Mar 7, 2014

'When God speaks in a Hollywood accent'

American evangelicals' conflicted relationship to cinema is not new. Anxieties about being co-opted are, in fact, perennial.

"Remember that we have been here before," wrote Tim Challies, pastor of an evangelical church in Toronto, criticizing the hype around the most recent life-of-Christ film, "Son of God." "Remember that there are a lot of people hoping to make a lot of money from this film. Remember that God promises to bless the preaching of his Word, not the display of that Word on the silver screen."

It is, for sure, a familiar space for evangelicals trying to be culturally relevant without being basically suckered as indiscriminate consumers. There's precedent for this discontent.

In December 1956, in an editorial for Christianity Today, the modern architect of evangelical cultural engagement, Carl F. H. Henry, picked up this same theme. In a critical review Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood epic, "The Ten Commandments," Henry wrote:
Jehovah wrote commandments on stone, so they could not be erased; he proposes to write them on the human heart. Hollywood has inscribed them on on celluloid and sound tape, somewhat more brittle and breakable. When God speaks in a Hollywood accent, it is somehow easier to swarm box offices than to storm the altars of repentance.
It was, notably, the evangelical magazine's first film review.

It would be followed in 1957 by the magazine's first ads for a Hollywood movie. This one, from May '57, ran full page:


"Cited by leaders of all faiths," the ad copy reads, "as a spiritually enrichening experience making the Bible thrillingly alive (sic)."

Henry wasn't one of those leaders, really, though he allowed the ads -- which ran in more than one issue of Christianity Today -- to imply he and the magazine supported the epic without reservation. Thus the anxiety about feeling co-opted, one supposes.

When a film speaks in your name and to your dollar, there's likely to be some conflicted responses.