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The Disappearing Christ argues that early cinema developed as a model technology of secularism at the turn of the twentieth century. Negotiating as it did between the magic trick and the documentary image, the conflicting impulses of belief and skepticism, the emerging aesthetic of film itself in this period visualized the fraught process of secularization for spectators. This balancing act becomes radiantly visible in the development of a multimedia aesthetic I call “spectacular realism.” Fantastical historical romances that obsessively cite archival sources, early films that advertise both authentic location shooting and elaborate special effects, magazine illustrations that superimpose contemporary lynching photographs with images of a risen Christ—spectacular realism is the aesthetic of a secular age characterized by lively hybridity and ambivalence rather than decline and fall, and cinema crystallizes its impact. This book looks to novels, photographs, illustrations, and, finally, films that helped to constitute this shared discourse that spoke as much to innovations in visual form as it did to changes in social life. Viewing early cinema and the visual culture that surrounded it in this way—reading aesthetic and narrative experiments as indicative of a broader cultural effort to come to terms with the role of religion in modernity—can help us to reconsider secularization, not as the rejection of religious ways of knowing, but as the innovative exploration of new options between belief and unbelief.

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