Hollywood puts a little faith into films with a message

Call it religion. Or if that makes you uncomfortable, go with the more general "spirituality."

Whatever you call it, it's everywhere at the movie theaters these days.

In movies as varied as the dead serious "The Road," the uplifting family picture "The Blind Side," the biting comedy "The Invention of Lying" and even James Cameron's sci-fi opus "Avatar," issues of faith and morality and mankind's place in the universe are all the rage.

Not all of these movies outwardly embrace religion. Some question human gullibility. Some ask for evidence of a higher purpose in what often seems a random universe. But whether they encourage prayer or doubt, they're all part of the zeitgeist.

But why now?

"There are two schools of thought about that," said Greg Wright, an editor at www.HollywoodJesus.com, a Web site that examines popular culture from a religious perspective.

"The more paranoid elements of our culture tend to think Hollywood has a proactive agenda, that producers have a grand scheme to use movies to shape the thinking of audiences. I don't subscribe to that school.

"I believe that Hollywood gives audiences what audiences want to see. If people don't want to see movies with certain messages, they won't buy tickets.

"So if there's a trend out there, it's one reflecting what people are already thinking and feeling."

And what are we thinking?

Sister Rose Pacatte, who reviews movies for the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles, says it isn't mere coincidence that a new animated version of "A Christmas Carol" came along in 2009. She notes that the film was released in the wake of an economic crisis fueled by greedy self-interest on an unprecedented scale.

"Being a good man of business will not save your soul. That's an essential message of 'A Christmas Carol' and one emphasized by this version," she said.

Dickens' tale may have little to say about God and Jesus, but it stresses charity and the dangers of poverty and ignorance.

"Social justice is a religious question," Sister Pacette argued. "It's a moral question, an ethical question. It touches our humanity at its deepest level, which is spiritual and religious. It's not just about us, it's not about the gospel of individualism, but about our obligation to others."

Other current films, while not overtly religious, stress the idea of human beings as dependent on one another and responsible for one another's well-being.

Sister Pacette pointed to "Up in the Air," in which George Clooney plays a loner whose job is to fire downsized employees and who has attempted to insulate himself from all human commitment.

"In some ways it's a modern 'Christmas Carol,' with Clooney's character becoming a bit more human, becoming more aware of himself and others."

"Avatar" depicts humanity as a rapacious race represented by a soulless corporation and largely incapable of appreciating the simple ecological spiritualism of an alien race.

Of course, some films put religion front and center.

"Of these films, 'Blind Side' has the most evangelical world view," said Mark Moring, senior associate editor at Christianity Today. "It's a movie based on real people who are devout Christians and whose faith clearly played a big part in their reaching out to this young homeless man and turning his world around."

That "The Blind Side" has become a runaway hit should further encourage Hollywood to deal with religious themes, Moring said.

"When 'The Passion of the Christ' came out in '04, it showed Hollywood they could make lots of money with in-your-face spiritual themes. It taught them they don't have to be afraid of going with religious if not specifically Christian ideas. 'Blind Side' reinforces that."

Wright at HollywoodJesus.com believes that "the market dynamics of film are just beginning to sort out what happened in the wake of 'The Passion of the Christ.' Given that film production cycles can take several years, I expect to see more religious-themed films in coming months."

Not all of these will be big-budget Hollywood productions. Wright noted the box-office success of the low-budget "Facing the Giants" and "Fireproof," two unabashedly religious dramas made by Sherwood Pictures, which is affiliated with a church in Georgia.

"We're finally getting some decently crafted movies aimed at the faith audience," he said. "In the wake of 'Passion,' lots of titles were rushed to market to take advantage of the religious audience, and they just weren't very well written or produced. It's taken a while to get the quality."

Most likely the big studios quickly will lose interest in faith-themed subject matter, Wright predicted.

"Hollywood is all about cycles. This one will pass," he said. "The films that really matter, that actually have something to say, are the indie titles that sneak into the Hollywood distribution system or make their way to home video or the film festivals.

"That's where the real future of spiritual movies is — with niche independent filmmakers who are finding distribution channels that work for them. Hollywood will always have a huge appetite for big tent-pole films. But that leaves an opportunity for others to make more modest movies about things that matter."

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