Portraying Christians in Film

BookTrends - Christians in the Movies

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The portrayal of Christians and Christianity in film has undergone tremendous change since the release of the French film The Passion of Jesus Christ in 1905.

Much of this shift is related to the enormous societal changes that have taken place as well as the advances in the technology of film. Despite the influx of Catholic immigrants, the American social fabric and its institutions, at the birth of the movies and well into the 1940s, were still predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant. The Bible was widely read and memorized in homes, churches and meeting houses—even by those who had little schooling and were hardly literate. Not surprisingly, early filmmakers turned to the Bible, which was filled with memorable stories and provided a rich and free source material for dramatic screenplays. As Donnelly notes in Fade to Black, when asked why he made so many biblical fi1ms, Cecil B. DeMille whose epics are his enduring legacy, responded, “Why let two thousand years of publicity go to waste?”

That the societal reverence for religion and the “good book” was not restricted to rural areas is borne out by the program of my mother’s eighth grade graduation in 1931 from Public School 1 on Manhattan’s impoverished Lower East Side. Except for the awards and diploma ceremony, it consisted mainly of scripture readings and the patriotic songs like “In God We Trust,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “America,” and “Columbus.” This mix of religious and patriotic fervor was common in public school assemblies and graduation ceremonies until the early 1960s, when Supreme Court decisions began barring organized prayer in school.

As noted, the early films about Christians evolved as the technology improved from a series of static tableaux to the addition of a narrative thread and continuity of action through the use of mobile cameras and finally with the advent of sound and Technicolor. There was one constant, however, and that was the generally respectful attitude toward religion and Christianity. For a country that had suffered through World War I, the Depression, and profound social change, religion provided comfort and stability, which early filmmakers understood. Like their audience, many were also recent immigrants and were proud and grateful to be Americans. Like them too, many served in the armed forces and could relate to the sacrifices of those who fought and died for our country in World War II. It’s hard today to fathom that in the Battle of Iwo Jima alone America suffered over twice as many deaths in 35 days as in the Iraq war from 2003 through 2007, and yet maintained its resolve. In short, the movies of my youth-those that made me a lifelong movie maven-were suffused with love of country and a strong belief in God.

The victory in World War II, along with increasing affluence and relative peace created an era of good feeling and optimism. However, by the late 1940s, below the surface, changes were taking place that would alter Hollywood’s reverential approach to how religion was portrayed in film.

The advent of television and the Supreme Court decision forbidding movie studios from owning chains of theaters eroded the industry’s economic and entertainment dominance. At the same time, producers like Howard Hughes and Otto Preminger began to challenge the strictures of the Motion Picture Production Code, established in 1930, which had been used to regulate film content with regard to the handling of sensitive subjects like religion, sexuality, and violence. The importation of widely acclaimed, more sexually explicit foreign films, which were not subject to the Code, added further pressure to modify or do away with the Code.

Nonetheless, films respectful of Christianity, such as Lilies of the Field, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Sound of Music, and A Man for All Seasons continued to be made well into the 1960s. However, that decade ended up being one of the most tumultuous in American history-with the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr., the protests against the Vietnam War, the intensification of the Civil Rights Movement, the attendant Black Power movement and rioting in many cities as well as the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Along with the sexual revolution and its accompanying hippie lifestyle, which earned the era its sobriquet “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll,” the 1960s was a watershed period bringing social changes that continue to affect our society.

Early on, the editors of Time sensed the rumblings of moral and religious change and ran a famous cover story on April 8, 1966, asking “Is God Dead?” The tenor of the time, “Do your own thing,” was best captured in the very popular book I’m OK, You’re OK, which advocated practicing a live-and-let-live approach to diametrically opposite moral stances and behaviors.

In the 1970s, at the University of Colorado venereal disease clinic I directed, where many patients returned reinfected and having infected others with gonorrhea, herpes, trichomoniasis, human papillomavirus and the like, it was common to hear calls for “nonjudgmentalism.” This was predicated on the deepening disagreement about “right and wrong” and the rise in the affirmation of personal autonomy rights that held that individual lifestyle choices regardless of their consequences on that person or others should be respected. This attitude led the noted psychiatrist Karl Menninger to title his 1973 book Whatever Became of Sin? That year, the Supreme Court handed down the Roe v. Wade decision overriding state laws forbidding abortion which further polarized the population.

Another major social change in the mid-1960s occurred within the Catholic Church, which had been very influential in affecting film content through the Legion of Decency, a rating system instituted in 1933 (see page xx). The decrees of the Vatican II Church Council, which closed on December 8, 1965, led to sweeping changes in practices that had been seen as epitomizing Catholic beliefs and were often used as convenient shorthand for depicting Catholicism in films. These included the abandonment of the proscription against eating meat on Friday, the need to fast overnight before receiving Communion, the requirement that nuns wear distinctive habits and the use of Latin in the Mass. These changes sent shock waves through Catholic circles, polarizing many believers. The next few decades saw a sharp drop in vocations to the religious life, the release of many priests and nuns from their vows, a decrease in attendance at Sunday mass, and the marked diminution of regular confessions, which had also been a favorite staple in movies with Catholic themes.

Protestant and Jewish denominations attempting to hold on to orthodox dogma that codified right and wrong with regard to abortion premarital sex, and later, homosexuality, also saw declines in membership starting in the 1960s. By the 1970s, the so-called Me Generation began to turn more inward, placing more emphasis on self-actualization and self-fulfillment. As Americans became more affluent and secure, there seemed to be less of a need for regular church attendance and practicing a faith whose God demanded behaviors that restricted lifestyle choices. This was replaced by widespread attitudes of cultural relativism and the philosophy of secular humanism, which had gained currency as early as 1933 with the publication of the “Humanist Manifesto” whose signatories included famed educator John Dewey.

This philosophy had been reinforced by Supreme Court rulings beginning in the 1940s regarding various “church-state” issues. The most famous of these occurred in the 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education upholding New Jersey’s right to give funds to Catholic schools for textbooks and activities unrelated to religious promulgation. In writing the majority opinion, Supreme Court Justice and ex-Ku Klux Klanner Hugo Black cited Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists about the existence of “a wall of separation” between church and state. Since then, this phrase has been regularly cited in the press and in court opinions such that many believe it to be in the Bill of Rights, whereas the First Amendment only affirms the freedom to worship as one pleases and the prevention of the establishment of a state-sponsored religion which was common in the colonies.

In his 1993 book The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion, Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter pointed out that “In our sensible zeal to keep religion from dominating our politics,” a wall of separation has been erected such that believers are encouraged “to act publicly, and sometimes privately as well, as though their faith doesn’t matter.” In the past three decades, the courts have increasingly become the principal venues for adjudicating contentious and complex moral issues. This has led to an escalation in the conflict between the orthodoxy of religious believers and that of secular nonbelievers as Robert George, holder of the McCormick Chair of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, pointed out in his 2002 book The Clash of Orthodoxies. In contrast to those who held secular laissez-faire views, he argued that private morals do have public consequences.

That such a gulf in orthodoxies exists between current filmmakers and many in their audience was best seen in a 1998 University of Texas survey of a representative sample of Hollywood writers, actors, producers, and executives. It showed that only 2 to 3 percent attended religious services weekly compared to about 41 percent of the public at that time. The ascendance of this cultural disconnect and its reflection in movies was accelerated by two important cinematic changes in the sixties. One was the abolition of the Motion Picture Production Code and its replacement by the Motion Picture Association of America’s Rating System in 1968. The other was the replacement in 1965 of the very hands-on Legion of Decency rating system by the less obtrusive rating system of the National Catholic Office of Motion Pictures which did not require Catholics to follow its dictates. Both deserve expanded treatment.

The Motion Picture Production Code

In 1922, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) association was established and headed by ex-Postmaster General Will Hays, a Presbyterian. These early fUmmakers were reacting in part to complaints by predominantly Protestant groups about a plethora of Hollywood sex and drug scandals, but mostly to the development of movie censorship boards in many states and municipalities concerned about the cultural impact of film. Hays worked informally to reconcile the censors’ concerns and to amalgamate the disparate censorship criteria of different jurisdictions and religious groups. This led in 1930 to the promulgation of the Motion Picture Production Code aimed at maintaining good taste, especially when

filming scenes that involved sex, violence, religion, and other sensitive subjects. The twelve sections of the Code outlined the areas to be regulated: crimes against the law, sex, vulgarity, obscenity, profanity, costume, dances, religion, locations, national feelings, titles, and repellent subjects.

The Code required that “no picture should be produced which will lower the standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown on the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin. The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home should be upheld.” The Code also stated that “No film or episode should throw ridicule on any religious faith. Ministers of religion in their character as ministers of religion should not be used as comic characters or as villains. Ceremonies of any definite religion should be carefully and respectfully handled.”

Many myths have arisen about the Code and its enforcement. One is that the Code mandated separate beds for married couples or that each partner had to have one foot on the floor if they were in the same bed. As film historian Richard Maltby notes in his article “More Sinned Against Than Sinning: The Fabrications of Pre-Code Cinema,” the Code simply said that “the treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy.” In fact, the use of separate beds by married couples in films met a requirement of the “British Board of Film Censors,” bringing to mind the title of the play No Sex Please, We’re British.

Another myth relates to the labeling of certain films made during the Code’s early days (between 1931 and 1934) as “Pre-Code” films. The films in question include such classics as Little Caesar, Public Enemy, Red-Headed Woman, Baby Face, The Sign of the Cross, and several Mae West films. As Maltby points out, the Code was already being imposed on the vast majority of films, but the producers of these films chose to flout the code. The public backlash to these films is widely credited for the decision of producers to enforce the Code; however, the economic downturn

may have been just as important in pushing Hollywood filmmakers to be even more serious about enforcement. With the onset of the Depression, average weekly movie attendance dropped from 90 million in 1930 to 70 million in 1931 and to 60 million in 1932 and 1933. Studios like Paramount, Warner Bros., and RKO which owned the most theaters, suffered financially and tried to spur attendance by promoting dish-giveaway nights and double features. At the same time, with the end of the Roaring Twenties, the nation became more culturally conservative, and the large wave of immigrants who had arrived between 1890 and 1930 from predominantly Catholic countries became more influential.

The National Legion of Decency

The concerns about the impact of film also led the American Catholic bishops to establish the Catholic Legion of Decency in 1933. Because the organization included many Protestant and Jewish clergymen, the name was changed to National Legion of Decency in 1934. The Legion rated films as A (morally unobjectionable)—later subdivided into 4 categories by age group; B (morally objectionable in part); and C (condemned). For Catholics, attendance at condemned films was forbidden under pain of sin, and they were asked to take a pledge annually (usually on December

8th, the feast of the Immaculate Conception) to avoid morally objectionable films and places that showed them as a matter of policy. The Legion wielded great influence over the next three decades, mainly because the economic clout of the large Catholic population could be harnessed through the extensive network of Catholic schools and churches. Thomas Doherty’s Hollywood’s Censor shows in great detail how the devout Catholic Joseph 1. Breen, who was hired by the aforementioned Will Hays, became the face of the Production Code Administration Office to the industry, such that it was nicknamed the “Breen Office.» He developed a synergistic

partnership with Martin Quigley at the Legion of Decency that fostered their joint role as arbiters of film content and enforcers of stricter adherence to the Motion Picture Production Code. They were consulted about scripts and often wielded power over final cuts. The pledge was abandoned after Pope Pius XII’s 1957 encyclical on motion pictures, radio, and television titled Miranda Prorsus (“The Remarkable Inventions”) emphasized encouraging good movies rather than condemning bad ones. By 1965, the Legion of Decency had become widely ignored by Catholics.

Father Gene Phillips, a professor of film studies at Loyola University in Chicago and a consultant to the National Catholic Office of Motion Pictures, the organization that replaced the Legion of Decency in 1966, answered the many critics who have attacked the Catholic Church as being a censor imposing its views on Americans at large as follows:

When the American bishops instituted [the Legion of Decency], it was aimed at determining the moral suitability of films for its Roman Catholic constituency. Nevertheless, in the absence of an industry rating system, which was not inaugurated until 1968, many non-Catholics followed the Legion’s ratings. The studio bosses tended to do the Legion’s bidding in order to avoid an objectionable rating which could damage the film’s chances at the box office...So, the Catholic Church was allowed to affect the moral content of Hollywood films for more than three decades, something that was never envisioned at the outset.

As Paula M. Kane points out in her contribution to Catholics in the Movies, “Jews and Catholics Converge,” early on there was, in addition to Protestant support, “grassroots Jewish support for the Legion of Decency pledge.”

The official end of the Hayes Code came in response to a case involving a challenge to the city of Dallas for forbidding the showing of a French movie, Viva Maria!, starring Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau. In April 1968, in Interstate Circuit v. Dallas, the Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment rights of filmmakers to show their films, but because of licensure requirements, it ordered the Motion Picture Association of America to come up promptly with its own rating system to replace the vague and disparate criteria applied by various licensing boards. Jack Valenti, a Catholic and close aide of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, was hired as director of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and charged with developing the system.

By the end of 1968, Hollywood debuted a self-policing system, which has come to be geared to restrictions by age. After several revisions, the MPAA now classifies movies as G (all ages admitted); PG (parental guidance suggested); PG-13 (parental guidance, and no one under the age of 13 is admitted without a parent); R (restricted, no one age 17 and under is admitted without a parent); NC-17 (no one age 17 and under is admitted). The latter replaced the X, or condemned, rating in 1990. Films can still be released if they get an NC-17 rating, but they will not receive distribution in most theaters.

For a variety of reasons, the rating system has come under attack by critics from every point on the political spectrum. The criteria used to arrive at the individual ratings are not publicly stated and are applied by a group of people whose identities are kept secret to protect them from political and public pressure. Whatever the criteria are, they have shifted over time (on nudity, explicit sexual intercourse, and violence, for example). Furthermore, regardless of whether theaters enforce the proscription on admission of minors to Rand PG-13 movies (which many don’t), they are all accessible in homes on DVD including those films with the most severely restrictive rat-

ing ofNC-17. Interestingly, the most scathing condemnation of the MPAA rating system was expressed in the independent documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated (Lionsgate, 2006) by Kirby Dick, who if anything argued for less restrictiveness. The fllmmaker denounced the system for being arbitrary, secretive, subject to major studio pressure, and for not meeting its own guidelines for selection of raters and their required training.

So, one might legitimately ask, “Are we better off with the current rating system?” The question is moot because unlike a VCR, life has no rewind button and there’s no turning back. Still, my answer is “No.” At least the Hays Code had a visible director and explicit criteria that had been publicly changed over time and would probably have been modified further to accommodate those worthy post-Code films that might have run afoul of it. Indeed, I was struck by an August 15, 1999, New York Times article titled “When the Spice of Choice Was Sin.” While extolling pre-Code Hollywood movies, it cited a 1999 study by Thomas Doherty, which concluded that “the inconvenient truth is that Hollywood’s most vivid and compelling motion pictures were produced under the most severe and narrow-minded censorship” (i.e., the Hays Code and the Legion of Decency). Not only were many of the most respected films in movie history made from the 1930s through the 1950s, an era universally called “The Golden Age of Film,” but 1939 is often called “Hollywood’s Golden Year” because it saw the release of so many excellent films, including Gone with the Wind; The Wizard of Oz; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Stagecoach; Ninotchka; The Women; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Gunga Din; Dark Victory; Young Mr. Lincoln; and Destry Rides Again among others. Some argue that the great films made during the enforcement of the Code were made “in spite of the Code.” If that were true, the period after the Code’s demise would deserve to be called the Golden Age of Movies, and the output of great films would have increased, but it hasn’t.

Another way of looking at that “in spite of’ objection is to say that asking moviemakers to exercise judicious restraint was, on balance, beneficial to the creative process. Just as actors like Robin Williams are much more effective when kept under some control by experienced directors, so are movies with some controls over explicit sexuality, appalling violence, or the over-the-top trashing of ideas and institutions. An example of how the Motion Picture Production Code forced filmmakers to portray sexuality more subtly is the 1934 Frank Capra classic It Happened One Night, starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable. This is seen particularly in the famous hitchhiking sequence and the final scene when the blanket between their beds, dubbed the “Walls of Jericho,” comes down to signal the consummation of their relationship, as opposed to today’s predictable scenes of bed-rattling sexual acrobatics. In addition, few, if any, post-Code movies have ever scaled the romantic heights of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing to the tunes of Cheek to Cheek or Night and Day.

Differing Treatment of Christian Groups

Fundamentalist Christians have the distinction of having been almost uniformly portrayed negatively as charlatan preachers, unenlightened dupes, and more recently as mean-spirited hypocrites. Their saving grace may only be that they have had relatively few films devoted to them-Elmer Gantry (1960), Inherit the Wind (1960), and The Apostle (1998) are the best known.

Mainstream Protestant groups, which were once prominent in the background and occasionally in the foreground of many movies, have virtually disappeared from films, except for wedding ceremonies. Catholics turn out to be the most prevalent group dealt with in film, both in their predominantly favorable presentation in early films and their subtle and sometimes blatant disparagement in post-Code movies, beginning in the 1970s and escalating in the late 1980s. This may be because, since 1870, Roman Catholicism has been the largest Christian sect in America, and because of the Catholic Church’s role in the National Legion of Decency and the strict enforcement of the Hays Code.

Still, anti-Catholicism is nothing new. As Penn State historian and former Catholic Philip Jenkins noted in his 2003 book, The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice, fifty years ago Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., called it “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.” If you visit Old Town Philadelphia or Lower Manhattan, you can find churches where Catholics barricaded themselves from rampaging Nativist mobs in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The first Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Jay (1790-1795), erected a “No Popery” sign in front of his house on Guy Fawkes Day, November 5, the commemoration of the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament by a few dissident English Catholics in 1605. Opponents of immigrant Catholics flourished in the early- and mid-1800s with the ascendancy of the Know-Nothing Party. Catholics remained the targets of the KKK and the Freemasons, who were well positioned to act against them politically and economically well into the twentieth century.

In the 1930s, Catholics and other Christians began to join with Jews, blacks, and other groups subjected to blatant prejudice, to fight bigotry. When I was growing up in the 1940s, the National Council of Christians and Jews was a powerful force against anti-Semitism and racism as well as fostering tolerance toward Christians. Indeed, much of the Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s is owed to their efforts in support of black Protestant clergymen like Martin Luther King, Jr. The economic and social status of Catholics improved so much in the era beginning with World War II, that the decades from 1940 through 1960 are sometimes referred to as “the Catholic moment.” Motion pictures played an important role in this rehabilitation of Catholicism in the public square and in the promotion of positive attitudes to invocations of God and Christianity.

The 1960 election of John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic President was thought to be the moment that anti-Catholicism would be buried. Indeed, as Colleen Carroll Campbell points out, it may have signaled the reverse, in that Kennedy was the first of many Catholic politicians to affirm that Catholic beliefs would not necessarily inform his policies. Realizing that his election hinged on distancing himself from his faith, in a speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, he called the separation of church and state “absolute” and reversed his earlier stance in favor of state support for parochial schools. After Vatican II, as more Catholics entered the economic mainstream, they began to reject Catholic teaching, especially in the area of sexual ethics, and to espouse secular ideas. Many began by rejecting Church teaching on birth control, premarital sex, and divorce. Some have moved on to rejecting its teaching on abortion, homosexuality, in vitro fertilization, embryonic stem-cell research, assisted suicide, and, in rare instances, even cloning.

In the meantime, mainstream Protestant denominations (e.g. Episcopalianism, Methodism, Presbyterianism) which were most responsible for founding many of the great American universities and philanthropic institutions, began to decline in membership and influence as they adapted to the prevailing secular beliefs. Their place in American Protestantism was taken by many large and small evangelical and fundamentalist denominations that stressed the importance of a literal interpretation of the Bible and religious beliefs. Interestingly, the once prevalent anti-Catholicism among fundamentalist Protestants has waned somewhat, as they began to find common ground with orthodox Catholics in opposing abortion and same-sex marriage, as well as uniting in the support of Israel. Instead, anti-Catholicism has taken on a new form. As Jenkins describes in The New Anti-Catholicism, the animus against the Catholic Church is now most evident in academic circles and among some of the media who notably seek out dissident Catholics whenever reporting on controversial moral issues.

Indeed, many of the contemporary films that ridicule Catholicism most severely have actually been made by “cradle Catholics” who (like me) attended Catholic schools. These directors have either abandoned their religion, becoming fallen-away Catholics (or, as some prefer to be called, “recovering Catholics”) or “liberal” Catholics who profess still to be Catholics but simply choose to reject much Catholic dogma.

One prominent example is Robert Altman, the director of the influential 1970 film M*A*S*H, a very anti-institutional film that aimed some of its sharpest barbs at Christianity, especially in the famous “Last Supper” scene. Paul Giles in his 1991 essay, “The Cinema of Catholicism: John Ford and Robert Altman” gives an interesting insight into the motivations of the Jesuit-educated Altman. He quotes Altman saying, “Catholicism to me was school. It was restrictions; it was things you had to do. It was your parents. It was Mass on Sunday and fish on Friday. And then when I got out of that I got into the army. It was the same thing—you had to have a pass to get out.” Giles concludes that in M*A*S*H, “Altman’s compulsion is to lampoon religion as much as the U.S. Army.” Giles contrasts this attitude with that of John Ford (pp. xx), another great director who was raised a Catholic but was by no means a “Holy Joe.” Yet he introduced little touches in his films that showed what religion meant to his often brawling, hard-drinking characters. New books contrast the messages and styles of early directors with a Catholic background such as Frank Capra, Leo McCarey, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock with more recent directors with Catholic roots like Altman, Martin Scorsese, Kevin Smith, John Waters, and others.

Ironically, such criticism of Catholicism, no matter how virulent, may still be seen as a positive insofar as attention is rarely paid to matters considered unimportant. In his 1987 book Once a Catholic, Peter Occhiogrosso summarizes interviews with prominent Catholics and ex-Catholics that illustrated the powerful influence the Church holds on them. Many ex-Catholics find themselves unable to escape their past allegiance to the Church, much as the protagonist in Francis Thompson’s famous Victorian-era poem, “The Hound of Heaven” cannot shake his implacable pursuer (see Backstory, pp. xx). This may explain why they so often express their hostility in films and in public forums.

The Passion of the Christ as Rorschach Test

Nothing shows the hostility of media critics to Christianity better than the campaign against Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), which began almost a year before the fum’s release with the attempt to prevent its distribution. Many vitriolic articles accused the film of being anti-Semitic. Gibson countered that he drew his screenplay directly from the St. Matthew’s Gospel account of the Crucifixion of Christ, depicting some Jews as culpable but making it clear the Romans were the most brutal and ultimately responsible for Christ’s death. Adele Reinhartz in her 2007 book Jesus of Hollywood noted that the “betrayals, trials, condemnation and death of Jesus” have appeared in over a hundred films. Those faithful to the Gospels, especially to St. Matthew’s Gospel, have pictured the responsibility of some Jewish leaders. D. W. Griffith deleted a number of scenes from the Judean Story segment of Intolerance replacing Jews with Romans at the Crucifixion after complaints from B’nai Brith; Cecil B. DeMille made changes in his 1927 film King of Kings after concerns were expressed by Jewish groups. Gibson removed Matthew’s reference to the Jews saying that Jesus’s blood be upon them and upon their children whereas Pasolini’s acclaimed The Gospel According to St. Matthew retained it, without outcry.

In contrast to most critics, many viewers, both believers and nonbelievers, reported being moved by “The Passion.” Conversely, some believers were turned off by the relendess brutality. Others, like me, accepted it for what it was and remained unmoved. Many critics seemed both incredulous and almost threatened by its broad popularity. What was particularly striking was the fact that many of the same critics who expressed high dudgeon at the film’s violence had heaped extensive praise on other very violent films like Pulp Fiction (1994), The Matrix (1999), and the two Kill Bill films (2003, 2004). The Academy of Arts and Sciences voted it only three minor Oscar nominations for cinematography, makeup and music and it won none; one wonders how it would have fared with the Academy of the 1940s and 1950s. That the film went on to earn over 700 million dollars did not escape Hollywood’s notice as exemplified by recent films appealing to Christians, such as The Nativity Story (2006) and Amazing Grace (2007).

Why Should Christians Care About Their Portrayal in Film?

One might ask, “Why should Christians care about how film and the other media portray them?” The simple answer is that feature films remain, as they have been since their inception, powerful tools for framing public opinion. However, the best answer was given by a non-Christian, A. M. Rosenthal, the former executive editor of the New York Times. He waged a lonely campaign against media silence about the persecution and killing of Christians in many parts of the world. In a June 1997 Times Op-Ed piece (“Questions from West 47th Street”), Rosenthal reported being asked by an Orthodox Jew, ‘‘Why are you writing so much about Christians?” Before he could answer, the man added, “I know ... it will be good for Jews, right?” Rosenthal replied that his main reason was the consistency with which the atrocities against Christians were taking place in Muslim-dominated countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia with so little outcry, but he also agreed that tolerating hostility toward one religion sooner or later fosters intolerance toward all.

Similarly, Orthodox Rabbi Daniel Lapin, in a 1999 article in American Enterprise magazine tided “Why Jews Should Pray for a Christian America,” noted that the erosion of social institutions that Jews and other Americans depend upon for safety and tranquility is the result not of “too much Christianity,” but rather the failures of secular liberalism. Indeed, many of us grew up in a country suffused with the Judeo-Christian heritage. At the Catholic institutions I attended we were reminded of the words of Pope Pius XI, “Spiritually we are all Semites.” We share with our brethren of other faiths a profound concern about the coarsening of the culture in which our grandchildren are being raised-one that, in the late Senator Daniel Moynihan’s words, “has defined deviancy down.”

Just in my lifetime, we have gone from questioning whether couples should kiss on the first date to whether they should have sex, and popular romantic ballads by Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin, Porter, Kern, and Berlin have been replaced by misogynistic and profane rap and hip-hop. Although Hollywood may have facilitated these changes, it didn’t create them. To paraphrase Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, “The fault, Dear Brutus, lies not in our stars [or the movies they make] but in ourselves.” The restoration of a better movie culture, like the return of civility and good manners in everyday life, is our responsibility both individually and collectively. If we want movies that are more reflective of our values, we can use the power of the purse and our voices to let Hollywood know that. As Father James Keller, founder of the Christopher movement pointed out, if one of us lights a candle, we can illuminate our space but if each of us does, we can illuminate the world.

My purpose in this book is not to argue for a return to yesteryear when films were often too saccharine in their approach to religion and Christianity. Indeed, I am not a big fan of many overtly religious films, believing that some of the best religious films are those where spirituality evolves in the characters as the story unfolds. Instead, my intent is to suggest that Christians, including Catholics, may not have been as good as they were depicted in their glorification days, but are certainly nothing like the hateful stereotypes in today’s movies. In short, it’s time to restore balance. Constant negativity is not only detrimental to institutions and professions but has a polarizing and corrosive effect on society as a whole.

Excerpted from Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners by Peter Dans. Used with permission. Copyright © 2009 Peter E. Dans. All Rights Reserved.


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