The Theology of the Icon and the Medium of Cinema
Cheng sat transfixed by the image of the crucifixion. On the walls of the dimly lit room hung numerous icons, but Cheng could not tear her eyes from the image illumined before her. The face of the suffering Christ was especially gripping such that Cheng's own eyes filled with tears. For almost two years, Cheng had been exploring Christianity but had always stopped short of conversion; she resisted identifying herself with Christ because of her memories of her cruel grandfather, a man who had called himself a Christian but had abused her terribly for years. Now as she contemplated the image in the flickering light, she felt she was looking at a scene that encompassed all her suffering and yet also at a face that radiated forgiveness. She later would report, "In a moment, I knew I could forgive my grandfather and I did right then and there." And that night, for the first time, she declared her identification with Christ publicly.
In their practice of icons, Christians in the Orthodox tradition have long reported transformational encounters similar to this true account of a student in my campus ministry. However, Cheng sat not in a Greek Orthodox nave with other parishioners but in the recreational room of a camp with other students who, like her, were "checking out" Christianity. And she was not staring at any of the icons hanging on the wall (hung by the Protestant camp director to "decorate" the room), but at a screen playing the closing scenes of Franco Zeffirelli's movie, Jesus of Nazareth.
While I certainly rejoiced at the news of Cheng's conversion, I have been haunted by the scene of her and the others sitting transfixed before the flickering screen, while the faces of the icons visages backed by centuries of theological tradition and reflection stare on mutely.
An Overview of the Literature
The need for theological critique and reflection of cinema is pressing. In this past century, cinema has undeniably supplanted painting as the dominant supplier of images in our world. It would be difficult to come up with another historical example of a media revolution that took place so rapidly and completely (although the Internet may one day vie for the title). As I write this, a large section of American society eagerly awaits the date, May 19, 1999, for the next installation of the Star Wars series. The Wall Street Journal estimates that on that day over 2 million American workers will skip work (even more millions of students will skip school) to line up at movie theatres across the country. The return of the Star Wars' images to public display after their absence of over twenty years has become an unofficial national holiday. It seems that we are witnessing the secular version of the Feast of the Restoration of the Holy Icons, the ninth century celebration of the return of icons to the Orthodox Church after the Iconoclastic Period.
Yet serious theological reflection on this obviously powerful medium has been surprisingly lacking. No theologian has ever produced a widely acknowledged and definitive treatment on the medium of cinema. The majority of theological forays into cinema that do exist simply analyze the themes and plots of various movies. Even Margaret Miles, who elsewhere in books like Image as Insight (1985) has developed a theological perspective on visual understanding, restricts her main treatment of American cinema, Seeing and Believing (1996), to the values reflected in various popular films. In all these works, film is treated not as a medium but as any other reflection of contemporary culture. Such attempts fail to analyze exactly what makes cinema what it is. The theological analysis of these works could be simply transposed to other media like painting, music or literature. Theology has yet to grapple with the unique dimensions of the medium of cinema.