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Trade Paperback
256 pages
Feb 2005
Broadman & Holman

So You Want To Be In Pictures?: A Christian Resource For "Making It" In Hollywood

by Theodore Baehr

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt



There’s No Business like Show Business

A growing number of Christians these days have stars in their eyes either because they spend too much time watching the current crop of celebrities on television or on the silver screen or because they have visions of receiving their own star on Hollywood Boulevard for producing some great movie or television program that will communicate the truth. Thirty years ago there was a suspicion of the entertainment industry in the church, now there is a keen interest in the mass media of entertainment. A surprising number of people in my audiences come up to me after my lectures or sermons to tell me that they want to make movies or they have a family member who has gone to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune.

The church has discovered Hollywood. Perhaps, more importantly, Hollywood has discovered the church. As a result, the major movie studios today hire Christian publicists to market movies to the 135 million to 165 million people who go to church every week. They write Bible study materials to complement a particular movie for church use. Considering that the average movie audience per week is only 17 million to 29 million, the church is the largest demographic group in the United States and has the potential to make a film a blockbuster, earning more than $100 million (i.e., The Lord of the Rings and The Passion of the Christ). Of course, not all the movies being marketed to the church are theologically or morally sound, but at least the church is being sought after, and many good movies deserve the support of the Christian marketplace. When Hollywood markets a movie, it is up to the church to be discerning and make wise decisions by choosing the good and rejecting the bad.

The purpose of this chapter is to explore how the church and culture, especially as reflected in the mass media of entertainment, have historically interacted with each other and how we as Christians can use our gifts and talents to communicate effectively to God’s glory through this powerful medium.

The Church and Culture

Over the past 20 years we have seen the nation’s theological views slowly become less aligned with the Bible. Americans still revere the Bible and like to think of themselves as Bible-believing people, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Christians have increasingly been adopting spiritual views that come from Islam, Wicca, secular humanism, the Eastern religions and other sources. Because we remain a largely Bible-illiterate society, few are alarmed or even aware of the slide toward syncretism—a belief system that blindly combines beliefs from many different faith perspectives. (George Barna, Barna Research Group, “Americans Draw Theological Beliefs from Diverse Points of View,” The Barna Update, 8 October 2002)

In the past the church shaped Western civilization, otherwise known as Christendom, with an aim to heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and create art to worship a just and loving Creator who gave form and function to reality. Now our culture is shaped by the mass media of entertainment. The results are confusion at best and the vilest paganism at worst.

The Barna survey quoted above also shows that a shockingly large number of Americans believe that when Jesus Christ was on earth, he committed sins, which would mean that his death on the cross could not have been a sinless offering. Sadly, most of those who contend that Jesus sinned are under thirty-eight years of age, the generation impacted by the Supreme Court’s crazed, unconstitutional decision to remove prayer and faith from the public classroom.

If Jesus is no longer a sufficient sacrifice for our sins, then it is no wonder that almost half the population believes that deliverance from eternal condemnation for one’s sins is earned rather than received as a free gift from God through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thus, half of all adults argue that anyone who “is generally good or does enough good things for others during their life will earn a place in Heaven.”1

In reality, everyday human relationships illustrate the biblical truth that no one is righteous. Therefore, it is not surprising, though it is heartbreaking, that 40 percent of all adults, especially younger adults, hold the confused belief that “the Bible, the Koran and the Book of Mormon are all different expressions of the same spiritual truths.”2 Of course, if they bother to read these books, they will find that each claims a unique way of salvation that excludes every other way. A large majority of both adults and teenagers contend that there is no absolute moral truth and that truth is always relative to the individual and the circumstances. This relativism provides a valid, if heinous, argument for those who argue that nothing is wrong per se, including abortion, suicide, and euthanasia. The common rubric seems to be: “It’s just a matter of opinion.”

Nice Is Not Good Enough

This moral relativism may be the reason the antihero in movies has become so prominent that people are now actually considering the antihero as somehow “good.” For instance, the protagonists in Ocean’s 11, starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and the rest of the new rat pack are nice, but clearly they are not good. They lie, they cheat, and, of course, they steal. They are the heroes, and we are apparently supposed to root for them.

This theology of relativism is also creeping into the church. In the United States we are experiencing an unprecedented 22-percent decline of Christianity among children and teenagers (a personal observation by George Barna). Good News Publishers has noted that fifty years ago 70 percent of children had heard the gospel and were familiar with the Bible. Today that number is just 4 percent. As in other countries where the church has collapsed, many in the believing evangelical church are grasping at straws and forming alliances with strange non-Christian bedfellows to try to slow the fall.

These nonbelievers are nice people who often preach a legalistic theology of works and even seem conservative. In a way these non-Christian, conservative leaders are unconsciously guarding the adversary’s right flank, just as the anti-Christian liberal leaders were guarding the left flank in the era of the social gospel. Neither lawlessness nor legalism will cure our culture’s ills.

As Paul writes in Ephesians 4:1–32, God does not want us to live as the godless pagans do, in the futility and darkness of their thinking. Instead, we must live a worthy life and gently, humbly, patiently, lovingly make every effort to keep the unity of the Holy Spirit through peace. There is to be only one faith, one Lord and one God, who has given each person his measure of divine grace as Jesus the Christ has apportioned it. Jesus prepares God’s people for works of service “to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, [growing] into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness. Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit. But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head—Christ. From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part” (Eph. 4:12–16).

It is not possible to do any of this if we listen to people, no matter how well intentioned and smart, who do not know Jesus Christ or who practice a theology of relativism. “Since you put away lying,” Paul writes in Ephesians 4:25 and 5:1–2, “speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, because we are members of one another. . . . Therefore, be imitators of God, as dearly loved children. And walk in love, as the Messiah also loved us and gave Himself for us, a sacrificial and fragrant offering to God.” Furthermore, Paul writes in Ephesians 5:6–10, “Let no one deceive you with empty arguments, for because of these things God’s wrath is coming on the disobedient. Therefore, do not become their partners. For you were once darkness, but now [you are] light in the Lord. Walk as children of light—for the fruit of the light [results] in all goodness, righteousness, and truth—discerning what is pleasing to the Lord.”

Are There Limits to Tolerance?

It is understandable why the mass media place a premium on tolerance, given the increasingly diverse culture in which we live. While some of this tolerance is aimed at diluting the influence of Christians in our culture, most is born out of trying to reach the entire demographic range in the United States.

However, in stark contrast to the media’s obeisance to tolerance, the late intellectual and humorist Steve Allen spoke on this important topic at the National Religious Broadcasters meeting at my invitation. Since his wife was a committed Christian, Steve decided to tackle this difficult topic, even though he himself claimed to be an atheist who read the Bible every day.

Steve waxed eloquent on the subject of tolerance and explained why intolerance was sometimes the only option. He asked the audience, if you were a Jew and came upon a burning bush where it was clear that God himself was speaking to you, and the event was so frightening that you fell on your face before him, and God told you he is a jealous God who would have no other gods before him and told you exactly what judgment you faced if you refused to obey him, what would you do? Steve concluded that you would obey the awesome Almighty Creator God whom you just met in person, and you would forever after be intolerant of other gods. In other words, the divine distinctives of Judaism, as well as Christianity, often compel intolerance if you believe that your faith comes directly from the Almighty.

Yes, intolerance to relativism is appropriate. It is not just a matter of opinion. There is an absolute truth that sets us free.

Seek Wisdom, Knowledge, and Understanding

The church needs to be discerning in order to prevent Hollywood’s manipulation. In this regard the church has always had five different perspectives toward culture, with one or another perspective in the ascendancy. Each of these perspectives can be proof-texted with the appropriate Bible verses that support a particular position, but none of them can be shown to be the correct reading to the exclusion of the others. So none of them is creedal or a measure of orthodoxy.

Yale theologian H. Richard Niebuhr first distinguished between the five approaches Christians have historically taken with regard to their world in his book Christ and Culture.3 His distinctions have been modified and clarified for the purposes of this book.

The first position could be called “retreat from culture,” though Niebuhr calls it “Christ against Culture.” The Mennonite and Amish communities are the obvious examples of this tradition, and the monastic tradition in the church. While there are rich traditions of service within these groups, the world is viewed as a place from which to escape into communities of “separated brethren.” The Schleitheim Confession of the Anabaptists (1527) argued: “Since all who do not walk in the obedience of faith are a great abomination before God, it is not possible for anything to grow or issue from them except abominable things. God further admonishes us to withdraw from Babylon and the earthly Egypt that we may not be partakers of the pain and suffering which the Lord will bring upon them.”

The second perspective, which Niebuhr calls “The Christ of Culture,” tends to equate creation and redemption and can be seen in those groups that identify Christ with utopian socialism as well as those who identify Christ with American culture. Those who follow this tradition hail Jesus as the Messiah of their society, the fulfiller of its hopes and aspirations, the perfecter of its true faith, the source of its holiest spirit. For these people there is hardly any difference between Christ and the culture. These adherents view Christ as the moral example who points us to a perfect society.

The third approach, which Niebuhr calls “Christ above Culture,” is occupied by the centrists who live within the world though they are not of the world. These centrists refuse to take either the position of the anti-cultural radicals or of the accommodators of Christ to culture.

The fourth tradition is “Christ and Culture in Paradox,” which refuses either to reject culture or to confuse culture with Christianity. They see these as two different realms, not two antagonistic realms. In creation God gives us work, service, pleasure, government, and family. In redemption he gives us the church, the Word, and the sacraments. The Christian who follows the “Christ and Culture in Paradox” tradition participates in culture but not as a means of grace. Rather, it is an aspect of being human, not merely of being Christian.

The final category is “Christ the Transformer of Culture,” which emphasizes God’s lordship over all of creation and all aspects of life. Niebuhr appeals to John’s Gospel as an example of this approach. Here Christ is “the Word made flesh,” not only the priest of redemption but also the king of creation. This tradition, which is represented by Augustine and Calvin, takes the world seriously and contends that Christians have the potential not only to exercise leadership in the culture but to present the gospel as well. God loves the world, not just individuals in it (Rom. 8:20–23). Those of the “Christ Transforming Culture” tradition would view culture as a distinct, though related, part of Christ’s universal reign. While creating a movie, building a house, and raising a family may not be the redemptive activities of the kingdom of God, they are important activities to which Christians realize a call because they are commanded by the universal Lord in the “cultural mandate” of the early chapters of Genesis. Though human activity can never bring salvation, the activity of Christian men and women does bring a certain transforming element as they live out their callings in distinction and honor, serving both to attract non-Christians to the gospel and to bring civil righteousness, justice, and compassion to bear on human relationships.

The church has historically moved through a cycle from one point of view to another. During the middle of the twentieth century, the church retreated from culture. Then the church took up the battle cry of cultural warfare to resist the moral decay in our society. Now the church is beginning to move out as ambassadors for Jesus Christ to redeem the culture.

Whatever cultural position you, your local church, or your denomination adopts, we are called to develop the discernment to know right from wrong, the wisdom to choose the right, the knowledge to pursue the right, and the understanding to persevere.

“For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment” (2 Tim. 1:7).

Can Entertainment Be Holy?

The church has had a love/hate relationship with art, music, and drama for centuries. Although modern drama as we know it was invented by the church in the Middle Ages to help the illiterate populace understand the gospel, the mystery or miracle plays, as these Christian dramas were known, quickly became suspect, especially in the eyes of clergy who felt that these dramas were overshadowing their sermons. Therefore, Pope Innocent III outlawed drama, and the dramatists whose creative abilities and desires were a gift from God went into the alleys and the beer halls to exercise their God-given gifts in not-so-God-ordained ways.

A similar scenario has happened many times throughout history. Respected Roman Catholic theologian and scholar Michael Jones blames the growth of Protestantism on the willingness of the Protestants to use the newfangled printing press to print Bibles while the Catholic Church rejected the new technology of communication in the fifteenth century. Centuries later, at the beginning of the use of moving pictures, a Catholic cardinal in Paris was shocked by movies on the life and passion of Jesus Christ being shown in the Cathedral of Notre Dame and banned film from the church, thus turning the new medium over to the very people who were most opposed to the church. Edison tried to give the rights to the motion picture technology to his Christian denomination, but they rejected it. The first broadcast radio station was located in a church in Pittsburgh, but the rector of the church demanded that the younger associate have nothing to do with it and shut it down.

The other side of this love/hate relationship between the entertainment industry and the church is chronicled by Terry Lindvall, former distinguished chair of visual communication and professor of film at Regent University, in his book The Silents of God. This book begins with the historic Chautauqua Tabernacle’s showing of a motion picture on June 22, 1900, and then moves on to discuss how many theatrical movies up to 1920 were shown in churches. This practice stopped when theater owners told the movie companies that they would not play their movies if they were also shown in churches. Covering the historical period from 1908 to 1925, this study showcases pamphlets, magazine articles from both religious and film periodicals, sermons, and other discourse that chronicle an early vision of church/photoplay cooperation and its subsequent dissolution with the advent of growing suspicion, Hollywood scandals, sabbatical reform movements, and alternative communication technologies. This collection of documents challenges the enduring fiction that the church was hostile to the moving picture at its inception; rather, the church sought to appropriate its potential for evangelism, education, social reform, and inspiration.

Proclaiming in the Marketplace

With regard to the love/hate relationship between the church and the new technologies of communication and art, there are five Greek words that are translated by the English word preaching in the New Testament. Sixty-three percent of the time, Jesus uses the Greek word kerysso, related to kerygma, which means “to proclaim or herald in the marketplace.” The word kerysso was relevant to the people to whom Jesus was talking because they were familiar with the Roman heralds who ran into the marketplace every morning and shouted out the news of the emperor to the buyers and sellers.

Thus, Jesus Christ has always commanded his people to go into the marketplace of ideas to herald the good news. When Christians do so, as in the Protestant Reformation and the evangelization of South Korea, the church grows and prospers. When Christians fail to go into the marketplace, the church shrinks in size and suffers.

The Christian Worldview of Art and Communications

Several years ago I cochaired an art and communications committee of several prominent theologians for the Coalition on Revival to set forth The Christian World View of Art and Communication.4 We had a belief in the need for Christians to move and have influence in the mass media of entertainment. Our dialogue produced a concrete vision of what was foundationally required to do that. The following are basic principles upon which a relationship between the arts and a Christian worldview is based:

    1. “In the beginning God created” and “in the beginning was the Word.” God is the Author of creation and communication. As the supreme Creator and Communicator, he is the Source of art and communication.

    2. God has given all authority in heaven and on earth to his Son, Jesus Christ. Since Jesus Christ is entitled to have lordship over all areas of life, Christians must bring all art and communication under his authority.

    3. Art and communication are part of God’s created order. They cannot be labeled Christian or un-Christian. However, they can be used for good or evil.

    4. Art and communication are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive functions in God’s economy. Communication is the act of sharing thoughts, ideas, information, and needs. The arts, whether or not they communicate, are expressions of God’s creativity manifested through man.

    5. Man, created in the image of God, has the capacity to create and communicate. Therefore, all artistic endeavor and communication involves more than technical skills. Their intended purpose is to glorify God. To accomplish this, all art and communication must be brought into captivity to the mind of Christ.

    6. Christ is the standard of excellence. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Col. 3:23 NIV). Within the framework of that excellence, art and communication should reflect the highest quality of creative work possible given the resources available. Since all abilities are God given, we can achieve excellence when we submit them to the lordship of Jesus Christ and the guidance of God. This guidance comes from communication with God through prayer, study of his written Word, and other biblical disciplines vital to being a Christian.

    7. Art and communication have a great influence on society in shaping man’s view of reality. A career in these fields should be considered a worthy vocation. To achieve such a career, Christians should discern and develop their God-given talents.

    8. It is legitimate for Christians to engage in art and communication without the need to include overt Christian symbolism or content. A Christian may participate in any area of art and communication as long as he submits himself to the lordship of Jesus Christ in accordance with his written Word, and acts in the conviction of faith, for “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6).

Theology of Art

Up until the twentieth century, there was an active theology of art and beauty that placed God the Holy Spirit as the guiding influence in the arts and communication media. However, the reaction to modern secularism produced a retreat from culture within the church. The church is emerging from this retreat but in the process has regrettably lost many of its common symbols and modes of art and communication. Therefore, to a large degree, sacramental and incarnational modes of communication and art are often misunderstood by the contemporary church, which often simply proclaims the milk of the gospel as noted in Hebrews 5 and stops before getting to the meat of Hebrews 6. Some Christian colleges and schools have created either/or theories of art and communication and have neglected to note the both/and of the gospel, which involves Jesus Christ who was both God and man. These theories diminish the biblical view of art and communications.

Traditionally, there are four philosophies of art. Plato said that art represented the ideal. Aristotle reacted to Plato and considered art in a materialistic context as something that was: not useful (if it was useful, it was an artifact or craft), made by man, and contrary to nature. The Roman Horace tried to syncretize the two Greek philosophers and defined art as something to delight and inform. The Bible emphasizes that art should concern the true, the good, and the beautiful.

As a result of the materialism of the modern culture that has followed the philosophies of four dead men (Marx, Darwin, Dewey, and Freud), the last fifty years have been primarily Aristotlean in that art has been too often defined as anything contrary to nature or pushing the envelope. In this view, if one movie features female nudity from the waist up, the next has to feature full frontal female nudity, and the next has to have frontal male nudity.

Hollywood’s “Theology” of Art

In the last half-century, a new aristocracy has emerged, and the entertainer, whether an athlete, star, or news announcer, has become the new upper class. Not only do these Hollywood idols and their compatriots make incredible salaries (Michael Eisner earned more than $350 million in stock options one year; several Hollywood and sports stars earned more than $20 million; and the major television news anchors earned more than $5 million), but they also wield incredible power in every area of life by shaping the thoughts, dreams, and concerns of our culture. As actress Susan Sarandon has so aptly pointed out, movie stars are dangerous because “we are the keepers of the dreams.”

The reason we have this new aristocracy is that we have become wealthy beyond our wildest expectations as a result of our American inheritance, and in the process we have turned away from the true joy of residing in God’s grace in order to seek amusement in the world, the flesh, and the devil. In the process of our precipitous backsliding, a few in the entertainment industry have seized the opportunity of our addiction to pleasure to bamboozle a willing populace into misinterpreting the First Amendment to read that everything from pedophilia to pornography is “protected speech,” except, of course, Christian speech. The reason these entertainment companies spend millions of dollars to stretch the notion of “protected speech” beyond any reasonable intent of the framers of the Constitution is to protect their profits from the sale of salacious pornography and extreme violence to vulnerable adolescents, children, and adults.

This new media aristocracy has developed its own form of noblesse oblige by selling us on the idea that the government should cover the cost of all social largess. They have reinterpreted sin to mean politically incorrect speech and have carefully removed any onus from the family-destroying sins of adultery and sodomy. As U.S. linguist and political analyst Noam Chomsky has said, “The United States is unusual among the industrial democracies in the rigidity of the system of ideological control—‘indoctrination,’ we might say—exercised through the mass media.”5

The importance of this new elite demands the attention of the church. Please pray for the men who hold responsible positions of extreme national and international importance within the mass media of entertainment.

Jesus in the Movies

There is widespread confusion about what is a Christian movie. Since the beginning of the motion picture business, there have been Christians making movies about Jesus Christ, as well as the movie industry making movies with a Christian worldview and theology. In addition, Christians have made movies to disciple, instruct, and inform the church, including many missionaries who made movies to tell their mission stories to their supporters at home and abroad. Both the movies for the church and the movies for theatrical release are worthwhile, even though many people decry the movies for the church—which are usually produced on a small budget with limited resources—and bemoan the fact that Christians do not make Hollywood movies. However, many Christians do make Hollywood movies, some of the most successful movies and television programs, and you will hear from some of the best in these pages.

This two-tiered system in the church reflects the rest of the filmmaking community. Educational movies are not derided because they are not Hollywood big-budget, star-studded movies, nor are industrial or medical films. The educational community needs educational films, and the church needs discipling, training, and worship media, even though these movies and videos are not as expensive or slick as Hollywood movies.

Furthermore, from the beginning of the movie industry, before Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, there were many movies featuring Jesus. Some outstanding movies about Jesus Christ are:

1897: The Passion Play was produced by American theatrical producers Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger in Horitz, Bohemia.

1898: The Passion Play, produced by R. G. Hollaman and A. G. Eaves, was photographed on the roof of a New York skyscraper. The length of the film is twenty-one hundred feet or about twenty minutes. A narrator takes the place of captions.

Oberammergau Passion Play was photographed by Mr. Hurd, Lumiere’s American representative.

French Passion Play was produced for the Musee Eden.

1902–1906: The Passion Play, produced by Ferdinand Zecca, was two thousand feet in length. It uses panning shots, an innovation at the time.

Another Passion Play, produced by V. Jasset and Alice Guy, reproduced Golgotha at Fontainebleau and used a gramophone to help the actors convey their emotions. This may be the earliest use of an artificial aid.

1908: The Life of Christ, produced in color by Pathe in 1914, was expanded to seven reels. In 1921, a modern prologue was added.

Ben Hur was directed by Sidney Olcott and stars William S. Hart. Kalem was the production company.

1909: The Kiss of Judas, The Birth of Jesus was a French production, and The Star of Bethlehem was produced by Thomas A. Edison.

1911: Though Your Sins Be as Scarlet, a Vitagraph production, stars Charles Kent as Jesus Christ and Julia Swayne Gordon as Mary Magdalene.

Satan, or the Drama of Humanity is a four-part Italian spectacle from Ambrosio, directed by Luigi Maggi. The second episode features the life of Jesus Christ.

From the Manger to the Cross was the first major film depicting the life of Jesus from his infancy to his death on the cross. It was directed by Sidney Olcott for Kalem, the production company. The film was shot on location in Egypt and Palestine. The Way of the Cross was filmed on the actual Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.

1916: In Intolerance, D. W. Griffith uses four stories to define intolerance: the Judean story, which presents a small portion of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and avoids the resurrection; the medieval story, which was a dramatization of the war between Catholics and Huguenots in sixteenth-century France; the fall of Babylon, which is a memorable epic of the ancient world; and the modern story, which is a dramatic conflict between capital and labor.

Christus was a large-scale production from the Italian Cines company, directed by Guilo Antomoro. Giovanni Pasquali plays Jesus.

Hollywood veteran Thomas Ince cast George Fisher in the role of Jesus Christ in Civilization. Ince employs allegory in this tale of the super-natural to show that all war is evil.

1923: I.N.R.I. tells about a convicted murderer who hears the life of Christ as told by the chaplain. The recounted scenes are enacted in the form of a passion play wherein Gregor Chmara plays Jesus Christ. As a result of hearing the story, the murderer repents.

1926: Ben Hur was directed by Fred Niblo for MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).

1927: The famous H. B. Warner plays Jesus in Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings, still the classic of all movies about Jesus Christ. Produced by Pathé Exchange, Inc., this was the most famous, the most discussed, and the cost-liest religious movie made up to that point and was used for many years by missionaries to evangelize.

1934: Written and directed by Julien Duvivier for Film Union, Golgotha was the first Passion to be made in sound. Robert le Vigan plays Jesus Christ, and the renowned Jean Gabin plays Pontius Pilate. Since it is a Passion, the movie covers only the events of Holy Week.

Oberammergau Passion Play was filmed again as a silent movie.

1951: Quo Vadis is one of those incredibly pro-Christian, biblical epics that it is hard to imagine Hollywood producing. Directed by Mervyn Le Roy for MGM, this exquisite movie clearly shows the redemptive power of the gospel of Jesus Christ transforming the evil world system of man.

1952: Robert S. Flaherty made the St. Matthew Passion based on the choral work by J. S. Bach.

1953: Directed by Henry Koster for 20th Century Fox, The Robe is utterly inspirational. Starring Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, and Victor Mature, this Hollywood classic is the story of a Roman slave, who turns to Christianity after embracing the robe of Christ. Burton plays Marcellus, a Roman centurion who won the robe of Christ on a roll of the dice after the crucifixion. Tormented by nightmares, he returns to Palestine to try to learn what he can about the man he killed. His slave Demetrius swoops up the robe and converts to Christianity. Mad emperor Caligula cannot abide Christians and demands that Burton secure the robe for him. When Burton does not give up the robe, he is sent to his death.

1959: Ben-Hur ranks among the most honored of films, taking eleven of twelve Academy Awards. The movie starts with the birth of Christ and the visit by the magi. Judah Ben-Hur of Judea (Charlton Heston) reunites with his friend Massala (Stephen Boyd), who becomes the Roman commander of Jerusalem. However, Massala asks Judah to betray his own people by informing on the dissenters. When Judah refuses, Massala finds a way to frame his friend and send Judah to the galleys of the Roman warships. He also sends Judah’s mother and sister to a dark, cold cell. In battle Judah rescues the governor and becomes a Roman “favorite son.” In time Judah becomes a skilled charioteer and defeats Massala in a daring chariot race. Judah then rescues his mother and sister who have become lepers and takes them to Christ. Though it is too late for them to meet Jesus, his shed blood heals them and regenerates Judah.

The Big Fisherman was directed by Frank Borzage for Centurion. This is a vast religious epic from Lloyd Douglas’s novel about the life of St. Peter. Regrettably, Peter is trivialized, and the gospel is distorted. There is no crucifixion, and Jesus Christ is shown without an enemy in the world.

1961: King of Kings should not be confused with Cecil B. DeMille’s impressive life of Jesus in the 1927 movie by the same title. Not only was this movie poorly edited, but it also treats the gospel as a revolutionary underground movement, with Barabbas and Judas working together to destroy Roman oppression and Jesus getting caught in the upheaval. Aside from the introduction of irrelevant battles, the movie lacks a clear emphasis on Jesus’ divinity, omits miracles, and changes significant facts. Furthermore, Jeffrey Hunter does a poor job as Christ. However, the movie does portray an actual resurrection.

1964: Director Pier Paola Pasolini’s Gospel According to St. Matthew adheres rigidly to the facts and the spirit of this one Gospel. Only at the crucifixion is the Virgin Mary allowed to be emotional, and the effect is shattering.

1965: The Greatest Story Ever Told is slightly overlong and crammed with stars but not as bad a movie as many critics claim. In spite of the involvement of the Protestant Film Office, the movie has some theological inaccuracies, including attempts to exonerate Judas, Judas falling into the sacrificial fire instead of hanging himself as the Bible tells us, and a weak ending, which has a conceptually resurrected Jesus appearing in the clouds in a vision that leans toward nominalism. These and other divergences from the Bible are so apparent that director George Stevens should clearly have stuck to the facts.

1973: Jesus Christ, Superstar presents a Jesus figure, using the musical idiom of the 1960s. It is interesting to note that it now appears very dated.

Godspell is a 1960s rock opera retelling of the story of Jesus in a New York setting. Directed by David Greene for Columbia Pictures, Godspell lost out at the box office to the overshadowing Jesus Christ, Superstar. Also based on a prior, successful theatrical musical, Godspell does not have the song recognition that Jesus Christ, Superstar does. Furthermore, the New York City setting provides a distracting backdrop to the movie’s symbolic style. Even so, its cinematography is stunning.

1977: Jesus of Nazareth (TV) was directed by the renowned Franco Zeffirelli and produced by our friend and former history professor Vincenzo Labella for Sir Lew Grade and Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI). This excellent television movie attempts historical accuracy. Many passages of the Bible are quoted verbatim, and the locations look authentic. Aside from Robert Powell as Jesus, Olivia Hussey as Mary, and Stacy Keach as Barabbas, many of the other characters are actually played by Semitic-looking actors. Of its six hours and twenty minutes, the first hour is devoted solely to the story of Jesus’ birth, and twelve minutes is devoted to the Last Supper as well as twelve minutes to the crucifixion.

1979: The Jesus Film, released in 1979 by Warner Bros.; has been viewed by 3.3 billion people as of this writing thanks to the efforts of Campus Crusade for Christ; 108 million people have indicated they have placed their faith in Jesus Christ after seeing the film. The movie has been translated into 566 languages with 232 more in process. The audio/radio version is available in 54 languages, and another hundred languages will be added this year. Also, The Jesus Film has been reconfigured to reach different audiences (niche strategies).

1988: Last Temptation of Christ is the most blasphemous movie ever made. As if that was not bad enough, it is boring.

1996: Matthew, produced by Visual Entertainment, translates the Bible verbatim. The first in the Visual Bible series, Matthew is one of the best and clearest translations brought to life through the movie medium. Indeed, the words of Christ and every word by every character are lifted completely from the New International Version.

2003: The Gospel of John, a word-for-word movie taken from the Gospel of the same name, is one of the best movies ever made about the life of Jesus Christ.

2004: The Passion of the Christ is Mel Gibson’s great masterpiece about the final hours of Jesus Christ’s life on earth.

What Is a “Christian” Movie?

It would be a great breakthrough in contemporary communications if communicators would refrain from using the word Christian as an adjective and limit its use to the way the early church and the Romans used Christian, as a noun (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16). In the book of the Acts of the Apostles, a Christian is a person who confesses and follows Jesus Christ. Paul is a Christian who makes tents; however, the tents Paul makes are not Christian tents.

By restricting the use of Christian, we would no longer be confused by Christian art and media. Instead, we would have Christians who made a work of art or who communicated through a specific medium, such as television. The work of art, or the television program, that the Christian made may or may not communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we evaluated the art as art, the television program as a program, and the tent as a tent (including any gospel messages woven into the fabric), then we would be delivered from worshipping the thing as a sacred object set apart by the use of Christian as an adjective.

Setting the art, music, book, or whatever apart by the adjectival use of Christian often allows several destructive attitudes to undermine the quality of a specific work of art or communication. Blinded by the word Christian, we often indulge sloppy or bad workmanship, thereby perpetuating inferior communication and art. Just as destructive to superior workmanship is the tendency of some artists and communicators to forsake excellence because they know that the adjective Christian pinned to their work will cover up a multitude of imperfections. Quality is also undermined by artists or communicators who decide not only to rest in the Lord but also to let the Lord do everything while they sleep or socialize. These individuals frequently fail to exercise their talents, learn their craft, or invest time and effort in the work he has given them to do. We are not saved by works (Eph. 2:9), but we are called to work with diligence and industry (Prov. 6:6; Rom. 12:11), knowing God will work in us, providing us with the strength to do his will (1 Pet. 4:11).

The adjectival use of the word Christian will clearly not be abandoned in the near future, by either pagans or Christians. However, as Christians, we must always do our best, evaluating our work honestly against the highest possible standards because we love God, trust God, and want all that we do to glorify God. Furthermore, we must help one another do our best by refusing to settle for anything less.

Once Upon a Time

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it. —George Santayana

Christians often forget that the church exerted a great influence on the entertainment industry from 1933 to 1966. For thirty-three years every script was read by representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Protestant Film Office. Their job was to evaluate a movie in terms of the Motion Picture Code. If the film passed the Code, it received the Motion Picture Code Seal and was distributed. If it did not pass, the theaters would not screen it.

The Short Form of the Motion Picture Code provided:

  • The basic dignity and value of human life shall be respected and upheld. Restraint shall be exercised in portraying the taking of life.
  • Evil, sin, crime, and wrong-doing shall not be justified.
  • Detailed and protracted acts of brutality, cruelty, physical violence, torture, and abuse shall not be presented.
  • Indecent or undue exposure of the human body shall not be presented.
  • Illicit sex relationships shall not be justified. Intimate sex scenes violating common standards of decency shall not be portrayed. Restraint and care shall be exercised in presentations dealing with sex aberrations.
  • Obscene speech, gestures, or movements shall not be presented. Undue profanity shall not be presented.
  • Religion shall not be demeaned.
  • Words or symbols contemptuous of racial, religious, or national groups shall not be used so as to incite bigotry or hatred.
  • Excessive cruelty to animals shall not be portrayed, and animals shall not be treated inhumanely.

During the period of the Motion Picture Code, there was no explicit sex, violence, profanity, or blasphemy in movies. Also, films did not mock a minister of religion or a person’s faith (the religious persecution in Germany prompted this wise counsel). For the most part movies and television programs communicated the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Then, in 1966, the churches voluntarily withdrew from the entertainment industry. Many of the media elite bemoaned the retreat of the churches. One prophesied, “If the salt is removed from the meat, then the meat will rot.” Many studio executives felt that church involvement helped them to reach the large Christian audience in the United States and believed that Christians would avoid films that did not have the Motion Picture Code Seal.

Censorship or Patron Sovereignty?

Patron sovereignty has traditionally been commended by Hollywood as the right of movie patrons to determine what they want to see or avoid by their activity at the box office. When there was talk in the 1930s about government censorship, the movie industry requested patron sovereignty in the form of the Motion Picture Code. Throughout the life of the Code and its successor, the MPAA rating system, the entertainment industry has continued to express its preference for patron sovereignty rather than government intervention to curb tendencies in the industry toward obscenity and violence.

When the churches retreated, the Motion Picture Association of America instituted the rating system to take the place of the Code. However, this was like letting the fox guard the hen house, and the results were predictable.

Today, scripts are read by feminist, Marxist, and homosexual groups (such as GLAAD), but not by Christians. These groups award pictures and television programs that communicate their point of view and condemn movies and television programs that disagree with their point of view. For instance, one television network had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to reshoot and reedit a television movie so that it would not offend the Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Artists.

Whoever Controls the Media Controls the Culture

As a result of the influence of these antibiblical groups, movies and television programs have become purveyors of immorality, blasphemy, and rebellion and have influenced too many viewers to mimic the evil they see on the screen. Alan Alda noted in the movie Sweet Liberty that to capture an audience a movie must include the destruction of property (as in the car chase), rebellion against authority, and immoral sex. Of course, the audience he had in mind was the teenagers and young adults who flock to movies. This mirrors Karl Marx’s four goals in his Communist Manifesto: abolish property, abolish the family, abolish the nation, and abolish religion and morality.

The destructive power of the mass media was highlighted by the 1988 television remake of the famous movie Inherit the Wind, which dramatically retold the story of the famous Scopes “monkey” trial. Although the Christians won the trial, they lost the battle in the media. William Jennings Bryan defeated Clarence Darrow in court, but he was defeated by the venomous anti-Christian reporting of H. L. Mencken. As in many cases since then, the Christians won the skirmish but lost the battle to the manipulators of the mass media.

Christians should never forget the lesson of the Scopes trial: it is futile to win the trial only to lose the battle to the power of the media. We need to claim God’s victory and win the war by taking every thought captive for him.

To paraphrase John Locke, “Whoever controls the media controls the culture.” In the Scopes trial, the press controlled the language and communicated a strong anti-Christian bias. Society adopted that bias and moved against the Christians even though the Christians had the law on their side. In the same manner, if those who control the language emphasize rape, pillage, and plunder, the culture will reflect those communications.

Like the Christians involved in the Scopes trial, we often forget that there is a war raging around us. This war is not taking place on the usual battlefield. It’s being fought inside men’s minds. It is a spiritual war for the souls of those who constitute our civilization, and it uses the most effective weapon ever conceived: communications.

Jesus was the master of communications. His parables are as pertinent today as they were two thousand years ago. He knew the power of communications and how ideas shape civilizations. His Word toppled one of the most powerful civilizations in history, the Roman Empire, and continues to transform the world today.

Though the tools of communications have changed, the words remain the same. The warfare of ideas and thoughts has exploded through the use of movies and television, revolutionizing our way of thinking. We are fighting against an enemy that is using every possible tactic to control our minds: materialism, secularism, humanism, Marxism—all the “isms” that conflict with Christianity.

Daily we are besieged with an onslaught of messages that tear us apart— if not from the morning newspaper, then from the nightly news, or from cable television movies portraying a life of drugs, illicit sex, and violence.

Ugly Americans

Already the United States is considered by many to be the most immoral country in the world. Movies are often reedited to include more sex and violence when released in the U.S. market. For instance, in Australia the movie Return to Snowy River had the hero and heroine getting married, whereas when it was released in the U.S., the hero and heroine went off to live with each other without marriage.

In January 2003, Boston University released a shocking study of the image of Americans held by teenagers around the world, entitled The Next Generation’s Image of Americans: Attitudes and Beliefs Held by Teen-Agers in Twelve Countries: A Preliminary Research Report by Margaret H. DeFleur, Ph.D., and Melvin L. DeFleur, Ph.D., College of Communication, Boston University.

This study showed that young people around the world had a negative image of Americans and that this image was in part responsible for the outpouring of dislike for Americans underlying the bombing of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. The study concluded that the dislike of the United States would grow over the next few years and that it mirrored the image of Americans being presented by Hollywood, not the real attributes of real Americans. In other words, Hollywood is our ambassador to the world.

The study assumed that: “The collective condemnation expressed by a people when a negative incident occurs does not come out of nowhere. As a general principle, a negative incident can become a cause celebre, rallying widespread anger, only if a necessary condition is met. That condition is this: There must already be in place a foundation of shared negative beliefs and attitudes toward the United States upon which the feelings generated by the specific incident can be based.”

According to the authors, “The results show that members of the next generation studied in nearly all of the countries appear to hold consistently negative attitudes toward Americans as people.”

The study also found that negative depictions of Americans in movies and TV programs have influenced the beliefs of many of the subjects, along with other factors.

The results suggest that problems for Americans are likely to continue into the foreseeable future in terms of terrorism threats, public health issues related to stress, and possible economic problems related to the negative assessments of the next generation.

The study found that good deeds done in the past do not count for much. Although it can be shown that the United States by any overall measure has been a good world citizen and has provided many kinds of assistance to other nations, the study showed that there seems to be no historical balance sheet of international behavior by which people in other countries weigh past contributions of the United States against their current grievances.

The study focused on teenagers because “they are the ones who are trained and equipped to conduct terrorist acts. When examining the nature of such threats, and who it is that carries out actual terrorist activities, either in the U.S. or in other countries, one fact becomes very obvious. They are the young. Many Americans have seen televised scenes of youngsters as young as twelve being trained in terrorists’ camps to engage in aggression against the infidel [read Americans].”

The study noted, “Those who actually flew the airliners on September 11 were young adults, to be sure, but it is clear that their beliefs were shaped earlier, during their teenage years. In the final analysis, then, it is the young who are recruited to do older men’s bidding—to deliver their bombs and weapons to the point of impact, even if it means their own death.”

Among other beliefs, the study found that teenagers in these countries believe that: Americans are generally quite violent; many American women are sexually immoral; Americans are very materialistic; Americans like to dominate other people; and many Americans engage in criminal activities.

Few of those surveyed had any direct contact with Americans; only 12 percent had visited the U.S. But they did have access to American television programs, movies, and pop music; and, based on that exposure, most of these teens considered Americans to be violent, prone to criminal activity, and sexually immoral.

“These results suggest that pop culture, rather than foreign policy, is the true culprit of anti-Americanism,” Melvin DeFleur says. “Hollywood should at least be asked by our public leaders to accept responsibility for the damage it is doing.”