Ratings were way, way down at the Church of the Oscars this year (spot the religion ghosts)

It sounds like a simple question: Who is the AUDIENCE for the annual Academy Awards show? "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken opened this week's podcast host with that puzzler (click here to tune that in).

Ah, but are we talking about the audience for the program itself, as in the audience in the glitzy auditorium, or the audience for television broadcast that, once upon a time, was must-see TV in pretty much all American zip codes?

You see, you really have to think your way through that two-part equation in order to understand the post that I wrote the other day about the collapse in television ratings for this year's Academy Awards telecast. That post is right here: "Kudos to Washington Post for accidentally revealing diverse forms of Oscar hate/apathy?"

You see, I praised the Post -- gently -- for kind-of noticing that many Americans may have tuned out this year's Oscars show for reasons other than a desire not to see President Donald Trump bashed over and over. Late in that piece, they quoted some religious conservatives, one of whom sounded disappointed that stars hadn't dedicated more time to #MeToo issues during the Oscars.

Then there was this quip by host Jimmy "Man Show" Kimmel, which was aimed at the current administration -- but also had the beliefs of millions of traditional Christians, Jews and Muslims.

“We don’t make movies like ‘Call Me by Your Name’ for money. … We make them to upset Mike Pence,” Kimmel also said, referring to the same-sex romance film nominated for best picture.

So why did gazillions of Americans in flyover country tune out Oscars 2018, giving this cultural touchstone its lowest ratings, ever?

Obviously, it has something to do with the bitter divisions in American life that are cultural and moral, as well as political. At the same time, there is an schism between Americans who like the edgy niche-market movies that are dear to modern Hollywood's heart, and those who show up for mass-market superflicks that are not as preachy (or preach in a different style).

Do the power players in Hollywood know about this schism? Of course they do. Have they really owned it, to the same degree as the elites in the Broadway theater community (see the classic Tony opener at the top of this post)?

No way. After all, Broadway theaters are (location, location, location) located in New York City. Meanwhile, Hollywood leaders have to face the fact that they are trying to sell tickets into "sanctuaries" that are all over America, in red as well as blue zip codes. Hollywood players have to care about the mass audience, in the goal is to sell tickets and, maybe, to gently evangelize the unconverted on blue-gospel issues.

So there are moral, cultural and religious issues in play -- as Kimmel noted, whether he was trying to or not.

Thus, your GetReligionistas have always argued that there are religion-beat stories in the world of entertainment -- lots of them. For example, see this new Washington Post "Acts of Faith" piece about Madeleine L’Engle and "A Wrinkle In Time," by Sarah Pulliam Bailey.

One can even argue, as I did while teaching at Denver Seminary in the early 1990s, that the world of entertainment has become one of the major venues for "spiritual" searching among average Americans. This is especially true for those living in "Oprah America" -- the zone between traditional religious institutions and the rapidly growing atheist-agnostic-Nones camp.

Do most religious leaders understand this dynamic? In my experience, alas, the answer is "not many."

But every now and then you can see this "Church of the Masses" side of entertainment culture (to use the title of the blog that screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi Harrington produced for many years) break out into public media.

There was a beautiful example the other day in The Washington Post, in the form of an intense Michelle Boorstein feature with this headline: "How the Oscar-winning ‘Coco’ and its fantastical afterlife forced us to talk about death."

This is long, but it's important to connect the dots in this vivid overture:

I’m not Mexican, I’ve never celebrated Día de los Muertos, but I sobbed my way through “Coco,” the animated film that won at Sunday’s Oscars for its vibrant, orange-petal-filled depiction of the afterlife.
Having lost my mother somewhat recently, I found it seductive and mesmerizing to sit in a dark room full of other people and together, in front of a huge screen, plunge into the fantastical afterlife depicted in “Coco,” a detailed world where the dead picnic, party — and watch over the living attentively. My mind drifted to a skeleton version of my mother, impeccably dressed in a sweater-skirt set, in her law office or at some craft show and just as voracious and judgey as ever, schmoozing with the load of relatives and friends who preceded her in death — a possibility just too tempting. And the closeness and the longing between the living and the dead in the film left me a puddle.
Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s an animated film, a project launched probably not by hospice workers and clergy but Hollywood consultants and focus groups. And the story line of a family whose mourning and loss are eased by a guitar-playing little boy, a dopey dog and a father’s love for the chubby little girl he left behind in death? Sappiness defined. Even my 8-year-old teased me for crying.
But I have blurry ideas of what happens after death. That attribute makes me extremely common in a country where people are rapidly ditching institutional religion, with its paradigms, rules and stories, but remain mostly uncomfortable or unwilling to think deeply or talk with others about what they do believe and imagine, if anything, about the afterlife.

The bottom line? Let us attend.

Americans have very few, if any, shared spiritual spaces. Which is why “Coco” and other mega-pop-culture experiences may be in modern times a kind of sanctuary, the closest thing we have -- however cheesy it may seem -- to “talking” about the religious or supernatural spheres in which all but the most hardcore nonbelievers still dabble. For many of us, these experiences open a door with others, and with ourselves, to touch the few religious topics that still feel widely relevant.

There are news stories in there. If editors can see them.

There are sermons in there, too. If religious leaders can see them.

Enjoy the podcast.

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