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Problem-Based Learning and Two Studies of the Journal of Religion and Film: Self-sacrifice and music.


This article offers a case study for using problem-based learning (PBL) in a religion and film course. PBL is an open-ended, experiential approach to teaching, which requires students to engage with a real world problem in groups. While many university classes are based on a lecture format and variations of that format, PBL asks students to take greater ownership of their learning. The problem drives what students will learn, how they will learn it, and what they produce to assess that learning. Students in a fourth-year PBL class at the University of Toronto Mississauga were given the following problem: analyze developments in the field of religion and film over the past 20 years through the lens of the Journal of Religion and Film. All four groups of students in the course made significant discoveries in their response to this assignment, and two in particular stood out. These two groups examined patterns evident in how the topics of self-sacrifice and of music were (and were not) discussed in the journal.


Problem Based Learning, Pedagogy, Religion, Film, Scholarship

The Pedagogy

I want to be as clear as possible about this up front: in my experience, problem-based learning (PBL) makes teaching more difficult, not less. It is a very powerful tool that requires a great deal of care, effort, and patience on the part of both the instructor and the students. Everyone in the class, by design, has both more and less control over the direction that the course might take than they normally would. This is an open-ended, experiential approach to teaching that should be undertaken only after much reflection, research, and (if possible) consultation. It also helps enormously to have the support of smart, experienced colleagues with pedagogical training and kind hearts. (1)

I was introduced to PBL in 2013 by Dr. Cleo Boyd, an Educational Developer in our Academic Skills Centre. I had consulted with Cleo many times on pedagogical issues since arriving at my school in 2010, and had great faith in her teaching insights and recommendations. Since January 2014 I have used PBL in three very different, successive fourth-year undergraduate humanities seminars of less than twenty students each. Most recently I employed it in a course on religion and film, which ran from January to April 2016.

Each time I have taught with PBL, I have found it to be both very challenging and deeply rewarding. All of the students have also told me that they found the approach challenging, and most of them said that they experienced at least some rewards. That said, the results have tended to be split much more dramatically than in a regular course; students either eventually have that "aha!" moment and really see what we are doing, and why, or they are left behind. And so I have typically ended up giving out final grades that are mostly As and Bs, along with a few marginal passes and the rare unfortunate F. But almost no one receives an "average" grade or does just "okay." In a classroom that is fully structured around PBL, it is virtually impossible to succeed even marginally by doing only the minimum amount of work. The students who ended up just passing the course tried that approach, and only managed to not fail by making heroic efforts at the finish line.

So what is problem-based learning? (2) As I explain in the course syllabus, (3) PBL is an approach that requires students to engage with a real world problem in groups. While many university classes are based on a lecture format and variations of that format, PBL asks students to take greater ownership of their learning. The problem drives what students will learn, how they will learn it, and what they produce to assess that learning. The instructor's role in this process is to help facilitate students' development of their response(s) to the problem; guide them through the group process; and assist their understanding of the learning process as an individual and a group member. PBL has its origins in McMaster University's medical school in the 1960s and has been used mostly within the sciences, where a "correct" answer is often the goal. (4) The humanities present the challenge of open-ended, complex problems, with many possible paths that may be taken in formulating a response. (5)

Several steps are necessary to respond fully to the problem. In a typical PBL course, mine included, students are required to:

* Refine the given problem;

* Develop a reading/resource list for examining the problem;

* Establish their own individual and group learning outcomes;

* Identify what they know, what they don't know, what they need to know, and what they need to know first;

* Reflect on what they have learned through working on the problem;

* Actively and collaboratively address the problem by developing a response to it for a specific real world audience.

Many of the inherent difficulties of PBL should be evident from this list. The most common complaint from students is that they have to work in groups. Managing the groups is also one of the hardest parts of the instructor's role, particularly trying to help them address the tensions and frustrations that develop as some members see (or believe that) others are not contributing equally to the project. In addition, most students feel somewhat lost at first, as they are not sure how to even begin the process of actually figuring out what they need to do in order to address the problem. They have never been faced with a situation like this before. Still, I cannot overstate how wonderful it is when this approach is successful. As an indication of what is possible, here are comments from two students who have taken a PBL course with me:
I loved this course, the way it was structured was perfect. I found the
best part about this course was the fact it allowed me to be engaged
with the real world as well as allowed me to focus on specific
research. The course was a difficult one, however, for me, it was the
most rewarding. I enjoyed that it challenged my ways of thinking and it
challenged my modes of learning. In this course we learned about
problem-based learning and for me, this type of learning was
fascinating and a great way to keep students engaged.

Not all students in a class respond well to the traditional way classes
can be organized and while it is impossible to cater to all the
different students in a class, this method of teaching gave us some
autonomy and the freedom to experiment with different methods. This
course pushed us out of our comfort zone, taught us about what we were
capable of and allowed us to see how we evolved in our thinking over
the course of the semester through our reflections. In effect, this
course taught me to better understand who I am and what I can do. The
most interesting thing that I think many of us realized about ourselves
through this experience is that we have many different and fluid parts
to ourselves, instead of one stable and unchangeable self.

The Problem

The first major obstacle to building a problem-based learning course is, not surprisingly, coming up with the problem. It needs to be challenging and open-ended, yet also manageable. It must lend itself to a group effort--i.e., be larger in scope than one person could reasonably manage--and be oriented towards a real-world audience. For the religion and film PBL seminar, I decided to frame the problem as an examination of "Religion and Film" as an academic field of study. Specifically, I wanted students to look at what scholars had published in the Journal of Religion and Film from its inception in 1997 up until the time our course was running in 2016, and what similarities and differences they could see by comparing and contrasting different articles that addressed the same topic. I also wanted them to examine an actual film in a way that reflected their discoveries in the journal. This is how I presented the problem to the students:
As experts in religion and film, you and your colleagues have been
invited by the editor of the Journal of Religion and Film to offer your
thoughts on the recent history of the field, as represented by the
journal itself. Your group has decided to approach this task by
examining one specific topic addressed by at least ten articles
published over the lifetime of JR&F. Your analysis of these articles
will consider differences and similarities in how the topic has been
treated over time, looking for patterns and trends. You will illustrate
your findings by applying ideas from the articles you've selected to
one film released during 2015, a film that has not yet been discussed
in the journal. You will communicate your analysis of the journal (and
film) in two forms:

1. A detailed academic blog to be published on the JR&F site;
2. A 25-minute presentation to UTM students and alumni.

Of course I could not guarantee that any of the students' work would actually appear in JR&F, but that was not the point. Rather, I wanted to provide students with a goal that was based in the real world--they could (and had to) look up the requirements for submitting work to the journal, in order to see what they would actually need to do to make their work potentially acceptable by this specific publication. The presentations were in reality given only to the other students in the seminar, and were scheduled to take place on the final day of class. Since we met at 11am-1pm each week, for our last meeting I also brought lunch for everyone; this was meant to help create a more relaxed atmosphere, which I hoped would be particularly helpful to the students who were anxious about public speaking. (6)

I had several reasons for asking students to write a blog post rather than a traditional article. First, I thought that they might be less intimidated by the prospect of the former, and therefore better able to focus on analysis and critical thinking. Second, I hoped that the typically informal style of blogs would encourage them to use images and to write in a more natural, clear manner. Too often, students construct amazingly convoluted (and often impenetrable) "academic" sentences that they think instructors want to see, rather than just writing their points out clearly and succinctly. Third, I suspected that many students had never made a website before, and that learning how to do this was a real-world skill that they could use in their personal or professional lives after graduating. My final reason for asking them to write a blog post and not an article was simply that I thought that they would find it more fun. As it turned out, I was only right about these last two points. What students generally produced were typically formal essays written in overly complicated styles. But they very much enjoyed the process of learning to create the blogs. I considered this a win.

The Problems

One of the great advantages of problem-based learning is that it exposes important gaps in students' learning or understanding, highlighting biases and misconceptions that can otherwise go unnoticed. When I used PBL to teach a course on Christianity and modern literature, for example, I was surprised to discover that the students automatically equated Christianity with the Bible. It took a lot of work to get them to start thinking about the tradition in terms of how it has been practiced by actual people, how it varies enormously over time and place, how in fact it makes much more sense to speak of "Christianities."

In the religion and film course, the central issue that we struggled with the entire term was scholarship itself. I became aware of the issue relatively early, but did not realize how critical it truly was. I have learned from past experience that it is helpful to have students do a mini version of the problem, to help them see what it really involves and how they can approach it. The mini problem is basically analogous to bicycle training wheels. In this instance I picked two articles from JR&F for everyone to read, and we spent one class having each group identify a common thread between them and pick out similarities and differences in how the articles dealt with that topic. Each group then gave a five-minute presentation on their findings. These findings, however, were without exception about films, and not about the articles. The students were unable to think of the articles themselves as the objects of study.

I was amazed to see this issue repeat itself throughout the term. Students constantly, reflexively, kept telling me what they were learning about religion and film, rather than what they were learning about the study of religion and film. To try to help them get past this obstacle, and also to show them what an academic blog post might look like, I gave them a copy of a piece I had written about scholarship on The Wizard of Oz. (7) What was much more helpful, though, was a picture that I drew to illustrate what the problem I had given them was really about. I put "religion and film" in a box, with a stick person looking at the box. Under the person I wrote "scholar." I then drew a second stick person looking at the first one; under this I wrote "you." This picture turned out to be enormously useful and I referred to it repeatedly for the rest of the term, although many students continued to struggle with the basic concept of what we were doing.

At one point I finally realized that one of the stumbling blocks to students' understanding was that they knew almost nothing about academic publishing. I asked them why they thought scholars did research. The immediate answer was: for money. I explained to their very great surprise that very few scholars (especially in the humanities!) are remunerated for their writings per se; some do research as part of their job and so receive a salary, but many do not have academic positions. Moreover, some have to pay to have their work published. (There were literal gasps when I said that.) I then pointed out that "scholar" could refer to someone at many different stages of a career, from student to emeritus professor. This helped them think about the varying reasons why people might want to publish, from getting a job to receiving a promotion to doing it out of love and/or obsession.

Having dealt with the why of publishing, we moved on to the how. This of course meant talking about peer review, which none of them had encountered before. Learning about the review process helped students to understand the historically and culturally contingent, constructed nature of scholarship. Throughout these conversations it became very apparent to me that these students, who had used, studied, and regurgitated many academic works over their four years in university, had never been given any behind-the-scenes understanding of what they were actually looking at. No one had pulled this curtain aside for them. This revelation has changed the way I think about using scholarship in my classes, as I want students to see the very human, contested nature of the work that we are always asking them to read.

I made another discovery in this course regarding scholars, which I found rather dispiriting: virtually none of them would reply to queries from my students. I had naively encouraged the class to write to the scholars they were looking at, and ask them (for example) why they had or had not looked at a certain topic in a certain way. This, to me, was part of the "real world" nature of the assignment: understanding that scholarship is fluid, not fixed, and that scholars are people with whom you can engage in conversation. Despite the fact that the students introduced themselves clearly, gave my name and contact information, and explained the reason for their query, people did not respond. The one, shining exception to this pattern--an awkward exception to note in JR&F itself--was John Lyden. I had approached John some time before the class began to ask if he would be willing to engage with students if they had questions for him, and also if he could Skype into our class one day. He immediately said yes, and was a great help to many of the students.

The Products

In addition to whatever value the students themselves found (or did not find) in taking this course, I was tremendously excited and proud to see that in the end, after much struggling, they all made genuine discoveries about scholarship in the Journal of Religion and Film. There were four groups of students, and two of them were particularly successful in this regard. One of these groups settled on the topic of self-sacrifice, and noticed a number of gendered patterns in how this topic was discussed in the journal. They correctly pointed out that in some respects (such as whether men or women are more likely to perform either "personal" or "global" sacrifices), it was beyond the reach of their study to know whether the pattern they found derived in fact from scholarship or from the films themselves. Still, they were able to identify a recent movie (Ant-Man) that went against the grain, demonstrating at the very least that exceptions to the pattern exist.

The other group focused on music. Their first discovery was simply that this is a topic rarely discussed in JR&F at all. They went on to notice patterns in how scholars connect music to specific religious traditions or broader notions of religious experience, focusing either on lyrics or melody but rarely both. Like the self-sacrifice group, they broke the academic pattern they had found when doing their own film analysis, considering melody and lyrics when thinking about religion in Cinderella. The fruits of both groups' labor are below--these pieces have been copyedited for grammar and clarity, but the analyses, the conclusions, and the voices belong entirely to the students.


(1) I would like to thank one colleague in particular: Dr. Michael Kaler, scholar of both Gnosticism and the Grateful Dead, musician, and Writing Specialist at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Michael was a great help in teaching students in two of my PBL courses how to reflect on their learning in the course. He also visited the religion and film class to show students how to write the kind of piece that I was asking for, and made himself available to answer their questions as they worked on the project and provide feedback on their drafts.

(2) For detailed overviews of the history and philosophy PBL, along with its application in different contexts, see Howard S. Barrows, "Problem-Based Learning in Medicine and Beyond: A Brief Overview," New Directions for Teaching and Learning 68 (1996): 3-12; Katherine Frank, "Problem-Based Learning in the Literature Classroom: Empowering Students Through Literal and Metaphorical Collaboration," Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 19:1 (2008): 5-36; Wenyi Ho, "Problem-Based Learning,"; and Barbara J. Duch, Susan E. Groh, and Deborah E. Allen, eds., The Power of Problem-Based Learning (Sterling: Stylus, 2001). See also the University of Delaware's "PBL Clearinghouse" ( and "Problem-Based Learning at the University of Delaware" (

(3) See Ken Derry, "Advanced Topics in Religion and the Literary, Visual, and Performing Arts: Religion and Film," Syllabus, University of Toronto Mississauga, Mississauga, ON, 2016 ( As noted in the syllabus some of my descriptions of problem-based learning were adapted from the syllabus of another colleague, Dr. Tracey Bowen.

(4) Barrows, "Problem-Based Learning."

(5) For a discussion of using PBL in humanities courses see Frank, "Problem-Based Learning."

(6) Lunch on the final day was also a continuation of a pattern that we had established early on: each week, at least one student volunteered to bring food of some kind. I kicked this off by baking treats for the first couple of classes, and then left it up to the students to continue the tradition or not, as they saw fit. Someone always brought something--offerings included Timbits, fruit, cookies, and samosas. It's amazing the positive impact that food can have on a class atmosphere! For a discussion of using food in teaching in this and other ways, particularly in religion courses, see Desjardins, "Teaching."

(7) Ken Derry, "Interpreting Oz." The Hooded Utilitarian. July 6, 2015.


Barrows, Howard S. "Problem-Based Learning in Medicine and Beyond: A Brief Overview." New Directions for Teaching and Learning 68 (1996): 3-12.

Derry, Ken. "Advanced Topics in Religion and the Literary, Visual, and Performing Arts: Religion and Film." Syllabus, University of Toronto Mississauga, Mississauga, ON, 2016.

Derry, Ken. "Interpreting Oz." The Hooded Utilitarian. July 6, 2015.

Desjardins, Michel. "Teaching about Religion with Food." Teaching Theology and Religion 7, 3 (2004): 153-158.

Duch, Barbara J., Susan E. Groh, and Deborah E. Allen, eds. The Power of Problem-Based Learning. Sterling: Stylus, 2001.

Frank, Katherine. "Problem-Based Learning in the Literature Classroom: Empowering Students Through Literal and Metaphorical Collaboration." Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 19, 1 (2008): 5-36.

Ho, Wenyi. "Problem-Based Learning." Accessed October 10, 2014.

University of Delaware. "PBL Clearinghouse."

University of Delaware. "Problem-Based Learning at the University of Delaware."

Self-Sacrifice in The Journal of Religion and Film: Gender, Christ-figures, and Ant-Man

Mariam Ahmed, Christopher Antilope, Kitty Henneberry, and Sandeep Malhi

Gender has played a unique role in articles presented in the Journal of Religion and Film that discuss self-sacrifice. Over the years, male self-sacrifices have overwhelmingly been the ones most often discussed in JR&F. In total we found thirteen pieces in the journal that explicitly dealt in some way with the self-sacrifice of twenty characters. Of these, five articles considered the sacrifice of six female characters, (1) while nine involved the sacrifice of 14 male characters. (2)

Additionally, there have been differences in how male and female sacrifices have been discussed, with males far more frequently being given credit for more extensive sacrifices. For the purposes of our macro-analysis, we have established two kinds of self-sacrifice; global and personal. We have defined a "global" sacrifice as one by which a larger population is saved, and a "personal" sacrifice as one for a single person or smaller group (typically of personal relevance to the sacrificer, such as their friends or family). Throughout our analysis, we noticed time and again that, when a female character was described as having sacrificed herself, it was consistently presented in such a way that it fell under the umbrella of a personal sacrifice. Male sacrifices, meanwhile, seemed to have more freedom to move between the two categories: they were most often discussed in global terms, but also occasionally in personal ones.

Along with the imbalanced number of articles focusing on male and female sacrifices, we also found an imbalance in terms of the naming of "Christ-figures." Rather than going through the multitude of characteristics that a Christ-figure may have, the term "Christ-figure" often was used with apparently little critical reflection whenever an article mentioned a female character sacrificing herself. However, when articles focused on male characters as Christ-figures, many criteria were cited. Also, the key point highlighted in this regard was not their self-sacrifice, but their resurrection.

Christ-figures: Are They Over-Spotted?

When self-sacrifice in films is discussed, the outcome of a sacrifice is always for the betterment of either a select group or humanity in general. This is similar to the way that Christians typically view Jesus' sacrifice: for the destruction of sin and death in order to allow all people the possibility of eternal life with God. In film, many actors can embody Jesus either by portraying him directly (Jesus-figures), or by playing characters who are similar to Jesus in several ways (Christ-figures).

There are multiple criteria in terms of how a character can be considered a Christ-figure. In analyzing Superman, whom he calls "The American Pop Culture Movie Messiah," Anton Karl Kozlovic lists twenty prominent Christ-figure characteristics including divine paternity, shared life biographies (such as origins and missions), the performance of miracles, death, and resurrection. (3) The challenge of course is in deciding which specific characteristic(s) matter the most in making this determination. Voldemort in Harry Potter performs miracles, and also resurrects; is he therefore a Christ-figure? Does the appearance of crosses alone in relation to a character make one a Christ-figure? Similarly, during the analysis of how authors of the Journal of Religion and Film regard self-sacrifice, in several instances--particularly regarding female characters--it seems that the only feature that a character really needs in order to be considered a Christ-figure is a sacrificial death. If this is the case, then there are many more Christ-figures in films than anyone would expect.

In their review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, for example, Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin state, "the Christ-figure in Harry Potter's life is his own mother," simply because Lily Potter sacrifices herself so that her son will survive. (4) In Steel Magnolias, Shelby makes a personal sacrifice that consists of her giving birth against medical advice and dying in the process, and is called a "Christ-figure." (5) Similarly, in The Nun, Suzanne "sacrifices" her secular life in order to join the convent and to atone for her mother's sins, and by becoming a martyr in this way Claudio Rozzoni and Paolo Stellino understand her to have an "identification with Christ." (6)


Kozlovic and Mark Stucky, in contrast, analyze their male characters--Superman from his titular film, and Neo from The Matrix trilogy, respectively--as Christ-figures in relation to a variety of criteria, including the aforementioned traits mentioned by Kozlovic. Thus, we are not asking "what makes a Christ-figure," as Kozlovic's analysis and characteristics provide logical criteria relative to what many have come to see as Christ's own characteristics and actions. Rather, we are questioning the assertion that people who sacrifice themselves are automatically Christ-figures. What arguably makes a self-sacrifice more closely linked to Jesus Christ, for example, is when the character subsequently returns to life. The concept of resurrection is key. This concept is applied in the above discussions of Superman and Neo as Christ-figures, but not those of Lily, Shelby, or Suzanne. One final example, which could be an exception that proves the rule, is found in Kevin Dodd's analysis of Donnie Darko. (7) In keeping with analyses of other male characters, it is not Donnie's sacrifice alone that allows him the title of Christ-figure, but rather the way in which the overarching pattern of his life leading up to the sacrifice is congruent with that of Jesus. The all-important resurrection afterwards, however, is missing--but Dodd specifically points out that such an absence is very unusual within the "messianic motif."

Men, Women, and Motives for Self-Sacrifice

One of the two main "camps" we discovered during our review of self-sacrifice in JR&F was that of personal self-sacrifice, wherein the person who commits the sacrifice does so to save either an individual or a smaller group of people who typically have a personal connection to them. As noted above, for example, we read about Lily Potter giving up her life for son Harry; Shelby for her unborn child; and Suzanne for her mother. In fact, every piece that we read in the journal involving a female self-sacrifice fell into the "personal" category. (8)

Unlike discussions of female sacrifice, we found that JR&F contains more variety in regards to male sacrifice, with several patterns emerging. Aside from the fact that male sacrifices were simply discussed more often, they are also typically understood as global in scale, although at times personal motivations are also addressed. A typical instance of the male-centric nature of global sacrifice is offered by Conrad Oswalt's examination of Armageddon's Stamper. Played by Bruce Willis, this character detonates an explosion on an asteroid headed towards earth, averting disaster but dying in the process. Stamper, in other words, single-handedly "spares the world and humanity entirely" through his "sacrifice and heroism." (9)

A more complex example of male self-sacrifice can be seen in the analyses of John Lyden and John Schultes, who discuss the ideas behind several male figures and how they sacrifice themselves in Star Wars. (10) Both authors mention that Luke Skywalker is willing to sacrifice himself in order to get his father Darth Vader away from the Dark Side--a gesture towards a sacrifice on the personal scale. In the same articles, another instance is discussed wherein Obi-Wan Kenobi actually does sacrifice himself to save Luke by providing him with the chance to get away from Darth Vader. While Kenobi's act may appear to be a personal sacrifice, it is actually presented to be a mix of both personal and global, as it functions not only to save Vader's soul, but also to ensure Luke is able to continue along his path to saving the Empire later in the trilogy. The same of course is true of Luke's willingness to give up his life for his father, a personal act that ultimately leads to the rebels' victory over the Empire.

Significantly this notion of personal sacrifices with global impacts is not brought to bear regarding Lily Potter. Giving up her life for Harry arguably fits this ideal well, as this allowed her son to go on and fulfil the prophecy and save the world from Voldemort. The fact that Wayman and Conklin do not mention the global result of Lily's sacrifice may, of course, be linked to the fact that the final Harry Potter book had not been published when they wrote their piece on the first film in the series. Even still, the global implications of Lily's act are clearly foreshadowed from the beginning of the series.

It is worth noting that the gendered aspect of this pattern in discussions of self-sacrifice in JR&F is so apparent that, initially, we had labeled the camps as "female" and "male" rather than "personal" and "global." Quite likely, this pattern is a reflection of the film industry itself and not simply the attitudes of the authors who have contributed to this particular discussion. It is our hope that with our introduction to women committing acts of global self-sacrifice--Lily Potter above, and Janet van Dyne below--we will begin to see a new approach being taken to the discussion and depiction of women and self-sacrifice.

Self-Sacrifice in Marvel's Ant-Man

Personal sacrifice, as mentioned earlier, is done to save a loved one, or a smaller group of people. In Marvel's Ant-Man, it can be seen that Scott Lang, played by Paul Rudd, sacrifices himself for his young daughter, Cassie. As explained by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), Lang's mentor and the original Ant-Man, if Scott was to play around with the regulator that is attached in the centre of his Ant-Man body suit, then "[he] would enter a quantum realm... [He] would enter a reality where all concepts of time and space [will] become irrelevant as [he would] shrink for all eternity."


In the film, Scott sees the antagonist, Darren Cross/Yellowjacket, ready to attack his daughter and, in order to save Cassie, Scott must deactivate Cross' suit. To do so, he has to reach the inner mechanics of it by shrinking between the molecules to get there. To shrink to such a microscopic size, Scott has to turn on the regulator, which means that he will go into the aforementioned quantum realm and "shrink forever." So great is Lang's desire to protect his daughter from Cross that he sacrifices himself and shrinks into his enemy's suit and deactivates all the wires, while simultaneously saying "I love you, Cassie," to his daughter. This results in both the successful rescue of his daughter, and his own fate of continuously shrinking for eternity. However, he miraculously resurrects, returning to his normal size through a blue disc Pym had created.


It might be noted by some authors in JR&F that Lang's self-sacrifice to rescue his daughter--a personal motivation--also has global implications, as it coincides with the overall defeat of Cross. Once again, we can clearly see a male character enacting a mixed-scale sacrifice, although in fact the greater emphasis arguably falls into the personal camp: the reason clearly given for Scott risking his life is to save his daughter. Thus, to some extent, it can be said that Marvel's Ant-Man inverts the standard idea of males sacrificing themselves for humanity more than for a loved one.

The inversion within the realm of global sacrifice is much clearer. In the film, Pym explains that his wife, Janet Van Dyne, sacrificed herself on a mission in the 1980s. Furthermore, he explains that "[he] knew [he] had to shrink between the molecules to disarm the missile, but [his] regulator had sustained too much damage." What we see here is that, while Hank Pym as the first Ant-Man was willing to make a global sacrifice, he is unable to do so due to a technological error. In response, his wife "didn't hesitate," resulting in her sacrificing herself for her husband, but more so to save the United States' inhabitants from the missile. If we analyze this action further, Janet not only saves the USA, but potentially the world itself, as the missile attack may have resulted in a global war. Her selfless action presents not the stereotypical archetype of a woman sacrificing herself for a loved one or a select few; rather, it is due to her husband's technological failure that she selflessly accepts her fate to save everyone. Paying attention to this aspect of her act again shifts the gendered pattern of discussions of self-sacrifice in movies.

A question remains: Is Janet a Christ-figure? If we keep to the pattern established in JR&F, in which female self-sacrifice is the sole criterion required, we would have to say yes. If however we apply the same extensive examination of her character that, say, Superman or Neo are subjected to by Kozlovic and Stucky, the answer is less obvious. We are in fact given too little information about Janet to make a reasonable determination. In looking for possible parallels with the life of Jesus, for example, she does not appear to have a miraculous birth or divine paternity. She has no disciples, does not experience baptism, and is not in conflict with unjust authority figures. Perhaps most importantly, she does not resurrect--unlike the titular Ant-Man, Scott Lang.

Scott sacrifices himself while the words of Michael Douglas' Hank Pym are heard through a voiceover: "you would enter a reality where all concepts of time and space become irrelevant as you shrink for all eternity. Everything that you know and love, gone forever." Thus, Scott chooses to shrink to a subatomic level knowing that he will cease to exist, willingly giving himself up to save those whom he loves. His successful attempt moments later to escape this quantum reality parallels the idea of a resurrection. And while Scott also does not have a miraculous birth or divine paternity, his character includes many other parallels with Christ. When he first puts on the suit he is "baptized" as Ant-Man as he goes down the bathtub drain. His disciples are the ants who follow him, and are even willing to die for him. And we learn that he went to jail because he stole from a harmful corporation. All of these elements point to Scott as a kind of Christ-figure, even though it is Janet who makes the true global sacrifice.

So What?

What is both problematic and enriching about the study of religion and film is that scholars frequently view things either very similarly or very differently. A character that self-sacrifices may be a Christ-figure to one scholar, but not to another. Sometimes, both readings make sense. We must ask, "what makes a Christ-figure?" Branching away from Christ-figures, though, self-sacrifice in film presents viewers not only with an emotional scene, but also with the effects that it has on other characters. In short, where there is a self-sacrifice, there is victory, either in the prolonging of a few lives or the salvation of humankind. It is an act that moves plots forward, generates character development, and that is perhaps overloaded with symbolic meanings. Self-sacrifice is, to put it mildly, much more than just the act itself.

John Lyden writes that Darth Vader's sacrifice embodies the "Christian [concept] of redemption," redeeming him from sin and the Dark Side of the Force. (11) Mark Stucky writes that The Matrix films present audiences with a "postmodern messiah, his [self-sacrificial] death, and his resurrection." (12) Furthermore, Anton Karl Kozlovic holds that films are a "rich source of contemporary religiosity and a natural text for our youth." (13) This is a point not unlike one that Stucky makes, that while the millennial generation "would never sit through turgid traditional Bible epics, Christian theology becomes more accessible and attractive because of Neo's presentation as a postmodern messiah." (14) Films featuring Christian ideologies as well as self-sacrifices present lessons and morals to audiences watching them. As profound as Charlton Heston's acting may be in classic biblical epics such as Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments, these lengthy films are not likely to resonate with modern audiences. According to several authors in The Journal of Religion and Film, however, re-packaging notions of self-sacrifice into contemporary forms can continue their, impact and perhaps even expand the audiences they might reach.

Self-sacrifices may redeem a character or save others, whether just a few people or the entire human race. Self-sacrifices, then, establish that a character is most likely "good." Overall, self-sacrifices teach audiences lessons of loyalty, redemption, and love, indicating the values and people that are worth dying for. With these films and articles implying that cinematic self-sacrifices are a call-to-action, we see that "religion is alive, well and living in popular films... [and] it seems professionally prudent to harness these subtexts and put them to work in the RE [Religious Education] classroom." (15) Furthermore, films may include the self-sacrifices of young children, adults, or nonhuman entities, allowing audience members to "experience courage, loyalty, morality, identity, and evil's temptation in a world that ignores their size," age, race, or gender. (16) In sum, it is clear that self-sacrifices may not always be explicitly religious, but what they do is something that can embody certain ideals of Christianity. Thus, whether people give up their lives for people close to them or for people in general, it is evident that, in theology as well as in film, "sacrificial love is the ultimate power." (17)



(1) David Fillingim, "When Jesus was a Girl: Polymythic Female Christ Figures in Whale Rider and Steel Magnolias." Journal of Religion and Film 14:1 (2010) (two characters) (; Linda Mercadante, "Bless the Christ Figure? Theological Interpretations of Breaking the Waves." Journal of Religion and Film 5:1 (2001) (; Claudio Rozzoni and Paolo Stellino, "Rivette's The Nun: Religion between Sadism and Masochism," Journal of Religion and Film 20:1 (2016) (; Greg Watkins, "Seeing and Being Seen: Distinctively Filmic and Religious Elements in Film," Journal of Religion and Film 3:2 (1999) (; Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin, "Film Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," Journal of Religion and Film 6:1 (2002) (

(2) Kevin Dodd, "Donnie Darko and the Messianic Motif." Journal of Religion and Film 13:2 (2009) (; Frances Flannery Dailey, "Bruce Willis as the Messiah: Human Effort, Salvation and Apocalypticism in Twelve Monkeys," Journal of Religion and Film 4:1 (2000) (; Anton K. Kozlovic, "From Holy Aliens to Cyborg Saviours: Biblical Subtexts in Four Science Fiction Films." Journal of Religion and Film 5:2 (2001) (two characters) (; Anton K. Kozlovic, "Superman as Christ-figure: The American Pop Culture Movie Messiah." Journal of Religion and Film 6:1 (2002) (; John Lyden, "The Apocalyptic Cosmology of Star Wars," Journal of Religion and Film 4:1 (2000) (two characters) (; Conrad Oswalt, "Armageddon at the Millennial Dawn," Journal of Religion and Film 4:1 (2000) (; John S. Schultes, "Any Gods Out There? Perceptions of Religion from Star Wars and Star Trek," Journal of Religion and Film 7:2 (2003) ( (four characters); Mark D. Stucky, "He is the One: The Matrix Trilogy's Postmodern Movie Messiah," Journal of Religion and Film 9:2 (2005) (; Watkins, "Seeing and Being Seen."

(3) Kozlovic, "Superman as Christ-figure." Interestingly, Kozlovic's analysis of Superman-as-Christ does not include any mention of sacrifice. His focus instead is on the suffering of the crucified Jesus--his "slow, agonising death"--and on Lex Luthor's attempt to inflict this same fate on Superman.

(4) Wayman and Conklin, "Harry Potter."

(5) Fillingim, "When Jesus."

(6) Rozzoni and Stellino, "Rivette's The Nun."

(7) Dodd, "Donnie Darko."

(8) Again, this list is made up of the following: Fillingim, "When Jesus was a Girl"; Mercadante, "Bless the Christ-figure?"; Rozzoni and Stellino, "Rivette's The Nun"; Watkins, "Seeing and Being Seen"; Wayman and Conklin, "Harry Potter."

(9) Oswalt, "Armageddon at the Millennial Dawn."

(10) Lyden, "The Apocalyptic Cosmology"; Schultes, "Any Gods Out There?"

(11) Lyden, "The Apocalyptic Cosmology."

(12) Stucky, "He is the One."

(13) Kozlovic, "From Holy Aliens."

(14) Stucky, "He is the One."

(15) Kozlovic, "From Holy Aliens."

(16) Wayman and Conklin, "Harry Potter."

(17) Wayman and Conklin, "Harry Potter."


Dailey, Frances Flannery. "Bruce Willis as the Messiah: Human Effort, Salvation and Apocalypticism in Twelve Monkeys." Journal of Religion and Film 4, 1 (2000).

Dodd, Kevin. "Donnie Darko and the Messianic Motif." Journal of Religion and Film 13, 2 (2009).

Fillingim, David. "When Jesus was a Girl: Polymythic Female Christ Figures in Whale Rider and Steel Magnolias." Journal of Religion and Film 14, 1 (2010).

Kozlovic, Anton K. "From Holy Aliens to Cyborg Saviours: Biblical Subtexts in Four Science Fiction Films." Journal of Religion and Film 5, 2 (2001).

Kozlovic, Anton K. "Superman as Christ-figure: The American Pop Culture Movie Messiah." Journal of Religion and Film 6, 1 (2002).

Lyden, John. "The Apocalyptic Cosmology of Star Wars." Journal of Religion and Film 4, 1 (2000).

Mercadante, Linda. "Bless the Christ Figure?: Theological Interpretations of Breaking the Waves." Journal of Religion and Film 5, 1 (2001).

Oswalt, Conrad. "Armageddon at the Millennial Dawn." Journal of Religion and Film 4, 1 (2000).

Rozzoni, Claudio and Paolo Stellino. "Rivette's The Nun: Religion between Sadism and Masochism." Journal of Religion and Film 20, 1 (2016).

Schultes, John S. "Any Gods Out There? Perceptions of Religion from Star Wars and Star Trek." Journal of Religion and Film 7, 2 (2003).

Stucky, Mark D. "He is the One: The Matrix Trilogy's Postmodern Movie Messiah." Journal of Religion and Film 9, 2 (2005).

Watkins, Greg. "Seeing and Being Seen: Distinctively Filmic and Religious Elements in Film." Journal of Religion and Film 3, 2 (1999).

Wayman, Denny and Hal Conklin. "Film Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Journal of Religion and Film 6, 1 (2002).

Exciting Advances in a New Field: A Study of Music in the Journal of Religion and Film

Rishiv Gautam, Robin Johal, Janielle Murray, and Abinayah Ragulan

While reviewing articles in the Journal of Religion and Film, we noticed that few authors discuss music when analyzing films. This discovery surprised us, given that music plays a prominent role in films, and that most major religions incorporate some form of music in their practices. Even when music is addressed it is often just in passing, and no in-depth analysis is offered. For example, in discussing Twelve Monkeys, Frances Flannery-Dailey simply observes that the "motif of earthly paradise is... captured in the music Cole hears in the 1990s." (1)

There are many possible reasons why religion scholars seldom use music to analyze religion and film. One might be that they are more often trained to interpret texts, not music. Another might be a lack of linguistic or cultural competence (among certain groups of scholars) that would be necessary to analyze Bollywood films, which feature music prominently. In an email to our group regarding these issues, John Lyden, editor of JR&F, wrote:
If we are looking at scholarship outside India, I think that language
and cultural barriers have contributed to less focus on Bollywood, as
indeed all films made outside of North America and Europe tend to be
neglected by westerners due to lack of familiarity. That said, I do
think that there is a certain fascination with Bollywood, and some
English productions like My Name is Khan and Slumdog Millionaire have
created greater familiarity with Bollywood films. The cinema of many
other countries is still largely unknown in the west. I think the fact
that few people understand the structure of music or have studied it,
and that perhaps few of those studying film have that training, has
contributed to the lack of good scholarship on film music. It may also
be that the focus on the visual qualities of film has eclipsed
discussion of the aural dimensions; for example, much of the work on
silent film points out the differences from sound cinema in that it
"lacks" sound, but what is rarely recalled is the essential role that
music played when the films were shown live with musical accompaniment,
the score for which was often provided by the filmmakers. (2)

A consideration of music to some extent when studying religion and film does appear occasionally in earlier issues of the journal. (3) Overall, however, this is a relatively recent development. As a result we have focused our study on JR&F articles that have appeared over the past five years (2012-2016). (4) In total, nine of these explicitly look at music in film. (5) In doing so, they focus on song lyrics or melody, and identify ways in which music either connects to a specific religious tradition in some manner, or evokes an experience that could be considered "religious" in a broad or general sense.


We were surprised to find that only three of the nine articles directly considered the lyrics of movie songs, and also that all three of them focus on Bollywood:

1. Diana Dimitrova, "Hinduism and Its Others in Bollywood Film of the 2000s" (2016).

2. Kathleen M. Erndl, "Woman Becomes Goddess in Bollywood: Justice, Violence, and the Feminine in Popular Hindi Film" (2013).

3. Monisa Qadri and Sabeha Mufti, "Films and Religion: An Analysis of Aamir Khan's PK" (2016).

Dimitrova does not analyze any particular songs, or in fact directly relate music in Bollywood movies to religion. Instead she explains: "The centrality of music [in Bollywood films] has its roots in older performance traditions, for instance in classical Sanskrit drama, folk theatre, and Parsi theatre, which integrated music, dance and song in the performance." (6) She also comments on the role of song lyrics to "define and propel the development of the plot." In this regard, songs can be used "to represent fantasy, desire and passion that is inherent in the development of the love story." (1) Lyrics therefore connect us to a "religious" dimension of the film as viewers are led to identify with, and participate in, experiences that transcend everyday reality.

Qadri and Mufti consider the link between song lyrics and more explicitly religious experiences, especially during moments when characters sing out loud. For example, in PK the main character is confused and is on a search for answers regarding life, and the lyrics reflect his emotional state throughout the film. In this song, for example, the hero is lost and prays for help:
Hai suna ye poori dharti tu chalata hai
Meri bhi sun le araj, mujhe ghar bulaata hai
Bhagwan hai kahaan re tu, aye khuda hai kahan re tu
I've heard that you run the whole world,
Listen to my prayer too, my home calls me,
O Lord, where are you? O God, where are you? (2)

In this way the lyrics of songs in this film connect directly to religion.

Erndl discusses a more complex religious allusion in a song from the Hindi film Anjaam. At one point the heroine appears and sings to her husband:
I was a naive girl of eighteen
I went out with my lovely face hidden in a veil.
I was a naive girl of eighteen
I went out with my lovely face hidden in a veil.
The beauty got caught
The beauty got caught in the chickpea field.
In the field of chickpeas, a theft occurred.
First the rascal caught my wrist,
then he quietly pressed down a finger.
First the rascal caught my wrist,
then he quietly pressed down a finger.
By force
By force, in the field of chickpeas, there was a theft. (3)

Erndl acknowledges that at first the song appears to be about rape. However, she points out that this reading does not fit with the context of the scene, as the singer "is not an innocent village girl of eighteen trapped in a chickpea field or anywhere else. She is a modern professional urban woman, who has chosen her own husband and is not afraid to express her sexuality." In fact, Erndl argues, "this type of song, with naughty lyrics full of double entendres, features prominently in traditional Hindu women's nuptial celebrations." The point when the woman is veiled suggests that she is a virgin, and "the theft of the chickpea field" is a reference to her wedding night, where she is a virginal young bride who becomes a woman. (4) In this way the song lyrics indirectly reference a particular religious tradition.


In our sample of nine articles from 2012 to 2016, there were many more that examined song melodies in relation to religion, rather than lyrics. In fact eight of the nine did this, the only exception being Qadri and Mufti's analysis of PK. Dimitrova, for example, discusses the significance of melody to "convey the heightening of emotion," creating a religious experience by intensifying a particular scene. (5) Erndl similarly notes that music is used often in film to "convey emotions in ways that cannot be done by dialog alone." (6) S. Brent Plate argues that, in Star Wars, the loud instrumental music imposes strong feelings upon the viewer, which is then replaced by "a solo flute playing alongside chimes... [and] the music plays softly, soothingly; there is a cosmic order to the universe" changing the scene entirely. (7) In his analysis of Fearless and the Truman Show, Erik Heine observes that the symbolic rebirth of both protagonists is "accompanied by music that is stylistically absent in any other portion of the film." (8) In this way the music scores of these two films reflect, and help the audience connect with, each character's experiences. Finally, Yoshiko Okuyama analyses the music of the Japanese film, Departures. She states that "classical music and ritualized gestures of the encoffining performance signify the level of purity and sacredness." (9)

Other authors consider the links between melody and specific religious traditions. Looking at The Omen, Carrol L. Fry asserts that the melody of "Ave Satani" in the film creates a "Satanic reversal of Christian worship, and it triggers the presence of evil and imminent violence" for the viewer. (10) The melody creates a transition from a scene filled with Christian religiosity to a more "Satanic" and dark atmosphere. Kathleen Erndl discusses the song Sajda playing in the background during a scene in My Name is Khan. The word sajda, she points out, is "an Arabic word that in Urdu and Hindi refers specifically to the act of bowing down in the direction of Mecca for the daily Muslim prayer." "The song Sajda, along with other songs in the film, with its mystical Islamic (Sufi) overtones, highlights and reinforces the largely Muslim visual imagery and language in the film." (11) Last but not least, Wendy M. Wright studies melody in the French film Of Gods and Men, which focuses on an understanding of Christian values. Wright proposes that not only sound but also soundlessness can create a religious experience: "silence is meant to create a space where... the whisper of the Spirit, and to the longing of the world, becomes possible" demonstrating the importance of silence. Wright also asserts that "harmonic music... conveys the spiritual substance of the monastic life, in this case the power of prayer, without dialogue but in gesture and sound." (12)


Based on how scholars in the Journal of Religion and Film have analyzed music, we can determine the application of these ideas about both melody and lyrics to the 2015 film Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh. In this film "religion" takes two main forms. First, there is the faith that Cinderella has in the world generally. This faith is represented by her mother's mantra, repeated throughout the film: "Have courage and be kind." Second, while the film does not mention any real-world religious traditions, it does contain an explicit supernatural force in the form of the fairy godmother, Cinderella's savior.

In terms of music, melodies throughout the film evoke religious experiences. Percussion and wind instruments are used during separate moments within the film to heighten emotion. One such moment occurs when Cinderella rides off upset after being ridiculed by her sisters calling her "cinders ella." She then loses control of her horse, which leads to her interaction with the prince. This scene is arguably religious, as Cinderella seems about to give up her belief in the goodness of the world. She loses control of her horse just as she is losing control of her life and her faith. But then the interaction with the prince leads her to recover her faith as he stops the hunting party from continuing and she is able to return home. Throughout the more intense parts of these scenes the viewer is overwhelmed by dramatic music, the camera shifting back and forth over large landscapes creating the illusion of speed, while the use of loud percussion instruments leads to an "edge of your seat" experience.

During very hard times with her step-family, when Cinderella seems to lose faith that things will get better, she sings a lullaby: "Lavender's Blues." This is a song that her mother sang to her as a child when she became ill, telling Cinderella to be brave. She sings it again at the end of the film when she is locked in the attic, and the prince is searching for her. The lyrics are an affirmation of faith, promising a bright future that "shall be":
Lavender's blue, dilly dilly, lavender's green,
When I am king, dilly dilly, you shall be queen:
Who told you so, dilly dilly, who told you so?
'Twas mine own heart, dilly dilly, that told me so.

The lullaby both helps Cinderella hold onto her faith, and shows the audience that she has not completely lost hope. At her lowest moment, however, when her stepmother rips her dress and forbids her from attending the ball, all music stops as Cinderella weeps in front of the fountain. At this point her fairy godmother arrives, and the music returns--along with Cinderella's faith.

The fairy godmother is associated with one of the most famous songs in film: "Bibbiti-Bobbiti-Boo." Unlike much of the more serious orchestral scores in Cinderella, this is a bouncy, "excitable" piece of music. Its difference from the somber themes of the film is also marked by the famously silly lyrics, which link back to, but go beyond, the "dilly dilly" of "Lavender's Blue."
Sala-gadoola-menchicka-boo-la bibbidi-bobbidi-boo
Put 'em together and what have you got?

In this way the lyrics and the melody, together with the visual aesthetics of the scene, connects the divinity of the godmother with happiness and, more specifically, with fun. As the godmother sings nonsense words, she uses her magic to transform pumpkins into chariots and mice into horsemen. Cinderella is clearly having a good time, and the song in fact helps make the scene of preparing her for the ball with mystical powers a fun (and arguably religious) experience for the viewer as well.


Finally, it is perhaps worth pointing out that while Cinderella is a Hollywood film, it does follow some of the traits recognized by Dimitrova as patterns within Bollywood film. These include the use of music and cinematic effects, together with melodramatic acting, to heighten the experience for the viewer. This heightening of the emotional impact can also be associated both with Cinderella's loss/recovery of faith, and with the God-like savior figure of the fairy godmother using supernatural powers in order to help Cinderella.

It's Complicated

Music is an important part of people's lives in general, and is a common feature specifically of many religious practices, texts, and traditions. Music should not be overlooked when examining religion and film, and Cinderella offers a good example of the value of this sort of analysis. Reviewing the articles on music in the Journal of Religion and Film over the past five years we noticed a number of patterns:

* As noted above, most attention has been paid to melody, rather than lyrics. This fact surprised us, given that religion scholars are so often trained in textual analysis. Also, very few articles considered melody and lyrics together, and instead looked at each separately.

* No Disney films were analyzed. This also surprised us, considering the prominent role that songs play in many of these movies, including The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Frozen, etc.

* Most of the films analyzed were from Hollywood or Bollywood; only two were not (Departures and Of Gods and Men). This did not surprise us, given that these two industries produce most of the movies worldwide.

The relations in film between music and religion are diverse and complicated. We encourage religion scholars to continue paying increasing attention to music in film, as the area is a very rich one and there is still a lot of work that can be done.

Ken Derry

University of Toronto,

Recommended Citation

Derry, Ken (2017) "Problem-Based Learning and Two Studies of the Journal of Religion and Film: Self-Sacrifice and Music," Journal of Religion & Film: Vol. 21 : Iss. 1 , Article 32.

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Author Notes

Ken Derry is Associate Professor, Teaching Stream, in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM). Since 2011 he has been a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Religion and Film, and since 2012 he has been the Co-chair of the Religion, Film, and Visual Culture Groupfor the American Academy of Religion. Aside from religion and film his teaching and research interests include considerations of religion in relation to literature, violence, popular culture, pedagogy, and Indigenous traditions. He is the recipient of the 2013 UTM Teaching Excellence Award.
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Author:Derry, Ken
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Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:Apr 1, 2017
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