The Magazine

Battling Babylon

Why Christians should be watching, not boycotting, movies.

Jul 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 40 • By S.T. KARNICK
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Behind the Screen

Hollywood Insiders On Faith, Film, and Culture

Edited by Spencer Lewerenz and Barbara Nicolosi

Baker, 216 pp., $14.99

CHRISTIANS AND HOLLYWOOD HAVE USUALLY been at odds with each other, and given that the American movie and television industries turn a tidy, regular profit, it has become clear to many Christians that they will have to be the ones to mend the breach. Behind the Screen makes the practical, intellectual, and theological case for such an effort.

Christians' well-known complaint is that Hollywood films and TV programs generally disparage Christianity and promote immorality. The authors here accept that premise but tend to blame Christians for the problem. On the whole, contributors say, Christians have been too negative, too philistine, and too unsophisticated in their approach to the entertainment industry.

The authors are largely correct in that assessment, though there is more to the story than that. Since the 1960s, Hollywood has frequently gone out of its way to characterize Christians and Christianity as narrow-minded, foolish, and dangerous. Even sympathetic treatments, such as NBC's recent series The Book of Daniel, seem to take pains to be as edgy and snide as possible in their depiction of all things Christian.

Christians' bashing and boycotts certainly haven't changed Hollywood's ways. As one contributor astutely notes, Christians' criticism of the film industry has been counterproductive, as executives "see Christians as negative people who . . . won't watch no matter what we make, so why bother making shows for them?"

The attempt to build a parallel Christian culture during the past couple of decades has only reinforced that impression. Moreover, it has failed aesthetically because the quality standards have been too low, and it has not succeeded in pulling Christians away from Hollywood fare. As another contributor notes, "In poll after poll, the esteemed sociologist George Barna reaffirms Christians go to the movies at the exact same rate as the rest of the country."

Clearly, Christian leaders' complaints about the industry are falling on deaf ears, even among their own followers. There is a good reason for this. Christians who criticize the media, a contributor notes, tend to count up the number of images they don't like in a film while failing to see the real meaning of the stories. "Sometimes," another writer observes, "it will serve the Truth to have the bad guys get away with murder." After all, Scripture itself depicts numerous horrible actions. The events depicted in a film are not all-important; what counts is what they mean.

Hence, as another contributor acknowledges, Christian art need not be explicitly religious in content--which should be an obvious point but has been largely underappreciated in contemporary believers' encounters with the arts:

A television show doesn't need to have an angel in the cast to be about mercy. A film doesn't have to quote Scripture to put the Gospel in people's hearts. If the world will know us by our fruits, then by our cop shows and romantic comedies and thrillers they can know us too. I want to write so that the Good News is so entwined in the muscle of what I am writing that it can't be stripped away, can't be disregarded.

Of course, few Hollywood writers see that as their mission, because "the principal reason for the moral confusion that ends up on the screen is the paucity of happy, well-catechized believers in the entertainment industry. The world does not need a 'Christian cinema' so much as it needs more Christians in cinema," writes one contributor. Hence, another argues, "the only way to change the product coming out of Hollywood is to change the hearts of the people producing them"--by Christianizing them, as it were.

Given the attitudes prevalent among Hollywood's film industry, that seems an unlikely prospect. Concentrating such efforts on younger denizens of Hollywood, however, shows promise. Another long-term approach that seems likely to work is for more Christians to go to Hollywood and work hard to succeed there. Following this line of thought, several contributors (whose own careers show that Christians can make it in Hollywood without compromising their faith) provide invaluable insights into how those so inclined might follow that path.

For outsiders, however, gaining influence remains difficult. One astute contributor holds up GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, as a model for how to engage Hollywood: Contact producers, studios, and programmers directly to call attention to gratuitous offenses, and then offer positive suggestions--"in a nonconfrontational tone"--about how future media products could be made more authentic and more sensitive to Christians.