As faithful readers of this blog know, I am a film buff. I therefore was pleased when Dr. Peter Dans, a friend of mine and commenter on the blog, brought to my attention his book Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners. Peter is a medical doctor and a former professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins. Go here to learn about his professional activities. He is also a faithful Catholic, a skilled writer and an all around good guy. However, I am here to review the book and not to review the author!
Published in 2011 by Sheed & Ward, the book is a fairly comprehensive look at how film has portrayed Christians and Christianity from 1905-2008. The book proceeds chronologically with chapters devoted to films of the silent era, films of the forties, etc. The chapters open with a general overview of the film period being discussed and then a look at selected films. The films are not limited to those self-consciously religious, but also those in which religion is a major plot element. Thus the Oscar winning film Sergeant York (1941) is included because of its examination of the religious conflict that World War I hero Alvin C. York had to resolve before he could in good conscious fight for his country. Dr. Dans also looks at the impact of the films examined, for example in regard to Sergeant York he mentions that the film was denounced by the isolationist Senator Nye as propaganda to get America into World War II. Some of the facts that the author discusses were news to me. For example I have watched the film Song of Bernadette (1943) about Bernadette Soubirous and Lourdes but I was unaware that it was based on a book written by Franz Werfel, a Jew, who made a vow to write a book about Bernadette when he and wife were hidden from the Gestapo by nuns and families at Lourdes. In regard to Going My Way, 1944, Dr. Dans reveals that Pope Pius XII was so taken by the film that he granted a private audience to Bing Cosby and credited the film with helping to spur priestly vocations. I like it when a book gives me information that I was unaware of, and this book accomplished that task.
The book is not limited to films that have become well known. For example there is a section devoted to one of my favorite westerns, Stars in My Crown, 1950, in which Joel McCrea portrays a Union veteran who becomes a Protestant minister and his travails as he brings religion to a town and fights the Ku Klux Klan.
A movie which has just debuted caught my attention this morning. It is called To Save a Life, and it is purported to be a film for teens, dealing with teen issues, with an underlying but not-too-subtle Christian message. Here it is in a nutshell: a popular high school athlete’s life is changed forever when his former best friend, ditched because he wasn’t cool enough to remain friends with, commits suicide in front of everyone. The popular athlete begins to question everything, and everyone – encouraged by a hip youth pastor, he leaves behind a hedonistic life for one of Christian fellowship, and makes it a special task to prevent the next rejected loner from following in the footsteps of his deceased friend.
A few clips from the movie I’ve seen floating around on the Web initially left me with mixed feelings. The brand of Christianity being promoted in this film seems, at times, to be a world apart from my own traditional Catholicism. We hear the typical speeches in some instances about how “church” is “judgmental” and “hypocritical” – which are two words often thrown around by people who want to rationalize their own rotten behavior without having to think about it. We ought to be chastised, and another person’s hypocrisy has nothing to do with the objective truth or falsehood of their chastisement.
That being said, it dawned on me that among today’s teenagers, this Christianity-lite is radically good compared to what they are typically exposed to in the purely materialist-hedonist culture that surrounds them like a choking fog 24-7. What really sort of sealed the deal for me though, and prompted me to write this defense of a film I haven’t yet seen, were the reviews that the - yes – liberal media were saying about it. The reviews, as you might guess, are almost unanimously negative: The Village Voice, the NY Times, NPR, and the list could go on for some time, have all panned the movie. Wikipedia states that the reception has been “generally negative to mixed.”