008 film “Gran Torino,” directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, is a film Sheridan uses in her class. “It’s about forgiveness and resurrection,” she says.

In one pivotal scene, Eastwood, playing a prejudiced Polish-American man who sees his neighborhood becoming more Asian, is moving a freezer with the help of his Hmong neighbor. When Eastwood tries to control how the freezer is lifted and moved, his authority about who carries the weight and who leads going up the stairs is ultimately challenged by his young neighbor. Eastwood must make a concession that signals a powerful change.

“Their short dialog symbolizes a real transformation,” says Sheridan. “I get students to focus on that word transformation … when attitudes are transformed, relationships are transformed, and identities are clarified or blessed,” she adds.

Sheridan says once her students begin to examine scenes and details in films, they see everything has its place and points to something larger. For example, the colors, the music, the setting and the language all speak volumes and reveal the power of the symbolic – forming a set of tools that can connect to the images that are part of the Gospel teachings and ideas, such as redemption, mercy and creation.

According to Sheridan, a wonderful place to begin comparing theological and cinematic themes is the Gospel of John; themes like light, water, bread and resurrection. For example, the story of the Samaritan woman at the well is connected to the living water that brings eternal life. “The rapport between imagery and symbolism is used by the Scriptures and by filmmakers,” Sheridan notes. “When Clint Eastwood dies in ‘Gran Torino,’ he is in the cruciform position,” she notes. “That’s not an accident.”

Once her students begin to see the level of meaning beyond a film’s surface action, she says they can take in the truth, moral values and issues that are a part of what every good story contains. “Film is a great venue for theological exploration because it … goes directly to the heart and to identity,” says Sheridan. “It places your hopes, fears and experience into focus. It reaches parts of yourself that you didn’t even want to be involved, but all of a sudden you’re responding.”

And her students get it. She once had an adult student in class that had been in a life-threatening motorcycle accident, but was not religious. After the class on faith and film, he told her, “I get it, I get it. Religion is life.”

by Charmaine Daniels