In the 1979 Monty Python Film Life of Brian, a baby born a few doors down from Jesus Christ is mistaken for the Messiah. Brian — as he is christened — grows up to be an idealistic young man whose banal accidents are interpreted as “signs from God.” In one scene, he loses his shoe and his over-zealous followers declare it an omen. The wildly irreverent film ends with a comical ditty sung by the victims of a mass crucifixion: Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.
It was a send-up of biblical epics such as The Robe (1953) The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben Hur (1959) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) that portrayed Christianity on a larger than life canvas — possibly because Christianity itself was larger than life in those days.
Fast forward a few decades. One of last year’s major releases, The Golden Compass (now available on DVD), is an anti-Christian allegory, plain and simple. Based on Philip Pullman’s novel of the same name, it celebrates God being killed so that humans can advance to true consciousness. A year earlier, The Da Vinci Code packed in audiences to the tune of $757 million worldwide with a preposterous story about a centuries-old conspiracy that has duped billions of believers into accepting the divinity of Jesus, thereby rendering much of western history a fraud. Before that, the 2004 comedy Saved! portrayed the population of a Christian high school near Baltimore as cheesy and naive — to the point where one student believes she has been called to have sex with a homosexual classmate in order to convert him. Saved! took its inspiration from a foul-mouthed 1999 comedy called Dogma that went out of its way to offend churchgoers and believers in general.
Clearly times have changed. The question is why. Part of the explanation has to do with a cultural backlash that started in the 1960s against values — many of which were embedded in the biblical epics of the day of — that came to be perceived as antiquated. Part of it also has to do with the excesses of the Christian right in the United States, and its association with a White House that has one of the lowest approval ratings in recent memory.
If you believe evangelical groups such as the California-based Christian Film and Television Commission, Hollywood’s slide into Christian-bashing began the day the Protestant Film Office shut its watchdog doors in 1966. Today, 91 percent of U.S. evangelicals agree that “Americans are becoming either more hostile or more negative toward conservative Christians,” according to a recent Barna Group study, and lay a big part of the blame at the door of Hollywood and the entertainment industry in general.
The problem with that view is that Protestants aren’t the only believers under fire in the movies. Probably because of the abuse scandals that have rocked their church, Catholics are feeling the heat, too.
Take Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters (2002), for example. It is a heart-rending story about the horrors inside church-run homes for wayward girls and their babies in 19th- and 20th-century Ireland. Or The Crime of Father Amaro (2002), a Mexican drama about an idealistic young priest, Father Amaro, who lands among corrupt priests who use religion to hide their criminal and immoral behaviour, eventually succumbing to moral weakness himself. Despite being hugely controversial, it proved to be the highest grossing film in the history of the Mexican cinema.
United Church Moderator Rt. Rev. David Giuliano could have easily been commenting on the anti-Christian trend in the movies when he recently wrote that the church’s “failures and fragility have been brought to light” and Christians are now the “socially acceptable brunt of derisive humour.” Depictions of churches as institutionalized evil are inaccurate, and so are the crudely drawn caricatures of churchgoers they contain. Still, Hollywood’s scorn for Christianity is unlikely to lessen any time soon.
So what’s a reasonable churchgoer to do? Read the reviews and choose your movies accordingly. And reflect on the irony of the accusers having become as intolerant as those whom they accuse.
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