God and the Movies

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

41 comments for “God and the Movies

  1. January 25, 2004 at 5:02 pm

    Nate, last night I watched a screening of a new Mormon movie called “Saints and Soldiers”. Although it was Mormon, there were no direct references to Mormons, but it was still a very powerfully religious and spiritual movie. It may be the first movie of its type. It was definitely the best Mormon movie I have ever seen. If you’d like, check out what I said about it at http://www.bobandlogan.com

  2. January 26, 2004 at 12:11 am

    While I think Hollywood tends to favor anti-religious films over religious ones, I think we should be cautious about overstating this. However I think Nate is right in that what tends to be missing is anything beyond an abstract or generic religion. Real people dealing with regular religious life often is missing.

    Ironically the most religious films from Hollywood tend to be horror films which often have very overt religious overtones.

    BTW – Contact was based on Carl Sagan’s book. I thought it ironic in that the anti-religious Sagan ends up reinventing a God.

  3. January 26, 2004 at 12:41 am

    Would it also explain the generally poor, at least odd, characterization of professors in the movies (either Mr. Chips types or early thirty-ish guys in tweed who never grade papers or have committee meetings and whom younger women swoon for)?

  4. January 26, 2004 at 1:57 am

    The treatment of religion is much better in the book Contact than in the movie version. And yes, it is ironic that Carl Sagan ended up writing a very good book about the concept of faith.

  5. lyle
    January 26, 2004 at 3:49 am

    Nate…interesting post.
    I can’t remember if T&S has already had a “The Passion” discussion or not; but…
    I have a friend who is interested in setting up some screenings for Mormons. I already told her that the First Presidency was out of the question…but that I’d ask around. Anyone interested in watching an advance screening and then writing a review?

  6. Greg Call
    January 26, 2004 at 4:14 am

    Just for the fun of it, let me suggest some of the better or more interesting depictions of religion in movies (in no particular order):

    You Can Count on Me (Dir: Kenneth Lonergan)
    The Apostle (Robert Duvall)
    Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders)
    Faraway, So Close (Wim Wenders)
    Dead Man Walking (Tim Robbins)
    Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson)
    Keeping the Faith (Ed Norton)

    I find it interesting that three of the above films were made by big-time actors turned directors (Duvall, Robbins, Norton), and none came out of the Hollywood studios. This seems to indicate that Hollywood will not invest in a movie that takes religion seriously unless it is the pet project of a star. (And even then, Duvall had a very hard time getting the Apostle funded and released.)

  7. Steve Evans
    January 26, 2004 at 10:03 am


    Where was the religion in Magnolia? It’s an AWESOME movie, but there’s not a lot of religion to it (unless you’re talking about biblical frog scriptures).

  8. Kaimi
    January 26, 2004 at 10:26 am

    It’s hard to discuss the depiction of religion in movies (and especially rate whether depctions are good or bad) precisely because it’s hard to define exactly what we mean by these terms.

    There are certainly movies that give strong portrayals of religion as a vital aspect of people’s lives. (For example, The Mission or The Spitfire Grill).

    There are also certainly movies that come across as anti-religious or mocking of religion.

    But many, many movies address religion without either endorsing it or mocking it. They may use it as a backdrop for silly comedy (Sister Act). They may use it as a backdrop for horror (The Prophecy) or for their own philosophical discussion (The Devil’s Advocate).

    I’m really not sure whether to classify Devil’s Advocate as good or bad from a religious standpoint. I think it has some of the most interesting discussion on religion to come out in major recent movie. A lot of the discussion is clearly adapted from Paradise Lost, while the basic plot follows Faustus. However, the movie uses elements that many church members would object to (nudity). In addition, I come out of it strangely unconvinced of the hero’s decisions. That may be because some of his decisions run counter to the ideas in the Plan of salvation. It also may be because Satan is played by Al Pacino, one of the greatest actors of our generation, while the hero is played by Keanu Reeves.

    I’m also unsure where to put movies like Chocolat, which critique certain religious themes or practices (the bad priest) while portraying positively other religious ideas (the good priest).

  9. Kaimi
    January 26, 2004 at 10:40 am

    Speaking of Keanu, there is a clear Christian theme underlying The Matrix. (Relative unreality of this world; “Zion” outside the confines of this existence; The One who can break down the walls of this world; death and resurrection of The One; etc.). Even the character names suggest religious themes.

    There is a lot less meat in the subsequent Matrices, but the first one holds up pretty well as a Christ story adaptation / retelling and an examination of some basic Christian ideas.

    Again, alas, the Christ figure is played by Keanu Reeves. Perhaps this is the real Hollywood conspiracy — a never-ending stream of religious movies, all using as the Christ figure an actor with a known inability to act his way out of a cardboard box.

  10. Nate Oman
    January 26, 2004 at 10:57 am

    Eric: I find it odd that you pick “Contact” as a good movie portraying religion. I thought the whole thing was a bit silly. I didn’t find any of the religious believers to be compelling or believable, and I thought the whole premise — religious pandemonium caused by the fear that scientists were talking to God at SETI — was dumb in the extreme. It seems to simply regurgitate a whole bunch of negative stereotypes about religious believers — they are undeducted, ignorant, violent simpltons — that are quite popular in science graduate programs (or so my science graduate student friends tell me). Even the purported attempt to show parity between scientific and religious faith turns out to be a hoax, since in the last scene we discover that (surprise! surprise!) the scientist’s experience is supported by external evidence after all!

    In a word: Ick!

  11. Kaimi
    January 26, 2004 at 10:59 am

    By the way, Nate doesn’t make this argument, but there is a recurring argument made by church members that Hollywood is the enemy, films are almost all bad, etc., etc. (we hates them, my precious!).

    But aren’t there a lot of movies treating religion well?

    Exhibit 1: Ben Hur. Explicitly religious. Winner of multiple Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor) (I believe it holds the record for most Oscars won).

    Exhibit 2: The Ten Commandments. Another widely respected, explicitly religious piece.

    Exhibit 3: It’s a Wonderful Life.

    and so on . . .

  12. Nate Oman
    January 26, 2004 at 11:01 am

    Kaimi: I agree with you that Hollywood does not universally portray religion in negative terms. It gets used in several ways. In “Spitfire Grill” or “The Color Purple” it seems to be simply a background convention meant to invoke a simpler and perhaps purer place, i.e. this is long ago or in the rural South or both; how do you know?; people go to church!

    Other movies play on religious ideas, and I suspect that these may be the ones that work the best.

    However, very few of them are compelling portrayals of characters with genuine and believable religious convictions: The Mission, The Black Robe, (I like movies about Jesuits), A Man For All Seasons, The Chosen, etc. seem like the happy exceptions.

  13. January 26, 2004 at 11:48 am

    Nate and Kaimi, aren’t a lot of the movies you site to fairly old.

  14. Ben
    January 26, 2004 at 12:11 pm

    I thought Contact (film version) made the point well that not all knowledge is conveyable. Madame hard-science, who always demands evidence, has an experience, she knows she’s had it, yet can’t convince anyone of it. She learns that lack of proof can’t invalidate her experience. That in itself was refreshing to me, as it seems that much of our religious convictions come from personal experiences that are non-transferable.

  15. Nate Oman
    January 26, 2004 at 12:12 pm

    The Mission was made in the 80s. The Black Robe was made in the 1990s.

  16. January 26, 2004 at 12:34 pm

    Lyle: Sign me up! I’ll write a review.

  17. January 26, 2004 at 12:37 pm

    Nate, I think you misread my comment about Contact. I said the book treated religion a lot better than the movie.

  18. lyle
    January 26, 2004 at 12:44 pm

    Bob: Good to know. Given your local, it should be fairly easy to arrange. Can you get me an estimated count of those that would be interested. I’d also like to include any Bishops, Stake Presidents, Counselors, etc. that might be interested.

  19. Kaimi
    January 26, 2004 at 12:59 pm

    The Spitfire Grill is relatively recent (1998?). Also, I thought that, contrary to Nate’s depiction, it had pretty explicit portrayal of religion, and a nice examination of sin, redemption, and the saving power of God.

  20. January 26, 2004 at 1:00 pm

    I really liked Contact. Although the movie is full of some awful stereotypes; I believe that was done purposefully. We are presented with a lot of overblown stereotypes (on both sides) which are meant to be softened by the humanism of the Foster and McConaughey characters. The preacher (McConaughey) is smart and science-literate, and yet he still manages to embrace a faith in God. In the end, he comes off looking better than the Foster character, who is forced to retract her earlier pronouncements about faith.

  21. January 26, 2004 at 1:33 pm

    Lyle: one problem we may have here… (which coincidently could make for an interesting topic of conversation) According to the website, this movie has not yet received an MPAA movie rating but is expected to be rated R. Now, it would be hard for me to fill a theater full of Bishops, Stake Presidents, etc. unless this information was withheld. What they don’t know can’t hurt them, right?

    Not that I couldn’t find people for a screening, but how should we appropriately deal with that? I can try and enlist the infamous Eric D. Snider along with the director and producer of “Saints and Soldiers”. If they spread the word to their respective crowds and I bring my own crowd of known “R” watchers, we may have something. But Bishops, Stake Presidents… at least in my experience, that could be a little harder.

    Let me know what you think.

  22. Greg Call
    January 26, 2004 at 2:06 pm


    Magnolia may be a bit of a stretch; I included it because I was thinking of John C. Reilly’s compassionate cop character, who is a Christian and, in my mind, the heart of the movie.

  23. Kaimi
    January 26, 2004 at 2:18 pm

    I just noticed that Rebecca Jensen at Silver Singing has a short discussion of What Dreams May Come as a good religious movie.


  24. January 26, 2004 at 2:29 pm

    Well, as I do not see many movies, I am the worst person to be commenting on this thread, but I can’t believe that no one has mentioned my favorite movie of all time, Chariots of Fire. It is my favorite because it was released during the year of my baptism, and it was part of a whole slew of positive influences on me around the time of my decision to join the Church.

    So, is Lord of the Rings a “religious movie”? http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000214.html

  25. January 26, 2004 at 3:17 pm

    Since we’re listing favorite “religious” movies, I’d have to go with Gladiator. One of the few movies that have made me cry. The idea of being together with your family after this life was very prominent. Great movie, highly recommended.

  26. January 26, 2004 at 7:14 pm

    I think one ought to distinguish between religious *themes* and specific religions. For instance What Dreams May Come is basically adopted elements of New Age philosophy. It is religious, but not really tied to any specific religion. That is fairly common in Hollywood. For instance the recent Bruce Almighty does that as well. The “religion” is carefully toned down to a moderate number of uncontroversial moral stances that end up being “be nice.” Organized religion is rarely mentioned and if it is, it isn’t in a form recognizable by most people (unless it is some critique of that religion) Specific doctrines of religions are rarely addressed.

    There are of course a few exceptions. Some of the stuff on the Dahli Lhama is good, for instance as well as other Buddhism. But by and large ties to any particular group is eschewed except in horror. (And then Catholics are the typical representation)

  27. January 26, 2004 at 7:16 pm

    Just to add, there are exceptions. For instance I’ve mentioned the Robert Duvall film from about 8 years ago called _The Apostle_ which deals quite well with Evangelical views of prophecy and human weakness. But I think the reaction to Mel Gibson’s movie illustrates how uncomfortable Hollywood typically is with specific religious claims.

  28. January 27, 2004 at 12:04 am

    Thanks for looping me in, Kaimi. Interesting thread.

    I’m reluctant to generalize about a “Hollywood” approach or response to religion; the major ones have been mentioned already anyway.

    There’s the law of comparative advantage: looking to the movies for religion is like looking to the Church for movies. For every Johnny Lingo (the original), there’s a hundred cheesy hometeaching flicks where they have to stop some kid from becoming a hippie. (Stop me before I get onto my Gospel According to Jack Valenti rant against movie ratings. cf. The Passion)

    Instead of Hollywood, I look at individual filmmakers for whom religion is a recurring interest/undercurrent. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s the first: he was decidedly secular but spiritual, but he recognized religion as an inspiration and an impelling force in human life. His Ten Commandments-based series, The Decalogue, is one of the greatest films ever. Next’d be Martin Scorsese, with Kundun, Last Temptation of Christ, even Gangs of NY. He’s another one who acknowledges the power (global, historical, political, individual) of religious belief/practice.

    BTW, Magnolia’s all about forgiveness and the prodigal children, I thought. Gotta rewatch it. Matt Groening was talking on NPR the other day about how The Simpsons is one of the only/few shows on TV where the characters go to church regularly. And I’m sure no one you know has seen it, but I hear the end of South Park: The Movie has Kenny sacrificing his life to save the world from hellfire and destruction.

    This is way longer than a comment should be.

  29. January 27, 2004 at 12:55 am

    Greg.org, no one’s stopping you… let’s hear some ranting and raving on Gospel According to Jack Valenti. Any conversation involving Valenti ends up getting me interested.

  30. lyle
    January 27, 2004 at 4:46 am

    re: Passion.

    1. The movie Ads being printed show an R rating. However, I don’t see this as being an obstacle. The R rating is simply a very very rough marker for how to avoid nudity and violence. WHile this is just my op, but a member who decided not to see the Passion just cuz it is rated R seems to be just a tad pharisaic. The atonement is a beautiful and sacred thing, but our Savior def. had to pay a price. Should the LDS movie “the Lamb of God” also have an R rating then for its violence?

    2. Please feel free to involve Sr. Snider, and anyother “Mormon” film people. The more the merrier…and from all I can see, probably the more spiritual and attuned to the atonement.

  31. Greg Call
    January 27, 2004 at 4:49 am

    I agree with greg.org on Kieslowski’s _Decalogue_, and would add that the same director’s _Three Colors_ trilogy, though less explicitly religion-themed than the former film, also beautifully deals with spiritual issues. And I can’t resist throwing out a few more in that vein that haven’t yet been mentioned: Terence Malick’s _Days of Heaven_ and _The Thin Red Line_, Wenders’s _Paris, Texas, and David Lynch’s _The Straight Story_. As you can tell, I think there are great movies dealing with religious themes, it’s just that the best of them don’t come out of the Hollywood system.

    As for the Gospel According to Jack Valenti, the Summer 2003 issue of Dialogue had a fun little essay about the origin and development of the MPAA why Mormons should not allow this bunch of amoral weenies to perform the gatekeeping function.

  32. Mary
    January 27, 2004 at 10:39 am

    Also, The Passion According to Joan of Arc and Ordet by Theodor Dryer are stunningly religious and extremely moving.

    Tokyo Story by Yasujiro Ozu is meditative and religious in a zen, contemplative way.

  33. Kaimi
    January 27, 2004 at 11:57 am

    For a completely different perspective, see this very conservative site which rates movies numerically using certain predefined tests:


  34. January 27, 2004 at 12:01 pm

    Lyle & Greg: Wow! Have either of you spent extensive time in the Provo/Orem area? I don’t disagree with anything you say but from my experience here in Happy Valley, “R” watching Mormons like you and I are a minority. One indication would be the flourishing market of edited movie rentals. Another indication would be the uprising of Mormons whenever the Sundance Film Festival wants to use Utah Valley theaters.

    Just look at BYU, they bought certain rights to the movie “Glory” so as to edit it and put on American Heritage syllabi, “BYU has taken out any content that made this movie rated R”. I can go on with more examples, but maybe I need to write a separate post on this. Most Mormons here, whether we like or not, automatically steer clear of any movie within a ten foot poll of an “R” rating.

    So Lyle when you say, “I don’t see this as being an obstacle.” I have to wonder…

  35. Scott
    February 11, 2004 at 1:37 pm

    Mary! I’m delighted to see that someone else has seen and appreciated Dreyer’s “Ordet.” That may be the greatest religious film ever made.


  36. February 11, 2004 at 3:36 pm

    I haven’t seen Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, though I hope to someday. I saw Ordet on Scott’s recommendation, and was deeply impressed (but also perplexed) by it. But I liked Day of Wrath even more than Ordet.

  37. Greg Call
    March 3, 2004 at 6:34 pm

    For those that like rich, poetic films on religious themes, I wanted to recommend _Heaven_ (2002), which I saw last night. Tom Tykwer (_Run Lola Run_, _Princess and the Warrior_) directed this film from a Kieslowski (_Decalogue_, _Three Colors_) script. The basic plot is that a woman (excellently characterized by Cate Blanchett) tries to kill a drug lord, and ends up killing four innocents. During her police interrogation, a young officer (Giovanni Ribisi) falls in love with her, and decides to assist her in escaping. But this is not what the movie is about. I saw it (and think the filmmakers intended it) as the story of the fall and redemption of Man told in reverse. The story begins in a modern city (Turin) full of moral ambiguity and corruption, ends with the characters as a sort of Adam and Eve, figuratively ascending back into heaven, having been redeemed by love. The film was intended by Kieslowski to be part of a trilogy, along with Hell and Purgatory. Unfortunately, those will not be made, but thankfully we have the remarkable Heaven as Kieslowski’s final gift.

  38. March 3, 2004 at 6:42 pm

    “I don’t disagree with anything you say but from my experience here in Happy Valley, “R” watching Mormons like you and I are a minority.”

    I don’t think that is accurate. The theaters here show R-rated films at about the same rates as elsewhere and popular R-rated shows are typically sold out. While I definitely know many people who don’t watch R-rated movies there are many more who do.

    The Passion was sold out here quite regularly judging from Fandango.

  39. Dave
    July 8, 2004 at 12:03 pm

    So, I just found this thread, and was rather interested by Lyle’s comments accusing members who avoid R-rated movies simply because of their ratings as being “pharisaic.” I have to wonder if Lyle is familiar with President Kimballs instructions to the membership of the church not to watch R-rated movies. If so, how is following simple, clear instruction from a Prophet of God pharisaic? There were no exceptions listed in Pres. Kimballs instructions, allowing for no exceptions by the membership of the church. He could not have been plainer.

  40. September 13, 2004 at 1:33 am

    “There were no exceptions listed in Pres. Kimballs instructions…”

    Dave, I agree. But most of us who visit this site are not Young Men (the group of people to whom President Kimball addressed his remarks, generally considered to be unmarried boys ages 12-18). When you say, “…allowing for no exceptions by the membership of the church.” you are simply taking a man’s words out of context. President Kimball was concerned about the youth (specifically boys) watching rated R movies. Any conclusion as to some sort of newly introduced pseudo Church policy is purely speculation.

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