6 Great Movies That Affirm Religious Faith

Life of Pi9 6 Great Movies That Affirm Religious Faith

Movies have a unique ability to make something that’s normally invisible or intangible more immediate and real to us. The entire conceit of film as a medium is that we as viewers must suspend our disbelief, forgetting the possible preposterousness of the images moving before us, and just go with it. So it’s perfectly understandable that something like movies, which require a great deal of faith or at least a diminished level of skepticism, are so profoundly steeped in faith. In some cases, this has been translated into stories meant to take this faith and insert religious themes and messages into the faith-based activity that movie-watching entails.

This is obviously done exploitatively rather often. You’ll have corporations like the Trinity Broadcast Network using movies as essentially a propaganda tool, manipulating people’s affinities for entertainment and spectacle in order to assert the agenda of their particular brand of Christianity. Usually this just results in bad religious movies that few people see, so no harm no foul. Other, better movies, however, have a way of contemplating religious ideas without heavy-handedly nudging the audience to come to a specific conclusion.

There have been a handful of movies, especially recently, that have handled these religious themes extraordinarily well. Here are a list of 6 that I’ve found to be particularly smart in their treatment of faith in the unseen.

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1) Avatar

Avatar 6 Great Movies That Affirm Religious Faith

Avatar is an example of a movie whose very premise requires us to disregard any sort of factual improbabilities or scientific inaccuracies. We have to take for granted that there could potentially be a planet like Pandora where scientists are able to actually map out an interconnectedness of the life there that so resembles a range of religious philosophies about the way our world is made up. The reality of this fantasy is masterfully crafted and augmented by the use of 3D to give it a sense of both immediacy and other-worldliness.

It’s actually a fascinating parable about the ways science could potentially prove the existence of some religious concepts, at least to the satisfaction of the pantheistically inclined. The notion that everything in the world, from humans (or the Na’vi) to animals to vegetation, is imbued with this network of divine particles, a kind of holy spirit, is enticing. It’s a view that can be and often is applied by religious traditions to explain how our world could work. So Avatar is a fantasy that the things people with faith believe in is actually provable and confirmed by science. It’s a nice idea, at least. I’m not sure how I feel about James Cameron being our god though.

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2) Higher Ground

Higher Ground 6 Great Movies That Affirm Religious Faith

This was a small little indie film from 2011 directed by Vera Farmiga, of The Departed and Up in the Air fame. She plays a woman who grew up acquainted with church, but after essentially abandoning her faith in her adolescent years becomes “born again,” joining a small evangelical Christian community with her devout husband. This is a movie that deals with faith in a fascinating way. Farmiga’s character is one who desperately wants to believe in the God that her church brothers and sisters believe in, but she is thwarted time and again by questions she can’t get a square answer to, and policies she can’t abide, such as the secondary role of women.

The subject of religion is well handled in Higher Ground because it doesn’t cast judgment on the believers, nor the non-believers. It treats its characters sincerely, presenting them as earnestly devoted to the beliefs they have arrived at based on their lives and experiences. For some, it’s not something that requires any questioning, but for Farmiga, faith is something that needs to be questioned constantly to have any value. It presents faith in the Lutheran sense I think, as though the ability to believe is something that you attain, through efforts not entirely your own, and in the end, Farmiga’s character, and probably Farmiga herself, haven’t seemed to have received this gift of faith, but remain open to it. I don’t think I’ve seen another movie deal with faith in this critical a way before.

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3) Contact

Contact 6 Great Movies That Affirm Religious Faith

Like Avatar, Contact uses a sort of science fiction story to portray exactly how religious faith works. In this case, it consists of Jodie Foster and others experiencing an alien encounter that they are unable to provide any concrete proof for. Not only is the alien encounter a story that’s hard to believe in the first place, the encounter actually makes little sense. The life form that the characters interact with is from being with intelligence far exceeding that of humans, and so the encounter is enigmatic, hard to describe to other people.

It’s a fitting analogy for how religion often works. People have these profound experiences with a realm of consciousness they can’t properly describe or explain, but that they are sure came from some higher place. To an outsider, it seems ridiculous, and they’ll relate it to experiences they’ve had that seem similar, which they later deemed to be formed by their imagination or heightened stress or something. But a person’s conviction about something they experienced is hard to argue against. You can’t really dispute it. Whether it’s aliens or God, if you’ve encountered something truly profound, no one else’s skepticism is going to persuade you it was anything but meaningful and true.

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4) Life of Pi

Life of Pi8 6 Great Movies That Affirm Religious Faith

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is pretty explicitly about religion, specifically the stories religion uses to explain and understand human beings’ relationship with the world around them. One of the first lines you hear in the movie, often one of the first things you hear about the movie before even seeing it, is that the story is one that will “make you believe in God.” Of course, it sort of does this, but not in the way you would think going in.

The presentation of what we find at the end of the movie are two differing accounts of what happened to Pi Patel on his lifeboat in the Pacific. This is a little controversial for some people, but I think the point it’s meant to make is rather smart. Essentially, to deal with the harshness of his actual experience, Pi either thinks about what happened to him and the things he did, or else simply describes them to others, in made-up terms. That is, he fabricates a story that captures the experience on the lifeboat for him, but doesn’t stick to the straightforward facts.

It’s embellished, to say the least. But what that ends up doing is expressing an element of the experience for him, the emotions, the moral quandaries, the gravity of certain actions he had to take to survive. Thought about this way, as stuff that’s essentially made up but contains some truth that surpasses pure factual history, story is the basis of religion, and that makes faith compelling to think about and, for some, to practice.

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5) The Mission

The Mission 6 Great Movies That Affirm Religious Faith

The most divine thing about 1986′s The Mission is Ennio Morricone’s incredible musical score: to my mind, the greatest of all time. But it’s actually also a beautifully told and imagined story about Jesuit missionaries in South America who initially set out to convert the members of a specific jungle tribe to their brand of Christianity, but are interrupted by European colonialists looking to usurp the land as their own.

This movie is interesting in its depiction of religious attitudes because of the varying forms of Christian faith portrayed by the characters. You have one played by Jeremy Irons who is a hardline pacificist, following the Christ-like example of turning the other cheek as enemy forces advance. Then there’s the converted mercenary played by Robert De Niro, who treats his conversion as if it’s a kind of internal war, and who picks up his sword to fight alongside the Guaraini people against the Spanish and Portuguese invaders. The conflict here is between the ideals of one’s faith and the practicalities of the world in which one has to live and interact with, and finding the right way to balance the two and still be effective is complex, perhaps impossible.

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6) The Tree of Life

Tree of Life 6 Great Movies That Affirm Religious Faith

Terrence Malick’s personal, poetic film from two years ago is one of the most religiously compelling I’ve seen. All of his movies seem to tap into some other dimension that really effective works of art can sometimes do, but this one dealt with faith and religious concepts in a much more direct way, if you can call anything Malick does direct. The movie is essentially about Malick’s own childhood, his life, and his struggles with coming to terms with matters of faith and family and the world.

Maybe “spiritual” is a better word to use for this movie. It relies on the juxtaposition of a lot of different images shown in succession, combined with gorgeous classical music (Smetana, holla!) and contemplative narration. It sets up this binary opposition of “the way of nature and the way of grace,” which isn’t entirely clear and thus people have interpreted all sorts of ways. My take on it is that this is something oppositional as defined by religions, but with contemplative spirituality can be reconciled, and that’s what Malick, and the main character of the movie, are striving to do. It’s beautiful-looking and esoteric and will get you thinking, probably more than any church service possibly could.

There’s this magic element to movies that gives them a certain aura, which makes it understandable why people would flock to theaters once a week or so and sit in an auditorium with a large group of people. There’s something inherently spiritual about this activity anyway, so getting an audience that’s already disarmed to think about faith in new and challenging ways is one of the greatest cinematic accomplishments.

Are there any movies that have struck you as spiritually fulfilling? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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