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Interview

Image: In your essay in the new issue of Image, “Power in the Blood: Hollywood and the Myth of Religious Violence,” you write about the strange relationship Hollywood has to Christianity—mainstream Hollywood movies tend to use violent Christians, often broadly stereotypical ones, as villains. They also tend to tell stories where further violence is used to set the world back to rights by getting rid of religion, which is portrayed as unhealthy, harsh, or insane.

Why did you choose to write about Christian villains in film? What set you off?

Patton Dodd: A few years ago in graduate school, I was researching how the Bible has been represented in American film. I began with Bible story retellings–from The Ten Commandments to The Passion of the Christ–but also became curious about instances where the Bible is quoted by a key character or referenced visually and given some sort of symbolic work to do. And what I kept finding was that many of those instances were framed by violence. If a character in a Hollywood film is quoting the Bible, he’s probably about to hurt someone.

Pulp Fiction offers perhaps the most well known example–that famous scene where the Samuel L. Jackson character quotes from Ezekiel (though it’s actually a made-up verse, lifted from a Sonny Chiba movie) as a preamble to a gangland execution. Like most everything in Quentin Tarantino’s work, that scene has quotation marks around it, and I thought it would be interesting to identify the various inspirations for the scene. I ended up finding Christian villains in film rumbling around from the silent era to the most recent films and television shows–and those representations are based on an even deeper tradition in literature running back at least to the Gothic novel. I know many believers today think of Hollywood films as exercising organized bias against people of faith, but Christian villains have been part of literary and visual art for a long time.

Image: Why do we find ourselves drawn to violent stories on film? Is there something peculiarly American about them? Or is it bigger than that? Does compelling visual storytelling require violence, or the threat of it?

PD: There may be something peculiarly American about the films I’ve studied, but it’s not the violence–violence is standard fare in popular storytelling across many cultures and time periods. I don’t think compelling visual storytelling requires violence, but violence is an especially awful and therefore captivating aspect of life, and storytellers have always been drawn to it. Think of Genesis and the Enuma Elish and other ancient tales that depict violence in all sorts of varieties.

Of course, it didn’t take long for filmmakers to discover that the movies could do an especially good job at displaying violence and bringing the shock of it right up to our faces. The Great Train Robbery (1903) and The Birth of a Nation (1915) are the classic examples–right as filmmakers are refining the aesthetic-technological means of narrating stories and controlling multiple story-lines on film, the most successful stories they are telling involve gunplay, robbery, rape, horseback posses, and so on. People packed movie houses for these films then just as they do now, and indeed a good deal of Hollywood’s production history has to do with attempts to stem the tide of its own violent stories. (William Romanowski’s excellent new book Reforming Hollywood tells the story of how Protestant leaders rallied for moral filmmaking as an attempt to save Hollywood from itself–in the 1920s and early 1930s, violent films were so successful that the government would have installed forced censorship had the filmmaking community not figured out a way to self-police.)

I cannot adequately address the “why” of all this, but clearly there’s a basic human fascination with the unimaginable and the horrible. I don’t seek out violent films or books, but I know that when I’m reading a book with violence on the page, I can’t turn away. I don’t like watching violence in film, but I’ll watch most any well-made film, and when violence is on screen, I’m transfixed–even if I have to look away, my whole being is engrossed in the moment. We’re intoxicated by trouble.

Image: What are your favorite contemporary films, from the Hollywood mainstream or elsewhere, that give a sympathetic, nuanced picture of faith?

The Night of the Hunter (1955) and True Grit (2010), films mentioned in my essay, would be near the top of the list. (Hunter is not recent, but I’ll call it contemporary in part because it’s never been more prominent in film discourse than it is now.) Hunter is usually celebrated only for its depiction of wicked religion, but the hero in that film is a gentle Christian warrior played by the great Lillian Gish, and she’s offered as a constant source of contrast not only with Robert Mitchum’s preacher-killer, but with all these small-town Christian hypocrites and rubes that populate the film.

To my mind, Robert Duvall’s The Apostle (1997) is an American masterwork, especially among films that deal with religion. It’s a Christian killer film that also tries sincerely and sympathetically to capture the nuances of rural Pentecostalism–the sounds of its private and corporate prayer and its preaching, the way it reads and uses the Bible, the way a certain Christian lingo permeates everyday conversation. Duvall went deep into southern Pentecostal culture and tried to do a kind of cinematic ethnography. He used many non-actors from local churches; he shot entire worship services and tent revivals. Most impressively, the film contains a stunningly authentic religious conversion scene where a character played by Walton Groggins (who, ironically, now plays a Christian killer on the TV show Justified) responds to an altar call. The church service that is the context for that scene is incredible–Duvall employs the patient film style of long takes and extended scenes, and we really get inside that church and experience its subtle texture. There’s not much else like it in American cinema on religion, though Vera Farmiga’s recent Higher Ground (2011) has some of the same qualities.

Image: Your memoir My Faith So Far: A Story of Conversion and Confusion traces a journey from a highly emotive Pentecostal upbringing to a quieter expression of Christian faith. You wrote it eight years ago. Where has your journey taken you since then?

PD: Writing that book ended up being an act of reconciliation with faith. When I began it, I figured I’d be telling the story of losing faith and never finding it again. But as I pieced together my story of finding faith at 19 and losing it at 20, I came to understand the nature of my doubt. I had believed that doubt was a deal-breaker for faith (I came from a fairly fundamentalist Christian culture), but in writing my story I grew comfortable with and appreciative of my doubt.

Then a couple fairly nerdy things happened. First was that in my first summer after graduate school, I read The New Testament and the People of God by N.T. Wright. The introductory section of that book lays out his epistemology in some detail, and in reading that section I saw for the first time how one could be intellectually honest and yet confess faith. I’m sure I could have gotten this from other sources, but for me, reading Wright was the first time I saw a way to be fully open to all the difficult questions about Christian history and doctrine. Hard questions could be seen as conversation partners, not just threats. I didn’t consider myself a believer at that time, not really, but I was stubborn about the things that I loved about Christianity–namely, many beautiful people, and many beautiful books and artworks and ideas. So Wright’s approach to critical Christianity was very attractive to me because it offered a way to remain in the fold.

The second thing that happened is that I took a seminar on Gerard Manley Hopkins with the poet Geoffrey Hill. I only took the class because Hill was teaching it–I had maybe read one Hopkins poem in my entire life up to that point. But that semester was incredible. The combined honesty of Hopkins and Hill shook me to my core, and I began to see that the not-knowing is as important to faith as the knowing. I also finally began to understand the power of aesthetics and what beauty can tell us about God.

I’m a frightfully doubtful person at heart, but I’ve come to love the joy of not-knowing–and to let faith enter in when it wants to.

Image: You served as the managing editor and are now a contributing editor for the religious blog platform, Patheos. How long has it existed, and how do you see it, and venues like it, influencing the way we read?

PD: Patheos launched in 2008 as a world religions library, then began to convert to collection of essayists and bloggers organized by faith channels. The world religions library is still a terrific resource, but the blogs are where the lifeblood is–the day-in, day-out sources of connection and conversation. When it comes to religious discourse, people tend to look for (1) like-minded communities and (2) sources of aggravation. In the former, they find encouragement, education, inspiration. In the latter, they find something to poke at or work on (or yell about in ALL CAPS).

I tend to like the topical narrowness of blogs. As a book and magazine reader, I have very promiscuous tastes, and my reading lists any given year tend to be a bit scattershot. As a blog reader, I am drawn to people who deal with the same subjects day in and day out, and I think that’s a large part of the appeal of the most successful blogs. A good blog is the work of a writer who has decided to host a conversation about something in particular for years on end–say, Peter Enns on the Bible’s inspiration and traditions of interpretation, or Amy Julia Becker on family and disability. I like having a reliable place to go to for those subjects, one that comes fully equipped with conversation partners in the blog comments section.

We know from studying web analytics that people don’t tend to stay on pages very long, that they click away easily, that headlines and first paragraphs are all that many people read. But we also know that on good blogs, the time-on-page stats can go through the roof. Magazine and web articles have been getting shorter for years, but I’ve seen 4000-word blog posts (that would have not found a home in most publications) generate crazy amounts of traffic. Now that I’m working on e-books all the time, I read fewer blogs than I used to, but I like the medium and I’m grateful outfits like Patheos have come along to curate and support it.

Image: You are now working for an e-book start-up called Bondfire. What, in a nutshell, are your hopes for this venture?

PD: We want to find, nurture, and promote vital voices. I’m bullish on e-books because I love writers, and e-books offer a new way to break through the barriers in publishing. Some of those barriers have simply to do with size–books have to be a certain length in order to be publishable, but some ideas don’t exist at that certain length. Some of them have to do with the time it takes to bring a book to market or the various high costs involved. E-books don’t solve all those problems, and they present many of their own problems, but they are an important disruption in publishing because they give us a chance to ask new questions about what a book is and can be and how best to bring it to market. In some cases, e-books allow us to return to older models–say, serials and pamphlets. In other cases, e-books allow us to innovate–say, with extremely quick-to-market products or with multimedia books.

But at the end of the day it’s all about the voices. Our main hope, again, is to publish necessary voices and help them find their audience. We’ll be doing books of all kinds–fiction and nonfiction, religious and general market. I’m a religion geek at heart, though, so we’re especially interested in helping to host the conversation about what faith is and what it’s doing in the world.

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