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Looking Beyond the Oscars for Faith on Film

Raymond J. Keating

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On the Church and Society
February 28, 2006

Raymond J. KeatingIs Hollywood rediscovering Christianity? The answer would seem to be a big fat "no" based on the films with major nominations at the March 5 Academy Awards.

For four decades, the movie business has ignored the Christian faith, occasionally even being hostile. And when the movie version of "The DaVinci Code," the wildly popular and grossly heretical novel, comes to theaters in May, Christianity will take additional lumps.

There's certainly been a long hiatus for Christian-rooted films at the Academy Awards. For example, the last movie to be nominated for Best Picture involving a central Christian theme (it also won the Oscar) was "Chariots of Fire" in 1981. Fifteen years prior to that "A Man for All Seasons" was nominated and won for Best Picture.

But what about box office success? Prior to 2004, the last time a biblical or Christian-themed movie cracked the top five at the box office was in 1966, when "The Bible" came in at number two and "A Man for All Seasons" at number four.

Consider that from 1938 to 1966, twelve films with substantive biblical or Christian themes were nominated for Best Picture Oscars compared to just one from 1967 to 2005. As for the box office winners, from 1943 to 1966, for example, thirteen Christian-linked films landed in the top five grossing movies, with seven of these films ranking number one.

Before 1967 then, films with biblical/Christian themes scored among the very best, both artistically and financially. A host of other notable movies also were rooted in Christianity. So, what happened?

While the late 1960s marked a time of tremendous cultural upheaval, truly radical change spread among the cultural elite, including Hollywood. In 1966, an industry restraint was eliminated, and much of what has spewed forth subsequently is far from Holy Scripture and traditional Christianity.

Michael Medved explained much of this in his fine 1992 book "Hollywood vs. America." After 1930, the Hays Production Code placed restrictions on matters like obscenity, sex, violence, drug abuse, and religious ridicule. It was a self-policing effort undertaken by the industry in response to public demands, and to avoid government censorship. In 1966, the Production Code was dumped in favor of the rating system we basically have today.

Not only have we since witnessed a broad assault on traditional values by the movie business, but also this radical secularization.

So, how could one even ponder the idea of Hollywood rediscovering Christianity? Well, six films released over the past four years offer hope.

In "Signs," released in 2002, Mel Gibson starred as an Episcopalian priest who turns away from God due to the loss of his wife. But an alien invasion reveals God's purpose. "Signs" ranked number six at the box office. The same year, "Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie" told the story of Jonah in amusing fashion through computer-animated, talking and singing vegetables.

The film "Luther" followed in 2003, and turned out to be an excellent and respectful portrayal of the leader of the 16th century Reformation.

And on Ash Wednesday 2004, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" hit movie theaters. Here was a deeply moving masterpiece of Christ's suffering on Good Friday. Though unjustly snubbed by the Oscars, the domestic box office topped $370 million, which ranked third best for the year, and international box office revenues exceeded $611 million.

In October of last year, "The Gospel," a modern-day version of the prodigal son, turned out to be a surprising commercial success. And in December, Walden Media and Walt Disney released "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," based on C.S. Lewis' novel, which on one level is a wonderful children's adventure and on another, a powerful vehicle for Christian imagery. Like "The Passion of the Christ," "The Chronicles of Narnia" has largely been ignored by the Academy Awards, but not at the box office. It has raked in more than $288 million domestically, ranking number three, while its international gross has topped $663 million.

Hollywood needs to clue in that making quality movies that respect, embrace and celebrate the Christian faith is good business. The economist in me struggles with Hollywood dysfunctionally ignoring such a significant market.

As a Christian, I hope the film industry recognizes that Holy Scripture and the rich history of Christianity offer compelling, beautiful and profound material for the silver screen.

Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, can be reached at ChurchandSociety@aol.com.

Copyright Raymond J. Keating

Posted: 01-Mar-06

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