Christians in the movies: the good, the bad and the ugly

Christians in the movies: the good, the bad and the ugly

This is the third in a three-part series of posts exploring Christianity and mainstream cinema. In the first post I looked at how Jesus has been depicted in film, suggesting he hasn’t been treated terribly well as a cinematic hero. In the second post I looked a Christ-figures, non-religious characters whose lives have mirrored Christ’s in some way. In this post I want to look a some of the best examples of overtly Christian characters in film. The religiously pious aren’t always depicted in the most positive light. Hollywood movies are full of religious nuts. There’s a whole sub-genre of films about mad evangelists like Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in The Night of the Hunter (1955) and his counterpoint, the tongues-speaking, Max Cady (Robert De Niro) in Cape Fear (1991). Then there’s obsessive fundamentalists, like the albino priest, Silas (Paul Bettany) in The Da Vinci Code (2006), and the Bible-thumping Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) in There Will Be Blood (2007). Similarly, there’s been a regular parade of somewhat unhinged nuns in film, like Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) in Black Narcissus (1947), Sister Agnes (Meg Tilly) in Agnes of God (1985), and the crusading Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) in Doubt (2008). But it’s not all bad news. Mainstream cinema has presented us with some powerful, complex, and authentic depictions of

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Stealth Messiahs: Christ figures in film

Stealth Messiahs: Christ figures in film

In a previous post I complained about how many films about Jesus are so lame. I suggested it was because filmmakers tend to be overly reverential with their central character, as well as appearing to be paralyzed about using speculative or non-biblical dialogue (unless their name is Scorsese). A more satisfying, and frankly more successful, approach is to avoid a sword-and-sandal epic about Jesus himself and opt for a stand-in, a redemptive Christ figure who doesn’t crumble under the expectations of Christian viewers.  So to that end, here are some films I think do well at depicting part of the gospel story by using a character who looks like Jesus in disguise. To begin, allow me to get a couple of my pet-hates out of the way. Firstly, the cruciform sacrifice scene is just downright lazy, if you ask me. Whether it’s Ripley at the end of Alien 3 (1992), or Robert De Niro’s rope-prone boxer in Raging Bull (1980), or the sacrifice of Neo at the end of The Matrix: Revolutions (2003), it’s just all too obvious for my liking. I really enjoy a film that depicts the salvific effect of self-sacrifice, but I don’t need it shoved down my throat. And nowhere is it more obvious than in Cool Hand Luke (1967), where the religious symbolism is laid on

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Weaker Sex? As If.

Weaker Sex? As If.

The reference to women being the “weaker sex” comes from the Bible, I know. It’s a variation on the words of 1 Peter 3:7: “Husbands, likewise, dwell with them [your wives] with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel…” Note the term, vessel, not sex or gender. Some scholars say that when Peter uses the term vessel (in Greek, skeuei) he meant just that, a vessel or a jar or container of some sort. And if that’s case, what he’s saying isn’t that men should take care of their weaker wives, but that they should treat them as one would a piece of pottery that warrants special care, like a family heirloom. It’s also worth noting that the whole passage that precedes it is about how Christians should treat their unbelieving spouses. So, it seems clear that Peter is saying that newly converted men should treat their still-pagan wives with special care. Rather than lording their new-found religion over them, they ought to woo their wives into the faith by affording them special dignity. This makes sense because he has just told Christian wives to win over their unbelieving husbands in the same way. (3:1-6). It might be true that men have a higher percentage of lean muscle mass than women, but that definitely doesn’t make

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Let’s not condemn the victims of the evangelical bubble

Let’s not condemn the victims of the evangelical bubble

I don’t know Joshua Harris and I haven’t read his book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, so I really don’t have anything to add to the discussion about his recent decision to end his marriage and abandon his faith. I can only guess how painful the journey must have been for him to move from being the poster boy for evangelical purity culture to a divorced unbeliever. I feel for him. And for his wife and family. It’s too easy to heap scorn on him as a “backslider” or an apostate. Like a whole generation of teens, he was swept up into the all-consuming world of conservative evangelicalism. They were “on fire”. They were “Jesus Freaks.” They were immersed in the world of youth conferences and Amy Grant and True Love Waits. It was intoxicating. And Joshua Harris drank the Kool Aid. More than that, at 21, he wrote the handbook on purity culture. I’d heard he’d disowned the book a while ago, asking for forgiveness for what he wrote and how it had messed with so many kids’ lives. Then came his recent revelation that his own marriage had ended. Then came yet another disclosure that he’d lost his faith altogether. Like I said, I don’t know him. I can’t reflect on his journey specifically. But he’s not the only

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If Jesus was such a great scriptwriter, why do his movies stink?

If Jesus was such a great scriptwriter, why do his movies stink?

Most viewers will take a biopic at face value, not knowing enough about the subject’s life to know whether it’s an historically accurate portrayal or not. But if you make a film about Jesus you know you’re going to have 1.2 billion Catholics and 800 million Protestants picking it apart frame by frame. That’s because Christians aren’t just fans of Jesus. They adore him. This might explain why nearly every screen portrayal of Christ has to make trade offs like artistry versus accuracy, and accessibility versus reverence. To appease Christian audiences, most filmmakers go for the latter (accuracy and reverence), which turns their Jesuses into vapid, unremarkable messiahs, who often seem either confused or downright smug, or too small for the epic drama they’re part of. But when a filmmaker like Pasolini or Scorsese tries to play with the narrative to make Jesus more accessible or to bring out a particular element of the story, they are pilloried by Christian audiences, and their films are condemned. Here’s eleven depictions of Jesus, most of which prove that while Jesus could write a brilliant script, his movies can be real stinkaroos.   King of Kings (1927) We might as well start at the beginning. This was the first film to portray Jesus using an actor (H. B. Warner). The director Cecil B

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Where’s the respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples?!

Where’s the respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples?!

In Australia in recent years, it has become increasingly common to recite a very brief form of words called an Acknowledgement of Country at the beginning of public events.[1] It’s a simple tradition, a show of respect, conducted at local council meetings, universities, schools, conferences and conventions, etc., that acknowledges the traditional owners and ongoing custodians of the land now called Australia — the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The person bringing the acknowledgement is expected to know the name of the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander nation who have the connection to that country upon which the event is being held. So, for example, if the event is being held in Sydney, the emcee or convener would recite something like this: “We acknowledge the traditional custodians of the country on which we meet today, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We pay our respects to their elders past, present and emerging.”   I teach at a college in Sydney, and we use this acknowledgement at our events, including the first chapel service of each semester as well as special events and conferences. It seems to us it’s the least that can be done to acknowledge the history and culture of the original inhabitants of the land. But

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Bruce, Freddie, Elton and the sounds of sehnsucht

Bruce, Freddie, Elton and the sounds of sehnsucht

In Danny Boyle’s new fantasy film, Yesterday, a young musician wakes up from a bike accident to discover he is the only person on earth who remembers the Beatles. So what does he do? He passes the whole Beatles’ back-catalogue off as his own and soars to fame and fortune, of course! Meanwhile, in an upcoming film, Blinded by the Light, a 16 year-old Pakistani boy growing up in England in the 1980s is given some Bruce Springsteen cassettes by a friend and quickly finds inspiration, using the anthems to navigate his way through life as an aspiring young writer in a difficult environment. Much of the inherent charm in the Bruce Springsteen-inspired film is the fact that a geeky Asian boy in northern England could relate so strongly to the muscular New Jersey working-class sensibilities of the Boss’ music. When you also consider the recent success of the Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, and the Elton John rock opera, Rocketman, it’s beginning to look like cinema is getting taken over by the Classic Hits of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. And those songs seem to be everywhere these days. I was waiting in line to buy ice cream at a very cool ice cream truck in New York recently. The customized 1978 Chevrolet step van was pumping out hits

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All those God-words don’t return empty

All those God-words don’t return empty

Back in 2007, I was involved in the management of an art gallery called William Street Studios. This was a rather unlikely development for me, since I have never studied art, nor aspired to be an artist. But together with a band of friends, some of whom were artists, we set it up in a beautiful old Baptist Church building in Manly (pictured above) and hosted regular art shows and classes.  As a result we made great connections not only with local artists, but also with local art dealers.  While in some respects we represented competition to these dealers, they realised we weren’t serious art dealers, but a community of Christians committed to supporting the flourishing of local neighborhood.   One of those local dealers was a woman named Teresa. She and her partner Shane had a little art gallery called artsConnect on Manly Corso right above a Royal Copenhagen ice cream franchise, opposite the Steyne Hotel. We saw Teresa and Shane regularly at Artichoke Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant frequented by artists, and they came along to the openings of a few shows at William Street Studios, as we did at artsConnect.  I had the impression Teresa liked our informal faith community and our commitment to fostering creativity, social justice and spirituality.  Then, one day, Teresa made an odd suggestion.  “How would

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Why haven’t you asked me anything about my life?

Why haven’t you asked me anything about my life?

Recently, my wife and I had dinner with someone we hadn’t seen in years.  We peppered him with questions about his work, his kids, old friends we had in common, his recent travels, even his views on random topics like internet security and the rise of China. We weren’t feigning interest either. We were genuinely curious. He responded with interesting and insightful answers. He was polite, engaged, willing to talk about whatever we brought up. And then he left. Later, as we debriefed the night, we realised that over a three hour period he hadn’t asked us a single question. Not one. He’d shown no interest in what my wife did for work, how old our kids are now, or what we’d been doing for the past decade. The thing is, that’s a pretty common social experience for us. People seem more than willing to answer our questions. In fact, they seem to enjoy our curiosity about their life and opinions. But there’s so little interest shown in us.  Shouldn’t there be some natural desire to ask people what makes them tick, what they like doing, who they like being? I’m getting to point now that when it happens again I might just let my eyes roll into the back of my head, throw my wine on the floor and go

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Grand designs – where heaven and earth come closer

Grand designs – where heaven and earth come closer

Recently, I set myself the modest challenge to list the ten most joyous buildings I’ve ever seen. By joyous I mean in the simple sense that they make me feel happy.  I love looking at them. They bring me a sense of delight, or elation, or contentment. I see the fingerprints of God all over beautiful design, no matter the motivation of their designer, and for me magnificent architecture, like all great art, draws me nearer to God. The Celts believed that the veil between heaven and earth was three feet thick. But in thin places, they said, the veil has worn through. Heaven seems closer. They used the term to describe rugged, breathtaking places like the wind-swept isle of Iona or the rocky outcrops of Croagh Patrick. But for me meditating in the Cathedral of Brasilia or the Rothko Chapel is a thin place. As is laughing at Frank Gehry’s Dancing House or the nuttiness of Habitat 67. Sometimes I’ve stumbled upon thin places in great architecture. Like finding the SR Crown Hall in Chicago. I hadn’t expected to be so touched by it’s elegance and simplicity. Other times, I’ve gone looking for a certain building, knowing it is famed for its transcendence, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Some of the buildings listed here I see every day. Some,

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When Good Things Happen Through Bad People

When Good Things Happen Through Bad People

Remember Rabbi Harold Kushner’s bestseller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People? In that book, he was trying to explain the great conundrum of why God allows seemingly good people to suffer. Well, this week I felt I was confronted by a similarly vexing question: why does God allow good things to happen through bad people? Two disturbing articles got my attention. Both were about historically revered Christian leaders who turned out to be pretty depraved. So depraved in fact, it’s hard to understand how God could have used them so profoundly to enhance the lives of others. George Whitefield – slavery advocate George Whitefield isn’t exactly a household name these days, but he was probably the most famous American religious figure of the eighteenth century. In the mid-1700s, he was one of the primary evangelists of the Great Awakening. A flamboyant preacher capable of commanding audiences of thousands through the sheer power of his oratory, he is said to have preached at least 18,000 times to perhaps 10 million hearers. And yet, in a powerful article, Was George Whitefield a Christian?, Jared C. Wilson recently outlined the great evangelist’s dark history with slavery. According to Wilson, while Whitefield initially spoke out against slave-holding, his views changed as his fame grew. He had established an orphanage in the Georgia colony

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THIS IS A NATIONAL EMERGENCY!

THIS IS A NATIONAL EMERGENCY!

Australia has a violence-against-women emergency on its hands. Hundreds of women are dying every year. And 95% of all victims of violence in Australia report a male perpetrator. But first, some names to those faces in the picture above: Courtney Herron, 25, beaten to death by a man, 27, of no fixed address, in Parkville on May 25, 2019 Natalina Angok, 33, killed by her boyfriend, 32, and dumped in a Chinatown lane in Melbourne, 2019. Preethi Reddy, 32, stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend who subsequently killed himself in a car crash, 2019. Aiia Maasarwe, 21, beaten to death and dumped outside a shopping centre in Bundoora, by a man, 20, in 2019. Laa Chol, 20, stabbed to death by a man, 17, at a party in a short-stay city apartment in 2018. Qi Yu, 28, murdered by a housemate, 19, after she cut his lease short, in 2018. Eurydice Dixon, 28, raped and murdered by a man, 19, at Melbourne’s Princes Park in 2018. Renea Lau, 32, raped and murdered by a man in parkland in Melbourne’s King’s Domain, in 2016. Masa Vukotic, 17, stabbed 49 times by a man, 30, in Doncaster, 2015. Fiona Warzywoda, 35, stabbed by her husband, 40, outside her solicitor’s office at a Sunshine shopping centre in 2014. Jill Meagher, 29, raped and

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