Christianity and Pop Culture, Part 3: Why Christians Should Love Hollywood

The U2 concert on that Sunday began a series of events where those of us interested in the engagement of Christianity with Hollywood would participate to discuss, shape and even invest in the future. This blog series follows the events and discussions of that week to give my readers a glimpse into our discussions.

The week brought together accomplished artists, theologians, screenwriters, graphic novelists, actors, and film makers for a dinner salon style conversation and a three-day conference for artists and angel investors hosted by the Wedgewood Circle. I particularly was invested in the dinner and discussion, as I co-hosted the dinner with my friends Chris Dyball, a creative entrepreneur, and Bobbette Buster, a USC professor in film production and a consultant to Pixar films.  There have been many such discussions over the years among the Christians in Hollywood about the role of the Christian actor, writer and executive in Hollywood, so much so that one prominent leader declared at the dinner, “I am tired of talking about Christians in Hollywood. Let’s talk about jazz.” I got her point — most of these conversations have been based in old fear-based and legalistic topics such as, “Can a Christian make a rated R film?” or “Can a Christian say the “F” word on screen?”  or “Can a Christian survive in Hollywood where they like Democrats and sacrifice children?”  While I do not doubt that some in the Christian community still feel the need for these discussions, most of us have moved on to a less legalistic form of our faith and do embrace the role of artists either as evangelists, prophets (truth tellers) or story tellers of a redemptive narrative.  It’s time for a new conversation.

The problem with the old “Christians and Hollywood” conversation is that it is not based in reality but fear.  The truth is that there are many people of faith, and even evangelical Christians and Catholics, in Hollywood.  On any given Sunday, I sit in the pew with them.  They include the president of Disney Studios, the producer of the Oscars, a chairman at Paramount Pictures, a VP at Fox Studios, actor Hal Holbrook, actress Reese Witherspoon, actor Jim Caviezel, producers and directors of well known television shows, True Blood’s Sam Trammell, and hundreds of others.  The stereotype that all of the influential people in Hollywood are Jews or secular pagans just isn’t true.  God was present at the creation of Hollywood, as Catholics with  a great appreciation of art and image created the first moving images, the first movies, and the early pre-cursor to the Motion Picture Association of America.  Protestants also gained a significant presence in Hollywood, and despite many changes in the church and in Hollywood, the presence of Christians remained. The 1990s also gave birth to significant ministries devoted to Christian artists in Hollywood like Act One, Hollywood Connect, Intermission and Hollywood Prayer Network.  Some of these remain active today; others have dissipated as the Christian community evolves into a new maturity and a firm presence.  Hollywood is no longer as much a mission field (despite how some fundamentalists and evangelicals like to portray it) as it is a place where Christians live, work and do business alongside their Jewish, Scientologist, and secular colleagues.  Christians are no longer begging crumbs but often are sitting at the table.

Another reason that such fear-based approaches are no longer relevant is because poll after poll show that Christians consume as much of the violent, sexual and mature content on television and film as do non-believing viewers. The studios and executives know this, and so many look in some derision on a Christian community that seems to compartmentalize its faith and art into “Christian films” and “secular films” but consume both like any other consumer. Those studios who have attempted to make movies or television that particularly target the “faith and family” market are now defunct, such as the Fox Faith division at FOX.  Such compartmentalizations do not help the reputation of the Christian faith.  Two agnostic friends of mine worked in the FOX Faith Division and laughed at the substandard content created and distributed by the division because the studio assumed Christians would buy it just because its content was about Scripture or a character prayed to God.  This did no service to the studio because, thankfully, most Christians had better tastes; and it did no service to Christians because it stereotyped people of faith as cheesy, glib and simple. The final verdict was this: People of faith also want quality entertainment like everyone else, and they will sacrifice a few values for excellence. Now we must find a way to marry the two.

But finally this is a new conversation because Hollywood and the church are no longer at odds in every way. Yes, the church still has much to teach Hollywood about sexual values, about love, and even about art.  After all, Christianity was the creator of western art and its aspirations and values still have much to say to Hollywood and those who aspire to make it even greater.  But Hollywood also has much to say to a Christian faith that is finally learning — perhaps even under the influence of Hollywood itself — that environmental care, human rights, poverty, civil rights, equality and freedom of the mind and heart are matters of common human concern and matters upon which the church and Hollywood often can agree.  Hold your breath — they even can work together for the common good.

What would happen if Christians moved on from a “Devil is under every crevice in Hollywood” to a “God is present in every place in Hollywood to inspire good on behalf of the world” approach?  What if we believed that God always has been present in Hollywood, is still there now, and will be in the future to inspire artists who are film makers and writers to tell those stories and shape those narratives that will impact the next generation and change the world? What if we believe that there are Christians already in Hollywood board rooms, studio offices, casting agencies, directing chairs and behind the cameras THEN empowered them with a true appreciation — affirmed by the church — of their vocations and their importance as leaders shaping the culture? What if we then provided them with the resources of prayer, friendship, theology, stories, accountability and faith that would allow them to be truly courageous and audacious witnesses of hope in Hollywood and the world?

This hopeful vision is one that is possible — but the church first has to stop stereotyping Hollywood as a place that God has abandoned, or that Hollywood has abandoned God. Neither are true.  God is doing more here than ever. Not since Hollywood’s early days have so many here been interested in doing good and connecting their work to their spirituality. If Christians continue to “love to hate” Hollywood, they will only miss what God is doing, and sadly they also will be living in the small universe of a small mind that just isn’t based in the truth.

God loves Hollywood because God loves stories. God loves Hollywood people because God commissions artists to create beauty and to tell the truth. God loves Hollywood as a place because God created it — beautifully, I might add.

It’s time that Christians stop loving to hate Hollywood.  A new day has come. This time, let the conversation begin with love and not derision, hope and not fear.

4 Responses to “Christianity and Pop Culture, Part 3: Why Christians Should Love Hollywood”
  1. Tim Spivey says:

    Todd, I agree that Christians are often more fearful of Hollywood than need be. I also believe that God is everywhere in Hollywood…and that there are many vibrant Christians in Hollywood. I also believe that Christians should take a more graceful and appreciative posture toward Hollywood…as you suggest.

    To be fair to the fearful though, it seems one would need to admit that the majority of “Hollywood” is not Christian. It should also be noted that Hollywood has produced some absolutely scourging films that would be hard not to interpret as “anti-Christian.” Christians resent the way they feel they are usually, not always portrayed by Hollywood in TV and film. That perception is accurate, in my view. In addition, Hollywood does put out some pretty vile stuff.

    Having said that, I also believe secular film is one of the most socially observant and even theologically substantive voices in our world. So, I have a love/hate relationship with Hollywood.

  2. toddbouldin says:

    Tim, I hear you. My attempt here is not to encourage us to overlook those things but to change our approach from a hope-filled one from a fear-based one. Most of the “Hollywood is against us” approaches have been based in fear, and we know where fear vs. love tends to lead.

    I also would suggest that “Hollywood” at times has been critical, not really of Jesus or all of Christianity, but of the excesses of Christian fundamentalism and hypocrisy. Not every time is this the case — some are just anti-Christian — but many times they are holding up a mirror and pointing to a certain hypocrisy that the church needs to address.

    Thanks for your comments. I also added your blog to my favorite list.

  3. John Spivey says:

    Thank you for making some very thought provoking posts on this subject. Anyone with open eyes and an open heart can see the influence God and the story of Christ has had on Hollywood. Why do people continue to appreciate a film about a guy falling head over heals for a girl? Could it be that as a whole people understand that it is a reflection of God pursuing us as individuals? What about the film that depicts the protagonist overcoming some incredible obstacle to see good overcome evil?

    That being said there is also the consideration of what type of entertainment brings glory to God? Is it the mere act of producing a film, no matter what the content, just because that person has an inclination to make that film? Is it right for an actor to drop the “F” bomb incessantly in a production because he can do so in the wake of being free of legalism? I’m not so sure it is so much a basis of fear that one comes to these conclusions as it is a consideration of Whom it is we serve.

    The danger of distancing ourselves from Christian “baggage” (U2 is far from being the only ones to do so)is that it allows a false sense of freedom to do whatever the hell it is that we want. There are no boundaries for Christians. There is immense freedom in Christ but we are also called “slaves”. To blunder and fall mistakenly is one thing but to make it a blatant practice in the guise of art is quite another. Does it make us more effective witnesses to drink, cuss, smoke etc. in order to relate to the world?

    “The studios and executives know this, and so many look in some derision on a Christian community that seems to compartmentalize its faith and art into “Christian films” and “secular films” but consume both like any other consumer.”

    Doesn’t this statement suggest that as Christians we are to be separate from the world and if we aren’t then it only produces confusion for those who aren’t Christians?

    On a more positive note I love the suggestion you make that we acknowledge God’s presence and activity in Hollywood.

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