What would Rene Russo do? Los Angeles Times punts when dealing with Hollywood and faith

On one level, this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) is about a very shallow, quickie feature that The Los Angeles Times published the other day about a fledgling ministry that is trying to help -- using a very expensive set of weekend seminars -- Christians break into the movie business.

Apparently, the editors who handled this story did not know that the Times had, in the past, actually done solid news features that talked about some of the complex issues linked to religious faith in Hollywood. They even quoted some of the academic and artistic leaders who have been doing this kind of work, as I kept stressing, for decades. It's like some editors in the Los Angeles Times newsroom are not that familiar with, well, Los Angeles.

Maybe there is a reason for that. Thus, on another level, this podcast focused on a problem -- a loss of institutional memory -- that is plaguing the news business right now as so many veteran journalists are being pushed out of newsrooms. Why is that? Well there is a major crisis in journalism, in case you haven't noticed, linked to falling ad revenues and the harsh reality that no one has discovered a solid Internet news business model that will support diverse newsrooms that retain experienced reporters and editors.

Then again, maybe there is a third level to this discussion. You see, there are quite a few people of faith in Hollywood and -- you may need to sit down -- they don't all agree with one another about lots of tough issues. Some of their programs even compete with one another, if you want to know the truth. They take different approaches. Really!

Can you imagine that? Not all Christians agree with one another when it comes time to wrestle with tough, complex issues linked to art, ministry, money, storytelling and many other realities in Hollywood. Should all movies be "evangelistic"? Should they all be "safe" and "clean"? Can Christians work in movies that are not "Christian"? Come to think of it, what does the adjective "Christian" mean when parked in front of the word "movie"?

While host Todd Wilken and I were talking, I had a flashback to some of the issues that I mentioned in my 2005 book "Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture."

To be blunt about it, I thought about some very interesting arguments that raged around actress Rene Russo back in 1999, when she took on a rather provocative role in the hit flick "The Thomas Crown Affair." That led to an "On Religion" column that ended up in my book -- which was a combination of new essays, linked to earlier columns.

The headline kind of said it all: "Should a Christian do a nude scene?" As the column noted:

... This steamy thriller featured a star-turn performance by 40-something actress Rene Russo, a born-again Christian who bared both her emotions and her body. It raised serious issues for believers who frequent pews and Bible studies in Hollywood.
"I see no sign that the questions she raised are going to go away anytime soon," said evangelical theologian Robert Johnston, who teaches the "Theology and Film" course at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. "Movie people always have a lot to talk about, when they get together to discuss the issues that affect Christians who work in this town. But it seems like somebody always asks: 'Would you ever do a nude scene?' It's such a symbolic question."
Russo faced this agonizing issue during promotional interviews, explaining that she spent hours in prayer and turned to a therapist. She discussed her role as wife and mother. She described her charismatic, slain-in-the-Holy Spirit conversion as a teen and her return to faith as an adult in Bible classes at the famous Church on the Way in Van Nuys.
The ultimate issue, she said, was not nudity. "I don't know where in the Bible it says, 'Don't be nude in a motion picture,' " she told Los Angeles Magazine. The question was whether she should, as a Christian, accept the challenge of playing a fictional character that is amoral, manipulative and, at times, plain old nasty.
"It was like, whoa, this is a woman who totally leads with her sex," said Russo. "Here is a character who is European. She doesn't know if she has her top on or not. She doesn't care. She is a different kind of woman and it's not who I am. And it was really scary for me."

Now, you can imagine some of the questions that thinking Christians would raise in this circumstance. At the same time -- linked to the podcast -- you can imagine that Christians involved in academic programs and training projects linked to acting, writing and film making would not agree on all of the answers. For example:

* Would Russo critics have approved if she played the same amoral, sexy character, yet managed to keep more of her clothes on?

* Would they have approved if she had played the same role, but allowed the use of an anonymous "body double" to take her place in nude scenes?

* What if a Hollywood director -- a Christian even -- asked Russo to play a loving wife, shown in a romantic nude scene with an actor playing the role of her husband, in a film that defended faith and virtue? You know, like the wedding-night scene in "Braveheart"?

* Should a Christian actress think twice about playing Lady Macbeth, who committed a wide variety of sins? Can Christian artists depict war criminals, tyrants, bigots and crooks?

One more crucial question: If it is wrong for religious believers to play these kinds of characters, especially in nude scenes, is it just as wrong for other religious believers to watch these movies in theaters or at home?

You want some interesting, complex and emotional debates about religion and Hollywood? Talk to the Christians who work there -- at the highest levels of the industry. For starters, talk to superstar Denzel Washington about how his views on sin (as in the wages of sin is death) have affected his work on screen. Take "Training Day" for example.

While you are at it, talk to the Christian believers who have been teaching in academic programs in this field for (that word again) decades.

Now, read that Los Angeles Times story for yourself, the one with the headline that says, "Selling Stardom: A Christian path to Hollywood."

Was this a serious story? I wonder if Russo would think it took faith and art seriously.

Enjoy the podcast.

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