When your subject matter is as potentially polarizing as Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement — was she a saint or a communist, a loving mother or a selfish troublemaker? — the best way around your material is probably straight through it.

In a new documentary, “Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story,” filmmaker Martin Doblmeier takes that direct course. He does this in all his films, including those that examine forgiveness, those that profile prophetic religious figures like Reinhold Niebuhr and Howard Thurman, and those that explore Seventh-day Adventists, military chaplains, and the Taizé community, just to name a few.

There are many theological educators who find that documentaries such as Doblmeier’s spark rich classroom discussions. Some even believe that films can be superior to guest lecturers because a well-made, evenhanded movie can present a variety of voices on a subject. And through film, students can hear directly from prophetic figures and immerse themselves in the past. Film can bring into focus the courage and principles of historical people in a way that seems immediate and unmediated.

Doblmeier refers to his work as “narrative theology.” He says film is “a legitimate way to experience story, and in the midst of story you can discover theology.” Before he took up broadcast journalism, Doblmeier studied religion, and he believes documentary film lies at the intersection of art and theology. “I haven’t taken a theology class in a long time, but I’ve spent a lot of time on campus, listening and engaging,” he says. “I know one of the great challenges in theological education is how to make theology not abstract.”

Compelling examples

Helen Blier, director of continuing education at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, incorporates film, literature, live performance, and music into the extensive programmatic offerings that Pittsburgh Seminary presents to continuing education students each year. These art forms, Blier believes, encourage and elicit empathy — which is “a necessary precursor for the capacity to lead and participate in community,” she says. “There’s a limit to how involved people can get through print media. There is something universally accessible about movies.” As part of the annual community conversation on race and faith at Pittsburgh, Blier recently showed two of Doblmeier’s films, “An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story” and “Backs Against The Wall: The Howard Thurman Story.”

Blier says that “film stokes an appetite for a more relational way of addressing big ideas. People are really hungry for compelling stories that give them not just an understanding of what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to live, but a compelling vision for trying to organize life, and a compelling life example by someone we consider exemplary.”

Doblmeier is the founder of Journey Films, based in Alexandria, Virginia, and he has been making documentaries since 1983. He works with a small team to balance a heft of subject matter — profiling spiritual leaders who stood against Nazism, racism, or nuclear proliferation — with compelling original footage and interviews with people who knew his subjects best.

Walter Earl Fluker, professor of ethical leadership at Boston University School of Theology and director of the expansive Howard Thurman Papers Project, finds that film is an effective way to teach about Thurman, who was a spiritual thinker and civil rights leader whose theology of radical nonviolence influenced and shaped a generation of activists. Fluker believes Thurman was ahead of his time in many ways, particularly in his thinking about race, the environment, liturgy, sexuality, and nonviolence as a life choice, not just a tactic.

Fluker, who has shown Doblmeier’s film in his classes, finds that “most students who study with me expect that Thurman will help them with their crises. They discover a radical visionary who asks, ‘How do you rethink, reimagine democratic faith?’” — a discovery, he believes, that can be made more powerfully in Thurman’s own voice. Fluker says the resurgence of interest in Thurman’s story and teachings may be good for theological education and for society as a whole, which remains beset with racial injustice and inequality despite advances since the civil rights movement.

“I’ve had people come to me and say, ‘I thought I knew about Thurman, but the Thurman film made me aware of his influence far beyond anything of which I was aware,’” says Luther E. Smith Jr., professor emeritus at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He especially notes Thurman’s influence on Martin Luther King Jr. and the development of King’s theology of nonviolence.

Smith does not rely solely on Doblmeier’s films, however. He also shows other documentaries and feature films in his classes on nonviolent strategies of social change and Christian communalism, including “The Mission,” “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” “Mighty Times: The Children’s March,” and “Briars in the Cotton Patch.”

Like Fluker, Smith appears in “Backs Against the Wall.” He says that when teaching, he sometimes prefers showing a film to bringing in a guest speaker. “Films offer multiple voices about the same event as well as a variety of perspectives,” he says. “They also reflect the interpretive work of filmmakers who are endeavoring to present subjects in the most engaging and clarifying ways. The time, energy, comprehensive viewpoints, and skillful portrayals bring forth the power of story to communicate in transformative ways.”

The power to resonate

In her courses at Harvard Divinity School, K. Healan Gaston, lecturer in American religious history and ethics, finds that film can personalize ideas and make history less intimidating to students, turning subjects into “conversation partners.”

She has shown Doblmeier’s film “An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story” (for which she was senior advisor) in the class she teaches on Reinhold and his brother Richard Niebuhr. In another class, Gaston has shown portions of the six-part, six-hour documentary, “With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America.” The film is a companion project to a landmark book of the same name by William R. Martin. “That’s a great example of the power of documentary film to take something on the [printed] page and turn it into something that is resonant in a deeper way,” she says of the collaboration between Martin and the producers of the film. “Students always comment on that. It solidifies and concretizes their learning.”

Mary Elizabeth Moore, dean of the Boston University School of Theology, has also used Doblmeier’s films on Thurman and Niebuhr as teaching tools. They have sparked important conversations on ethical leadership and ministry generally, she says, and have been formative for both students and community members.

Film can show how “culture and context shape the ministries that are needed, the people who minister, and the ministries that are possible,” she says. “For example, the Niebuhr film shows that his ideas are not an abstraction that you study and debate. They were cultivated in a particular atmosphere with particular urgencies in the world, and they were shaped by those contexts and Niebuhr’s personal context, religious tradition, and history.”

Moore believes that Niebuhr’s thinking has particular relevance in today’s contentious political climate. “Students learn that courage is critical to ministry. These films reveal different forms of courage, but in every single case — courage,” says Moore. “I think films can enhance the respect students have for the diversity of ministry and the importance of that diversity to the whole.”

Healan Gaston adds: “I could imagine teaching the Niebuhr film in a course on the history of Protestant–Catholic relations, and the Dorothy Day film would be relevant there, too. These films are hugely relevant to all kinds of things that we teach every day.”

That would be music to Doblmeier’s ears. “I get to handle the material, and it’s almost like a sacred trust,” he says. “If I do my job well, tell the story well, I know that story will inspire people to take the next step on their own. I can only do so much. God can do the rest.”


Discovering authentic, uncompromising lives

Documentary filmmaker Martin Doblmeier answers a few questions

In the last 35 years, Martin Doblmeier has made more than 30 films that show how faith has empowered people to act in ordinary and extraordinary ways. Doblmeier has recently released three award-winning documentaries on three singular religious leaders of the 20th century: Reinhold Niebuhr, Howard Thurman, and Dorothy Day. In Trust recently asked Doblmeier how theological educators can use his films.

Resonant in a deeper way
For more information on Martin Doblmeier and
Journey Films, including educational resources
for each documentary: https://journeyfilms.com/

Q. What do documentary films contribute to theological education?

A. We think of these films not only as drama and as entertainment but as narrative theology. We try to present theology in a way that is both memorable and personal. For example, you see how Dorothy Day or Howard Thurman responded to events that were occurring around them, and from that you extrapolate what their responses might be to situations in our time — because ultimately theology is meant to be applied in the world.

Documentaries give us a story line that can bring us into critical moments, giving us an opportunity to reflect on what these visionaries did, what choices they made, and what they held dear in their hearts.


Q. In your films, do you try to move viewers in particular directions?

A. I tell stories to the best of my ability. I’m trying to be faithful to the text of the story and put as much emotion and drama into it as I possibly can. My job is to make the film, and then God has his job to do. If he wants to move people in a particular direction based on the film, I’m thrilled. But if I were making films with the goal of converting or evangelizing people, they would be very different films.

Q. Do you expect that your new documentary, “Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story,” will be of interest primarily to Catholics?

A. You don’t have to be Catholic to admire Dorothy Day. She lived her faith without compromise, and good came from that.

You may not agree with Day’s pacifism. She went beyond the teachings of the Catholic church, which has a long theological tradition with regard to “just war.” But Dorothy Day would have nothing to do with that — she pushed the edges of what it meant to be a peacemaker in her time, and therefore what it means to be a peacemaker in our time.

You cannot watch a story about a person like Dorothy Day and not feel as though she is challenging you to live your faith in a different and more authentic way.

Upcoming In Trust Center webinar with award-winning filmmaker Martin Doblmeier

UPDATE! Due to technical difficulties with the webinar platform, the webinar, Behind the scenes with Martin Doblmeier, originally scheduled for May 12, 2020, had to be postponed. It has been rescheduled and the new date is Wednesday, May 27, 2020 at 1 p.m. EDT. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Please join us on the new date for this special live interactive webinar with Martin Doblmeier for an opportunity to explore the power of storytelling and how the religious figures profiled in Doblmeier's films — including Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, and Reinhold Niebuhr — can spark important conversations about community and service.

If you are already registered, you do not need to register again. You should have already received an email update from Zoom Webinars as well as from the In Trust Center alerting you to the new date. If you have not yet done so, please register here.

Please join us May 27, 2020, at 1 p.m. EDT. For more information: www.intrust.org/webinars.

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