9 Ways In Which Movies Are Like Church

There Will Be Blood2 9 Ways In Which Movies Are Like Church

I was raised in a Christian family, going to church every week, but somewhere in my high school years my enthusiasm for church diminished greatly and my passion for movies awoke. In thinking about this transition, I’m not sure it was entirely coincidental. There’s an inherently spiritual component to movies, and all art but movies in particular for me, in that it stirs up a certain emotional response and a feeling of connectedness to another person and other people. It’s not unusual to experience an epiphany of some sort at a movie, spawning out of the ideas and images laid out before our eyes.

Given the high standing movies have come to enjoy in our culture, it’s not surprising that it shares so many similarities with the area of human experience and expression that once dominated this culture, the realm of religion. They both have demonstrated tremendous influence on the morals, education, and catharsis of culture, with some potentially harmful side effects. Surely there are other institutions, like sports, that bear these kinds of traits in bringing people together on a grand scale for a common cause. So I’m not saying one equals the other, but rather that they both tap into an element of the human experience in a strange yet profound way.

Here are 9 similarities I’ve identified between movies and church that are rather striking.

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1) Both take place in a congregational/audience setting

Church 9 Ways In Which Movies Are Like Church

The most obvious connection between movies and church is the setup of their interiors. Most churches, particularly the traditional ones, are designed so that everyone is seated in horizontal rows, facing a common front area, where the minister presides. Likewise, movie theaters are arranged with rows of people facing a single screen. They’re designed such that you’re not facing any other person, but you’re conscious that you’re in a communal setting.

People discuss the fundamental qualities that make movies different from television, and I always go back to the environment of the movie theater, the enormous, immersive screen, and the sense that you’re experiencing this immenseness with other people, most often strangers. The awareness of experiencing something together is a powerful thing, and it works in modern day movies just as it has in churches for centuries.

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2) Both incorporate some kind of culinary component

Movie popcorn 9 Ways In Which Movies Are Like Church

One integral aspect of most church services, whether it’s referred to as a rite or a sacrament or whatever, is the Eucharist, aka communion, aka probably other things. Like experiencing or witnessing something in a common presence as movies and church are both designed to incorporate, the act of consuming food in the presence of other people serves to solidify that human bond. And so, movies have adopted popcorn as their body of Christ, if you will, bearing the distinct advantage of accommodating constant munching without removing one’s eyes from the screen.

Furthermore, there’s a popular element to church that takes place outside the actual sanctuary setting: Sunday brunch. There’s something about this collective experience that folks want to extend it beyond the service and outside the church’s physical walls, prolonging their fellowship at a favorite restaurant. That’s not unlike the popular combination of “dinner and a movie” that has been a staple of film attendance for as long as many of us can remember.

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3) People commonly go once a week

Chocolat 9 Ways In Which Movies Are Like Church

Whether it’s every Friday night or every night where tickets are half price (is it Tuesday everywhere?), for a lot of people, movies have a ritualistic element to them, or are simply part of a familiar yet enjoyable routine. It may not be carried out with the same devotion that the devout have for making it to church every Sunday, but there’s likely less of a moral compulsion to be that deeply committed to the cause.

This speaks to the spiritual factor both realms possess, however, because both have an element of spiritual or some kind of nourishment that can give people the strength to make it through the week that follows. Films and religion contain this function of making people feel fulfilled, which can provide a special kind of energy that drives a certain zeal that’s not unlike the payoff of any other behavioral addiction. It shouldn’t be too surprising that both activities take on this routine element.

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4) They both offer a kind of escapism

The Exorcist 9 Ways In Which Movies Are Like Church

One way this nourishment gets provided, this energy to make it through the week, is also related to the earlier point on environment. In both cases, the setting is one that is designed to feel separate from the rest of the world. Churches are meant to feel like they’re a slice of heaven on earth in a way, with the divine iconography scattered throughout and beautiful images made from stained glass. They’re a manifestation of the Christian concept of being in the world but not of it. So it’s deliberately other-worldly. Movie theaters are similarly conceptualized: dark, windowless, covered in posters for upcoming features and with all the focus geared towards the most illuminated object, the screen.

There’s also the aspect that movies and church can make people feel alive with an identity they don’t get to enjoy in the outside world. Movies will allow viewers to exist vicariously through its heroes and heroines, experiencing these extraordinary events as if they’re the ones saving the day. Churches can make this virtuality even more real; a bus driver during the week can be the president of a congregation on Sunday. This opportunity, however limited, to escape one’s ordinary identity is a compelling thing.

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5) Both access meaning through mythology and storytelling

priest review 9 Ways In Which Movies Are Like Church

I guess the key difference here is that movies are most often perfectly clear about whether their stories are true or not. Then again, there are often cases of “true stories” that are later learned to be more fabricated than we were led to believe. That being said, most of the stories that get used over and over again in some form or another, the hero’s journey being perhaps the most widely used, and date back to mythology that has been around for millennia.

Church offers the same close look at stories that are meant to teach us something. There’s disagreement on how literally to take the lessons and the historical details of said stories, but the idea that fantastical elements which seem farfetched to have taken place in reality can still have a profound effect on those who hear about them. This is something that predates movies and religion.

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6) They each have their version of saints

Tom Cruise Magnolia 9 Ways In Which Movies Are Like Church

Church has a pantheon of saints, whether they’re treated in a literal sense like the Catholics do, or in a less direct but still venerative way like other denominations. All seem to agree that certain figures in the Bible and beyond are fairly important, and have a special connection to the divine. There’s something to the status of a prophet that gives them a certain authority and demand our attention in a way few people can. They’re special.

The world of movies has stars. These are sometimes shockingly powerful people, treated like they are above the laws of mere mortals and are treated as the authority on subjects ranging from political affiliations to beauty products. There’s a reason the term “star worship” is so widely used in common parlance. There’s a spiritual aura surrounding celebrities (just watch an Oscar broadcast if you’re skeptical; it’s creepy), as though they’re demigods. Then it’s somehow shocking to see them in human moments. The satisfaction of seeing a god fall from heaven, I suppose.

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7) Woe to you if you don’t pay your share

Doubt1 9 Ways In Which Movies Are Like Church

Ah, the guilt that is rained down upon you if you don’t put enough into the trusty offering plate! Churchgoers often hear as frequently as the words of Jesus Christ himself that their church is struggling to make ends meet and that they should really thinking about how much they’re giving and how much more God might be calling on them to donate. It doesn’t have to be money of course, time is also a worthwhile offering, but of course money is just simpler and easier and why don’t you just give a little more? How much is the service of religious fulfillment and facilitation worth to you?

It’s a somewhat similar dilemma with movies these days, an industry looking, and failing, to stamp out so-called piracy at every turn. There are security posted at every major preview event making sure people aren’t videotaping an awful-quality version of Safe Haven so that everyone who wants to see Josh Duhamel’s bare virility pays up, yo. These John Carters won’t pay for themselves.

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8) They seem inherently conservative, or resistant to change

Luther 9 Ways In Which Movies Are Like Church

Religion largely relies on tradition, on old wisdom passed down from generation to generation, and so changing any dogmatic detail let alone major tenets is pretty much a no-no. They have their own word for divergent views: heresy! Step out of line with the majority of thinking in your sect and you’re a heretic and anathema and must go now. And this is understandable because they’re so deeply defined by their beliefs that changing them would change their entire identity and that’s wayyy to much work.

Movies are a bit more divided on these sorts of matters, granted. There will be a backlash towards the advancements made in 3D and digital filming technologies, but there are still prominent people pushing these efforts forward. I guess it’s more just the sense of nostalgia that pervades Hollywood, the idea that anything similar to the so-called Golden Age of cinema is awesome and things that try new stuff are praised in theory, but most often in reality shot down in flames.

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9) Both have material geared toward children

Jesus Camp 9 Ways In Which Movies Are Like Church

There’s some difference in this area between church and movies. Church’s issues with indoctrination—er, I mean salvation—of children is complicated, problematic, and sensitive. Instilling morals in children is probably good, though perhaps instilling the notion that morality is a quest rather than a set of rules seems more beneficial, though perhaps too complicated for a young mind. Then again, lying may not be the greatest strategy either, because disillusionment is a hell of a drug. Movies are more industrial and manipulative regarding children, looking to separate parents from their money by creating dumbed down material. But it seems mostly fun and harmless I think. Maybe others think differently.

Movies and church bear some pretty fundamental similarities. It’s no wonder something like Scientology that combines the two seamlessly has had so much success in Hollywood. When stars are treated as though they are prophets already, it makes sense to turn them into literally holy figures.

I may not believe in logic-defying theories, but I do worship at the altar of Christopher Nolan, so it’s hard for me to say I’m not religious.

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