Christianity's all the rage - at the movies

In Hollywood, there are a few truisms in filmmaking: Never play opposite children or animals. Unless your name is James Cameron, stay out of the water. Oh, and unless you like protests, never make a movie about religion.

Well, sign up your beagle for acting classes.

Not since Charlton Heston was a young man has there been such a proliferation of films delving into religious themes. From "Dogma" to "The End of the Affair," seven releases are grappling - with varying degrees of success - with spiritual themes.

If this year is any indication, "greed is good," the movie mantra of the 1980s, is being replaced with a new slogan: Christianity is cool - or at least bankable. While some observers squirm at the mass selling of religion, others see in the trend a profound searching for spirituality and the meaning of life.

"It's unprecedented," says Phyllis Tickle, an authority on religious publishing and author of two books on Americans' spiritual quests.

Last year, books on religion grew 18.4 percent, more than any other category. "Movies and TV bear out the same thing: It doesn't take many 'Dogmas' or 'Matrixes' to see it's a serious movement."

On TV, it looks as if Cecil B. DeMille is in charge of network programming. This fall brought biblical miniseries on Noah and Mary, with a CBS epic on Jesus' life planned for February sweeps. Some of the most gritty dramas, such as "NYPD Blue" and "Oz," are examining life questions previously tackled by the pulpit.

And in fiction, Harry Potter is having to make room on the bestseller lists for apocalyptic Christian thrillers and parables like "The Alchemist."

Ms. Tickle attributes all the religious fiction crowding store shelves to the "fiscal bonanza" enjoyed by Christian publishers. The "Left Behind" thrillers - in which a Christian band battles the Anti-christ - have sold more than 1 million copies apiece, numbers "serious" writers would trade their fountain pens for.

Mainstream novelists, too, are increasingly interested in taking on spiritual topics. John Grisham, for example, began with a Christian publishing house before turning to legal thrillers. "Now he's writing pure Christian fiction again [with 'The Testament']," Tickle says.

Not just the millennium

While the millennium has inspired everything from clocks to a special Monopoly edition, it may not be responsible for what's playing at the multiplex. True, the calendar may have something to do with why Arnold Schwarzenegger is battling Satan in "End of Days." But there's also a sense that Americans are beginning to look beyond the physical sciences to explain their lives and purpose.

Society "is moving away from a Sergeant Friday kind of thing. 'Just the facts, ma'am' don't answer our questions in life. We've got to know why we're here," says David Bruce, a pastor in Patterson, Calif., who examines movies' spiritual content on the Web site "Movies become a way of talking - it's our common experience. Fictional story, myth, and Bible stories open windows of truth for us."

Exploring spiritual questions through storytelling has been a tradition since Jesus' parables - and before. But while Eastern philosophies have been popular since Siddhartha, in the 1970s and '80s many books and movies appeared suspicious of Christianity. "The great conceit of the 20th century has been that smart people aren't religious," says Joe Durepos, a Chicago religious literary agent.

This decade's explosion of nonfiction spirituality books has helped change that attitude. It doesn't take many bestsellers or Oprah specials for authors and agents to take notice.

And while pop culture derided organized religion, religion in turn traditionally frowned on pop culture. For example, the Puritan founders of New England had little use for anything so frivolous as fiction. That, and the rule that religion and politics weren't discussed in polite company, made religion the last taboo.

But since at least the 1960s, youth has been all about breaking taboos, and Hollywood has been all about youth. "The climate that things that absolutely couldn't be talked about or shown have all been opened up," says Robert Thompson of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York. "Strangely enough, even after the sex, language, and violence [barriers] were broken, the one last frontier was religion. We simply didn't talk about it."

That began to change in the late 1980s with TV's "Picket Fences," he says. The 90s spirituality movement brought overtly religious fare like the ratings hit "Touched by an Angel."

Spiritual stories offer modern filmmakers big themes and deep emotion. And the success of the current crop of movies and TV programs shows they are resonating with many Americans.

"People are hungry. They're desperate for stories about the life of the spirit and how it manifests itself in the individual," says bestselling author Gail Godwin, whose critically acclaimed "Evensong" features a female Episcopal priest as the main character. "People go to fiction because they can learn better, because they get to become another person."

With attendance at church down and at movies up, it seems more people want to examine their spirituality on an individual basis. "When people en masse start searching for answers on TV rather than a church or synagogue," it makes one wonder, says Conrad Ostwalt, professor of religion at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. "The fact that popular culture is so successful in dealing with questions suggests that organized religion is ... lacking in some way."

Appealing to the young

Hollywood's spiritual fare resonates particularly with the young. Young people are "highly relativistic in their form of religion," says Joel Martin, head of religious studies at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "They're seeking spirituality, but they don't want to say they're involved in religion."

Pop culture offers attractions for their parents, too. "Now that baby boomers are getting older, they want images that death isn't the end," says Mr. Martin, pointing to last year's "What Dreams May Come."

But some question whether a front-row seat is an adequate substitute for a pew. Ms. Godwin, for one, says entertainment is too passive a form to explore faith. "I don't think we use our muscles for the intangible enough."

Also, while experts praise thoughtful films such as 1997's "The Apostle," they point out that many others merely dress up in religious symbols to seem profound. "Any time you try to reach a mass audience, it's hard to deal with issues in depth. You almost have to fall back on stereotypes," says Mr. Ostwalt.

Others are concerned that movies like the horror film "Stigmata" misappropriate religious iconography. "It's too convenient to use Catholic symbols in a casual way," says Martin. "One worries that religion is being appropriated and misused."

And while experts praise the integrating of religion with mainstream culture, there's something uncomfortable with the selling of spirituality.

"Popular culture can dissolve everything in its path," says Mr. Thompson. For example, one Sunday in November, TV viewers could watch either "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" or the Mary miniseries. "You think about it for a minute and want to burst out laughing, and then you think about it and want to burst into tears. On the one hand, you've got this scramble for mammon, and on the other, the ultimate sacrifice in Western civilization. And you can interrupt them both with commercials for hamburgers ... and it all seems to flow just fine."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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