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Why Movies Matter

And Why Most Rating Systems and Faith Based Reviewers Just Don't Get It

It seems to me that an essential calling of religious leaders is to help people interpret the "signs of the times." And when you think about it, movies are one of the most revealing signals of what is happening in society generally. Our movies often reveal the central hopes and fears of people who are trying to make their way through these confusing times.

By way of illustration, compare the experience of "going to the movies" with that of worshiping in one of the great Gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe. Imagine what it must have been like for people in a feudal society to enter one of those cathedrals. Not only were they wonderfully impressive buildings with all the tracery, the gargoyles, the flying buttresses, and the soaring arches ... cathedrals were like dazzling sound and light shows. Shafts of light poured in through those stained glass windows. And as you looked upward at the figures portrayed in such brilliant colors, the entire story of the Judeo-Christian tradition came suddenly to life. The great dramas of the Bible and church history were rendered in colored glass.

And during the mass these stories were combined with the sounds of liturgical music, and the smell of incense, assaulting the senses from every direction with the central stories of the Christian faith. What a powerful medium for communicating these cathedrals were.

Today in our secular world, the movie theater functions in much the same way. People come in off the crowded highways and parking lots, to enter the semi-darkness of a theater. And suddenly the brilliant colors and sounds appear in huge dimensions on those towering screens. Rather than being organized around stories of the Bible or Christian tradition, however, today's movies echo the concerns and interests, the hopes and fears of people living in this post-Christian, post-industrial society.

Movies are the icons and the stained glass windows of post-modern America.

If an anthropologist some centuries hence were to attempt to understand what makes us tick, he or she could do not better than to scrutinize our movies. Or to put it another way, our films are a window into the heart and soul of the American people.

Given the content of many of the most popular movies this may not be very re-assuring. For clearly movies portray a great deal we would rather not acknowledge as part of the American way of life.

For one thing there's all that violence.

In fact, it's rather curious that the violence we fear, figures so prominently in our entertainment. Curious that Americans pay more and more money to purchase security systems to protect their homes and property, willingly throw increasing percentages of their tax dollars into a war on terrorism, yet at the same time rush to the movie theaters where violence is made the focal point of their entertainment! Why is it that so many people seem to be deriving so much pleasure from the very things they fear?

And the sex ...

Something similar could be said about the portrayal of sex in our movies. During the very period when almost every political leader is scrambling to take the lead as a champion of "family values," and many politicians are investigating new ways of holding back the rising tides of smut and pornography, still sex remains a central focus in our advertising and in our music and on television and of course in our movies.

Why is it that we want our political candidates to be squeaky clean, but when it comes time to sell the soap or the blue jeans, sex seems to serve the advertisers so well?

And it's not only conservative Protestant Christians of the religious right that are concerned about all this. Recently it was announced that the Roman Catholic Church has come up with a movie rating system, intended to supplement the voluntary rating system we've all become familiar with. Instead of G, PG, R and X, the Catholic Church will begin rating movies according to its own set of criteria, noting especially the presence of gratuitous violence or inappropriate portrayal of sex.

I have some deep reservations about these movies rating systems. Not because I hesitate to reflect upon the moral, theological or religious significance of this popular art form, far from it. I consider it a principal task of any religious leader to help shape the moral climate in which we live and work and raise our children. Religious leaders should be offering help and guidance to parents and others who are trying to find their way across the minefields of contemporary culture.

But the task of providing meaningful guidance is much more complicated that it first appears.

Rating systems or reviews that focus simplistically on sex and violence are likely to miss the mark. Just two illustrations. "The Priest" is a movie which dealt frankly and openly with the problems that arise when a young Roman Catholic priest discovers that he is gay. The movie is well written, well acted, and it portrays much of the pain and agony and the real conflict that arises over and over again in the life of real congregations struggling with one of the most difficult issues of our day and age.

In my estimation such a movie would make a perfect discussion starter for people in any church who wanted to explore in some depth the difficult and potentially divisive issue of human sexuality. Of course the Roman Catholic Church condemned the movie. This condemnation did not stop Catholics from seeing it, however. In fact, I suspect that many immediately went to the movie precisely because the church was saying that they should not go.

Case in point: The Passion of the Christ

The same thing happened in the controversey surrounding Mel Gipson's "The Passion of the Christ." Early on, some prominent Jewish groups attacked it, thereby heightening public awareness of the film just prior to its release and swelling the crowds eager to see it.

Another example. "Dead Man Walking." Any movie rating system that gives negative ratings to a movie simply because of violent content would miss the redeeming features in this powerful film. Coming closer to expressing truths which are contained within the Bible than most films we have seen, including those that deal explicitly with biblical or religious subjects, "Dead Man Walking" shatters any rating system designed to filter out the evil from the good.

So, we might add, would the Bible itself be entirely eliminated from our field of vision were one convinced that the depiction of violent acts, or explicit mention of improper sexual conduct disqualified a work of literature as being worthy of study. There is plenty of both sex and violence in the Bible. As well as in the works of William Shakespeare. Our calling as religious people is not to ignore the violence or other evils that abound in this world, our challenge is to affirm the presence of a loving and caring God even in the midst of such troubles. And then let the light and the wisdom of God come shining through.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles P. Henderson.