The movies deal with religious ideas and themes in two ways. The first is the direct route: Take a biblical character or story, hire a few well-known Hollywood actors and about a bajillion extras to stand around in bathrobes, and voila! you’ve got a biblical epic. It’s not all that different from your home town, small church Christmas pageant, just with more money to spend. The quality of the storytelling (and the acting, truth be told) are about the same. But the small church Christmas pageant beats the Hollywood biblical epic hands down in one crucial area: depth of spiritual insight. If you want to better understand the meaning of the gospel, then Ben Hur, Quo Vadis, The Ten Commandments, and The Greatest Story Ever Told ain’t the place to go.
But when movies are dealing with religious themes implicitly rather than explicitly, then they have a better chance to say something significant. This happens when, for example, the movies pick up on literature’s use of the Christ figure. I’m not talking, of course, about film depictions of the historical person of Jesus (most of which are hackneyed, trite, or sentimental). Christ figures in literature and film are echoes of Jesus; they are characters whose lives reflect the choices and actions of Jesus as recorded in the gospels. Christ figures in the movies rarely are what we’d call Christians; they don’t often go to church or confess a personal relationship with Christ. What they most often share with the story of Jesus is a sacrificial death. These characters often lay down their own lives to redeem the lives of others. We understand the character because we know the story of Jesus, but we also learn more about the Jesus story by encountering its reflection in these characters from the movies.
One other thing: like Jesus, these characters often suffer a violent death. You don’t need me to tell you that the movies are all about violence, so it’s no surprise that they see violence and sacrifice as inseparable. As they have explored Christian themes, film makers have returned again and again to what theologians call the myth of sacred violence; the idea that nothing but a bloody, violent sacrifice will satisfy God’s anger at sinful humankind. But here’s where Hollywood has taken the ball and run with it. If redemption requires violent sacrifice, then violence itself becomes redemptive. And so the movies’ endless fascination with good guys ensuring that bad guys meet a violent end isn’t just about justice; it’s about salvation. If we’re to be saved from the evil in our midst, then evil people are going to have to die a violent death.
There’s a lot more to say about this stuff, but I’ll wait to do so until Sunday in the Thinking and Believing class at CUMC. If you want to prepare for the class, you can watch your copy of Cool Hand Luke and/or Unforgiven. Also, please come with suggestions for Christ figures in movies you’ve seen; I’m anxious to hear about them. See you there!