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Reel Spirituality, 2nd Edition

Theology and Film in Dialogue

series: Engaging Culture

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"Johnston took reader feedback to heart and used it to improve the second edition of his Reel Spirituality. . . . The book is meant to be a springboard for discussion in church and school groups and is a fun accompaniment to these or a theology and culture class. . . . Worth the read."--Christy Lohr, Reviews in Religion and Theology

Reel Spirituality traces the powerful role that movies play in our cultural dialogue and guides Christian moviegoers into a theological analysis of and conversation with film. It successfully heightens readers' sensitivity to the theological truths and statements about the human condition expressed through modern cinema. 

This new edition of a bestselling textbook has been substantially rewritten, mentions two hundred additional movies, and offers in-depth discussion of eight recent popular films, including March of the Penguins, Magnolia, and Million Dollar Baby. It encourages readers to ponder movie themes that permeate our culture as well as motion pictures that have demonstrated power to shape our perceptions of everything from relationships and careers to good and evil. In addition, the second edition adds two new chapters--one on the role of music and image for understanding a film's power and meaning and one that helps viewers wrestle with ethical issues raised in film-viewing experiences. Beyond exploring "why" Christians should be involved with film, the second edition now offers a sustained discussion of "how" they might best do this.


Endorsements of the first edition:

"Considering the thousands of films shown every year, and the vast crowds who rush to see them, it is remarkable that so little sustained Christian attention has been paid to the world of the 'big screen.' Films can undoubtedly shape and change our fundamental attitudes and beliefs. Here, at last, is an attempt to take that with theological seriousness. Reel Spiritualitywill not only help us develop a Christian wisdom about film; in turn, it will also make us ask searching questions about the Christian faith and the way we express it. Throughout, the book is accessible and engaging. I commend it most warmly."--Jeremy Begbie, Duke Divinity School

"In opening the windows of his seminary classes, Robert Johnston has quickened and refreshed the conversations between theology and the culture of film. He weaves the stories of the two worlds, church sanctuaries and cinema theaters, into a lively and provocative dialogue that bridges the worlds of Christian truth and visual images. Neither abandoning the flickering shadows of culture nor embracing their seductive illusions, Johnston is first and foremost a storyteller who guides his readers in seeing and understanding film from spiritual perspectives. Walking through the world of films with him offers a glorious unveiling of how the unreal world of film reveals real questions of theology. He is a fascinating host who invites willing pilgrims to hike with him toward the relevance of the Gospel in a fallen culture, and to enjoy the cinematic signs along the way."--Terry Lindvall, professor of film, Regent University

"Robert Johnston has written the most comprehensive survey currently available on theology and film. This is a masterful overview both of theologically relevant films and their analysis by other scholars. It is highly accessible, penetrating, fair-minded in the treatment of others, yet full of Johnston's own trenchant insights about films. This authoritative study is a must-read book for anyone interested in the rapidly expanding field of exploring the theological dimensions of contemporary film."--Robert Jewett, author of Saint Paul at the Movies

The Author

  1. Robert K. Johnston

    Robert K. Johnston

    Robert K. Johnston (PhD, Duke University) is professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and codirector of Fuller's Reel Spirituality Institute. He is the coeditor of both the Engaging Culture and the Cultural...

    Continue reading about Robert K. Johnston


"Johnston's book provides numerous examples of how dialogue between film and theology can take place. These examples help lead readers toward dialogical reflection of their own. This second edition of Reel Spirituality expands on the ideas of the previous one and includes discussion of films that have appeared in the past six years. Reel Spirituality is particularly helpful in showing how films can be respected as artistic representations and also considered in a specifically theological context. . . . Recommended. Lower-/upper-level undergraduates, graduate students, and general readers."--J. Jaeger, Choice

"This book is ideal for those who are in want or need of insight into the history and evolution of the movies and it gives us the opportunity to reflect on what it looks like to respond graciously and with theological sensitivity to the medium of film."--Raymond Blanton, Christian Renewal

"Robert Johnston took reader feedback to heart and used it to improve the second edition of his Reel Spirituality. . . . The book is meant to be a springboard for discussion in church and school groups and is a fun accompaniment to these or a theology and culture class. It is written from a specifically Christian perspective and for a Christian audience, yet that does not mean it focuses solely on overtly 'Christian' films. . . . Non-Christians can still grapple with the questions that Johnston raises in the book. . . . As a matter of fact, broadening some of the questions that Johnston asks from a Christian perspective into wider, interfaith applications could be an interesting exercise with this book. Reel Spirituality is worth the read. Take it to a movie club, Christian education class, campus ministry or other discussion group."--Christy Lohr, Reviews in Religion and Theology

"Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is its introduction to proper film criticism. Any believer attempting to dialogue seriously and intellectually with film needs at least a minimum understanding of what film criticism involves. Not only does Johnston provide this, but he also shows why it is so important for intellegent theological discussion of film. Another strength consists of Johnston's numerous examples from films to illustrate the process of criticism. Rather than leaving the reader to grasp the concepts on his own, Johnston shows the reader exactly what he means by applying the concepts to actual films. . . . Reel Spirituality is a book for Christian laypersons, ministers, and theologians alike. Rather than being passive viewers, believers should seek to interact critically and theologically with film, perhaps even encountering God in the process. Johnston's work is a step in the right direction towards such a fruitful dialogue between theology and film."--Matthew C. Millsap, Southwestern Journal of Theology

"Johnston brings a strong literary and historical viewpoint to his discussions of film studies, theological and ethical approaches to film, and the relation of the church and Hollywood. He makes a compelling case for the sacramental potential of film. With its strong Christian focus, this book would be most suited to film studies within Christian seminaries or as a guide to film discussions in a church setting."--Alyda Faber, Toronto Journal of Theology

Reviews of the first edition:
"Johnston, a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, wants Christians to more perceptively understand the power of film from an informed theological viewpoint. To bring his ethereal and epistemological discussions down to earth, Johnston provides fine cinematic examples throughout, though an academic tone prevails (the references to H. Richard Niebuhr and Gerardus van der Leeuw will be most appreciated by a scholarly audience). The book's only significant flaw seems to be the title's unfortunate similarity to "Reel Spirit," a memorably awful guide to spirituality in the movies that was published earlier this year. Let's hope that readers can separate this wheat from that chaff."--Publishers Weekly, Religion Bookline

"What resounds loud and clearly from Reel Spirituality is that 'conversation between Christians and Hollywood should be two-way and open-ended, a dialogue and not a diatribe.'"--Mary Silwance, National Catholic Reporter

"Whether it be the human condition, the nature of grace or the prejudice in our own hearts, the cinema can be an invaluable asset to the heart and mind of the believer. Johnston teaches fans and skeptics alike how to cultivate a well-informed (both culturally and theologically) approach to this wellspring of human experience."--John Thompson, CCM

"Johnston's history and analyses of motion pictures, especially within the last decades of the 20th century are an outstanding study of how theology and motion picture reflections of our culture intertwine. It is a fair and entertaining look at what we, the people want and look for in our movie going."--Church and Synagogue Libraries

"This book is a valuable tool for Christians trying to work out how to talk to non Christians about what they believe and why they believe it."--S. Etherington, Tasmanian Anglican

"Reflecting on over 200 movies Johnston helps us interpret them through the eyes of faith. Geared for the college/seminary level and a good read for those arguing over whether or not to attend 'R' movies. As a bonus, it's got a great cover--hang it on your wall."--Youthworker

"I leave the book convinced of two things: film has become one of the most important, if not the most important, medium in our culture for addressing the serious issues of human life, and I need to learn how to 'read' films in more effective ways. Preachers have long used the plots or characters of movies as illustrations for their sermons, but Johnston will teach you that movies can do so much more for the preacher than that. Johnston teaches a course regularly at Fuller Seminary with the title of this book, so he has broad experience of what he is communicating. I learned a lot, and it is a corking good read to boot."--John C. Holbert, Homiletics

"A very valuable and helpful book. Christians need to improve their ability to be attentive, and the wise, discerning viewing of films can be a beneficial partner of dialogue in this process."--Tom Schwanda, Calvin Theological Journal

"If there is a single comprehensive introduction to the dialogue between Christian theology and film, this book is it. . . . While the book is written in a style that is accessible to non-academic audiences, it would be perfect as the foundational text for a graduate or undergraduate introductory course in theology and film."--Religious Studies Review

"Johnston's history and analyses of motion pictures, especially within the last decades of the 20th century are an outstanding study of how theology and motion picture reflections of our culture intertwine. It is a fair and entertaining look at what we, the people want and look for in our movie going. . . . Recommended for all religious libraries."--Church and Synagogue Library Association

"Books on the relationship between film and culture do not come any better than Robert Johnston's Reel Spirituality. It is an insightful and engaging book which should become an instant classic in its genre."--Circuit Rider Reviews

"A readable introduction to exploring the spiritual significance of the movies. The breadth of Johnston's research (he seems to have read everything written by Christians on the subject in the last 50 years and mentions a wide range of films), is impressive. Moreover, he seems equally well-versed in theology and literature; both of which he draws on effectively to help expand our understanding of the moments of spiritual epiphany which we encounter in film. . . . A constructive dialogue with films such as Johnston advocates may well be a valuable step towards renewing the vitality of the Christian message within contemporary culture."--Julian Jenkins, Zadok Perspectives

"May very well be the best overall text on theology and film in that [Johnston] pulls together many concepts from the field at large while providing some useful history which places issues in context. . . . Johnston's book will work very well in college/seminary courses as well as in local church study groups."--John A. Wood, Perspectives in Religious Studies

"Though this book is written for a Christian audience, many of [Johnston's] ideas could be expanded more broadly to religion in general. Looking for the transcendent (both the kind that points to something 'out there' and the kind that reveals what it means to be human) can be used by anyone with a desire for getting more out of a film. Especially valuable are the ways of analyzing the worldview implicit in a film. This is a book worth reading and using in the quest to understand a very important part of popular culture."--Robert M. Lindsey, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

"An enjoyable read requiring little or no technical knowledge of philosophy, theology, or film, and would serve well to supplement courses in Christian faith and the arts or pop culture. . . . Reel Spirituality is provocative and interesting. Johnston rightly encourages the church to engage, criticize, and learn from art and culture."--Joseph D. Wooddell, Philosophia Christi

"One of the best-and most readable-Christian scholars publishing on film today is Robert K. Johnston. . . . His Reel Spirituality, . . . firmly based in both theology and film studies, is must reading for anyone who aspires to write film criticism from the Christian perspective."--William M. Hagen,

"Although explicitly Christian in approach, Robert K. Johnston's Reel Spirituality. . . . is notable because its model of interaction between theology and film could be easily expanded for use outside the Christian tradition. . . . Johnston's model is very effective in acknowledging the syncretistic tendencies of American religion and makes room for very different beliefs and concerns to be brought into dialogue with film. Perhaps most importantly, it acknowledges film-whether explicitly religious in intent or not-as an active contributor to religious faith, one that communicates religious ideas, shapes religious attitudes, and may even provide opportunities for spiritual experiences."--Christine Hoff Kraemer, Religious Studies Review