Culture war detente?

Culture | A studio tries not to offend Christians

Issue: "The Jonesboro puzzle," April 11, 1998

Has someone declared a truce in the culture wars? When the enemy marches up with a white flag and wants to parley, should we suspect a trap? News that Hollywood was working on an animated feature about Moses filled many Christians with dismay. Not content with trivializing and distorting American history (Pocahontas), Greek mythology (Hercules), and literary masterpieces (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), now the cartoonists were going after the Bible.

No doubt we could look forward to a Hollywood rewrite of Genesis, featuring a prophet with more inclusive religious ideas, the Golden Calf singing production numbers, and promotional tie-ins such as Pillar of Fire Happy Meals. That the studio doing the project would be DreamWorks-founded by Steven Spielberg, Hollywood tycoon David Geffen, and ex-Disney honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg, all unashamed liberals-did not bode well.

But to Christians' surprise, it appears that DreamWorks is being extra careful not to offend them. Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, was engaged as a consultant in an effort to make sure that nothing in Prince of Egypt would violate the concerns of his constituency. Mr. Katzenberg himself asked Jerry Falwell to put together a group of evangelical leaders to screen the movie, to make sure of its biblical accuracy. After further consulting with Catholic, Jewish, and even Muslim scholars, the DreamWorks team also promised to forgo merchandising tie-ins, thinking that Moses action figures and lunchboxes, however lucrative, might profane the sacred story. (This sensitivity is a sure sign the filmmakers have never set foot in a Christian bookstore.)

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Christians are not used to being taken into consideration. More typical is the Frontline documentary that purports to tell the "real story" of the founding of Christianity by depicting Jesus as a political fanatic who did not really rise from the dead (see WORLD, April 4), run by PBS as an Easter special.

DreamWorks' strange new respect for the sensitivities of Christians may signal that perhaps Christians have finally become so culturally marginalized that they have attained the status of an exotic minority group, with all the rights and privileges thereof. This would give Christians the right to be included in the canons of multicultural sensitivity.

Or perhaps Christians are being co-opted. New York Times columnist Frank Rich calls this new rapport between Mr. Falwell and DreamWorks a sign that "the religious right is in meltdown." "Astounding as the DreamWorks-Falwell synergy is," he fulminates, "it is only the most bizarre example of the religious right's recent erratic behavior." Elements of the media elite are apparently indignant that one of their own has let up on the sport of Christian-bashing.

Mr. Rich thinks The Prince of Egypt rapprochement is a sign of the Christian right's foolishness, their seduction by the entertainment industry. Since the DreamWorks owners have been big contributors to the Democratic party, he maintains that the movie is a ploy to make evangelical ticket buyers unwittingly and indirectly contribute to Vice President Gore's campaign chest. One could understand a conservative thinking the cartoon is just another Democratic money-laundering conspiracy, but it is odd that Mr. Rich, a Clinton apologist, would think so too.

The fact is, in a free market, the success of a commodity of the pop culture depends on reaching as large a market as possible; there is therefore a major economic incentive not to offend people. The pop culture has to be entertaining, and thus tends toward sensuality and instant gratification, but when it crosses a certain line and antagonizes large portions of its audience, it will not sell.

That so much of the pop culture has been violating this principle-and getting away with it-is the real puzzler, attributable only to an overt anti-religious bigotry on the part of the culture makers and to a wimpy passivity on the part of America's Christians. But now, Christians are making noise when they are offended-and organizing boycotts.

Disney claims that the boycott of their products, led by Southern Baptists and joined by other conservative Christians, is making no difference to their bottom line. That may be true, but their wholesome, family-entertainment image has been smirched. And in Hollywood, image is everything.

DreamWorks' wooing of conservative Christians has nothing to do with national politics but everything to do with industry politics and economic competition, which in Hollywood trumps ideology every time. Mr. Katzenberg left Disney in a bitter feud with its CEO Michael Eisner. His goal is for DreamWorks to rival Disney. What better way to carve out an audience and to establish his company's identity for family entertainment than to reach out to the sorts of people who are boycotting Disney?


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