Gospel of dollars: Is Hollywood becoming Holywood?

Film has become an essential arena for theological discussion in today’s culture. Faith and its trials and triumphs make good stories, and Hollywood has always recognized a good story and told it creatively, from The Ten Commandments to The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Economic factors also contribute to the prominence of religious subjects in movies now. Thanks to the success of The Passion of the Christ, the spending power of the evangelical Christian market has registered at the box office. The gospel of dollars, cultural preoccupation with faith issues, and the dictates of creativity all combine now to form a golden moment for filmmaking about spiritual subjects.

Background

Big Hollywood companies are buying in, raising the stakes and multiplying the titles. The Nativity Storyabout the birth of Jesus, was released in December 2006. It came from a secular studio, New Line Cinema, known for the Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy. But the themes and treatments go way beyond the traditional, beyond the serious, beyond Christianity. One Night with the King is a biblical epic about the life of the Jewish queen Esther. Conversations With God: The Movie, based on the best-selling books by Neale Donald Walsch, aims at a “spiritual but not religious” audience. Evan Almighty, a sequel to the 2003 comedy Bruce Almighty, sees Morgan Freeman again portray God. Jesus Campa controversial documentary, offers a look inside a charismatic Christian camp for children.

Movies

  • “The Nativity Story”

    The Nativity Story is a production of New Line Cinema, the company that made the Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings film trilogy. It was released Dec. 1, 2006, on 3,000 screens in the U.S. and showed in 27 countries.

    Contact: (818) 762-0000.
  • “One Night with the King”

    One Night with the King is a biblical epic about the life of the Jewish queen Esther that opened in 850 theaters Oct. 13, 2006. Based on the novel Hadassah: One Night with the King by charismatic minister Tommy Tenney, it stars Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif. Produced by Gener8Xion Entertainment, it was endorsed by the American Bible Society and previewed to pastors.

  • “Conversations With God: The Movie”

    Conversations With God: The Movie, based on the best-selling spiritual books by Neale Donald Walsch, was released Oct. 27, 2006. Film producer Stephen Simon co-founded the Spiritual Cinema Circle, a group of people interested in films that explore spirituality, and directed the film.

  • “Facing the Giants”

    Facing the Giants opened in more than 400 theaters Sept. 29, 2006. Distributed by Provident Films, a division of Sony Pictures, the film was made by Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., and stars members of the church’s staff.

  • “Jesus Camp”

    Jesus Camp is a documentary, with limited releases that began Sept. 15, 2006, about a children’s summer Bible camp. It is distributed by Magnolia Pictures, which also distributed Woman Thou Art Loosed, based on the novel by T.D. Jakes. The documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady has been controversial. Some evangelicals say the film is unfair; some secular critics say the children’s camp resembles an extremist religious operation that brainwashes kids. The pastor who runs the camp, Becky Fischer, supports the film.

  • “Amazing Grace: The Story of William Wilberforce”

    Amazing Grace: The Story of William Wilberforce tells the story of the man who led the campaign in the early 19th century to abolish Britain’s slave trade. Directed by Michael Apted, the film premiered Feb. 23, 2007, the 200th anniversary of the vote to abolish the slave trade in Britain. Associated with the film is the Amazing Change campaign to abolish present-day slavery. Walden Media partnered with the International Justice Mission, a human rights group, and other groups on the campaign.

  • “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”

    The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian was released in 2008. The film is the second in the seven-volume “Chronicles of Narnia” book series by C.S. Lewis. One of the characters in the film, Aslan, is said to be representative of Christ.

  • “The Bible”

    The Bible is a 2013 TV mini-series that played on The History Channel. It features five parts covering a variety of stories from the Bible.

  • “Noah”

    Noah is a film slated for release in 2014 featuring the Biblical character Noah’s story. It stars Russell Crowe, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Anthony Hopkins and Jennifer Connelly.

National sources

Entertainment businesses

  • Walden Media

    Walden Media co-produced The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the WardrobeWith U.S. box office receipts of $292 million, the film adaptation of the fantasy novel by Christian apologist C.S. Lewis was the second-highest-grossing film in 2005. Walden brought the sequel, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, to the screen in 2008. The company specializes in family films, adapted from popular children’s books.

Marketers/consultants

  • Motive Marketing

    Motive Marketing in Westlake Village, Calif., specializes in marketing movies to faith communities. It worked on The Passion of the Christ; The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; and The Polar Express, among other films. Paul Lauer is president. Contact 805-778-1930.

  • Grace Hill Media

    The Studio City, Calif. consulting firm Grace Hill Media was founded by Jonathan Bock to bridge the gap between Hollywood and religion that causes so many debates. Grace Hill Media worked on the Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia movies, The Da Vinci Code’s official website, among other projects.

    Contact: 818-762-0000.
  • Barbara Nicolosi

    Barbara Nicolosi is an American screenwriter and founder/executive director of Act One, a firm that works with Christians in Hollywood.

Raters/reviewers

  • Hollywood Jesus

    Hollywood Jesus reviews movies, TV shows, books, music and other entertainment media with an eye toward spiritual and religious elements. Webmaster David Bruce, an ordained minister, is often quoted on movies and religion.

  • Ted Baehr

    Ted Baehr is founder and chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission, a ministry that publishes Movieguide: The Family Guide to Movies and Entertainment, which advises Christians about popular culture offerings, including science fiction films.

  • The Dove Foundation

    The Dove Foundation reviews movies to see how they coincide with “the Christian worldview” and offers warnings about those that do not meet its criteria. You may contact The Dove Foundation through the website.

    Contact: 616-454-5021.
  • Plugged In Online

    Plugged In Online is the online version of an entertainment review magazine produced by the evangelical Christian organization Focus on the Family.

Academics

  • Robert K. Johnston

    Robert K. Johnston is a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and an expert on film and faith who has written Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Baker Book House, 2000). He was director of Fuller’s Brehm Center’s Reel Spirituality Institute for Moving Images.

  • Sharon Pucker Rivo

    Sharon Pucker Rivo is executive director of the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and an associate professor of Near Eastern and Judaic studies who teaches a course on Jewish film.

  • Anthony Burke Smith

    Anthony Burke Smith, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, is author of The Look of Catholics: Portrayals in Popular Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War. He has written about the cultural and political role of Catholics in movies, television and photojournalism in debates about American identity.

  • Adele Reinhartz

    Adele Reinhartz is a Department of Classics and Religious Studies professor at the University of Ottawa and author of Jesus of Hollywood (Oxford University Press, 2007). She specializes in the Bible and film.

Articles

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Bryan Stone

    Bryan Stone serves as associate dean for academic affairs, director of the Center for Practical Theology and a professor of evangelism at Boston University’s School of Theology. He researches congregational development, urban ministry and theology and popular culture.

  • Eric Michael Mazur

    Eric Michael Mazur is a religion professor at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Va., where he teaches courses on religion and popular culture and Judaism and film. He is the editor of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Film. He says that if Americans are looking for spiritual expressions as opposed to institutional forms of religion, it’s logical they will seek spiritual themes in film.

  • Heather Hendershot

    Heather Hendershot is professor of film and media at MIT. She wrote Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2004).

  • Rachel Wagner

    Rachel Wagner is an associate professor of religion and philosophy at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y. She has taught courses on religion and video games and is interested in the ways video and computer games depict rituals and sacred space, such as churches and cemeteries.

In the South

  • Mark Goodacre

    Mark Goodacre is a theology professor at the Duke University in Durham, N.C., where he maintains a web directory of internet resources on the New Testament called the New Testament Gateway.

  • John R. May

    John R. May, professor of English and religious studies at Louisiana State University, has written about Hollywood and religion, contemporary theories on the interpretation of religious film and religious visions in American classics. He is editor of the books New Image of Religious Film and Image & Likeness: Religious Visions in American Film Classics.

     

  • Mark Hulsether

    Mark Hulsether, Religious Studies Professor and Director of the American Studies Program at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, has written extensively on religion and popular culture. He wrote the 2007 book Religion, Culture and Politics in the Twentieth-Century United States (Edinburgh University Press). He has also written about North American liberation theologies and the transformation of the Protestant left since World War II.

In the Midwest

  • Ed McNulty

    The Rev. Ed McNulty is a retired Presbyterian minister and publisher of Visual Parables, a journal that examines faith in films, and the author of Jesus Christ: Movie Star. He can talk about the Star Wars canon from a theological perspective.

  • Roy Anker

    Roy Anker is a professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and author of Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies. He says most movies based on biblical retellings go for epic scale rather than the humanity of God.

In the West

  • Jeffrey Howard Mahan

    Jeffrey Howard Mahan is a professor of religion and communication at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. He is the author of Media, Religion and Culture: An Introduction and Religion and Popular Culture in America.

  • Gregory Robbins

    Gregory Robbins is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Denver. His interest is film studies, and he has taught the course “Jesus on the Silver Screen.”

  • Russell W. Dalton

    Russell W. Dalton is professor of religious education at Texas Christian University’s Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, where he teaches a course on faith and film. Dalton is the author of Marvelous Myths: Marvel Superheroes and Everyday Faith and Faith Journey Through Fantasy Lands: A Christian Dialogue with Harry Potter, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. He also has an essay, “Aslan Is on the Move: Images of Providence in Narnia,” in the book Revisiting Narnia.

  • Craig Detweiler

    Craig Detweiler is associate professor of communication at Pepperdine University in California. He is co-author of A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture (Baker Academic, 2003). Contact 310-497-7204 (cell), craig.detweiler@biola.edu.

  • Erin Runions

    Erin Runions is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Pomona College in California. She is a specialist in the Hebrew Bible, which she reads from the perspective of cultural studies and gender and sexuality studies. She has written about the connections between scripture and film.

  • Jeff Staley

    Jeff Staley is a core lecturer in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Seattle University. He co-edited Jesus, Son of D• V• D: A Handbook of Jesus Films (Westminster John Knox, forthcoming in 2007), an analysis of 18 Jesus films available on DVD.

    He says directors of Jesus movies tend to draw more on their film predecessors than on the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth, and that Joseph and Mary in The Nativity Story resemble a reasonably happy American couple.

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