If you are a person of faith in the 21st century, you don’t have to see many movies or watch much television before it becomes apparent that Hollywood has become not just blind to religion but also quite aggressively anti-religion.
This is most aggressively demonstrated on talk shows where celebrities who otherwise characterize themselves as liberal and tolerant think nothing of taking a swipe at a large section of the population.
In fictional shows, it’s usually demonstrated by a simple remark spoken by a character, often an aside that has nothing to do with the subject at hand, but other times, it’s front and center with a deluded, psychotic or duplicitous preacher or believer.
Which is really quite surprising, because the makers of movies and television shows are selling products, and you might think they would want to avoid deliberately offending or cutting out a large portion of their ticket-buying audience.
Except for a handful of faith-encouraging programs — which is to say, movies or TV shows that are specifically aimed at families with Bible-based beliefs, and which generally announce themselves as such — it’s a rare show from the Hollywood studios that depicts churchgoing or prayer or someone calling upon God, unless it’s to mock, ridicule or humiliate.
So it has been surprising to me to lately stumble across some little TV-watching moments that portray church attendance or characters who pray that are actually positive.
A couple of weeks ago while I was watching something, a commercial zipped by for Kraft Macaroni & Cheese that depicts a family praying over their meal. It’s a jokey 15-second ad (you can see it on YouTube, titled “Family Dinner”) with the camera focused on the grandfather who has come to live with the family.
All are holding hands while offering a prayer over their meal when the grandfather sneaks a quick bite using his grandson’s hand. It’s a funny bit and I laughed, but then I began thinking about it. It isn’t Thanksgiving, and there’s no special occasion mentioned. The family members are simply saying grace over a meal. As if they do that every night.
Aside from “Blue Bloods,” the family-of-cops series on CBS, where do you see that on TV? I’ve written about “Blue Bloods” before, which shows three generations of law-enforcement professionals sitting down to a family dinner each Sunday, and although this part isn’t shown every week, this devout Catholic family prays before the meal. They also go to church.
Another churchgoing family can be seen on “The Middle.” In an episode shown a couple of weeks ago, they went to church, as they often do, and each received individual counseling from a new minister. In fact, most of the episode took place in the church building.
In “The Middle,” the faith is not specified, but periodic episodes mention Sunday churchgoing as well as church youth activities, and there’s a recurring young minister who sings songs and plays guitar.
All of this is played for laughs, of course, and if you watch this sitcom, you know how dysfunctional the family is. But religion itself is never the butt of the joke. And at the end of this particular episode (titled “Hungry Games,” available to watch for free on Hulu), there’s a sincere expression of family loyalty and love from an unexpected family member. It’s broad comedy but can also be warm and fuzzy.
OK, I can’t pretend to watch enough television to suggest this never happens on other shows, but these two programs aren’t afraid to do what that Macaroni & Cheese commercial did: show churchgoing and prayer as commonplace to many American families.
And perhaps it’s worth noting that both programs have stars — Tom Selleck on “Blue Bloods,” Patricia Heaton on “The Middle” — who are politically conservative, which in the climate of show business is most unusual.
Prayer and churchgoing wasn’t always a Hollywood rarity, of course.
Back in the first half-century of cinema, when the studios were run by Jewish moguls, none of them seemed to have any compunctions about financing and releasing movies with Catholic themes. There was a regular stream of movies from every studio that featured priests and nuns doing good work, and many were huge box-office hits, such as “Boys Town” (MGM, 1938), “Going My Way” (Paramount, 1944), “Come to the Stable” (Twentieth Century Fox, 1949) and “The Nun’s Story” (Warner Bros., 1959), to name just a few.
Other Christians were more often represented in generic form, but occasionally a specific religion was depicted, such as Quakers (“Friendly Persuasion,” 1956, Allied Artists) and, yes, Mormons (“Brigham Young,” 1940, Fox).
But even without a specific connection, the idea of seeking spiritual redemption or uttering a prayer or even going to church on Sunday, however generic the proceedings may be portrayed, was not uncommon. A wide array of movies with no specific religious component were uplifting and life-affirming. Think of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), a film with which most everyone is familiar. Prayer, an angel and heavenly conversations all play a part and are treated naturally, without irony.
Today, a feel-good movie with a happy ending is rare enough; a movie that depicts families happily attending church or earnestly praying is an anomaly.
In fact, when shows about faith or religion or Bible stories make money or earn big ratings, the common word used to describe their success is “surprise.” Thus, “The Bible,” the History Channel miniseries that earned huge ratings last year, was not just a hit, it was “a surprise hit,” according to many follow-up stories.
Why should it be a surprise? Whatever believers may think of the show — and let’s face it, any entertainment-based movie/TV show about the Bible is bound to get some of it wrong in someone’s view — we are just happy to see this kind of programming at all.
At least that’s how I feel. Although my personal vision of Jesus Christ or God or the prophets of the Old and New Testaments may never be quite captured by actors in movies or TV shows, I still enjoy seeing them for both entertainment and reflection.
The old studio Bible epics are still fun to watch, from “The Ten Commandments” to “King of Kings” to “The Greatest Story Ever Told” to those fictional films that do not so much relate biblical accounts as reflect on their influence, such as “Ben-Hur,” “The Robe,” “Quo Vadis?” and the opening narration of “Spartacus,” to name but a few.
Now, you may be thinking, but didn’t I just see a trailer for a movie about Jesus? Yes, “Son of God” is opening in theaters next weekend, but that’s not a major-studio product, despite its being released by Twentieth Century Fox. It’s also not an original film, in that it is an extended version of the story of Jesus from the aforementioned History Channel miniseries, “The Bible.”
Like faith films production in general today, which is a niche unto itself and almost always produced independently, “Son of God” is a passion project by believers who were tired of Hollywood ignoring the subject. And it wasn’t until the series was so successful that the idea of expanding one aspect for theatrical release came about.
More interesting for this discussion is Paramount Pictures’ “Noah,” a major-studio production that opens March 28, with three Oscar-winning stars (Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins), an A-list director (Darren Aronofsky, “Black Swan”), loads of computer-animated special effects and a mega-budget.
It will be interesting to see how it does at the box office, of course, but more interesting for moviegoers who are religious and consider the Bible to be a testament of God’s dealings with his people will be how the film relates a faith-promoting true story.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company