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God's recurring role in Hollywood

Whether religious allegories or biblical epics, spiritual themes can sell -- big time.

December 23, 2005|Joanna Connors | Religion News Service

A mysterious visitor arrives from the heavens to walk among us. At first hardly anyone believes in his existence. Gradually, though, more and more people come to know and follow him, as he teaches lessons of love to the meek and powerless.

The powerful consider him a threat, however, and when they capture him, he dies. Then, a miracle: He comes to life again through the force of love, and he leaves the world of humans to rise back to the heavens. The people who love him will wait for him to return, forever.

Recognize the story? Of course you do: It is one of the central stories of Western culture. Most American children know it well before they go to school, absorbing its lessons through repetition.

It is "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial."

It is also, with some variations, the story of "The Matrix," "Shane," "Star Wars," "Superman" and countless other movies made by that godless cabal Hollywood -- including the latest, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

As the culture wars roil over the marketing of "Narnia" directly to church groups -- not to mention over the teaching of evolution, the separation of church and state, and the battle over Christmas -- now might be a good time to pause, take a deep breath and reflect.

Contrary to popular belief, Hollywood not only believes in God, Hollywood loves God.

Its reasons for loving God might not be pure. In fact, the reasons might be mostly crass and commercial, especially now, after Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" made more than $600 million worldwide. But if you're looking for true come-to-Jesus awe, you don't have to look much further than the executive suites of Hollywood studios the Monday after "The Passion" had an $83.3-million opening weekend.

Gibson's triumph inspired renewed professions of faith in Hollywood -- faith in the profit if not the prophet. But whatever the reason, God is one of the great stars of the movies. He always has been, along with Moses, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and a wide assortment of angels.

Movies have embraced religion and the stories of the Old and New Testaments from film's very beginnings, more than 100 years ago. Among the first movies, both made in 1898, we can find the Passion play of Oberammergau, Germany, and the temptation of St. Anthony. In 1912, the director of "From the Manger to the Cross" actually filmed on location in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and other sites in the Holy Land.

Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith mined the Bible for many of their films, starting a tradition of retelling Bible stories that stretches from "The Greatest Story Ever Told" all the way to "The Passion of the Christ."

But the explicit retelling of Bible stories does not begin to cover the presence of Christ figures, biblical allegories and plain old expressions of religious faith buried in movies that appear to be straightforward entertainment.

"E.T." happens to be one of the more interesting cases in this category. Its marked similarities to the story of Jesus make it seem almost as blatant an allegory as the lion's death and resurrection in "Narnia."

E.T. has the power to heal with just a touch. He reveals a glowing heart. He sacrifices himself for Elliott, the lonely, melancholy boy who is searching for a father figure in the wilderness. When E.T. ascends back to heaven, he tells Elliott he always will be with him.

Yet Melissa Mathison, who wrote the "E.T." screenplay, has been quoted as saying she recognized the connections only after seeing the movie, and director Steven Spielberg, who is Jewish, considered it a sci-fi movie about American suburban dreams.

That makes the connections all the more uncanny. It suggests just how deeply rooted these stories are in Western culture. It also makes one last observation worth a doctoral thesis: The ones who almost kill E.T. are scientists -- scientists who have been questioning his existence and searching for hard proof.

Spielberg shot "E.T." from a low, almost knee-height perspective. He wanted the movie and E.T. to be seen from a child's point of view.

Deliberate or not, children, the innocents, are usually the first to see the Christ figure in movies. They are the first to believe in him and worship him, echoing the "and a little child shall lead them" scripture from the Old Testament.

A child leads the way in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," in which author C.S. Lewis made the youngest child -- Lucy, the most innocent -- the initial believer. She continues to believe even when her brothers and sister mock her, eventually bringing the "sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve" into the fold.

We see "Shane," directed by George Stevens and released in 1953, through the eyes of a child too. Joey Starrett, the son of homesteading farmers in the valley beneath the Grand Tetons, is the first to see the enigmatic stranger Shane ("Someone's comin' Pa!") and the first to worship him ("I just love Shane").

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