Hollywood’s spirituality feeds two mouths with one spoon
Rebecca Grace
Rebecca Grace
AFA Journal staff writer

May 2005 – Luggage shifts in flight. Parcels shift in transit. Cars shift gears, and cultures even shift perspectives. Therefore, it is logical to assume that Hollywood, being its own culture, is just as apt to shift in the type of entertainment it produces. Could this postulated change be one that moves the entertainment industry away from smut toward Christianity? If so, how far? 

The answer may lie within the television and film projects presently being released by Hollywood. For example, according to a special CNN broadcast titled CNN People: Hollywood and Religion, host Paula Zahn reported that both ABC and the FX Cable Channel have their own mini-series versions of the Ten Commandments in the making. In addition, April 13 was scheduled to be the premier date of NBC’s new six-hour event series titled Revelations, starring Bill Pullman, John Rhys-Davies and Natascha McElhone, among others. 

So why a sudden resurgence in Hollywood of efforts to create projects with religious, faith-based, spiritual tones? Various Hollywood insiders offer their answers. 

A spiritual craving
“Films linked to Christianity and religion are definitely an emerging trend right now, and it can be linked directly to the huge box office returns of The Passion of the Christ,” Jonathan Bock told AFA Journal. Bock is president of Grace Hill Media, a dynamic public relations firm that functions to reach religious America. 

“Any time you have a film that makes $375 million, you’re going to draw a crowd,” Bock said. “The question remains, however, if Hollywood really wants to make The Passion or just wants The Passion’s box office.” 

Perhaps it is a combination of both. Hollywood seeks to produce what its consumers want to see, which in turn results in monetary gain. Meaning, Hollywood is clinging to the principle of supply and demand.

Entertainment consumers are craving projects of a religious nature, as evident from the crowds that flocked to see The Passion.

 “I think there is a God-hunger on the part of society, whether they would call it that or not,” said author Jerry Jenkins on CNN. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye are authors of the popular Left Behind book series that centers around the end times.

“I think if people are interested in religion now, it’s because of what they see on television with their morning coffee….,” added David Seltzer, executive producer-writer of Revelations. “In times of fear people become religious, and I think that’s probably what we’re experiencing right now….”

In addition, Rhys-Davies, who plays the role of a professor in Revelations, partially attributes Hollywood’s shift to the moral engagement that accompanies spiritual-oriented projects.

“I think we’re at our best as a people when we’re morally engaged, and coincidentally those happen to be the best stories, as well,” Rhys-Davies said. “It’s very rare that you can find a great story that does not have moral dilemma … in the middle of it.

“But the reason why Hollywood has discovered good and evil, is that people believe in it.”

A hunger for money…and success
Just as people believe in the forces of good and evil, Hollywood is a big believer in the power of money. And it’s no secret.

“In the ’70s … studios financed pictures based on the merit and the content of the film,” actor Leonardo DiCaprio told Newsweek magazine in January. “Nowadays, it’s a business, and you have these giant corporate empires that have merged.” 

Rhys-Davies is also quick to recognize money – or “filthy lucre” as he referred to it – as the great motivator behind the film industry. In a practical sense, success equals money. 

“[But] the reason we haven’t seen religion-based films for a long time is that there was no model for their possible success [until The Passion],” explained Bock. 

“Basically, no one has any idea of what makes for success,” Rhys-Davies admitted.

“The dirty secret Hollywood executives don’t like to admit even to each other is that nobody knows how to make a surefire hit,” Bock explained. “Oh sure, they know the ingredients that go into a hit – big star, talented director, great script, perfect opening date, catchy trailer – but until that cake is baked, no one knows for sure. 

“If they knew how to make a hit, wouldn’t they do it every time?” he asked. “So that leaves Hollywood trying to catch lightning in a bottle twice. That’s why after a film, say a World War II movie, becomes a surprise breakout success, you’ll see six more copycat World War II movies over the following two years.”

Based on such reasoning, Bock admits that the apparent religious shift in Hollywood is entirely market-driven. 

“If action hero movies aren’t selling, you make comic book movies,” Bock explained. “If comic book movies aren’t selling, you make slasher flicks. It’s simple economics.”

An appetite for change
Despite the fact that money speaks in Hollywood, Bock believes Christian outsiders can still be heard in an industry that usually revolves around only the rich and famous.

“What we must learn is that we, 160 million Christians in this country, can affect what movies Hollywood produces simply by consistently making the ones we like into overwhelming hits,” he explained. “If you’re a studio, you might not be in love with making ‘boy-and-his-dog movies,’ but if they make $150 million every time, you’ll make more.”

According to statistics, fans of family-friendly movies are well on their way to voicing their top movie picks by making a dent in box office revenues. As reported by the Associated Press, the National Association of Theatre Owners recently released figures showing “PG titles grossed $2.3 billion domestically, compared to $2.1 billion for R-rated films” last year. 

“More family-friendly fare is a good thing, and we applaud it…, ” wrote Mark Moring of ChristianityTodayMovies.com.

Which is just what Bock encourages Christians to do as they long for this trend to become a permanent phenomenon in Hollywood.  But he also wants Christians to realize that a shift such as this is not instantaneous.

“For evangelical Christians, Revelations isn’t perfect, but the redeeming value in this project is that it’s headed in the right direction, and I think it’s very important to keep the big picture in mind,” Bock warned.  “They’re all dipping their toes in the water, but no one’s diving in the deep end yet.” (See below for AFA review.)

Although Hollywood appears to be on the right track, merely tagging projects with a religious label in an attempt to circulate revenue does not go far enough for Bible-believing Christians who long to see this influential industry transformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  undefined

CASE STUDY: NBC’s ‘Revelations’ falls short
NBC primetime is latching on to a new miniseries about the end of days because it has a religious connection, and, right now, religion is selling. Revelations, by any other name, would be nothing more than another suspenseful drama about the spiritual realm. Instead, it is the perfect example of Hollywood’s attempt to satisfy the cravings of religious America as it longs to replicate the success of The Passion of the Christ.

In Revelations, executive producer-writer David Seltzer and executive producer Gavin Palone, attempt to tackle the end times as prophesied in the Bible by depicting an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world scenario that hones in on the ultimate conflict between God and Satan. 

The series combines science and theology through the roles of a Harvard astrophysicist, Dr. Richard Massey, (Bill Pullman) and a blasphemous nun, Sister Josepha Montifiore (Natascha McElhone), who set out to determine if the end of the world as foretold in Scripture is already taking place or if it can be thwarted. The idea should raise concern among Christians. 

As concluded from an advance viewing of the pilot episode by the AFA Journal, the miniseries depicts the clash between scientific logic and the uncertainty of faith complicated by the forces of evil and the iniquity of human nature. 

Although it is understandable to associate darkness and fear with the end times, Seltzer and Palone move beyond those common associations to create what could easily be viewed as a horror tale for network television complete with a Satanic murderer, grotesque implications, and communication with the dead. 

But beyond the discomforting elements of horror is the question of Biblical authenticity. For example, the title does not even bear the correct name of the book of the Bible on which the miniseries is supposedly based. 

“We decided to call it Revelations [instead of Revelation – singular] to put it into a broader context,” Seltzer said. 

He also admitted that he did not create the characters in Revelations to follow a particular faith. In addition, the ending of the first hour-long installment concludes with the discovery of an enigmatic baby who is presented to viewers as either Jesus Christ, returning as a hushed child instead of a King in all His glory, or the spawn of Satan – also known as the anti-Christ. Viewers are left with a cliffhanger that forces them to question the identity of the baby and what is to come as the world nears its apparent end.

Overall, the drama is there. The characters are believable. The suspense is real. There is even a compelling story line complete with Scripture flashed on the screen and direct references to Jesus Christ throughout the episode. 

But, unfortunately, these elements fail to connect evangelical Christians – or even nonbelievers, for that matter – to authentic Christianity.