Get Real About Religion and Entertainment


Contrary to what some people believe, Hollywood doesn't revel in sex and violence. Hollywood revels in money. If sex and violence are the keys to that kingdom, Hollywood will produce those keys.

 

It follows that if Hollywood thinks religion or spirituality will unlock the door to all that dough, then it will produce those keys—either in place of or in addition to those of sex and violence. Given the proliferation of media outlets, the latter is more likely.

 

A year after Mel Gibson's controversial and lucrative "The Passion of the Christ," media are still talking about religion and entertainment. That's largely because religion-themed media products are still coming down the pike.

 

And that is because Hollywood understands money. Studio executives sat back and watched Gibson's little film gross more than $600 million dollars and reasoned that Gibson had found another key.

 

Actually, that observation wasn't as sudden as a lightning strike. The Left Behind series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins had already proven itself a publishing behemoth with the sort of ancillary markets that Hollywood loves to pump for green.

 

But "The Passion of the Christ" erased all doubt for the industry: Religion has enormous potential.

 

Even though Hollywood understands money and cares only about what makes it, it cuts a much better key for sex and violence than it does for religion and spirituality.

 

Some industry executives, quoted in the New York Times, believed it possible to tap "The Passion of the Christ" audience in order to market the movie "Saved!"—a teen comedy about kids at a Christian high school. Many Christian critics thought the movie was sacrilegious and offensive.

 

"The Passion" and "Saved!" would no sooner have the same audience than would "Dirty Harry" and "Steel Magnolias."

 

This is not to say that "Saved!" had no market. It did, and the film's numbers were good enough to merit more work for its filmmakers.

 

The point is that Hollywood often doesn't know what it's doing when it comes to religion, but that doesn't stop it from trying.

 

I am part of a group of writers representing religion outlets that is regularly tapped by the studios to review films and TV shows they think religious audiences would be interested in.

 

Some of these films and shows feature explicit faith themes and characters (e.g. the new "Revelations" mini-series on NBC), while others are standard family-friendly fare (e.g. "Because of Winn-Dixie").

 

Some of these products are better than others, but I generally appreciate stories that ask me to do something with my belief system: question it, defend it, be amused by it or just shake my head at how filmmakers treat it.

 

But now that I've whacked Hollywood for misunderstanding religion and spirituality, let me also say that Hollywood is hardly alone in that department. We should be so fortunate to have Tinseltown be the only arena in which faith is used and abused.

 

Furthermore, as actor Jeff Daniels once remarked to a room of us religion writers, if people are looking to Hollywood for theological grounding, they need to stop. Hollywood is Hollywood, and we know the one thing it understands. It's not theology.

 

And even if some film or show appears to have a handle on theology, whose theology is it? As one of my professors used to say, get seven people in a room and you have seven different religions, seven different theologies.

 

Consider "The Passion of the Christ." It may have been a blockbuster, but there was no end to the debate over Gibson's interpretation and depiction of Jewish leaders.

 

In the final analysis, did Hollywood really care? No, not after the box-office results came in. In fact, they're trying desperately to bottle the formula.

 

Hollywood is no sooner a friend of religion when it makes films about faith than it is an enemy when its products contain sex and violence.

 

So for all the hubbub over this show or that film and how Hollywood is messing with—or "embracing"—faith and spirituality, we must never forget what Hollywood really understands.

 

Only then can we get real about religion and entertainment.

 

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.

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