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‘Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies’

Interest in religion and film continues to surge, and publishers are feeding that interest with waves of books on the subject. Some are specific (e.g. analyses of spiritual themes in “The Lord of the Rings”), whereas others digest a wider body of film.

I recently reviewed Robert K. Johnston’s Useless Beauty: Ecclesiastes through the Lens of Contemporary Film, an incredibly engaging and accessible book that set the bar high for other similar titles.

Recently arrived is Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies, by Roy M. Anker. Catching Light’s 400 pages are sometimes wordy, but anyone truly interested in what good film has to say about God’s existence will appreciate Anker’s work.

Anker, an English professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., adopts a unique approach to looking for God in film. As his title indicates, he’s interested in how the movies help audiences capture Light ”not really the physical qualities that make film projection work, but the divine essence that can be chased in modern-day parables.

Anker makes the case for his Light-focused approach in the introduction, arguing that “the depthless human craving for Light shows no sign of abating.”

He analyzes 19 movies and divides their examination into four sections: “Darkness Visible,” “Light Shines in the Darkness,” “Fables of Light” and “Found.”

In section one, Anker looks at “The Godfather” saga, “Chinatown” and “The Deer Hunter.” In section two, he analyses “Tender Mercies,” “Places in the Heart,” “The Mission” and “Babette’s Feast.” And in the third section, he examines the “Star Wars” saga, “Superman” and three of Steven Spielberg’s movies revolving around “lost boy” themes.

Anker’s first three divisions, as he points out, are inspired by Frederick Buechner’s 1977 book, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy-Tale. Thus, section one corresponds to tragedy, section two to comedy and section three to fairy tale.

Anker devotes section four to “films that seem not to fit tidily into Buechner’s categories.” Anker looks at “Grand Canyon,” “American Beauty” and “Three Colors: Blue” in this section. For Anker, the characters in these movies are struck by some sort of encounter with Light, but “they lack a ready frame of reference or perspective that will help make sense of it all.”

Unlike some of the other recent books about religion and film, Anker allows some older movies (like “Chinatown”) into his arena, and the decision is welcomed. Now that religion and film is a hot topic, there’s plenty of “retroactive” criticism to be done.

Anker’s chapters are punctuated by sidebars of filmographies, DVD edition details, and other brief essays on a film or filmmaker’s significance. These snippets are appealing.

“The films treated here fit more or less comfortably within the confines of traditional Jewish and Christian thought and experience,” Anker writes. Indeed they do, and those looking for God in the movies ”or looking for Light amidst the Dark ”will find Anker’s work a helpful tool for seeing.

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.