Hollywood discovers God! Again! Seriously, this New York Times piece is worth reading

I've been around the Godbeat scene so long that I can remember the days when journalists would wait four of five years before they would write the same Big Trend Story all over again.

You know the ones I'm talking about. Things like the whole "Death of the Religious Right" story or the latest update on "Why megachurches are getting bigger." And did you know that interfaith marriages are a big deal in modern Judaism?

Another one of the standards has been the "Hollywood discovers that religious people watch movies" story. Because of my longstanding interest in this topic (hint, hint), I have been watching journalists discover this trend over and over ever since "Field of Dreams" and  "Home Alone." Hey, do you remember Michael Medved? Then in 2009, The Los Angeles Times even interviewed me about the roots of this trend behind the hit movie, "The Blind Side."

You can blame Mel Gibson and "The Passion of the Christ," of course, but there is more to this evergreen story than one or two big-ticket items.

Still, I was cynical when I saw this New York Times headline the other day: "Secular Hollywood Quietly Courts the Faithful." I expected another quick-turn news feature about this "hot topic."

In this case I was wrong. The basic message of this in-depth business feature was that this is a topic that is not new and that it is not going away, in part because Hollywood has entered an era in which making profitable niche-market films is almost as important as making special-effects blockbusters. And then there is the trend of evangelical churches adding massive video screens to their sanctuaries, so that preachers can spice up their sermons with video clips.

Instead of settling for shallow coverage of the latest wrinkle in this old story, this Times piece went for the deep dive. Here is the overture:

The Rev. Roderick Dwayne Belin, a senior A.M.E. Church leader, stood before a gathering of more than 1,000 pastors in a drafty Marriott ballroom in Naperville, Ill., this month and extolled the virtues of a Hollywood movie.
“Imagine this clip playing to your congregation, perhaps tied to a theological discussion about our sacred lives and our secular lives and how there is really no division,” he said, before showing the trailer for “Hidden Figures,” which 20th Century Fox will release in theaters nationwide on Jan. 6.
The film has no obvious religious message. Rather, it is a feel-good drama about unsung black heroines in the NASA space race of the 1960s. But Fox -- working with a little-known firm called Wit PR, which pitches movies to churches -- sought out Mr. Belin to help sell “Hidden Figures” as an aspirational story about women who have faith in themselves. He became a proponent after a visit to the movie’s set in Atlanta, where Wit PR invited seven influential pastors to watch filming and hang out with stars like Kevin Costner and Taraji P. Henson, who spoke of her own struggles to succeed in Hollywood.
“I came away really interested in using film to explore faith,” Mr. Belin said.

The key elements of this trend are all there, including the fact that there are now public-relations firms that specialize in building bridges between Hollywood studios and people in mainstream religious publications, websites, seminaries and, yes, megachurches. Note also the fact that Hollywood stars have learned -- after watching Gibson in action -- that it helps to press some flesh in churches and faith-driven screenings, as well as in key Hollywood lunch hangouts.

Of course, there has to be a political and cultural angle to this, as well. However, that's appropriate in this case because, you know what, even pickup-truck driving, Donald Trump loving, ex-military people in red-zip-code America go the movies too. That leads to this very effective summary of what's going on:

... Movie studios and their partners have quietly -- very quietly, sometimes to the degree of a black ops endeavor -- been building deep connections to Christian filmgoers who dwell elsewhere on the spectrum of politics and social values. In doing so, they have tapped churches, military groups, right-leaning bloggers and, particularly, a fraternity of marketing specialists who cut their teeth on overtly religious movies but now put their influence behind mainstream works like “Frozen,” “The Conjuring,” “Sully” and “Hidden Figures.”
The marketers are writing bullet points for sermons, providing footage for television screens mounted in sanctuaries and proposing Sunday school lesson plans. In some cases, studios are even flying actors, costume designers and producers to megachurch discussion groups.

Now there is another whole story here that could be written -- which is the impact of all of this entertainment content on the actual art and vocation of preaching.

When I taught media and apologetics at Denver Seminary in the early 1990s -- see this 1993 essay, "And Now, a Word from Your Culture: Mass Media, Ministry and Tuning in New Signals" -- I was already warning future ministers about all of this. The goal, I argued, was to listen, every now and then, to questions in pop culture and respond from the viewpoint of the church, as opposed to using a few snazzy crowd-pleasing movie or TV clips to spritz up sermons week after week. 

You can see how that might be happening, in a few anecdotes in this Times feature. But like I said, that's a different story.

The key is that this story recognizes that this wave has been building for years and it even gives a serious nod to the veteran team at Grace Hill Media, the operation that pretty much opened the door for this work nearly 20 years ago. (Click here for my column on that angle, back in 2003.)

People of faith and their sheer numbers -- by some estimates, the United States has roughly 90 million evangelicals -- are not a new discovery in Hollywood. Moviedom’s leading Christian consultancy, Grace Hill Media, was founded in 2000 by a former publicist for Warner Bros. Studios woke up to the power of the market in 2004, when Mel Gibson’s $30 million “The Passion of the Christ” came out of nowhere to sell $612 million in tickets worldwide. Sony Pictures has for years found success with low-budget religious films like “Soul Surfer” and “Miracles From Heaven.”
What is new is the aggression and sophistication.

That sets up a 300-word summary of new developments in this field, connecting the past to the present. It's serious stuff.

In conclusion, let me note one other angle that the story doesn't really explore, which is the important and little discussed fact that there are some folks in Hollywood -- A-list stars, in fact -- who are not afraid to face religious believers and talk about their own "faith journeys," to use some evangelical-speak.

For example, why was Costner a logical person to help explain potential faith angles in "Hidden Figures"? Well, anyone who has watched his emotional testimony, digging deep into his own Baptist roots, at the funeral of superstar Whitney Houston can answer that question.

The Times piece also notes a Wit PR campaign to promote "The Magnificent Seven," a remake of the boots-and-bullets Western classic. That film stars Denzel Washington, who is one of the most articulate and charismatic (in both senses of that word) church-goers in Tinsel Town.

Here is a sample of Washington talking about his faith and his craft, during one meeting with reporters. Does it matter that genuine superstars are comfortable in this kind of setting?

The first time Denzel Washington read the "Training Day" script, he had an intensely personal reaction to his character -- the charismatic, but fatally corrupt, detective Alonzo Harris.
"I try to bend even the worst of my roles, like 'Training Day,' " said Washington, the day after a press screening of "The Book of Eli" in Los Angeles. "The first thing I wrote on my script was 'the wages of sin is death.' "
After that biblical pronouncement, the superstar pleaded for a crucial change in this role, for which he won the Oscar as Best Actor. In the original script, viewers learned about his character's death in a television newscast. Washington insisted that this urban wolf be yanked out of his car and forced to "crawl like a snake" before being riddled with bullets, while people in the neighborhood turned their backs on him.
"I said, 'No, no. ... In order for me to justify him living in the worst way, he has to die in the worst way,' " explained Washington.
For Washington, this "bending" process is part of his ongoing efforts to make sense of his Christian faith in the midst of a career as one of Hollywood's most powerful players in front of, and behind, the camera. The goal isn't to sneak faith into mainstream films, but to pinpoint themes about sin, redemption, justice, dignity and compassion that mesh with what he believes to be true as the son of Pentecostal pastor and an active member of the giant West Angeles Church of God in Christ.

This time around, Washington's pivotal scenes in "The Magnificent Seven" take place in a frontier church, as well as the saloon. Can you spot the hints at some of those plot points in this trailer? 

The bottom line is that this Times business-page piece is way, way better than the usual offerings one sees on this deep and complex topic. 

Trust me, there are more stories to be found here -- rather than just rewriting the cliches. I was glad to see this serious effort. Read it all.

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