Larry Ribstein, a corporate law professor at the University of Illinois, has an interesting blog on the treatment of business in the movies. He argues, among other things, that the generally negative portrayal of business is in film does not reflect some ideological bias against commerce. Rather, it is a reflection of the tension between the “creative types” who make movies and the studio executives who control them.
I wonder if there is not a similar economic explanation for the generally poor treatment of religion in the movies.
By and large, I don’t think that Hollywood portrays religion in a negative light all that often. Rather, they simply ignore it or get it wrong. How many movies can you think of with religious characters who are genuinely compelling as religious believers? A Man for All Seasons, The Mission, Ghandi?
Mostly Hollywood seems to get it wrong. Think of the movie Contact, which is based on the rather absurd premise that the discovery of extraterretial intelligence would percipitate a global religious crisis and religious terrorism. And this was a movie that thought it was giving a fair picture of religion!
Generally folks who worry about this sort of thing argue that Hollywood is a secular culture and that this secular culture accounts for its inability to effectively portray religion. However, I have another theory. A movie like Contact doesn’t work (at least for me) because it is about “religion” or “spirituality.” That is, it approaches the question of rleigion at a very heigh level of abstraction. It is not about a particular religion. On the other hand, movies that seem to “get” religion, like The Mission or The Chosen are not about “religion.” Rather they are about Jews or Catholics. This specificity is what lends authenticity.
Movies are one of the few mediums that aspire to the status of art that is subject to tight market discipline. I suspect that making movies that are more religiously specific runs the risk of alienating potential viewers. If religion is either ignored, or left at the level of “spirituality,” then there is less risk. However, there also seems to be much less substance