When Hollywood made King of Kings in 1960, it decided it couldn't be too careful
with the first talking film about the Son of God. Test screenings were held for
carefully selected representative preview audiences to garner their reactions to
the film. Would audiences find the idea of a celluloid Christ shocking? Would
they be offended at the idea of Hollywood packaging and glamorizing the story of
salvation? Would they be appalled at the vivid scenes of Christ on the cross,
one of the most sacred images of the Christian religion?
The answer was no. Audiences were ready for a talking version of the story of
Jesus. But there was one thing that bothered the audience. It was Jeffery
Hunter's hairy chest. For some strange reason, this composite group of American
citizens found the idea of Christ having a hairy chest disturbing. Hollywood,
which was wary of crossing boundaries at the time, complied with the objector's
wishes and Jeffery Hunter's chest was shaved and the scenes were re-shot.
This seemingly insignificant moment in film history tells us a lot about the
relationship of Christianity to Hollywood, and indeed, to popular culture as a
whole. I think it tells us a lot about why, for the past 30 years, the
representations of religion in film have been so extremely unsatisfactory to
Christians. Consider the following points:
most films that include religion as their subject generally display respect for
an all-inclusive, generic, non-denominational faith that is extremely tolerant
of diverse paths towards spirituality-- the kind of religion (now known as "New
Age"), in short, that most people don't believe in.
Christians are generally portrayed as either well-meaning but misguided fools
(Father Mulcahy in M*A*S*H, the Anglican priest praying impotently in Titanic
(1997), or as dangerous intolerant fanatics (Flynt, The Guyana Tragedy, The
Crucible). Sincere, orthodox religious faith is almost always represented as associated
with destructive fanaticism (Shine, Sybil).
Christian leaders are often revealed as charlatans and frauds (Elmer Gantry).
But by far, the most insistent complaint from the average Christian is that
religious values are rarely depicted at all, even though a substantial majority
of the population consistently tells the pollsters that they take religion very
seriously, and anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of the North American population attends
church on a regular basis. Furthermore, Christians complain that not only do
movies generally omit references to "real" religion, they positively glorify
anti-religious values and lifestyles, displaying--allegedly with
approval--excessive violence, sexuality, drug abuse, homosexuality, and assorted
To some extent, the complaint is exaggerated. I have a feeling that most people
are really thinking of television when they make those complaints, and they are
probably right about television. And no doubt most Hollywood movies deal badly
with religion, but then, most Hollywood movies deal badly with everything. But
as I scan a list of movies I have seen in the past five years, a surprising
number of them include significant subplots or themes that dwell on religious
issues. Consider Shawshank Redemption, Breaking the Waves, Best Intentions,
Paradise Lost, Wings of Desire, City of Hope, Crucible.
The point is that Hollywood doesn't deal with religion very well. And part of
the reason for that goes back to Jeffrey Hunter's hairy chest. The problem is
that many Christians don't really want Hollywood to deal seriously with
religion. If Hollywood started to deal seriously with religion, it would have to
start producing movies that actually say something meaty and interesting about
the religious experience, with the result that many Christians, ensconced in
their comfortable chairs and surrounded by lavish material goods, might actually
take offense… the way they took offense with Jeffrey Hunter's hairy chest.
If you want to believe that Hollywood has set out to deliberately undermine the
moral values of the country, you would have to demonstrate that Hollywood cares
more about ideology than money, and that would very difficult to prove.
What most Christians really want are movies that show that Christians always end up happy and rich and sinners always end up unhappy and poor. This was the formula followed by Cecil B. De Mille, who had a lot of success with movies like The Ten Commandments. Unfortunately, De Mille discovered that Christians-- like everyone else--liked their movies to include some titillation-- as long as the sinners were punished in the end. Thus he rather graphically illustrates the Israelites fall into paganism in the desert, before Moses Heston comes down the mountain with the stone tablets. We want propaganda for our side. We confuse propaganda with art.
One of the things about modern movies that greatly distress Christians is the
fact that the heroes sometimes fail, and that villainy sometimes triumphs. It is
hard to appreciate this sentiment when it is so readily apparent from any daily
newspaper that villainy triumphs more often than good. Complicating the matter
is the fact that the most critically acclaimed films of our time often present
pessimistic views of reality: Midnight Cowboy, Heavenly Creatures, the Sweet
Hereafter, Carnal Knowledge, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest….
In other words, "we have met the enemy and he is us". Like most North Americans, we Christians want to be entertained first, and edified last. We find the sweetness and syrupy sentiment of The Sound of Music very appealing, even though the film has nothing meaningful to say about Nazis or nuns. We feel edified after seeing The Shawshank Redemption even though the movie consists largely of antiseptic mush. We don't mind if our kids watch Clint Eastwood or Sylvester Stallone glorify vigilantism and mindlessly cut dozens of cardboard cutout villains to shreds, as long as they don't see a single naked bosom. We adore Disney's shallow confections even though they subtly affirm hackneyed stereo-types.
We build grand, expensive churches with cushioned seats, and demand that the
sermon affirm that we are essentially good even though, in our daily lives, we
have adopted the same materialistic and consumerist values of the majority of
Americans. We don't want those values questioned.
The Christian community acts as if it has supported good film-making all along
and now feels betrayed because our celluloid children have turned their backs on
our values. The truth is that we told Hollywood we didn't want anything serious,
and Hollywood has given us exactly what we wanted. We wanted the government to
give us unfettered free enterprise, and Hollywood has said "amen" and now
produces whatever will sell. The trouble is, we thought Disney would live
forever, but Disney's children don't care about story or dialogue or plot: they
just want action and flesh.
What does the Christian community have to do to reclaim a voice in culture?
The Full Monty, is about a group of down-on-their-luck laid-off workers whose self-confidence has been steadily eroded. They decide to do a striptease as a way of earning some money. A striptease? Shocking and exploitive? Hardly. In the process of trying to reclaim their dignity, the men teach each other-- and us-- a lot about mutual respect, self-confidence, and self-worth. It actually has a more wholesome message than, for example, Not Without My Daughter, a bigoted, shallow, self-righteous film.
That said... we might eventually progress to the point where we realize that "The Full Monty" really is exploitive in it's own way: it's a contrived pastiche of self-conscious enlightened attitudes, patting it's audience on the back for allowing itself to be manipulated into approving of a strip show, without actually featuring any nudity. It's titillation. It allows half-backed progressive women to feel that they are "naughty" and fun-loving because they "approve" of the strip show because it's for a good cause and because it is allegedly about personal confidence. But frontal nudity would genuinely offend them, so that is left out. I would have found it less offensive if it had had the guts to actually show "the full monty", or stop claiming that it was about tolerance and broad-mindedness.
We've got to shake off the attitude of the National Federation of Decency, which
actually tabulates the number of profane words used in a television show and
rates the program accordingly. This is stupid.
If I sound harsh it is only because I think that one of the worst things that
has happened to culture in North America is the way that Christians have
consciously forfeited their influence on it. The Christian community has
consistently indicated a preference for art that is shallow, trivial,
commercial, derivative, and phony. I still read "reviews" by Christians that
endorse the strategy of many Christian musicians to deliberately copy styles
originated and developed by other "mainstream" artists, while substituting
Christian lyrics. We are saying to our kids: You like Alanis Morrisette? Here's
a girl who sounds just like her. But aren't these same parents telling their
children to do their own school work? By any standard, copying someone else's
style is contemptible.
These "artists" don't copy the good mainstream artists: they copy the popular
mainstream artists. What they don't realize is that while Celine Dion and George
Michaels may sell more records than Joan Osborne or Jewel or Sarah McLachlan or
Leonard Cohen, they are not nearly as influential. While we are busy copying,
others are innovating, and they are the artists who will determine what we will
listen to tomorrow.
My mini-reviews go on the assumption that God gives the rain to fall on
believers and unbelievers alike-- and lately, He's been giving more rain to the
unbelievers. There are no films in my top 25 that could be construed as
"Christian" in an overt sense (The Third Man, written by Graham Greene, a Roman
Catholic, is probably closest). But are these films worth seeing? You bet. These
films are not just about faith, though faith (or non-faith) plays a role in
every film. They are also about compassion and passion, truth, violence, fear,
community, happiness, joy, and everything else that matters to all of us. They
are worth seeing.
There is good news. In my opinion, we are seeing more well-made, interesting
films in the past few years than in any decade since the 1960's. And many of
these films are not shy about dealing with spiritual issues, even if their
conclusions can sometimes prove unsettling (like Breaking the Waves). I also
believe that more and more Christians are watching better and better movies, and
exercising more discernment in their choice of entertainment. More people I know
are less and less hung up on the question of nudity or swearing and more
interested in what a movie has to say to them about life.
This web-site is my small contribution to the discussion. I can't possibly hope
that you'll agree with all my judgments, but I hope they will at least prod you
to watch some important films and give serious consideration to what they mean,
what they tell us about the people in the world today.