Home All The Sacred: Spirituality and Movies

The Sacred: Spirituality and Movies

written by Ryan Niemiec 30 September 2008

Ryan Niemiec, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist, coach, and Education Director of the VIA Institute on Character. He's an international presenter on character strengths, mindfulness, and positive psychology. Ryan is author of many books including Character Strengths Interventions and Mindfulness and Character Strengths and co-author of The Power of Character Strengths and Positive Psychology at the Movies. Longer bio. Articles by Ryan are here.

Movies can be an instrument of positive psychology. In a manner different from other art forms, they teach, guide, and inspire the awareness of and expression of character strengths and virtues (Niemiec & Wedding, 2008). Walt Disney said that movies find a way to touch the “unspoiled spot” within us. Ingmar Bergman expressed a similar idea by noting that movies can reach the dark inner recesses of our souls. What these luminaries were saying is that movies help us, the viewers, to connect with “the sacred” that is within us. While any of the 24 character strengths and virtues in the Peterson & Seligman (2004) typology can help us to connect with the sacred and the holy, the one that is most closely related to it is spirituality.


Psychologist Ken Pargament has studied ‘spirituality’ in his research lab at Bowling Green State University. Spirituality is defined as thoughts, feelings, and behaviors an individual engages in while searching for a relationship with the sacred (Pargament & Saunders, 2007). This implies that there are a variety of ways to connect with the sacred. Sacred text reading, yoga, music, art, 12-step groups, meditation, various types of prayer, and social action are a few examples (Pargament & Mahoney, 2002). When you connect with the sacred, you bring meaning and purpose into your life.


Movies are another pathway to the sacred. Despite being overlooked for such purposes, they are one of the most accessible and poignant means to experience the sacred. There are a number of ways that movies do this:

1) Character Portrayals

Movies portray characters engaging in sacred rituals, exhibiting deep faith at times of crisis, going on journeys of meaning and purpose, etc. In Field of Dreams (1989), Kevin Costner portrays Ray Kinsella, a man who creates a sacred space in the guise of a baseball field in the middle of his Iowa cornfields. The Believer (2001) is an independent film about a young man living an impossible contradiction: he’s a Jewish Nazi, who physically attacks and berates Jews at any opportunity. One day when he and his gang are destroying a synagogue, he comes face to face with some ancient sacred scroll, is deeply moved, and decides to protect the writings from destruction. This is the catalyst for his journey to find and embrace his true faith.

Character connections with the sacred can be secular or religious in nature, or a blend of the two. An example of the latter can be seen in the French film Monsieur Ibrahim (2003), in which the wise store-owner, a Sufi, teaches an impressionable young man about the omnipresence of the sacred, explaining “You can find beauty wherever you look” and “If God wants to reveal life to you, he won’t need a book.” Other examples are the moving portrayal of the sacred experience of deep meditation in Little Buddha (1993), the dedicated ministry to the poor in Mother Teresa (2003), and, in the documentary Kumbh Mela: Songs of the River (2004), the depiction of the gathering of 70 million people from around the world for a sacred Hindu festival in Allahabad, India.

Secular connections to the sacred relate closely to Wong’s (2008) concepts of meaning-seeking, meaning-making, and meaning-reconstruction. Some film examples include the journey to discover meaning taken by a bereft Jack Nicholson, who has just lost his wife in About Schmidt (2002), and the Bill Murray character in Broken Flowers (2005), who discovers he has a son from one of the many women he has slept with over the years.

Each of the characters in the above films makes a connection with the sacred, whether it is a sacred object, ritual, experience, or a journey that becomes sacred. What do you find precious in your life? Is it a memory, a daily ritual, or an object? Take a moment to reflect on this. When you view films like those above, do they inspire you to go on a quest of your own to seek more meaning and purpose in your life?

2) The Film Itself

Just as a childhood blanket, a set of prayer beads, or a meditation cushion can become a sanctified object, so too can a movie. Consider the irresistible smile that emerges on the face of anyone who has seen and hears mention of Zorba the Greek (1964). Also, the sacred playfulness, transformation, and family connection elicited by The Wizard of Oz (1939), the reaction of a child who has just seen Finding Nemo (2003) and insists on watching it over and over. Each of these films as a whole can be seen as a sacred film for particular viewers.

Most people have a sacred film. What film has a special (sacred) place in your heart? What is it like to watch this movie alone versus watching it with others?

3) The Viewer

Most important, everything comes down to the viewer’s own impression of the film, the characters, and the themes. Does the film elicit an insight, cause a transformation, or inspire change in the viewer? This often occurs when a movie taps into that unspoiled, sacred spot within. Consider the Best Picture winner American Beauty (1999) and the character Ricky who finds deep meaning in a piece of trash (a floating plastic bag). Just as Ricky finds the sacred in the mundane, many viewers find themselves identifying with the scene, connecting with the sacred moment depicted on-screen and connecting with the sacred after the movie’s conclusion.

The experience of the sacred is clearly an individual process. Pause for a moment. What is sacred about this now experience for you? What thoughts and feelings do you have as you become aware of the sacred?

Consider how you might apply the unparalleled art of movies both personally and professionally:

  • If you’re a teacher, show one of the above films and discuss with your students how the characters connect with the sacred.
  • If you’re a clinician or coach, ask your clients how they connect with the sacred. Give them a homework exercise to view one of these films and to write down the sacred acts they view or directly experience while watching the film; make a point to discuss this with them at their next session.
  • If you’re someone else, the next time you view a movie, focus on the sacred in the characters’ behaviors and interactions. Allow yourself to feel moved and connected.




Niemiec, R. M., & Wedding, D. (2008). Positive psychology at the movies: Using films to build virtues and character strengths. Gottingen, Germany: Hogrefe.

Pargament, K. I., & Mahoney, A. (2002). Spirituality: Discovering and conserving the sacred. In C. R. Snyder and S. J. Lopez (Eds.). Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 646–659). New York: Oxford University Press.

Pargament, K. I., Magyar-Russell, G. M., & Murray-Swank, N. A. (2005). The sacred and the search for significance: Religion as a unique process. Journal of Social Issues, 61(4), 665-687.

Paragment, K.I., & Saunders, S.M. (2007). Introduction to the special issue on spirituality and psychotherapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 63(10), 903–907.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wong, P. T. P. (2008). Meaning management theory and death acceptance. In A. Tomer, G. T. Eliason, and P. T. P. Wong (Eds.), Existential and Spiritual Issues in Death Attitudes (pp. 65-87). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Walt Disney, School film courtesy of Artshooter,
Field of Dreams, Monsieur Ibrahim, Broken Flowers, The Wizard of Oz, Finding Nemo, American Beauty

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Nicholas Hall 2 October 2008 - 1:59 am

Hi Ryan,
You know what’s so interesting about this article and the point that you’re making? To me it is that just about anything can become a sacred thing… it just depends on the degree of meaning someone puts into it. American Beauty was an extremely moving film for me and in a way, sacred. For many youth and young adults caught up in the Star Wars films, there is a lot of sacred symbolism and content in these movies that make them so special… and sacred. They are films that made me look for greater meaning and purpose beyond the small life that I perceived for myself and became something that I could always return to for inspiration and strength. That is what sacredness is to me.

Senia Maymin 2 October 2008 - 2:05 am


There is something magical about movies – just talking about them, planning to see them, remembering them – there are beautiful things about all this.

Magic and sacred are good ways to describe movies so often. Thank you!

sue popson 3 October 2008 - 2:13 pm


A very inspirational and thought provoking article. It really makes you stop and think about those movies in a whole new light. Great suggestions too – thanks so much for enlightening us!

Kirsten Cronlund 4 October 2008 - 7:03 am


Your article reminds me of the days of taking English classes and reading books like The Great Gatsby. I remember showing up in class, having done the reading for the day and having enjoyed it at face value – only to have the teacher highlight phrases and symbols that brought a different level of meaning to the book for me. I now do academic tutoring and coaching, and one of my high school clients was recently lamenting to me about how her teacher “picks the book apart.” This experience diminished, for her (an avid reader), the joy she was experiencing in her own reading.

I’m thinking that if someone wanted to “pick apart” my favorite movie of all times I probably wouldn’t like it.

So I like what you’re saying: that the search for the sacred (either through movies, books, or anything else) is a very personal experience. It can be enhanced, for sure, through the right avenue but that will probably look different for different people. And the other thing I like about your article is that it points out the value in simply watching a meaningful movie as a way of accessing the sacred. Stories can be so powerful that sometimes no words are necessary – the story speaks for itself.

Thanks for a great article.


Ryan Niemiec 4 October 2008 - 12:29 pm

Thanks to everyone’s kind comments and observations.

Speaking to one of your comments, Kirsten: Just yesterday, I was leading a movie discussion of the spirituality in the film, The Golden Compass, and someone commented on how the first time they saw the film, they simply passively enjoyed it and didn’t think much of the film beyond that. It essentially had no impact on the person and they forgot about the film after they left the theater. Last night was the 2nd time she viewed the film. After hearing a brief intro of some of the themes and insights a viewer “could” look for – and after hearing the observations of 18 other individuals who’d just watched the film – she was significantly impacted. She was in awe at how much was going on beyond the plot and the meaning potential of the film. This then opened up significant change opportunities for this individual.

We’ve yet to tap just how much movies can offer an individual, particularly in tapping into the sacred within.


waynej 4 October 2008 - 3:11 pm

Ryan, sounds like you are teaching people to savour the experience of film??

Ryan Niemiec 4 October 2008 - 4:34 pm

Good way of putting it, Wayne.

My hope is that individuals become cognizant of the opportunity they have at any moment to connect with the film they are viewing and its characters, as well as to dig deeper applying meaning and looking for personal application. Upon gathering this awareness, savoring can happen at either level.

Marcu 11 October 2008 - 3:06 pm

This was very informative and I learned a lot.
Thanks for taking the time to do this.

andrewstras 12 December 2008 - 4:40 am

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