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Consciously or not, the stories humans tell influence how we perceive history and ourselves, shape values and beliefs, reflect and sway political and social movements. In the past century, as television, film, and social media have rapidly grown, their stories have had far-reaching consequences, impacting culture across the planet. 

Religion and spirituality, long the sources and vehicles of stories themselves, are regularly reinterpreted through mass media. Through biblical epics, intimate character studies, and avant-garde fantasy, filmmakers have explored complexities of faith, spirituality, and religious traditions. How have they portrayed religion, and how has it evolved?

Hollywood: Big Business + Cultural impact

The film and television industry is a big business. In the United States alone, it supports more than 2.4 million jobs and pays out $186 billion in annual wages. Entertainment media is one of our country’s most sought-after and valuable cultural exports. The Oscars alone have been watched by over 55 million people in a single telecast, amplified by those consuming it via social media.

“Storytellers have an incredible power. I had incredible power,” says Dr. Yalda T. Uhls, a former senior executive at MGM and Sony. Her research includes how media affects social behavior and development, particularly that of tweens and teens. She founded The Center for Scholars & Storytellers, which develops insights and tools for crafting authentic, inspiring, inclusive stories for youth.

“I’m trying to scale my one person and trying to inspire storytellers too,” says Uhls, adding that she has always wanted to change the world with movies. With the Center, she’s not only studying those impacted by media “but still working with the people who have the opportunity to reach people all over the world.”

Religion in movies through the decades

Early cinema featured bible stories and larger-than-life characters in silent films like The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). By mid-century, grand biblical epics combined religious themes with Hollywood grandeur, producing classics such as The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959). Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) grappled with existential themes of mortality and the search for meaning. 

The 1960s and 70s witnessed a surge of cinema with raw intensity and psychological depth, questioning institutionalized religion and its role in society. Among them were Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), Godspell (1973), and The Exorcist (1973). In subsequent decades, filmmakers further delved into the complexities of faith, doubt, and redemption, such as Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Other award-winning films explored religious themes in more indirect ways: The Sound of Music (1965), The Godfather (1972), Amadeus (1984), and Schindler’s List (1993). 

In recent years, films with religious themes have proliferated, including Selma (2014), Noah (2014), Silence (2016), Prince of Egypt (2022), Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), Women Talking (2022), Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), and Killers of the Flower Moon (2023).

Implicit religion in film

Movies engage religions in explicit ways—fully revealed or expressed without vagueness. Implicit films “may not on their surface have anything to do with religion, but there’s something happening in the subtext,” says Garry Sparks, Associate Professor of Religion at Princeton University, who teaches a course on Religion and Film.

“When it comes to implicit religion in the movies, I think Martin Scorsese is emblematic of it. He is genuinely wrestling with those deeper questions: What is the human condition? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be in right relationship?” says Sparks, who references Thomas Aquinas and human flourishing.

“What is that which is within us, not just the social structures and our histories, but that which holds us back? To what extent are we our own enemies, and what does it mean to assess that honestly and to have levels of accountability? Those kinds of deeper questions of discernment and assessment percolate throughout [Scorsese’s] corpus.”

In almost all Scorsese movies, Sparks sees religious and theological concerns as part of the engine driving the movie. In Killers of the Flower Moon, “Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is caught between two loves, and how those loves are warped: love for his wife and his love for greed,” says Sparks. “It seems like he’s using that story to explore the depths and conflicts of sin.”

Expanding religious diversity on screen

As Hollywood explores religious and spiritual experiences worldwide, filmmakers from different cultural backgrounds bring their perspectives. As novelist Chimamanda Adichie explained in her TED Talk, there is danger when we hear only a single story about a person or country. The same is true for religion.

Historical standouts include Devi (1960) by Bengali director Satyajit Ray, and The Message (1976), about the birth of Islam. Spike Lee’s critically acclaimed Malcolm X (1992) sparked national conversation. 

More recently, Life of Pi (2012) wove together elements of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. Pixar’s Coco (2017) was inspired by the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead. Streaming series Queen Sugar depicted African spiritual practices, and Ms. Marvel centers around a Pakistani American Muslim superhero.

“An increasing number of Native American/First Nation writers, directors, cinematographers, and producers within the past 20 years are gradually starting to help with diversity, not just having indigenous people portrayed in two-dimensional characters,” says Sparks, referencing Native American director and producer Chris Eyre.

“Marvel is doing some interesting things with religion,” says Hussein Rashid, assistant dean for Religion and Public Life at Harvard Divinity School. He mentions Loki and Thor about Norse Gods, and Moon Knight about Egyptian Gods. “I am really curious to see if they will explore the Jewishness of The Thing, who is Jewish in the comics, in The Fantastic Four [2025].”  

The importance of religious literacy 

 “How do we tell complex, nuanced stories about religion? I think part of that depends on good writing. And when you can figure out – how to tell a complex story about a person – religion organically fits into that. But if you’re just like, well, we all know what this religion is, you’re doing a disservice both to the religion and to character development,” says Rashid.

“I think that we are conditioned to see religion with a capital R, meaning any category of religion as oppressive, xenophobic, and exclusionary and not really looking at breadth and depth of interpretations in all our different religious traditions,” says Rashid. Whether it’s in movies or the news, “Really simple single narratives of religion turn people away.” 

“You do get movies naively pushing that all religion is bad, or all religion is good,” says Sparks. “A lot of times, I look at movies and think, that’s just naïve. That director has a really poor understanding of what religion is, and if they had a better one, they might actually make a better critique of religion, if that’s their goal.”

Looking ahead

“I think the trend now is the appreciation that the religious or the spiritual aspect of the human condition is a rich ingredient to include as either part of the problem or as a resource for drawing some sort of conclusion of a film,” says Sparks. 

“So, it’s not about a religion per se. It’s about the religious dimension of life…if you’re a director who wants to take your audience on a journey, realizing that religions provide a paradigm or a set of motifs that are tried and true. It’s not cookie cutter, it’s not a one size fits all. If you look at the religions of the world, the stories of the world, you can see that those have been the vehicles – even before the advent of film – that authors and artists have tried to take their audiences on that journey, even thousands of years ago. As a storyteller, that task hasn’t changed. The medium has changed. And in that sense, religion is rich fodder to engage.”

Cinema can illuminate the complexities of human experience, inviting audiences to grapple with questions of meaning and purpose and embark on a journey of introspection, reflection, empathy, dialogue, and understanding. Here’s to a future filled with a rich and diverse tapestry of storytelling that inspires us to seek deeper truths in a world of wonder and mystery.