Hollywood and holy names

Even aficionados of NBC's "The West Wing" were stunned by scenes from last season's finale filmed in Washington's National Cathedral.

Following the funeral of his longtime secretary, the president, played by Martin Sheen, ordered the cathedral's doors closed. The script then called for Mr. Sheen to dress down the Deity as though God were an Executive Office underling.

"Have I displeased you, you feckless thug?" Sheen says toward the High Altar, after uttering another epithet. Distraught from misfortunes in previous "West Wing" episodes, he ends his two-minute rant against God in Latin. Before leaving the sanctuary, Sheen lights a cigarette, drops it on the National Cathedral's floor, and grinds out the butt with his shoe.

As I watched this scene, I thought not about his Job-like crisis of faith or how scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin would resolve it. I thought: Why is this being shot in the National Cathedral?

Some future episode may call for Martin Sheen to spit angrily on the White House rug, but cameras won't be at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. To film the tirade on a Warner Brothers sound stage would have been one thing. But in the National House of Prayer for All People?

In the days following the NBC broadcast, I found myself agreeing with a rueful cathedral official who told me privately, "The bottom line is, you don't use the National Cathedral to call God a [expletive deleted] and to grind out your cigarette." A cathedral press release later confessed, "It had been our hope that viewers would see their own spiritual struggles" in those of the beleaguered president, but "it is clear that this particular scene was totally inappropriate for this cathedral."

Maltreatment by "The West Wing" of a holy place seems part of a larger problem: an entertainment industry that forgets where sound stages end and another reality begins. For just as there are holy places, there are holy names.

It's not necessary to return to the days of the Motion Picture Production Code - when the words "God," "Jesus," and "Christ" were banned unless used reverentially - to sense something is amiss. Contemporary movies by such directors as Martin Scorcese or Woody Allen tend to use traditionally holy names as if they were exclamation marks. Whether uttered to convey exasperation or ire, they are dropped by actors as thoughtlessly as spent cigarettes by chain smokers.

It's the rare TV sitcom where "Oh my God!" isn't uttered so often that the Deity seems treated like a missing costar. Listen to the dialogue on "Friends" for how often phrases once reserved for prayer now serve as punch lines. The trivializing of holy names can jar. For some viewers, the words still convey a sacred meaning. Profanities inserted to heighten verisimilitude can ironically sabotage artistic effort, diverting the viewers' attention from the script to the reality the words hold for them.

At stake may be more than a lapse in etiquette. Beginning with Moses' descent from Mount Sinai, humanity has had it on good authority not to take God's name in vain. Believers may interpret that incorrectly (I may be doing so now), but it seems plain enough that it's wise to err on the side of care.

It should be possible to raise this issue without summoning the specter of Salman Rushdie's fatwa or pitting the Third Commandment against the First Amendment.

This is not a call to boycott or censor. Just the opposite. It is a call to listen: for viewers inured by the jackhammer repetitions of holy names to pay attention; for actors and screenwriters who value their own words not to be tone deaf to the sacred ones of others. The entertainment industry prides itself on tolerance. What is needed now is sensitivity - and for Hollywood to reconsider profane expressions given celluloid permanence, discerning the cost, not least to the artistic product itself. The misuse of sacred names and places impoverishes our screens, if not our souls.

David Douglas is a writer.

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