Saturday, March 19, 2016

Hollywood and Heaven

Even as more and more Americans identify as having no specific religious affiliation and Christianity is increasingly viewed as being intolerant, homophobic and politically too far to the right; the entertainment industry is producing more Biblically based movies and television shows. Perhaps they have found a loyal and hungry audience of intolerant, homophobic, right-wing Christians who want to see their favorite Bible stories in HD. Or, maybe we Americans are still a fairly religious group. Or, maybe it just depends on the polls and the questions being asked. While it is true that an increasing number of Americans now fall into the “None” category when it comes to religious affiliation, and our culture certainly reflects a value system more aligned with secular humanism than a Christian worldview; the vast majority of Americans still believe in God and agree that at least some of the Ten Commandments make sense.

Of course, there are a lot of very serious believers out there, especially across the South and in the Heartland as evangelical fundamentalism in all its various forms continues to grow. These folks love to watch so-called Bible based movies and television shows if for no other reason than to pick out errors and call out examples of twisted liberal bias. And although their numbers are dropping, there are still a number of “mainline-denomination” Protestants and good Catholics who will watch high-quality Biblically themed productions. Then we have the people who “check-in” as Christians but aren’t all that “fundamental” or “orthodox” in their beliefs. Nevertheless, they still claim to believe in Jesus and hope they have a ticket to heaven. This group needs a break from watching The Bachelor, Game of Thrones and RuPaul’s Drag Race. So watching a dramatized version of Bible stories is a convenient way of putting in “religion time” without having to actually read the Bible. And it certainly beats getting dressed up and dealing with those people who want you to give them money or join their church. Bottom-line, there is a big audience for this genre.

Frankly, I’m glad to see more movies and television shows that are based on the Bible. Even if they take dramatic liberties and don’t get it exactly right, some viewers may stop for a moment and think about life’s big questions. Where did we come from, why are we here, how should we live and what is our ultimate destination? For me, Christianity offers the most coherent and consistent answers to those questions. Are the answers perfect? No. Do I still have doubts from time to time? Yes. But, if there is a better Way, I’ve not found it.

And when it comes to Bible-based movies, the one that touches me the most is one that starts with a Bible story and then is all “what-if” fiction for the balance of the movie. Barabbas was made back in 1962 near the end of another movie industry religious revival period . I did not see the movie until the late 70’s. It was late on a Friday night, and let’s just say I had not been at a prayer meeting. Watching the movie in black and white on a small portable television with the intense focus that one has in that weird zone between being drunk and passed out, I found myself identifying with the movie’s conflicted main character, Barabbas. Anthony Quinn’s performance is one of his best. But neither he nor the movie ever got much recognition. Perhaps after The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur audiences were ready for something different. Or maybe the story just made people too uncomfortable. Barabbas, the story about a man whose place on the cross was taken by Jesus. Certainly one movie worth watching during the Easter season.

“Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” And he said, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” Matthew 27: 20-23

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