Does Jesus Have a Home in Hollywood?
The shocking display at last month’s Grammy Awards has some Christians answering No to that question, but Catholics in the industry say constructive engagement is needed more than ever.
HOLLYWOOD — From witchcraft to “twerking,” the provocative fare on display at last month’s Grammy Awards has been described as downright evil.
Many Christians have taken the disturbing display as a clear indication that it’s high time to call it quits with Hollywood and the entertainment industry.
But in doing so, some Catholics say these religious believers would be abandoning one of society’s most influential institutions, already suffering from not encountering enough authentic Christian witness.
Hollywood and the entertainment industry’s impact on American culture and values, especially through movies, has been widely discussed. A University of Notre Dame study showed that films were far more effective than political advertisements at moving individuals to the political left.
“Viewers come expecting to be entertained and are not prepared to encounter and evaluate political messages as they would during campaign advertisements or network news,” said Todd Adkins, lead author of the Notre Dame study, in which half of the 300 study participants identified themselves as conservative.
Adkins’ study, published in the November 2013 issue of Social Science Quarterly, found that all the viewers who came to watch a popular film and were unaware of its underlying political message shifted their views varying degrees to the left.
He wrote that the study shows this “influence persists over time and is not moderated by partisanship, ideology or political knowledge.”
Catholics familiar with the entertainment industry said that Christians have to re-engage with Hollywood, being present as witnesses of Jesus Christ.
Carlos Espinosa, CEO and founder of Holy Wood Acting Studio, puts it another way: Hollywood is a prime example of the very margins of society where the Church must go and bring hope.
“[Pope Francis] is saying to Catholics, ‘Go and find the worst of the worst,’” Espinosa said. Espinosa’s Holy Wood acting studio seeks to train actors and give them the spiritual support they need to make careers in the entertainment industry. He said that Christians have to realize that too many people in the entertainment industry are “victims of a system” that lured them in with the potential for fame and success and is now destroying them.
“When you engage with them, you see a child who wants love, the love of God,” he added. As an example, he pointed to Katy Perry, who has stated she made a Faustian bargain with the devil, exchanging her soul for success. Perry’s original dream was to be a Gospel singer like Amy Grant. Espinosa said too many Christians end up doing the devil’s job by accusing Perry and looking at her in terms of her wrongs, especially after her Satanic performance at the Grammy’s.
“We shouldn’t accuse,” Espinosa said. “I think that [Perry] is a very hurt child of God, not of the devil.”
Rachel Campos-Duffy: Culture Informs Politics
Rachel Campos-Duffy is no stranger to Hollywood. A Catholic, she began her life in the entertainment industry in reality TV, appearing in MTV’s The Real World: San Francisco. She later auditioned for a co-host spot on The View. She has been a guest co-host on that show and frequently comments on pop culture on EWTN’s The World Over. She’s married to her Real World co-star and current Republican congressman for Wisconsin Sean Duffy, with whom she has six children.
She agreed that Hollywood is more than capable of producing excellent films that show faith or reflect such values. She pointed to films like Gravity, The Blindside, Amazing Grace and The Chronicles of Narnia as recent examples.
“There’s room for all kinds of stories,” she said.
Campos-Duffy, a political conservative, explained that culture informs politics. In her opinion, all the money spent in super PACs [political action committees] in elections would be better spent financing Hollywood-quality films with good values and buying up movie houses and distribution centers.
“Elections are lagging indicators of what is happening in the culture,” she said.
Campos-Duffy explained that the last thing Christians should do is withdraw their presence from these areas, now dominated by people who do not share their values but who have an audience that needs to hear Christian perspectives. From her own experience, she knows that forums like The View and The Real World can feel like hostile environments, but she kept in mind that there is a larger audience beyond the studio and that by making a presence there “we normalize our views in the lion’s den.”
And that presence has payoffs, she said. She pointed out that first lady Michelle Obama took to Twitter to praise singer Beyoncé’s risqué performance as a role model for her daughters during 2013’s Super Bowl halftime show. But Campos-Duffy responded in the Twittersphere and at TODAY Moms, noting that the singer’s display was inappropriate for the Super Bowl or empowering young girls. This triggered a response, she said, that showed that people from a broad array of backgrounds agreed with her, not Mrs. Obama.
Campos-Duffy said that if she had decided to completely disengage and “opt out” of encountering Hollywood and the entertainment industry, “people might believe that the mainstream is Michelle Obama.”
“If everything wholesome opts out, we don’t get to show the alternative,” she said.
The Power of Storytelling
Screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi Harrington, a Catholic who has helped produce the screenplay for the upcoming film Mary, the Mother of Christ, said that Christians have to come to grips with the fact that “we really have a dearth of storytelling.”
Nicolosi Harrington believes Hollywood has the technical skill, talent and production standards necessary for a film to be successful with audiences.
She said that means accepting professional criticism from the industry, even when it means going back to the drawing board. She pointed to her own experience, when she had been asked to give an advance review of a pro-life film.
“I told them I don’t go easy. If it’s badly produced, I’ll say so,” she said, adding that she never heard back from those pro-life filmmakers.
So far, she said, the best pro-life film she has seen is Juno, which was written by a “pro-choice screenwriter.”
“She said, ‘I didn’t set out to write a pro-life movie; I just told the truth,’” Nicolosi Harrington said of screenwriter Diablo Cody.
Usually, she said, the stories that Christians are telling are “addicted to the didactic” and far from the stories told by Jesus, which illustrate what God and the Kingdom of heaven is like but do not in fact mention him or eternity directly.
Part of this task is reclaiming the notion that art is to be made because it is beautiful, not because it will serve some utilitarian function. She pointed to when Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor was asked, “Why do you write stories?”
“Her answer is revealing: ‘Because I’m very good at it,’” Nicolosi Harrington said.
Nicolosi Harrington suggests four things the Church has to do to save Hollywood: Make meaningful investments in the arts and media; invest in talent so making art is a “respectable career”; reach out to talented actors “among the pagans” to get them on board telling these stories; and hold films to high standards.
She also said that Christians have to understand that Hollywood knows how to make movies “from a sheer business standpoint.” There is no way to produce excellent, appealing films on the cheap, and Christians cannot come to Hollywood saying they will make a movie on a $2-million budget to perform like a $200-million film.
She said, “It’s like you’re saying you want to play major-league baseball, but you’re funding it at the level of the pee-wee leagues.”
Espinosa said Christians have to realize that Hollywood is a place “anointed by the Holy Spirit,” with many people of faith working there and producing some uplifting works, such as the films earlier referenced by Campos-Duffy.
“Hollywood is a place that God has chosen to bring his love to the world,” Espinosa said.
However, he believes Christians would be able to do so much more if they had the confidence of Jesus Christ to engage and work with Hollywood to produce beautiful stories.
“The love of Christ is much more powerful” than evil, Espinosa said. “Jesus Christ is the power we need.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.