As they did in the beginning, Passover and Holy Week coincide this year, and yet not one major film being released for the season has anything whatsoever to do with religion. Nowhere is popular entertainment more bizarrely alienated from the lives of ordinary people than in the matter of God. Why should this be?
Let me answer with a personal story. When my Young Adult thriller novel, The Long Way Home, was submitted to my British publishers, they tried to delete many of the references to the hero’s religious faith. My British editor feared that Waterstone’s—the UK’s biggest bookstore chain—would be reluctant to carry a book with an overtly Christian hero.
Now, I’m careful not to preach in these novels. I merely allow my narrator, Charlie West, to act and think as he would in life. For instance, in the book’s opening, Charlie takes 200 dollars off an assassin who tried to kill him. “Yes, I know the Ten Commandments,” Charlie tells us, “and yes, I know you’re not supposed to steal. But this didn’t feel like stealing.” The Brits wanted to cut the reference to the Ten Commandments.
I refused to allow these changes. I felt they were bigoted and absurd. As a result, my British editor says, Waterstone’s did indeed order far fewer copies of this book than they had ordered of its prequel, despite that earlier book’s success.
Pop culture’s negative portrayal of religion, especially Christianity, is not some accidental oversight. It’s purposeful, the result of hostile intent. Things aren’t quite as bad in the US yet as in Britain, but here too, those in charge of creating our entertainments are clearly at odds with the beliefs of their audience. More than three quarters of Americans identify themselves as Christians while people of other religions make up about another five percent. Even among those with no religion, only a very small number say they are atheists. God plays a role in most American lives.
Yet very few heroes in popular culture have any relationship to God whatsoever. Popular heroes rarely go to church or make spiritual references or even send up a quick prayer in times of trouble. Even in stories where religion would naturally play a major role in the hero’s life—say, the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line—God is edited down to a few seconds of screen time. When religion does take a central place in a story, it’s usually as a sign of hypocrisy, bigotry, fanaticism or fraud.
Not only is this wholly unrealistic, it’s bad business too. Stories about faith make money. If any other sort of picture had had the profit-to-cost ratio of Passion of the Christ or Fireproof, Hollywood would have jumped on the bandwagon. But there is no imitative spate of religious films. Far from it. A major release like the Blind Side is almost shockingly radical in its rare portrayal of the positive way Christianity works in most people’s lives.
Shakespeare said the purpose of art is “to hold the mirror up to nature.” But the purpose of most American art is to depict the world as a small coterie of elites believe it should be in the hopes we will be indoctrinated into going along. Religion stands opposed to that elitist worldview because it elevates the wisdom of faith and simple decency over intellectual narcissism and moral preening. Or to put it another way, faith is committed to reality. Thus God will return to our culture when artists find the independent spirit and courage to show life as it is.