Religion in the Frame

Gretchen Helfrich

March 14, 2019

Earlier this month, the Martin Marty Center, in collaboration with Facets Multimedia, successfully concluded its second annual “Religion in the Frame” film festival. Held at Facets’ cinematheque on the North Side of Chicago, the festival consisted of seven films selected for the most part by members of the Divinity School faculty either for their religious content or their engagement with religious questions. The films were screened on consecutive evenings over the course of a week, and each screening was followed by a discussion, moderated by yours truly, featuring the scholar who had selected the film. The festival was aimed at—and drew—a “non-academic” audience. 

This year’s films included: The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer’s 1928 silent masterpiece, selected by Francoise Meltzer (or, more accurately, urged upon Professor Meltzer by me because I so enjoyed her excellent book on Joan); First Reformed, Paul Shraeder’s harrowing crisis-of-faith story, selected by Marty Center director Willemien OttenUnder the Moonlight, a deceptively simple story of a mullah-in-training in Teheran, selected by Scott Alexander of Catholic Theological Union (and my fellow Marty Center Board Member); Ushpizin, a parable about an ultra-orthodox couple in Jerusalem who find themselves with unexpected guests on Succoth, selected by James RobinsonSlaughterhouse 5, about the bombing of Dresden and trauma and all the many things that Slaughterhouse 5 is about, selected by Brook ZiporynBlack Robe, in which a Jesuit priest in seventeenth-century New France goes deep into the (now) Canadian wilderness to convert the Huron, selected by Richard Miller; and Secret Sunshine, a devastating Korean film about a grieving woman who turns to evangelical Christianity, selected by Angie Heo.

With participants like these, it wasn’t hard to believe that something really wonderful might occur. Each scholar chose a provocative film, and each brought rich knowledge and wonderful insights to the discussions. And the festival was quite successful in the straightforward way of being engaging and entertaining. 

However, when I describe the festival as “successful,” I mean something different, something that I did not really anticipate but which aligns profoundly with the mission of the Marty Center.

The Marty Center’s concern is the public understanding of religion. Marty Center folks often talk about the goal of enhancing and enriching the public dialogue about religion. For that to work, of course, there has to be a public dialogue or a public conversation in the first place. For me, what was so successful about the festival was that it created, for an evening, a miniature public square. The post-screening discussions could have been lecture-ly, with audience members who were no more than question-askers and answer-receivers. But that is not what happened. Instead, real conversations unfolded, with audience members proposing ideas, interpretations, or answers, just as much as the speakers. We puzzled through challenging or opaque parts of the films together, sometimes coming up with solutions, sometimes not. We didn’t really argue, but we disagreed plenty. Sometimes we just thought out loud, or related personal stories that we thought were relevant. Was everyone in the audience brilliant and insightful? No. Were some people’s comments less coherent than others (or just plain incomprehensible)? Yes. It wasn’t paradise, but for an evening we became, perhaps to everyone’s surprise, a community.

I have thought a lot about what made this happen. Part of it was due to the size of the crowds—small enough (though bigger than last year I feel compelled to note) that it was easy to manage participation and to give everyone who wanted to say something a chance to do so, and sometimes even to follow up on questions or thoughts. Part of it was the willingness of the speakers to stay awhile and let the audience get comfortable in the conversation, and also to let the audience lead them, sometimes, down unexpected pathways. Part of it was the repeat attendees, who enriched the conversation by linking ideas that were discussed in one screening to themes and questions arising in another. 

But I think another part of it was hunger. I heard a lot of comments from audience members at the end of each evening about how excited they were by the discussion. Even grateful for it. In a few cases, I could see joy on the faces of the participants. I believe that people are hungry for conversations like these. Conversations about religion, to be sure, and also about film and storytelling. But the hunger is more fundamental, I think. It is a desire for the interaction itself, a desire that there be a public conversation in the specific form that it occurred here—coming together with our fellow human beings and sharing our ideas, our thoughts, and thus ourselves. A longing, perhaps, for the simple thrill of talking to strangers.

“Are you going to do this again next year?” I was asked several times over the course of the week. I hope so. “Religion in the Frame” was born last year as part of the celebrations surrounding the twentieth anniversary of the Martin Marty Center and the ninetieth birthday of Marty himself. Last year’s festival was a total delight (to me, anyway), but it drew its audience largely from the Divinity School and the University. Only this year did we manage to reach a broader audience, and therefore to see what kind of intervention into public discourse this festival has the potential to be. From where I sat, it looked like a surprisingly powerful one.

Image: Ethan Hawke as Reverend Ernst Toller in First Reformed (2018), written and directed by Paul Schrader.

6ff033eb-e591-454b-8f54-fb8afeb73b0d.jpeAuthor, Gretchen Helfrich, is a member of the Martin Marty Center Advisory Board, a lawyer, and a former radio host.

Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD student in Religions in America at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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