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Posted by Gena Mangiaratti at 9:49PM   |  Add a comment
Assistant Professor Rachel Wagner

Blog post written by Gena Mangiaratti, Journalism '13, FLEFF Intern, Feeding Hills, MA

Assistant Professor Rachel Wagner, who teaches the FLEFF mini course, Checkpoint: Can Games Change the World, took some time out of her schedule – which includes a recent book deal — to speak with me about the relationship between religion and film.

GM: How did you get involved with FLEFF?

RW: The first course I taught was a few years ago. It was related to a course I teach on religion and virtual reality. It was sort of focusing on various aspects of games and religion, because I am a professor of religion and I do work on religion and culture, religion and film, and religion and virtual reality.

The earlier courses I taught were sort of taking those principles of religious studies that overlap with elements of media studies: Storytelling being one, elements of gaming being one, ideas of rules being another.

I’m personally fascinated with the idea of how religion and media are closely connected in terms of — well, many religious people encounter religion as a sort of mediated worldview. They open up their text, it’s sort of like someone looks into a television screen, they see images; they open up their Bible and they see what God wanted them to do. There are some really interesting parallels if you think about religion and about media.

I used to do that course. This course is more squarely centered on the issue of gaming and how gaming relates to real life.

GM: Can you tell me about your book?

RW: It's called Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality. It grew out of a seminar that I’ve taught here at the college three times now. We're in the middle of it right now.

The best way to look at it is, it looks at religion and virtual reality, but it also looks at virtual reality as religion, and what made the game by that comparison — that includes games, but not just games. It also includes websites, apps on your phone. It includes discussion boards, social media.

Anything that involves a screen I consider virtual reality. So it examines the relationships and comparisons between religion and virtual reality in all its different forms.

GM: As a professor of religion, one of the areas you study is religion and film. Can you tell me more about how religion and film go together?

RW: It's actually a very popular emerging field in religious studies. I actually do some work for the national American Academy of Religion in that area. It is one of my main areas. I teach a class called religion and film too.

One way to think about it: remember I said virtual reality as religion and religion in virtual reality, the two ways of looking at it? You can do the same thing with film. You can look at religion in film: How is lighting and editing used to make commentary about existing religious beliefs? So maybe a film that has Buddhism in it: how does it portray nature? And how does the lighting and the framing and the story and the cuts, how does that affect the way that story is told?

GM: Would an example be The Passion of the Christ?

RW: That film got a lot of attention. There were so many articles written about it by religious scholars of film. For example, one scholar argues that the film itself imitates, in its order, the Stations of the Cross, and that for viewers who encountered it had a sort of ritual engagement with it. If we're increasingly a visual culture, for some people their encounter with film in some ways is more real than their encounter with the Bible.

They will somehow see the film as identically providing the same sort of inspiration or sacredness that the text provides — even though if we stop and think about it, we know Mel Gibson made choices about dialogue and costuming and lighting and all those things he affected. But, we get a blind spot to that when we think about the film somehow accurately portraying the same truth as in the text.

That's one place where you could interrogate what's going on with religion and film, the relationship within textuality within sacred text and then portrayal on the screen.

And, what things can be portrayed and what can't. There's a Muslim film called The Message from 1977 and Mohammed is never shown. They somehow avoid it. They have other people talk to him. He represents the camera lens at times. There are all sorts of filming choices made to acknowledge the Muslim resistance to portray their prophet. He's so holy — he has God’s word coming out of his mouth — that you want to not portray him, because that would be a human portraying what is God's, right?

In a more general sense, Muslim art tends to be more geometric or nature-focused, sometimes abstract patterns of leaves and vegetation, but you're not typically going to have people: Mohammed being sort of the pinnacle of what you would not do in representation of people.

GM: You mentioned that to some people, film can be more real than the Holy Text. How is this possible?

RW: People debate what “real” means. We are an intensely visual culture. There are some Christians today, I wouldn't say how many…who just don't read their Bible, just like they don't read any books, but they'll go see the movie.

Mel Gibson himself said something like those who have a problem with my movie don't have a problem with me, they have a problem with the gospels. So he's saying this is true. Many uncritical viewers went in and wept. I saw them coming out of the theater myself. [They] wept, “It's so true. That's just how it happened.”

But it's impossible to deny, once you think about it, the fact that what Gibson did was, he took the Bible's text, he took some visions of a Catholic nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich. He wove those in, and some stuff he just made up. He took the four gospels and picked and chose what he wanted out of them and created what biblical scholars call a harmonization. So he created a new thing with pieces that he gathered from all over the place.

Then he made directorial decisions about editing. He added characters, he added dialogue — but people don't read that, necessarily. Viewers don’t necessarily pick up on that. Part of it is ignorance, but part of it is just the tendency to engage with film as a story, but also as representing something that we experience perhaps more richly more deeply than the textual in today's society.


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