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MPAA Rating
April 4, 2011
Paul Asay
Jumbo Popcorn and a Cup of Religion, Please

Jumbo Popcorn and a Cup of Religion, Please

My family goes to a big church—one of those laid-back, seeker-friendly things with comfy pews, a heavy-duty sound system and a big screen in front. We walk in, grab our cups of coffee and plop down in our seats. Then the lights dim and the screen brightens. The service is about to begin.

"Zoinks," I think to myself. "This is kinda like going to the movies."

I should know. I go to a lot of movies. It's my job, after all. I walk into the theater with my pad and pen, and plop down in a cushy theater seat. The lights dim and the screen brightens. And I start scribbling notes about who does what and when, who says what and how often. And lately, I've been noting other stuff too—like who's toting crucifixes or who's praying to Allah or who's talking with angels or communing with the dead or having long conversations about faith.

"Zoinks," I think to myself. "Movies aren't anything like church, but they sure do explore a lot of the same subjects my pastor likes to talk about."

And they're doing it with unprecedented boldness.

It's true. As conservative Christians continued to moan about how godless Hollywood is, the entertainment industry pulled a fast one on us: Some movies these days are more spiritual than a Switchfoot song, more preachy than your Aunt Linda after a two-day women's retreat. As Christians tone down their faith-based vocab to fit in with a more pluralistic society, moviemakers are cranking out films that explicitly address, support or take on religion. God's getting more screen time than Natalie Portman. And given Ms. Portman's prolific production as of late, that's saying something.

Godless Hollywood? Hardly. The real issue now is that there are too many gods in Hollywood. And they're all screaming for our attention.

Public Enemy Number 1
At my desk I keep an old, yellowed pamphlet titled "This Movie Menace!" It was written by a Christian pastor back in the 1940s or '50s, and it echoes a pretty popular evangelical opinion of that day: Films were just plain bad for your soul.

"If you were asked the question, What is public enemy number 1?" the writer asks. "What would you say? Some would say the Liquor Traffic, others would name the modern dance, others would name the cigarette habit, others would name gambling. There is no question but what [sic] these things that I have mentioned have polluted and distorted our age, but in my opinion the modern movie could well be classified as Public Enemy Number 1. It is positively immoral and rotten. It defies reform, destroys standards of right living and depletes the mind."

Keep in mind that this was written in the days when Bing Crosby and Katharine Hepburn were stars and the Hays Code required films to embrace certain ethical standards before they could be released. "No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it," the Code read. "Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin." It specifically stipulated that films couldn't ridicule religion or use comic characters as clergy or villains.

In theory, this meant movies tried to protect religion more than some wayward churches.

In practice, this meant that Hollywood, when it depicted Christianity, treated it with at least a passing reverence. More often, though, the subject was left well enough alone. And even when the Hays Code began to crumble, most filmmakers remained wary of delving too deeply into religion. The mere subject is inherently controversial, and it doesn't make much sense, financially, to risk alienating the very folks who are buying admission to your feature. Anyone who had doubts needed to look no further than 1988's The Last Temptation of Christ, which encouraged more people to picket than to buy tickets: It made less than $9 million.

But America's not the same country it was even 23 years ago, much less 50 or 60. It is still largely Christian, but the margins are fast expanding. We're not as institutionally religious as we once were, either: Only half of us attend church regularly, and many folks are comfortable practicing a sort of a patchwork faith, shunning strict orthodoxy, and borrowing from a variety of other faiths and traditions.

Yet even as faith changes, America is still fiercely spiritual. Religion, however it manifests itself, is deeply woven into our national character. Even many atheists—a growing segment of America—admit to pollsters that they pray.

People often debate the degree to which society influences film or vice versa. But regardless the ratio, it'd be nuts to assume that our country's changing spiritual attitudes wouldn't manifest themselves somehow onscreen.

A Litany of Liturgy
I don't have to look at a year or two of releases to cull salient examples of cinematic spirituality. In fact, I don't have to look further than the past few weeks:

March 18 saw the release of Paul—a religious broadside masquerading as a Superbad-style farce. In it, the alien Paul crushes the Christian faith of a young-earth advocate who wears a T-shirt depicting Jesus shooting Charles Darwin in the head. ("Evolve This!" the shirt says.)

The week before, Red Riding Hood encountered a creature forsaken by God—one so damned he could not walk on sacred ground without bursting into flames. But the most compelling character isn't Ms. Hood or the werewolf (or even Grandmother), but a zealous, unsympathetic warrior priest who justifies torture and murder for, as he believes, a greater cause.

On March 4, The Adjustment Bureau, replete with agents/angels, flew into town to deal with two oft-argued talking points of Christian theology: predeterminism and free will.

And arriving later this week is Soul Surfer, a mainstream-level sports movie devoted to the Christian testimony of Bethany Hamilton, the 13-year-old junior surfer who in 2003 lost her arm to the sharp teeth of a shark.

I've not even touched on January's The Rite, which presents a well-researched take on demon possession and the Catholic church's attempts at exorcism, or February's Sanctum, which revels in the merciless church of nature, or Justin Bieber's prayerful ways in his docu-concert Never Say Never.

Everyday Christians may be increasingly cautious about bringing up religion at work or at dinner parties, but Hollywood? Not so much. Filmmakers aren't just broaching the subject, they're often demanding debate about it.

But while some of these films can, in fact, bolster one's own personal faith, this is still an uncomfortable time for Christians to go to the movies. No longer must we worry simply about flurries of violence, sultry sexuality or a smattering of f-words. We must also contemplate the risk of running smack-dab into a piece of cinema that may question or challenge the very cornerstone of our lives—the rock that keeps us moored to our Creator.

But is that a bad thing?

You Are What You Believe
If it must be a bad thing to prevent you from running out and seeing Paul, then so be it. Because the last thing I want you to take away from this article is increased license to put yourself in harm's way. But here's the thing: Paul—the New Testament apostle, not the atheistic alien—never shied away from a challenge. And at times he seemed to race towards them, something I find truly inspiring about Christianity. "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile," he says flat-out in his first letter to the Corinthians. "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men."

He wasn't afraid to pin everything he had and was to his faith in Jesus. He didn't coddle his faith like it was some sickish puppy-runt in need of a blankie. Paul and Co. were surrounded by a dizzying array of gods and beliefs and modes of spirituality. He gamely took on all comers. And we enjoy the fruits of his campaigns today, nearly 2,000 years later.

Now we're suddenly surrounded by a dizzying array of gods and beliefs and modes of spirituality at the multiplex. Sometimes the films we see confirm our beliefs (Fireproof, The Passion of the Christ). Sometimes (Religulous) they flay them with the cruelest of whips. But most often they drop a small seed of … something … into our laps and force us to examine it. They spark questions. They chip away at a stereotype. They bully. They beg. They're sacrilegious. They're sacred.

But even when the jabs are unfair, meanspirited or outrageously misinformed, I'm still strangely encouraged by the trend: After all, the fact that our films talk about faith means that we can too. Faith matters to folks. Even the irreligious among us are searching for meaning, searching for truth. Our world, from our movies to our next-door neighbors, is asking what faith is, why it's important, and why it's important to us. It's asking us if we are to be pitied more than all men … or whether, perhaps, we have the greatest possible gift of good news to share.

It will require a good deal of personal and spiritual reflection to answer the questions put to us by health club acquaintances, Facebook friends and over-the-fence neighbors. As it will require a great deal of dedicated discernment to sift out the good from the bad on the big screen. It's dangerous work, by the way, and not for the faint of heart or the young of faith. The answers to life's spiritual riddles have never in recent memory been so twisted and tortured by everything we see and hear around us.

So I think that the next time I go to my big church, grab my cup of coffee and sink into my comfy pew, I'm going to try to pay even more attention to the book laying in my lap. I'm going to try even harder to, as Paul also said, "continue to work out [my] salvation with fear and trembling." Because they're asking for answers. In some cases, they're demanding them. And I need to know, truly know, what I believe, so I can answer.