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Faith playing a role in Hollywood: Religion in movies a new form of education experts say

Published: Thursday, Oct. 31 2013 10:20 a.m. MDT

Morgan Freeman as God in Bruce Almighty.

Ralph Nelson, Universal Pictures

Kim Pomares was on a plane the first time he saw “Evan Almighty.”

Turned off by religious comedies in the past, Pomares wasn’t sure if the 2007 film — a sequel to “Bruce Almighty” and a story about an unsuccessful congressman's transformation into a modern day Noah — would be suitable for him and his family.

But because of the flight’s length, he decided to watch the movie.

By the time the DVD reached its end, Pomares, a practicing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Toronto, was more than happy to show the film to his kids. Not only did he relate to the film’s characters, but he also felt the portrayal of God, played by Morgan Freeman, was respectful.

Even though the movie featured silly antics and presented religion in a comedic light, Pomares said it didn’t offend him. Pomares said he saw the movie as a way to learn about religion.

Since the days of "Ben-Hur" (1959) and "The Ten Commandments" (1956), religious-themed films have been making a stamp on the box office. With movies like “Noah” (featuring Russell Crowe and Emma Watson) and "Exodus" (by Ridley Scott) due for 2014 releases, there's a resurgence of religious-themed movies, which, experts say, help educate moviegoers about faith and how it's lived.

Despite many recent movies making light of religion, other films are used to teach a message shared by believers, experts say. According to the Pew Research Center, 68 percent of Americans believe there's more than one way to learn about religion.

And movies are one of those mediums.

Constructing the story

When Mufasa appears in a whirlwind of clouds and speaks to Simba in "The Lion King," Pomares said there's a religious message being taught: that life goes on after death.

He said it was a respectful way to present this religious idea.

It's scenes like these, or Freeman's portrayal of God, that are key elements to understanding religious films, said professor Maurine Sabine, who now teaches at the University of Hong Kong. She said God’s portrayal in movies, especially comedies, is a part of humanity’s desire to understand divinity.

“One could also say that this reflects a touching and altogether human desire to see God face to face," Sabine told the Deseret News.

But taking care of the details is also important.

Director Andre van Heerden, whose documentaries and feature films both deal with religious ideas, started his career directing religious documentaries.

In the early 2000s, Heerden dipped into feature films and developed such titles as “Judgment,” “Revelation” and “Tribulation” — all sci-fi thrillers with religious themes. After an eight-year break from 2002 to 2010, Heerden is back making religious movies.

Each time he makes a movie, the crew goes “an extra make to make sure we (are) being theologically correct,” Heerden said.

It’s important, he said, that religious characters are treated respectfully. Even though there isn’t a “set of rules” for filmmaking, religious characters “should always be portrayed as reverent,” he said.

Some filmmakers, though, will offer a different interpretation based on their market and intended audience.

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