Jesus Goes to the Movies

October 2nd, 2009

David Bruce, Webmaster of www.hollywoodjesus.com, the highly popular Internet site for movies and culture, perhaps says it best: “It’s a whole new day.” Indeed, take a cursory look at a few of the most popular movies to hit the silver screen recently, and you also may believe that the words “Hollywood” and “Jesus” aren’t so diametrically opposed after all.

To wit: The Matrix ReloadedThe Matrix RevolutionsThe Lord of the Rings: The Return of the KingBruce AlmightyA Walk to RememberSigns. (The spiritual bug seems to have hit television as well, as new dramas such asJoan of Arcadia and, to a lesser degree, Tru Calling attest.)

By the time you read these words, Saved!—the controversial film about teenagers and stereotypical evangelicals—will have charged up the church and mussed up Mandy Moore’s prim image but good.

Raising Helen got props for portraying a Lutheran pastor (played by born-again-in-real- life John Corbett of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Northern Exposure fame) as “somebody who’s a regular kind of person who can date and fall in love,” Bruce says.

And Disney will be well on its way toward scripting the big-screen adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia.

(And lest we forget…how ’bout that humble lil’ flick called The Passion of the Christ?)

“A Spiritual Search”

Craig Detweiler, author of A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Cultureand film editor for The Mars Hill Review, agrees that a cultural page has most definitely turned.

“What’s happening now represents a spiritual search going on in culture. Whether it’s movies, music, or TV, discussions about God are getting more prevalent and more intense,” he observes. “God is surprisingly fashionable these days.”

As a youth worker, you’re poised right in eye of the storm. More than that, you’re charged with guiding your teenagers—one of Hollywood’s most-prized target groups—through this volatile period in the history of moving pictures, culture, and society.

A king-sized task, right?

Well, according to Bruce and Detweiler, there’s little cause for alarm. In fact, they insist the continued output of spiritually-themed (even Christian-based) movies could make our next cultural chapter a very memorable, exciting time in the life of your ministry and in the lives of your students.

“We Need Not Fear Movies”

Bruce’s Web site has been around since 1997, and with its two million hits per day over quite a few days, he’s seen this trend coming clear as Windex.</p>

“When Boomers were in school, teachers didn’t show movies,” Bruce notes. “But now it’s a regular feature in schools. I have a son who teaches high school English, and he’s always using movies as a teaching tool.”

Two decades ago, Bruce adds, Fuller Theological Seminary required students to sign a pledge that they wouldn’t watch movies, dance, play cards, etc. Now the same institution sponsors the City of Angels Film Festival at the Director’s Guild on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. Asuza Pacific University recently hosted a satellite conference on The Passion of the Christ.

But it’s the church, he says, that holds distinct advantages in the cultural tug-of-war with schools and every other entity—especially if it combines those advantages with the movie medium.

“The church is our culture’s last social gathering place where multiple generations come together,” Bruce, a former pastor, points out. “In church, community still exists. In church, kids who don’t have parents can have pseudo-parents or grandparents in adults. Then there’s the Bible, which is full of story. And it’s lasted through the years.

“So the church is the expert in storytelling, and it’s the last place where there’s real community… and as the church has come of age, the fear of media has also subsided.”

The result is a body of Christ armed with a place to belong, a message worth hearing, and a rapidly-changing perspective on the role of movies in the spiritual life of its flock.

“We’ve learned that we need not fear movies,” Bruce continues. “Movies are just a different way of storytelling. Movies are our common ground—we can all talk about them and experience them. They’re the entry point to discuss issues.”

The Church Changed Things

That’s why it’s inaccurate to say things changed in Hollywood because “something happened” to Tinseltown’s way of thinking, Bruce asserts. Producers, directors, and writwriters didn’t just wake up one Sunday morning with sudden cases of morality and collectively decided to produce a gaggle of spiritually-themed flicks. It’s much less poetic than that.

“Hollywood is about money,” Bruce states flatly. “That’s why Mel Gibson put up $25 million of his own money to make The Passion of the Christ. And that’s why he had a hard time finding a distributor—everybody felt it was too risky. But now that the numbers are there, everything is changing.”

In other words, Bruce says, moviegoers—specifically Christians—have attended movies like The Passion of the Christ and the The Lord of the Rings trilogy in droves because of their spiritual content. And now that Hollywood has heard the “cha-ching” of the cash registers, it’s now smartly creating more of what the churchgoer clearly wants.

And that has, in turn, allowed a “generation of filmmakers raised outside the church with no precategories with respect to faith to ask life’s ultimate questions,” Detweiler observes. “Movies like Donnie Darko and Moulin Rouge and Fight Club are asking, ‘What is the meaning of life? And where do I find it?'”

One creative seeker who’s very up front about asking those questions is Tom Shadyak, director of Bruce Almighty. Detweiler sees Shadyak as “a kind of a postmodern Frank Capra. He’s telling morality tales about how the right or wrong decisions… can make a difference in the local community. By the end of Bruce Almighty, the once-uncaring TV reporter is leading a God-inspired blood drive. It’s very Jimmy Stewart, isn’t it?”

The Passion of the Christ Changed Everything

In Bruce’s estimation, independent Christian filmmaking has been archaic for a long time—which is why, for example, the Left Behind books sold millions, flying off Wal- Mart merchandise racks and performing other acrobatic feats, while the movie series fell flat on its face. “The creators, CloudTen Productions, marketed to the choir,” Bruce observes, “and it hasn’t worked.”

But what Mel Gibson did “changed everything,” he asserts. “On the day The Passion of the Christ was released, Christianity Today’s Web site started reviewing R-rated movies. Just think of all the things you read in the ’80s and ’90s about movie violence…and now the organization started by Billy Graham is actually reviewing R-rated movies. That’s unheard of!”

“I would say that with The Passion of the Christ, what was already quietly happening in the church went big time,” Bruce theorizes, “and all of a sudden the need to make independent Christian films doesn’t exist anymore.”

Don’t Forget A Walk to Remember

Detweiler has another theory regarding what sparked the turnaround: “To some degree I would treat the surprising success of A Walk to Remember as the starting point for when things really began to change,” he notes. “That movie came out at the same time as the Britney Spears movie, Crossroads. The latter used typical themes from teen films—sex, drinking, parties. But A Walk to Remember had, as the lead actress, a nerdy Christian girl with a strong abstinence stance who wins over the coolest, most rebellious boy in school. Millennial teens made A Walk to Remember a hit.”

To Detweiler, today’s teens seem in many ways more cautious than their parents. “Teens are saying, ‘We don’t want to sleep around or do a bunch of drugs or get a bunch of divorces.’ No drinking, no drugs, no sex. That’s the final frontier. The cool thing these days is to not do the ‘cool thing.'”

How Youth Workers Can Respond

Bruce says. “I was raised to believe that when you got saved, you didn’t do certain things anymore—you defined your Christianity by what you couldn’t do as opposed to what you could do. So I was raised not knowing how to think about culture. That was horrible for me. It didn’t help me at all later in life, it gave me guilt trips, all of that. So I would rather teach young people how to view culture in the context of Christ rather than tell young people what they can view and what they can’t view.”

“So when I view a film, I imagine myself getting two tickets—one for me and one for Jesus. Then after the movie, I imagine us going for a cup of coffee and talking about how we can use the movie to talk about him. When I was pastoring, a girl came up to me once and said, ‘Pastor Dave, I can’t see a movie anymore without thinking about Jesus or a Bible story.’ At that moment, I realized I’d done my job.”

Getting more to the heart of the matter, Bruce points to a passage in Acts 17 that he often uses when explaining his philosophy of rubbing shoulders with culture. “When Paul is preaching at Mars Hill, he notices a lot of idols around. And for a Jewish person, nothing is more detestable than an idol. Yet the Bible says that Paul ‘observed the idols carefully’ and, because of this, noticed the inscription on one of them: ‘To an Unknown God.’ As we know, Paul used that phrase as an entry point to talk about Jesus Christ and proclaim the gospel.”

For Bruce, youth workers and teenagers should practice the same willingness to move out, observe culture, and then engage people with the gospel by using what they’ve observed and already know.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.