Christianity's All the Rage - at the Movies

Article excerpt

In Hollywood, there are a few truisms in filmmaking: Never play opposite children or animals. Unless your name is James Cameron, stay out of the water. Oh, and unless you like protests, never make a movie about religion.

Well, sign up your beagle for acting classes.

Not since Charlton Heston was a young man has there been such a proliferation of films delving into religious themes. From "Dogma" to "The End of the Affair," seven releases are grappling - with varying degrees of success - with spiritual themes.

If this year is any indication, "greed is good," the movie mantra of the 1980s, is being replaced with a new slogan: Christianity is cool - or at least bankable. While some observers squirm at the mass selling of religion, others see in the trend a profound searching for spirituality and the meaning of life.

"It's unprecedented," says Phyllis Tickle, an authority on religious publishing and author of two books on Americans' spiritual quests.

Last year, books on religion grew 18.4 percent, more than any other category. "Movies and TV bear out the same thing: It doesn't take many 'Dogmas' or 'Matrixes' to see it's a serious movement."

On TV, it looks as if Cecil B. DeMille is in charge of network programming. This fall brought biblical miniseries on Noah and Mary, with a CBS epic on Jesus' life planned for February sweeps. Some of the most gritty dramas, such as "NYPD Blue" and "Oz," are examining life questions previously tackled by the pulpit.

And in fiction, Harry Potter is having to make room on the bestseller lists for apocalyptic Christian thrillers and parables like "The Alchemist."

Ms. Tickle attributes all the religious fiction crowding store shelves to the "fiscal bonanza" enjoyed by Christian publishers. The "Left Behind" thrillers - in which a Christian band battles the Anti- christ - have sold more than 1 million copies apiece, numbers "serious" writers would trade their fountain pens for.

Mainstream novelists, too, are increasingly interested in taking on spiritual topics. John Grisham, for example, began with a Christian publishing house before turning to legal thrillers. "Now he's writing pure Christian fiction again [with 'The Testament']," Tickle says.

Not just the millennium

While the millennium has inspired everything from clocks to a special Monopoly edition, it may not be responsible for what's playing at the multiplex. True, the calendar may have something to do with why Arnold Schwarzenegger is battling Satan in "End of Days." But there's also a sense that Americans are beginning to look beyond the physical sciences to explain their lives and purpose.

Society "is moving away from a Sergeant Friday kind of thing. 'Just the facts, ma'am' don't answer our questions in life. We've got to know why we're here," says David Bruce, a pastor in Patterson, Calif., who examines movies' spiritual content on the Web site hollywood-jesus.com. "Movies become a way of talking - it's our common experience. Fictional story, myth, and Bible stories open windows of truth for us."

Exploring spiritual questions through storytelling has been a tradition since Jesus' parables - and before. But while Eastern philosophies have been popular since Siddhartha, in the 1970s and '80s many books and movies appeared suspicious of Christianity. "The great conceit of the 20th century has been that smart people aren't religious," says Joe Durepos, a Chicago religious literary agent.

This decade's explosion of nonfiction spirituality books has helped change that attitude. It doesn't take many bestsellers or Oprah specials for authors and agents to take notice.

And while pop culture derided organized religion, religion in turn traditionally frowned on pop culture. For example, the Puritan founders of New England had little use for anything so frivolous as fiction. …