On Nov. 25, 1992, the ABC News program "Nightline" ran a story about the status of Russia's criminal-justice system in the immediate post-Soviet period. The network showed dramatic footage of the abysmal living conditions at the crowded Botivskaya prison, where more than two dozen men were living shoulder-to-shoulder in "Cell No. 159." The only visible symbol of hope adorning the cell walls was a small cross.
When the film crew departed, a prisoner gently took the cross from the wall and presented it to the crew. He said it was a "gift from our cell ... for America."
This scene of prisoners parting with what was perhaps the only object of hope they had is moving and thought-provoking. It demonstrates the importance of the cross as a symbol of faith for billions of people around the world.
Unfortunately, though revered by many, the cross and all it symbolizes are often the subject of ridicule by the entertainment industry. Far from being an aberration, the much-sensationalized movie, "The Last Temptation of Christ," which mocked fundamental beliefs of Christians, was just one more example of Hollywood's insensitivity and escalating attacks on religion and religious symbols.
In the recent film "Eye for an Eye," a sadistic rapist-murderer portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland sports a cross around his neck; another dangles from the rear-view mirror of his liquor-store delivery car. His demise is set in motion by a vigilante who regularly attends support-group meetings for parents of murdered children. The meetings are held in a church. Rather than being portrayed as a place of worship, the church is chosen as the site where a grieving mother (played by Sally Fields) is united with this vigilante, who will help her punish the killer of her 17-year-old daughter.
Americans troubled by trend
Public-opinion polls show that the majority of Americans are troubled by the proliferation of material coming out of Hollywood that mocks religious faith and casts it in a negative, even sadistic, light. It contributes heavily to the steady erosion of respect, not only for Hollywood, but also for our nation's basic values.
In his new book, "Hollywood and America," PBS film critic Michael Medved writes: "The apparent eagerness of some of Hollywood's most powerful personalities to belittle religious believers is a puzzling predilection for people whose professional survival depends entirely on leasing the public; it stems from a fundamental failure to recognize the heartfelt commitment to traditional faith that characterizes a significant - and growing - percentage of the population."
It's fair to ask Paramount Pictures why it made these choices. Why add the crosses and infer that the brutal killer is a devout Christian? Why make the vigilante a churchgoer who teaches the grieving mother to kill? Are there no limits to cultural freedom of expression? Must the iconoclasm of art so often find expression in antireligious form? Where are the scenes that would provide balance, scenes that portray people and institutions of faith in a positive light?
Another outrageous insult to Christians and, indeed, to people of all faiths occurs throughout the movie "Johnny Mnemonic" a futuristic action film telling the story of high-tech information couriers who carry material that has been downloaded into microchips installed in their heads. In the film, released last year by Columbia-TriStar, a courier carrying a secret formula is the target of assassins.
The most sadistic and violent of the hired killers is a Jesus look-alike. In one particularly offensive scene, this character is introduced in a slow-motion, nearly freeze-frame style, holding up a crucifix while gazing peacefully up toward the heavens. It's a classic visage, seen in innumerable paintings and stained-glass scenes in churches around the world. As the frame widens, the viewer sees that the crucifix is actually a double-edged commando knife. Dressed in robes and carrying a staff, this character not only kills with the knife, but also nails a victim to a bedpost by his outstretched palms.
We should demand better
Once again, the fair question to pose to the executives at Columbia-TriStar is, Why this imagery? Choosing to make the sadistic killer a Jesus look-alike was, without doubt, a deliberate act - done with malice, forethought, and intent to offend.
Unfortunately, these two films are hardly unusual in their depiction of vicious killers as Christians. In 1995, three high-profile films did the same: "Just Cause," "Seven," and "Copycat," in which Harry Connick Jr. portrays a rapist and murderer who invokes the name of Jesus again and again.
The decision to produce films containing such scenes exemplifies the religious insensitivity of many Hollywood decisionmakers. Is it any wonder that so many Americans see Hollywood as a primary cause of decay in our moral fabric and of the decline in our collective values?
Hollywood moviemakers can and should do better. We should demand it.