God and man at the box office

avatar-poster-neytiriNEWSFLASH: Sometimes movies deal with religion and, sometimes, lots and lots of Americans buy tickets to see them. OK, so I didn't exactly surprise anyone with that observation, but please forgive my sarcasm as I introduce this story by McClatchy reporter Robert Butler:

Seeing the might of the box office, Hollywood is finally getting religion

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

Whatever you call it, it's everywhere at the multiplex 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 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?

Yes -- why now indeed. Are religious themes in movies suddenly more a part of the zeitgeist than usual?

Butler's story never establishes any baseline showing that somehow religious topics and themes are invading the movies at an increased rate. In fact, here are the top 10 highest rated films of all-time over at IMDB:

Rank Rating Title Votes
1. 9.1 The Shawshank Redemption (1994) 461,132
2. 9.1 The Godfather (1972) 375,293
3. 9.0 The Godfather: Part II (1974) 220,458
4. 8.9 Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo. (1966) 139,267
5. 8.9 Pulp Fiction (1994) 376,649
6. 8.8 Schindler's List (1993) 249,444
7. 8.8 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) 192,039
8. 8.8 12 Angry Men (1957) 101,765
9. 8.8 The Dark Knight (2008) 408,773
10. 8.8 Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980) 254,283

Now by my count, seven of those movies over a span of 50+ years -- Shawshank, The Godfather movies, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Schindler's List, Pulp "And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee" Fiction and The Empire Strikes Back -- have pretty explicit religious themes or references. And for what it's worth, LOTR: The Return of the King is number 11. I imagine there might be religious angles to the rest of the top ten, but my memory of some of these films is a bit hazy. (I'm pretty sure that, like 95 percent of American's who can claim to have seen 12 Angry Men, it was in high school and I was probably in the back of class reading Guitar World's special "Grunge!" issue trying to avoid the teacher's gaze.)

In any event, even if you do accept the premise, Butler defines the influence of religion pretty broadly. To wit:

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."

I haven't seen Up in the Air yet, but it's my understanding that it's not particularly religious. And if any film where the protagonist faces a moral dilemma is somehow an example of how religion is inordinately influencing Hollywood these days, I think we're casting way too wide a net. Now Butler does quote the proprietor of a site called HollywoodJesus.com who does think we're seeing more faith-related films -- but again, with no explanation of whether or why this is happening:

"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."

To be fair to Butler, there is some interesting discussion of Hollywood and religion and I'm pleased to see this topic getting any attention, so go read it for yourself. I just wish the article wasn't framed with such a "Gee whiz, I just noticed this phenomena" approach -- especially since some of the missed opportunities here are genuinely timely and novel. There's just one mention each of Avatar and The Invention of Lying, and yet no corresponding mentions of Hinduism or atheism. A more in depth discussion of the unique religious themes in either movie would have done wonders for an otherwise casually interesting story.

If you want to get a better idea what I'm talking about, see National Review film critic, New York Times columnist and GetReligion interviewee Ross Douthat's column yesterday on Avatar, wherein he argues:

But [Avatar is] not the Christian Gospel. Instead, "Avatar" is Cameron's long apologia for pantheism -- a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world.

True, Douthat is an opinion columnist -- but I think his penetrating piece could provide ideas for other journalists to follow-up on and provide some more trenchant reporting on religion in Hollywood.

Please respect our Commenting Policy