May 23, 2005
-- Martin E. Marty
"The United States is a secular society." "Elites don't give religion a break." "Hollywood ignores the spiritual and the religious." Whether you hear such lines as truisms, myths, clichés, charges, distractions, or delusions, you certainly will hear them, as I do. Then I read the four fat Friday newspapers in which films and TV programs get reviewed and advertised, and wonder: Where is the evidence?
Not that there isn't plenty of secularity or tone-deafness to religious themes around. But they simply do not have the whole show to themselves. Take last Friday's banners. There are desperate full-page ads for "Twentieth Century Fox's Crusades epic, 'Kingdom of Heaven,'" also advertised in evangelical outlets. The Wall Street Journal says of the show: "It has continued to perform below expectations" -- expectations that were high because of its violence, special effects, and other elements that we the religious are said to like.
Unhappily for those who wish things went better for church and clergy, the main Showtime feature (Saturday) was "Our Fathers," which had to do with the cover-up of abusing priests in Boston. It features the character of Cardinal Bernard Law, the prime coverer-up, who also was centrally visible, as all reviewers point out, in presiding at the last-rites mass for John Paul II. In the New York Times, Alessandra Stanley notes that the drama begins with a scene of priests being ordained, and implicitly advises Catholics to watch, since ordinations so rarely occur nowadays in real life. It would be nice if we could move on to portrayals of good priests and other-than-victim Catholic laity. But this was a story that, alas, Hollywood could not not cover; as Sid Smith said in the Chicago Tribune, many regard the scandal as "the greatest challenge to the [Catholic Church] institution since Martin Luther's ... Reformation."
Then there are the reviews for Paul Schrader's "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist," featuring the second-most-believed-in invisible presence in "our" (U.S.) universe: Satan. Roger Ebert, who gave the movie three stars, said that it "takes evil seriously. There really are dark Satanic forces in the Schrader version .... The movie is drenched in atmosphere and dread, ... but it also has spiritual weight and texture, boldly confronting the possibility that Satan may be active in the world."
Finally, the Chicago Sun-Times printed Richard N. Ostling's AP review of an ABC Friday-night film, but headlined it strangely: "'Resurrection' gets prime time airing tonight: ABC lets religious conservatives explain why they believe." Ostling sees the program as a response to "numerous allegations about liberal bias at the broadcast networks," and this seems to be a venture granting equal time for the allegers. No interest in religion? Ostling reminds us that this is "sweeps" month, and "ABC is betting that Jesus might overcome CBS' 'Daytime Emmy Awards' and NBC's 'Law and Order: Trial by Jury.'" One hopes there's no implication that "religious conservatives" alone believe in the resurrection of Christ.
Some religious folks allege that films and TV are too much given to violence. I would join them in the allegations, but have to remind complainers that they patronize the most violent of any productions of recent years, the "Left Behind" movies (and books). Happy sweeps month: Religion is alive, if not well.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.