Are religious themes cropping up in more mainstream movies these days? Stephen Whitty, film critic for New Jersey’s largest newspaper, the Newark Star Ledger, thinks they may be. In a recent article Whitty connects the dots on a number of recent Hollywood offerings that touch on spiritual questions or themes of faith, from Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, starring Matt Damon, to the Ed Norton/Robert De Niro prison film Stone, from Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger to the Disney sports film Secretariat.
“These aren’t tiny indies,” Whitty notes, “like the evangelical films that sprang up after The Passion of the Christ” (i.e., movies like Facing the Giants and One Night With the King). “No, these are the mainstream pictures … Faith-based film fans used to be seen as a niche audience. Now, in Hollywood, they’re just seen as the audience.”
If that’s true, it’s a potentially promising development, though the resulting films may be mixed. Obviously there’s no going back to the pervasive Judeo-Christian milieu of Golden Age Hollywood (though a film here or there, like Secretariat, may hearken back to that era). The actual content of these films, including the spiritual content, may be problematic, from the credulous spiritualism of Hereafter to what seems to be a muddle of Christian and New Age ideas in the sexually explicit Stone.
“C. S. Lewis once opined that rhetorical nonsense doesn’t become sense just by inserting the word ‘God’ into a sentence,” notes Ken Morefield in his review of Stone (Christianity Today Movies & TV). “Likewise, just because Stone is asking questions that are essentially ‘religious’ doesn’t necessarily transform a muddled movie into something insightful. Sometimes it just results in muddled ideas about spiritual subjects.” That doesn’t just apply to Stone, either.
Still, even muddled ideas about spiritual subjects might be better than no thinking about spiritual subjects at all. Hereafter may be a disappointment that condescends to believers and skeptics alike, but at least there’s an awareness of issues that matter. I doubt many viewers will find the movie’s answers convincing, but they might be moved to think about the questions. And a film industry that produces a number of problematic spiritually themed movies every year is more likely to produce a good one now and then than an industry that simply ignores spiritual themes altogether.
If there’s a trend at all, though, it’s a long, gradual one, not a recent surge. I can’t see that the current crop of spiritually themed movies is notably different from Hollywood offerings from the last several years. Hereafter is reminiscent of other (also mediocre) God/afterlife-haunted films like Dragonfly and Henry Poole is Here. Secretariat, from the Christian director of We Were Soldiers and the Christian screenwriter of The Rookie and The Nativity Story, plays like a cross between The Rookie and The Blind Side. Woody Allen has a long history of noodling religious themes, as does M. Night Shyamalan, the creative force behind Devil (a close relative of Signs).
I talked with Whitty for his story, and he’s got a couple of quotations from me in the piece, on the weaknesses that still affect Christian indie moviemaking, and on audience receptiveness to spiritual themes in mainstream movies.
In the Christian movie scene, alas, the message comes first, and story and character are secondary considerations. That’s a recipe for mediocrity. Truth has to emerge from a commitment to the characters and their story; it may be messy, but it will be more convincing. Here is a story I love: Marc Rothemund, the director of Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, is an atheist, but he told me, “I believed in God the whole time I was making Sophie Scholl.” That is, telling Sophie’s story was what mattered to him, and he put himself and his beliefs aside to do her justice. How many Christian would-be moviemakers outside Hollywood even understand that principle?
On the flip side, in the film world (including my department, film criticism) there is still a lingering perception of Christianity as the domain of reactionary moralists, Tea Party Republicans—or worse. (See Andrew O’Hehir’s outrageous assault on the perceived Christian/Tea Party/“master race” subtext of Secretariat for an obvious recent example. For another, see the savagely stereotyped culty Evangelical clique in the Emma Stone comedy Easy A.)
Granted, it’s a perception with some basis in actual Christian culture. Take the Christian review site MovieGuide, where all movie reviews begin with a lengthy content-advisory catalogue of positive and negative content and themes (preceded by a string of impenetrable abbreviations, e.g., “PaPaPa, OOO, FR, C, BB, L, VV, S, N, AA, DD, MM”). Too often at MovieGuide, “safe” movies get high marks simply for avoiding objectionable content. (Four stars for Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole and Prince of Persia? Three stars for Marmaduke and Alpha and Omega? Really?) Moral analysis at MovieGuide can verge on the Orwellian: Babies, one of the most delightful movies of the year, may have a “strong moral worldview,” yet it’s dinged for a “light humanist quality” (i.e., secular humanist) “because no mention is made of God.”
On the other hand, MovieGuide critics are capable of praising positive spiritual and/or moral dimensions even in movies with horrific content, such as Winter’s Bone and District 9. That’s a pretty striking indicator of the breadth of Christian interest in mainstream films of all kinds that take these matters seriously.
Christian moviegoers don’t necessarily want to be catered to (although it beats getting beat up on), nor do they necessarily want only safe, family-friendly, uplifting fare (although we could certainly use more well-done family entertainment). Many serious Christians are also serious moviegoers who would rather be challenged than merely affirmed—as would serious moviegoers of all stripes. Religious ideas, questions and symbols remain a potent part of the world we live in. There’s no reason for them to be confined to a religious movie ghetto.
Related: Hollywood and Religion: Priests, Nuns and the American Silver Screen (Decent Films)