The class I facilitate for high school seniors is called Reel Theology.  I sometimes wonder if this is an appropriate name or if I could have done better.   Oh I like the name well enough, I even think it is sort of clever.  What gives me pause is the word “theology”.  I often wonder if the word “spirituality” wouldn’t be a better choice.

First things first.  Let’s examine the definition of each word.   Dictionary.com defines “religion” as,

1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

When looking up the word spirituality here is what you will find,

1. the quality or fact of being spiritual.
2. incorporeal or immaterial nature.
3. predominantly spiritual  character as shown in thought, life,etc.; spiritual  tendency or tone.
4. Often, spiritualities. property or revenue of the church or of an ecclesiastic in his or her official capacity.
          Why 4 listings for spirituality but only one for religion.  Well to be honest there is more than one listing for the word religion but when I read through them they were not that much different one from the other.  But when I looked through the listings for the word spirituality  I noticed that there were four listings and neither one of the listings was able to, in my opinion, give a good, concrete definition for what spirituality is.  I think that is for good reason.  Spirituality isn’t.  By that I mean that spirituality is not some “thing” open for a clean and concise definition.    As for the word religion, that seems more tangible.  A religion is a set of beliefs demanding a certain way of living.  If you break the accepted rules of your religion, you sin.  With spirituality, however, there are no sets of beliefs leading to rules which can be broken resulting in sins.  So what are we to do?
          I like the definition I once heard for spirituality which goes like this: Religion is for people afraid of going to hell while spirituality is for people who have already been there.  I have seen this quote in several places but the only attribution I can find is to Vine Deloria a Native American author and theologian.  As much as I like this definition even it does not give us anything concrete upon which to ruminate.  What I propose is that we talk of religion as a set of beliefs and spirituality as the way in which we live out that set of beliefs.  So what does all of this have to do with films?
          In Reel Theology class, we have one hard and fast rule.  The films we view and discuss must be what we refer to as non-religious.  We will not watch films such as The Mission, or the story of St. Francis of Assissi called Brother Sun Sister Moon.  While these films are entertaining and may very well prompt deep reflection on the part of the viewer, they are, what we in class call, “too easy.”  In other words it would be too easy to watch these films and not be aware that there is a religious or spiritual message present.  What we like to do is view non-religious/non-spiritual films and with the aid of writing and discussion prompts, uncover messages which may or may not have been intended.   We have viewed such diverse films as Despicable Me, Awakenings, A Lesson Before Dying, and Wizard of Oz.  In each of these films, as well as the many others we have viewed, we as a class have been able to surface and discuss many interesting themes ranging from friendship and the transforming power of love, to what it is that lends dignity to the human person.  The issues we discuss have the potential to impact each person by giving us cause to reflect on life in the bigger picture than just “me”.  We ask about how we as human beings can be so diverse in our beliefs,  practices, and lifestyles, and yet be interconnected to the point where what happens to you, wherever you live and by whatever rules you live,  has an affect on me and how I live.  I truly believe that there are few films made that do not have the potential of  spiritual reflection and meditation.  That is precisely the reason Reel Theology was developed.
          What Reel Theology does is tap into the love many high school students have for film and give the students a new optic through which to view films.  The students begin to peel away the various layers present in the films they view while they reflect on what messages, overt or hidden, are present.  The final peace of the puzzle is finding ways to incorporate the lessons learned from these films into their daily lives.  Are we out to transform the world?  No.  Just our little corner of it.  But if we can transform our little corner of the world by living more loving, other centered lives, than the ripple we will cause in our little corner of the world will continue on throughout humanity as a whole.  And after all, isn’t that how Jesus and the Apostles did it?


  1. Celeste says:

    um, interesting take on t he differences between religion and theology.

    • Interesting how? Are you mulling this over or was that an “interesting but I disagree” or an “interesting and I can see your point”? Or perhaps it was just an “interesting and I am thinking about it”. Just curious.

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