Hollywood goes spiritual

Culture | Why should the devil get all the good movies?

Issue: "Wedgwood shooting," Oct. 2, 1999

Spiritual themes are proving big at the box office these days. Sixth Sense and Stir of Echoes are ghost stories about life beyond the grave. The Blair Witch Project puts the wicked back into witch. Upcoming films plan on featuring the devil. One of the most horrific new TV shows is G vs. E, whose "good vs. evil" acronym refers to a plotline about refugees from Hell. In this supernatural-friendly climate, one would think that Christianity might get equal time. So far, it isn't happening. To be sure, many films are using Christian imagery-but apart from Christian theology. Star Wars: The Phantom Menace features a virgin birth, while The Matrix sticks all kinds of redemption motifs and Christological symbols into its cyberpunk bloodbaths. Then there is Stigmata, playing blasphemous games with the wounds of Christ. Modernists, with their scientific rationalism and naturalistic worldview, had no room for the supernatural at all. Now that our culture is postmodern, the supernatural is back in vogue. But postmodernists also insist on rejecting objective truth-claims, transcendent morality, and religious authority. As a result, their supernaturalism is subjective, irrational, and self-constructed. Which means, given the condition of the human heart, that it will inevitably tend toward the occult, darkness, and evil. Certainly, Christianity can make a stronger-than-ever case for itself today. And there is no reason why there can't be Christian movies and Christian TV shows. But there are obstacles. C. S. Lewis has pointed out that it is easier for writers to create interesting villains; creating interesting good guys is far more difficult. The bad guys can be made to appear energetic, complicated, and colorful. The good guys will tend to appear relatively bland, one-dimensional, and ordinary. This difficulty, though it can be overcome with literary effort, appears even in the greatest writers. Milton's depiction of Satan, for example, in Paradise Lost seems far more satisfying to most readers than his depiction of God. Shakespeare is one of the few authors whose heroes are every bit as complex, intriguing, and unique as his bad guys. The problem is not just with writers but with readers. Dante can render both good and evil with great effectiveness, though most readers prefer to wallow in the horrors of The Inferno rather than continue on to the heavenly joys symbolized in The Paradiso. Lewis went on to say that this is sheerly a literary problem. In real life, it is the good people who are interesting, displaying depths of character and unique personality. Bad people-with their self-obsession, pettiness, and pathetic vices-are inevitably boring. The difficulty is that our imaginations are fallen. In our depravity, we like Satan better than we do God. Even when Hollywood tries to do something biblical, they tend to get it wrong. The latest example was the TV mini-series Noah and the Ark. Noah and his good buddy Abraham watch Sodom and Gomorrah get zapped, in a confusion of Biblical timelines that rose to the farcical. Not believing in the holiness of the Bible, much less its inerrancy, Hollywood folks use Scripture as "material," feeling free to manipulate its narratives to fit their ideas of a better movie. But there is something about the Bible that resists being reduced to visual images. God makes Himself known in His Word, not in graven images (even if those images are graven in celluloid). To be sure, great effectiveness is claimed for The Jesus Film on the mission field (where I would contend its effectiveness comes from the word-by-word reading of Scripture which accompanies the visual images), and Jesus has been a popular subject of movies from the silent days. Still, the most effective portrayal of Christ in a biblical epic is arguably in Ben Hur, when we are never shown His face. Another reason why explicitly Christian films are so rare is the hostility the creative class feels for the church, indeed for any institution that claims access to a higher authority. Spirituality is OK, the reasoning goes, as long as it is not connected with a church-which, however, is the institution Christ ordained to reveal Himself. Ministers tend to be portrayed as hypocrites or, at best, as charming scam artists (The Apostle). Churches are hick community centers or sinister power centers covering up the real truth about Jesus (Stigmata). Individual, private religious expression can be acceptable. A character might utter some pious words and even say a prayer. But he is unlikely to go to his pastor for advice, or find insight in a church service, or be energized by worship. Despite all of these obstacles, it is possible to present Christian drama and to create entertainment that emerges out of a biblical worldview. Ben Hur did not show the face of Christ, but it did show the face of the person to whom Christ was ministering. Showing the effects of faith in someone's life can make for gripping drama (Chariots of Fire). At the essence of fiction is the transformation of a character, how a character is changed by what happens in the story, and the transformation of lives is at the heart of Christianity. Such transformation can be dramatized in films (Tender Mercies). Other elements of literature-internal conflict, clashes between good and evil, human relationships, symbolism-correspond naturally with the Christian view of life. And straightforward expressions of Christianity can be successful, even in a situation comedy. One of the biggest hits in England is Ballykissangel, a TV comedy about an Irish priest and his parish (shown in the United States on some PBS stations and, where available, on the cable version of BBC). Much of the comedy comes from the conflict between the priest and his secularist neighbors at the pub. But to have a genuine conflict, the religion must be as real as the secularism. The priest never compromises his theology or his morals, and is respected for it. Ironically, Ballykissangel--like other British sitcoms which have given us All in the Family and Sanford and Son--has inspired an Americanized version. On Pax-TV, Hope Island is about a minister in a small American town. The difference, as WORLD pointed out ("Pax Americana," Sept. 11), is that this preacher waffles on theology and morality, so that the religion produces not an interesting conflict, but a generic, content-free niceness. It may be that the exclusive truth-claims of Christianity-such as Jesus Christ being the one way to salvation-do not play well in a mass medium that tries to reach the largest possible audience. It may be that Christianity is too sacred, too life-and-death, to be reduced to entertainment. But there is another way for television programs and movies do be satisfying to Christians. They can do what they can to be entertaining on their own terms, but embody a biblical worldview. This would mean comedies that ridicule vice, instead of mocking virtue. This would mean action dramas in which the good guys are not just good-looking but have something morally good in their character. Shows could play off the old standby conflict of good vs. evil, but there would be a genuine line drawn between the two, and audiences would be repelled by the evil and attracted to the good. Shows would have a moral center. Families would be presented as something valuable. The church would be at least as visible as it is in real life. Works of cinematic art would strive to inspire, not debase. Could such shows be successful, either commercially or as works of art? Watch the old movie channel and notice how "the golden age of film" respected the culture it embodied, with no need of ratings, bleeps, or immorality. Watch the old TV shows from "the golden age of television" and note the hilarity, yet morality of its comedy; the way its dramas tended to explore honestly the human condition. Note how interesting and complex the characters in those old movies-roles played by Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Katherine Hepburn-tended to be, the heroes no less than the villains. Notice how artistically superior these movies and TV shows usually are to today's fare. Christians could settle for that.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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