At a recent conference of religious communicators, keynoter Michael Landon, Jr., director of made-for-TV movies ("Love Comes Softly," "Loves Enduring Promise") repeatedly referred - in disparaging terms - to those hypocrites who went to church on Sundays and then went to R-rated movies during the week.
In the Q&A that followed, I outed myself as one who fits that demographic, stating my belief that I often found positive lessons, inspirational moments and moral aspects of many R-rated films. I saw no contradiction between being a faithful Christian and an avid filmgoer, even if some of those films were rated R.
Upon reading David Anderson's story [opposite], I find a similar disconnect between what he describes as a religious film and my own experience. While there is much in the article with which I agree, the author misses the point in limiting his references to religious films to those that deal with subject matter that is explicitly religious, films like "The Passion of the Christ" or "Bonhoeffer" or films with obvious symbolic religious references like "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe."
Jesus engaged first century Palestinian society through parables that were most often about agriculture or economics, reflecting the concerns of people eking out a living in an agrarian society. Religious (read Christian) films today should do no less than encounter our culture in those places where we are most in ferment.
I wish Mr. Anderson's article had pointed us to a film like "Crash," last year's Academy Award winner for Best Picture that traces a 36-hour period in Los Angeles as the lives of people of many races collide. This film juxtaposes expectation and actuality in our society - a central concern of scripture. Things are not what they seem to be. Racial stereotypes are shattered, predictable outcomes are left in ruins on the cutting room floor, death and miracle intercede in equal measure.
After all - as that ubiquitous commercial says - life comes at you fast, and in our day it is important for people of faith to live in the nexus of our conflicting and rapidly changing reality. Jesus, it seems to me, would get that. Just like reading the Bible leaves the burden of interpretation to the reader, truly religious filmmaking prods the viewer to reconsider what it means to be faithful, devoid of simplistic answers or superficial assumptions.
So what would Jesus direct? Films that deal realistically with life and death, where ruthlessness and grace are found in equal measure, where the worst of us can rise to heroic standards and our very best are cut down by sheer happenstance. Read the Gospels. Let's not fool ourselves that Jesus' films would only feature overt allusions to religious iconography or blatant symbolism. Instead, he would seek out the crosscurrents of life and death, help us see God's enduring love in that mix despite apparent evidence to the contrary, and respond in bold and imaginative ways.
Oh, and by the way, "Crash," of course, is rated R.
The Rev. Robert Chase has written, directed or produced more than 200 films and videos, including numerous award-winning productions. He also directs the UCC's Proclamation, Identity and Communication team and serves as executive director of OC, Inc., the UCC's storied media-advocacy arm.