Hollywood’s Fledgling Faith

Religion Showing Up More in Film and TV

By Father John Flynn

NEW YORK, NOV. 5, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Hollywood seems to have found a bit of faith in movies with religious content, or at least faith in these films’ ability to make money. A spate of new releases in October sparked off interest in the media about the new trend.

The first to come out was “Facing the Giants,” which was produced by a Baptist church and uses a story based on high school football to get across a Christian message.

In its first 10 days the film made $2.7 million, well above its low budget of $100,000, the Washington Post reported Oct. 10. According to the newspaper, three years ago the members of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, decided to make a movie. It proved to be a success, despite its largely inexperienced cast and crew.

The protagonist of the film is a high school football coach who has a number of personal and professional problems. His life changes when he adopts a philosophy of life based on the Bible.

Enthusiasts for religious films have other selections available too. “One Night With the King,” another new movie, is based on the Old Testament’s Book of Esther. The $18 million film was produced by Paul Crouch. His company, Gener8xionEntertainment, was founded to place Christian messages into the wider culture, reported the Dallas Morning News in an article Oct. 7.

Then, in late October, came “Conversations With God,” based on a book by Neale Donald Walsch, an author described by the Dallas Morning News at “New Agey.” Walsch claims to channel conversations with the Almighty.

The start of December will see “The Nativity Story,” from New Line Cinema. Like Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” the nativity film was partially shot in Matera, Italy.

Box office success

Interest in religious-based films has grown after the success of Gibson’s “Passion.” That film sold around $370 million of tickets in the United States, and almost $612 million worldwide, the Dallas Morning News observed. Then came “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which grossed $745 million globally. And “The Da Vinci Code,” which was at least based on a religious theme, even if not friendly to religion, grossed $754 million.

The films that came out in October were from small independent producers, but the bigger studios are also interested. The Los Angeles Times reported Sept. 19 that Fox Entertainment, a division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, is establishing a division called FoxFaith. It plans to produce up to a dozen films a year.

“A segment of the market is starving for this type of content,” said Simon Swart, general manager of Fox’s U.S. home entertainment unit. According to the Los Angeles Times, FoxFaith will target evangelical Christians. The films will be based on Christian books and will have relatively small budgets, of around $5 million.

The move by Fox follows on its inauguration last year of a FoxFaith Website that has already sold 30 million faith-based DVD titles to Christian retailers.

There are drawbacks, however, to the film industry’s interest in religion. On Aug. 25 the Times newspaper of London reported that a film on St. Teresa of Avila is drawing protests. “Teresa: Death and Life” was criticized by Benedicta Ward, a reader in the history of Christian spirituality in the Theology Faculty at Oxford University. Ward wrote the introduction to a recent edition of St. Teresa’s autobiography.

She criticized the film for its stress on St. Teresa’s virginity and sexuality, and said it would be more historically accurate for the film to concentrate on Teresa’s mystical and spiritual activities.

Negative television

Religion has a harder time on the smaller screen, with the United Kingdom’s BBC coming in for strong criticism recently. On Oct. 1 a BBC1 Panorama program broadcast a documentary, “Sex Crimes and the Vatican.” It alleged a cover-up by the Catholic Church of sexual abuses committed by priests against children, and accused the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of being responsible.

The accusations made by the BBC are “malicious and untrue and based on a false presentation of church documents,” said the archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, in a letter Oct. 2. The cardinal also expressed his surprise that the BBC made no attempt to contact the Church in England to seek accurate information on the subject.

“There will be many, not only Catholics, who will wonder if the BBC is any longer willing to be truly objective in some of its presentations,” Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor added.

The BBC had come under fire earlier for a three-part series on miracles, reported the Canadian newspaper National Post on July 22. Among other things the show suggested that the body of Jesus might have been thrown on a rubbish tip and eaten by dogs, rather than being resurrected.

“It always seems that it’s Christianity which gets the investigative and negative treatment,” said Peter Kearney, a spokesman for the Scottish bishops’ conference, according to the National Post.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the NBC network came under fire for a decision about an animated children’s TV series, “VeggieTales.” The series regularly contains religious material and was recently acquired by NBC. Since buying the rights to the programs NBC ordered that most of the references to God and the Bible be eliminated, reported the New York Times on Sept. 23.

In the same week NBC was censoring “VeggieTales” it gave the go-ahead to televising a concert by pop singer Madonna that included a crucifixion scene widely condemned as offensive to Christians.

Meeting the challenge

In order to orient Catholics in their use of the media, some bishops’ conferences have issued guidelines. In August the Canadian bishops published a document entitled “The Media: A Fascinating Challenge for the Family.”

The media have immense power due to their pervasive presence, the bishops noted. This can be positive, if the media inform and educate. “But they also have the capacity to harm the family by presenting a false vision of life, love, family, morality and religious beliefs,” the document warned.

It recommended that families train themselves to view the media with a critical eye, basing themselves in their faith and a passion for the truth. The bishops also called upon the faithful to make their own contribution in communicating the Church’s message through the media. They suggested reacting to media bias against religion by means of protests.

Being a “media-savvy family” means putting a limit on the time spent using the means of social communications and choosing appropriate programs, especially for children. The document set out a series of recommendations for parents on how to instruct their children on media use.

Earlier in the year, in February, the Australian bishops’ conference published “Go Tell Everyone: A Pastoral Letter on the Church and the Media.” The prelates recognized the positive aspects of the media, for example, on occasion of the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI.

Nevertheless, not all is positive. The Australian pastoral letter called on Church members to be “critical users,” not “passive consumers,” of the media. Exhorting the faithful, the letter commented: “The strength of our message lies in the authenticity with which it is presented.”

It concluded: “Each of us is called to step forward in faith and with courage to play our part by using the media wisely and well in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.”

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a micro-donation

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a micro-donation