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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

But “there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed,” Heerden said. Movies shouldn’t try to be disrespectful toward God or religion, and that includes portraying characters that practice a particular religion in stereotypical way. He said the movie “Saved,” starring Mandy Moore, had Christian characters who were unrealistic and over the top, as Moore's character had visions of Jesus and preached religious text too often throughout the film.

Relatable religion

Building relatable characters is an important part of making religious movies, Heerden said.

“It’s the same thing as making any good film,” he said.

He said characters can’t be “too good” or “too evil” and must struggle with the same choices common to most people.

“There’s a balancing act” of telling the story you want to tell, but also connecting with the audience, he said.

For therapist Lisa Bahar, who uses films and TV shows with religious themes or ideas to connect with her clients, said these mediums create a conversation about issues people don’t want to discuss directly, like religion and drug and alcohol abuse.

Bahar said she’ll offer her clients specific movies to watch — like “Peaceful Warrior” (2006), a movie about a troubled gymnist who meets a spiritual guide, and “Little Buddha” (1993), which tells the story of a man's spiritual journey through Seattle — to help them through their issues, which range from substance abuse to conflict between mothers and daughters. Most of the time, she said, her clients’ decisions on how to solve their problems are reaffirmed by the movies she recommends.

“Movies are a creative tool to access us in a way that can be very comforting and can remind us of what’s good and right and what we all yearn for — a sense of belonging, and we are all the more same than different,” Bahar said. “Movies can be creative in a way that speaks to us, that reminds us there’s something bigger taking place.”

Modernizing faith

Though movies with religious characters or context have been around for a while, newer movies are bringing religion into the current culture, Sabine said.

Older movies like “The Ten Commandments," which is the second highest-grossing religious epic behind "The Passion of the Christ," aren’t going to connect with audiences now, she said.

“Personally, watching ‘The Ten Commandments’ now is equivalent to sitting through a very long and ponderous Sunday sermon,” she said.

Sabine said the newer films depicting religious characters — like the “Almighty” movies or the forthcoming film “Noah” — are ways to diversify God’s image.

“If religious churches, organizations and belief systems set themselves up as having a monopoly on God's image and revelations, and as custodians of ultimate truth, wisdom and morality, there will be an understandable tendency to knock them off their pedestal,” she said.

Heerden said modern depictions of God and religious figures can both people about faith traditions and share a specific theme. Some filmmakers will use religious themes to help frame their ideas (think of "Star Wars") while others use movies to show religious ideas and stories in a more literal sense, like 2004's “The Passion of the Christ."

Sabine said religious films and TV shows aren’t about connecting with new audiences “unless you are preaching to the converted,” she said.

“The question is not whether (a certain film) has religion in it, but whether the viewer will allow it to be the medium of religious questions and spiritual insight or the occasion for theological speculation,” she said.

It’s a new way of teaching religion, Pomares said.

“When you’re giving a presentation, you don’t want to just show a spreadsheet,” he said. “You want to say a story. You want to blend your facts with a story. That’s the most powerful presentations you can make.

“If you want to teach people about God or what your life could be with God in it, you want to tell a story.”

Email: hscribner@deseretnews.com

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