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
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'],"
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