Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Passion of the Saved!

Hollywood-induced Christian schizophrenia seems widespread. How else to explain that Christians consistently complain about the amount of violence coming out of Hollywood and yet, as a recent study indicated, Christians tend to go see violent movies in the theater more often than do non-Christians. Of course, the inconsistency works both ways. Has anyone noticed the irony in the fact that so many Hollywood artists and producers who regularly flood the market with violent content were some of the most outspoken critics of The Passion of the Christ due to its violent content?

One week ago USA Today (America's newspaper of choice) published an article on the front page titled "Hollywood Turns to Divine Inspiration." The point of the article is that religiously-themed movies are flooding the market this year and thus, to some extent, re-shaping the Hollywood landscape. Given Hollywood's long-standing aversion to movies with substantive Christian content, this may come close to qualifying as one of the signs of the apocalypse. For many Christians, though, this represents an answer to prayer.

But when dealing with Hollywood, I think these same Christians are learning to be careful of what they pray for. Because when you play in Hollywood's sandbox, they may help you build a castle, but then they will just knock it down. These believers applaud when The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe hits a theater near them, but then weep and wail when it is shortly followed by The Davinci Code.

We've seen this before. A few years ago, church members were doing somersaults of joy when The Passion of the Christ hit the screen. Just a few short months later, though, another Christian-themed movie came out called Saved! The producers of this film thought that their movie would benefit from The Passion feeding-frenzy because it proved that Christians wanted to see movies with Christian content. Boy, were they wrong. Saved! was savagely attacked by many Christian reviewers and denounced by churches. What the producers of Saved! failed to realize was that Christians do not want Christian-themed movies; what they want are movies that present a pristine, idealistic, uncomplicated and unrealistic vision of Christianity.

The problem with Saved! was that it did not do this. (A little disclaimer: I have not seen Saved! and so what I say is based only on what I have read about the film). Saved! is a satire of the Christian high school experience. As such, it pokes fun at Christianity with the intent of revealing certain truths about it -- both positive and negative. I find it interesting that the positive reviews of the film by Christians that I was able to find came from individuals who had attended a Christian high school and claimed that the film captured the essence of the experience in all its complicated reality.

I am not recommending this film, as I have not seen it, but I like the way that it exposes the difficulty that Christians are having with identifying just what our relationship with Hollywood should be. As I see it, two different camps have been staked out on this issue, both of which are represented by quotes in the USA Today article. The first comes from a minister in Arizona who applauds the increase of faith-based films, stating, "We're looking for things that help us deliver our message." That right there is the heart of the problem. Too many Christians have abdicated their responsibility to Hollywood. It is the church's job to get its message delivered, not Hollywood's. If you hope for Hollywood to deliver your message for you, of course you are going to be upset when movies like Saved! and The Davinci Code come out because they are not delivering the message you want. The first step to dealing responsibly with Hollywood is to stop expecting Hollywood to do our job for us.

Only when we learn to let go of this unrealistic and misguided expectation, can we begin to recognize the real value that Hollywood's product can have for the church. We are pointed in this direction by a man who speaks as a member of the Hollywood community. J. J. Abrams, the creator of Alias and Lost, a show which regularly examines faith issues, states: "We're seeing more religion in mass entertainment because it has become so topical. Given all the conflict in the world based on religion, I think there's a real hunger for that kind of dialogue." He's right. There is a hunger out there for religious dialogue. The value of film and television lies not in its ability to communicate our message for us but in its insurmountable ability to create dialogue about issues of life and faith. They do not deliver the message for us, but they can get the conversation started. And, ironically, movies like Saved! and The Davinci Code may do a better job of opening those avenues of dialogue than do movies that simply repeat the Sunday sermon.


At 10:50 AM, Blogger Eric said...

I know you did not endorse the movie, but I thought I would share my two (or more) cents worth (it's in Canadian so it is worth less).

I have been in on many discussions of the movie Saved (a group of us go out after hockey to talk about lif, politics and most importantly movies). There is one person in this group with a strong position stating that it is a great movie nailing "us" in our unrealistic environments we create at Christians schools.

I fall on the other side. I attended Christians schools and did not find them like this. I found instead that the movie people could not decide who these Christians were that they had in their movie. I think that just a little more research and consistency could have made this a much better movie. 7th Heaven does this same thing but they skate a wider girth and try to avoid being caught between different denominations (focusing on the mainline type of church). Saved doesn't have the identity of their Christians and so their beliefs seem to meander and thus offend me as they are just trying to make Christians look evil, or stupid or just easily swayed.

At 11:37 AM, Blogger Sermoniac said...

Most Christians that I know do not like anything that challenges their intellect and thus the paradox that we present when we applaude one movie and then curse another.

I find that programs that show what outsiders see of the Christian experience (like Saved or even the Simpsons) do a better job at helping us to recognize ourselves. A Christian outburst of anger may just be the realization of reality and a rejection of what is actually true.

I sure like the way that you address the issue and I beg to differ with you in only one part - The WallStreet Journal is a far better paper than USA Today but the only reason it appears as "America's choice" is because most people prefer the pretty pictures.

At 11:43 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Thanks for the insight. I would say that on one level, because the movie is satire, the depictions of the characters are going to be exaggerated caricatures to some extent (just like on The Simpsons). You are probably correct that the generic descriptions of the Christians is going to lead to ambiguity. Your post is a good example of what I was talking about. Whether or not the movie depicts Christianity accurately, it succeeds at creating a dialogue that has allowed you to discuss with others what is an accurate portrayal of Christianity.

At 11:45 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Spoken like a true business man. I happen to like the pretty pictures -- they remind me of my comic books.

At 1:13 PM, Blogger Eric said...

Actually I think that the Simpsons do it very well, I don't think that Saved lampooned Christians well.

At 8:58 PM, Blogger Bruce said...


That was your best commentary yet. You ought to submit that to CT or somewhere like it. I thought it was that good.

At 6:41 PM, Blogger Greg said...

You may be right. I am intrigued, though, by how Saved! seems to create such opposite impressions among Christians, with some responding positively and some negatively. It reminds me of the response to the movie Dogma, which I also have not seen, but which some Christians are repelled by while others see it as offering valuable commentary. Maybe this doesn't say so much about the movies as it does about the diversity of thinking among Christians.

At 6:42 PM, Blogger Greg said...

As always, your praise is good encouragment, although you should learn to direct more of it at the Steelers rather than wasting so much of it on the Redskins.


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