Lessons Behind Faith & Film
By Ken Walker-
Several weeks ago I blogged about the reaction of several Hollywood insiders to the popularity of The Bible.
Turns out they were right: this mini-series casts a long shadow. That became evident in early July when NBC announced that it will air a sequel at a future date. With several observers telling me that cable’s audience provided a boost for The Bible, the move from cable to network TV is a significant development.
The phenomenon of faith-based films and TV shows is likely around for a long time. In the weeks prior to NBC’s announcement, considerable hubbub accompanied Man of Steel, the latest installment in the long-running Superman saga.
There were unmistakable parallels to biblical imagery, such as a father figure sending his only son to Earth to sacrifice himself and Superman pondering his destiny while sitting in a church.
Turns out Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures eagerly pointed out those links. They produced a resource site with free videos, sermon outlines and images for pastors wanting to relate popular culture to scripture.
Ironically, Grace Hill Media—I interviewed found Jonathan Bock about The Bible—helped promote Man of Steel. It also hired theology professor Craig Detweiler to prepare the resource materials.
Knowing how media works, Grace Hill likely served as the conduit between screenwriter David Goyer and the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper carried a story in mid-June about the film’s Christian links.
Goyer told the Times that he agrees with the Christ-like connections some see, such as a guy from another world sacrificing himself. Yet he was also thinking about the Old Testament while writing the script.
“I always saw Superman as this kind of fusion of Old Testament and New Testament,” Goyer says. “It’s a little bit of Moses and a little bit of Christ.”
Though purists will protest the mixing of Old and New, considering how often spiritual angles get edited out of existence, I find it remarkable whenever major media carry such stories.
Still, such activity prompted culture critic Jonathan Merritt to raise the question of whether Tinseltown is simply exploiting a good thing for its bottom line.
In a recent blog titled “Superman Spirituality,” Merritt acknowledged there is much to applaud about filmed efforts to explore religious themes. Because so much fare is mindless entertainment without redemptive qualities, the more art expresses truth and beauty, the better, he writes.
“And yet, the whole ordeal makes me a little uncomfortable because it represents another step forward in the commodification of Christianity,” Merritt says. “In a land of profit and greed, these trends illustrate once again that unchecked capitalism can leverage anything—even faith, even Jesus—to turn a buck.
“As one comic blogger said, the effort ‘comes off like a money grab.’ It’s hard to disagree with him. Let’s be clear that Warner Brothers isn’t trying to spread the Christian gospel; they are trying to make a profit. And whether we like it or not, religion in America can be a lucrative business.”
I can’t disagree with Merritt. I think he raises a necessary caution and a reminder that we can’t cheer mindlessly when products like Man of Steel or The Bible are raking in ratings and profits. Motivations and outcomes make a difference, too.
Yet in such discussions I think we must remember the all-too-human trend to take what is at its heart a good idea and run it into the ground or turn it into something the creator never intended.
The 2000 mega-hit, The Prayer of Jabez, comes to mind. Many treated author Bruce Wilkinson as some newly-discovered talent when he had founded Walk Thru the Bible to promote more biblical awareness and been a popular Promise Keepers speaker.
Having met the editor who helped Wilkinson shape the book, I cringed when its popularity morphed from a biblical prayer for God to enlarge our influence into a “give me lots of stuff” ethic promoted by self-centered audiences.
Not only was that not Wilkinson’s goal, his book stirred up considerable controversy for others’ actions, which was hardly fair to the author. Remember that if you’re tempted to knock down attempts to link film and faith before you grasp the intricacies of the situation.