The Gospel according to Hollywood

Religious movies bring faith into popular imagination

When the Rev. Darrel Proffitt wanted to talk about self-sufficiency for his Easter sermon, he showed a video clip from “Titanic.”

It’s the often-quoted scene where Leonardo DiCaprio stands on the ship’s railing and yells, “I’m king of the world!”

Soon, Proffitt will be starting a series of classes on “The Da Vinci Code,” the best-selling book that will be released as a movie on Friday.

Since the days of silent film, religion has been a popular subject for movies. Now, movies are creeping more and more into churches and other religious institutions.

“When a good or bad movie is watched by millions, it is in the public’s mind and conversation,” says Proffitt, lead pastor at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, 5700 W. Sixth St. “It is important the church knows what the world is talking about in order to be able to respond and participate in the conversation.”

There’s plenty of hype – both positive and negative – about “The Da Vinci Code,” directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks. The novel and movie claim, among other things, that Jesus was not divine, that he was married to Mary Magdalene and that they had a child.

The Rev. Randy Beeman, senior pastor at First Christian Church, 1000 Ky., has been preaching about “The Da Vinci Code” for several weeks. He says he’s not concerned about misconceptions the movie might assert.

“I’m not approaching it out of fear,” he says. “I’m approaching it as an opportunity. I think it’s a great door-opener. … That’s what I like about any good faith movie – it’s a great tool for conversation.”

‘New perspective’

Movies that address faith issues tend to generate a lot of buzz.

“Films about religion get people nervous because religion is usually solemn and serious, while film is the other thing – film is generally not,” says Henry Bial, an assistant professor of theater and film at Kansas University who studies how religion – and specifically Judaism – is portrayed in theater and film.

But whether that buzz translates into any effect on religious communities is another issue, says Mary Ann Beavis, professor of religious studies at the University of Saskatchewan and editor of the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture.

“I don’t think it’s been documented,” she says. “There may be a short-term effect, such as ‘The Passion of the Christ’ may cause people to renew their faith. But how enduring an effect would be difficult to study.”

Beavis says more people are viewing going to the theater as part of their spiritual life.

“The reason a lot of people go to movies is, sometimes they want mindless entertainment, but sometimes they want a new perspective on things,” Beavis says.

‘Secondary tradition’

Bial notes that a movie doesn’t have to be overtly religious to have religious overtones or be set against a religious backdrop.

“I think, generally, people respond to films that touch on fears or anxieties they have about religion,” Bial says. “Sometimes the film plays on that for excitement, and sometimes it soothes that by providing an answer.”

And sometimes, he says, a movie like “The Ten Commandments,” which came out in 1956 and stars Charlton Heston as Moses, almost becomes part of a religion. The film is still shown frequently on network television.

“I think very, very occasionally, films with a very positive religious message become part of the community’s kind of secondary tradition,” he says. “But they don’t achieve the status of Scripture.”

And sometimes, on the other end of the spectrum, churches urge parishioners to boycott a film. Picket lines often form – they did in 1988 for “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and again in 1999 for “Dogma.”

But Proffitt says he doesn’t see much point in that, or even ignoring movies altogether.

“It seems unhelpful when the church says something like, ‘We don’t want to be tainted by such things, and therefore we have nothing to say,'” he says. “It is my strong belief that we need to be a voice in what the world is saying.”

‘Culturally relevant’

Even pastors admit a film doesn’t have to be as explicitly about religion as “The Ten Commandments” or “The Passion of the Christ” – the 2004 Mel Gibson film depicting Jesus’ crucifixion – to have a positive message.

Beeman says he likes the guidance provided by “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” “Bruce Almighty” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

“I like movies that make a statement but in a very culturally relevant way,” Beeman says.

Proffitt says “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is among his favorite movies involving faith.

He’s glad movies delve into these topics, to spur conversation in his church – even if it might be a passing topic with little long-term impact.

“I do know that the conversation about movies like ‘The Da Vinci Code’ causes interest that, if the church responds, can make a difference in the tone and quality of the conversation,” he says.