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Crystal Downing discusses her new book, Salvation from Cinema

Salvation from Cinema is cogent, comprehensive, beautifully written, and stunningly consistent.’ M. Gail Hamner, Syracuse University, USA

With praise already being paid to Crystal Downing’s new book, Salvation from Cinema, this excellent new book offers something new to the burgeoning field of ‘religion and film’. We interviewed Crystal Downing to find out more.

1 – How did Salvation from Cinema come about? Could you tell us about how you developed this book?

I audited a course on film at the University of California, Santa Barbara, while completing my Ph.D. in English literature.Having gained an appreciation for the artistry of cinematic technique, I began publishing on film adaptations of literary works. In the process, I realized it would be irresponsible to write about film without a better grounding in the history of film theory, so I began reading as much as I could while publishing articles about the philosophical and religious significance of individual films. After producing three books on the relationship between critical theory and Christianity, I decided it was time to write a book about the religious implications of film language: not the language in movies but the language of movies, i.e. the cinematic devices that communicate as much as do characters on the screen.

2 – There is an increasing interest in the intersection between religion and film. What drew your interest in the area?

Believing that the philosophical issues informing film theory intersect with Christian theology, I started presenting papers about religion and film at national meetings of the American Academy of Religion. There I benefited from the stimulating insights about religion and/or theology offered by other panel members, but I also noticed that most said little about a film that could not be gleaned simply by reading its screenplay. Ignoring both cinematic technique and film theory, presenters focused primarily on story, reducing cinema to either a religious-insight delivery system or a means for transcendence. Either way, the artistry of the medium was being overlooked, making me realize that I could add something new to the conversation.

3 – Can you tell us a little about the approach of Salvation from Cinema? How does it differ from other books on the market?

Salvation from Cinema invokes Harold Bloom's (in)famous proclamation that “the American religion” is gnostic in order to argue that gnosticism also pervades the field of religion and film. To substantiate this argument, it cites over 85 books and essays in the field, demonstrating how the majority either extract religious ideas from film stories or focus upon the religious experience of film viewing, both approaches ignoring the power of the medium itself. Salvation from Cinema therefore fills a gap in the field by demonstrating how cinematic technique - framing devices, graphic match cuts, shot/reverse shot, chiaroscuro effects, POV shots, etc. - can speak to religious issues. And, like no book thus far, it also provides a substantive overview of film theory, explaining its relevance to theology and religion.

4 – Can you sum up the book in one sentence?

Rather than reducing cinema to a content delivery system, as do many books in the field of “religion and film,” Salvation from Cinema focuses on the religious implications of cinematic technique, introducing readers not only to the professional vocabulary of screen devices, but also to famous film scholars who have analysed the power of the medium itself.

5 – How do you envisage this book being used on courses?

Any professor who teaches a course in religion and film will find that Salvation from Cinema educates students in several important ways: 1) introducing them to strengths and weakness in the field of religion and film; 2) explaining what to look for on the screen and giving them the technical vocabulary to describe what they see; 3) providing a history of film theory and explaining its relevance to religion; 4) offering an entirely new way to think about the intersection of religion and cinema, predicated on the notion of salvation as “gift.”

6 – What do you see as the future for the study of religion and film?

I hope that my book might encourage theologians, professors, and religious leaders to explore film theory in such a way that they can integrate their professional understanding of religion/theology with theories about the cinematic medium.

Related Titles

  • Salvation from Cinema

    The Medium is the Message

    By Crystal Downing

    Salvation from Cinema offers something new to the burgeoning field of "religion and film": the religious significance of film technique. Discussing the history of both cinematic devices and film theory, Crystal Downing argues that attention to the material medium echoes Christian doctrine about the…

    Paperback – 2015-11-04
    Routledge