The Academy Award winners won't be revealed until Sunday night's Oscar extravaganza, but already, God looks set to walk away as the big winner.
From the re-telling of the Book of Job in "A Serious Man" to the evangelical generosity displayed in "The Blind Side," from the post-apocalyptic vision of "The Road" to the pristine pantheism of "Avatar," religious themes of suffering and compassion, redemption and transformation in the movies of 2009 were praised by faith-based critics and parsed by a growing number of academics who sniff out a burgeoning spirituality in the cinema.
But is Hollywood really becoming "Holywood"? Or are we just seeing religious tropes in eternal themes in storytelling? What makes a movie a religious film? And does a religious message make it any better -- or worse -- than other films?
Many experts say that it's not so much what is on the screen that makes movies religious or spiritual. Rather, it is that for growing numbers of Americans, going to the movies has replaced institutional church-going as their principle religious and communal experience.
"Cinema is church, no doubt," said S. Brent Plate, an associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College and author of many studies on film and faith, most recently the book, "Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World."
"A film becomes
religious because of the people who watch it, whether or not there are religious themes in it or not," Plate explained. "I'm thinking here of cult films like 'Rocky Horror Picture Show,' or even 'Star Wars' itself, for which people dress up in particular costumes before watching, know the liturgy ahead of time, sing along at appropriate places, and interact with the events on screen. In other words, watching a film can be religious, and more important than what is displayed on screen."
For proof of that observation look no further than the International Church of Jediism, also known as the Jedi Church
, which counts upwards of a half million adherents, mainly in the English-speaking world, who have embraced, with varying degrees of seriousness, the various doctrines present in the "Star Wars" movies.
"Star Wars" director George Lucas consciously deployed a number of spiritual and mythical concepts from various world religions and traditions -- all very much under the guidance of the late, great mythologist Joseph Campbell. But viewers saw what they wanted in the movies because of the 3-D goggles of personal, cultural, and religious history that each person brings to any movie, and which bring different aspects of a film into sharp relief depending on who is watching.
Jewish viewers of the World War II revenge flick "Inglourious Basterds" often reveled in the Old Testament-like smiting of their archenemies, the Nazis -- "kosher porn" is how actor Eli Roth described it -- while many non-Jews may have simply welcomed the satisfaction of seeing justice done. (Or the thrill of watching lots of blood and shoot-ups.) The apocalyptic scenarios of "2012" and "The Road," or this year's "Book of Eli," likely fed into American anxieties over the state of the world, and their own survival.
That lens of individuality was perhaps most evident in reactions to the odds-on Best Picture favorite, the blockbuster "Avatar."
Many "Avatar" watchers were inspired by the film's environmental message and by the overt religiosity attributed to the created world -- a kind of prelapsarian Garden of Eden -- though some later fell into a funk
(Post-Avatar Ecological Depressive Disorder, or PAEDD, one victim called it) as they realized the planet Pandora was a fiction and all we have is this scarred and fallen Earth.
Others, of a more traditional vein, condemned "Avatar" for its apparent pantheism -- seeing the planet itself as some kind of god, or goddess (though the movie is arguably more "panentheistic
," with God penetrating and working through nature, but not limited to the natural world). Mark Driscoll, the popular Neo-Calvinist pastor of Seattle's Mars Hill Church, said "Avatar" was "the most demonic, satanic movie I've ever seen." (Maybe he didn't catch the 3-D version.) "That any Christian could watch that without seeing the overt demonism is beyond me," Driscoll said
Well, others actually saw plenty else to like. Palestinians protesting Israeli policies have dressed like the blue-skinned Na'vi natives of Pandora while Israelis flocked to the movie, too, some apparently channeling its kabbalisitc notes of Jewish mysticism. Political liberals saw the film as an obvious reference to the United States' oppression of American Indians, and conservatives saw it as a none-too-subtle protest against the Iraq war. Suggestions that the Na'vi represented Tibetans apparently fed Chinese paranoia over the movie. And so on.
Director James Cameron seems to have favored the environmental reading, but as soon as the movie opened, its meaning was beyond his control.
"A movie can have a religious content for a viewer, whether that is intended by the filmmakers, or not," said John Lyden, a professor of religion at Dana College in Blair, Nebr., and author of "Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals."
"Any film that deals with issues about the meaning of life, redemption or transformation can arguably be viewed as religious or spiritual. In my view, films act religiously whenever they have that impact on the viewers, leading them to reflect more deeply on their beliefs and values and how these connect to the rest of their lives."
In a sense, this is nothing new. Drama has exercised a religious function since the Greeks staged plays during religious festivals with the aim of bringing about a catharsis, or transformation, in the audience -- as well as entertaining them.
Some note that Jesus, too, used the art of the parable to convey spiritual truths to his listeners rather than browbeating them with dogmas and tenets.
Moving pictures were a great leap forward in popular storytelling, and some pastors recognized that, said Robert K. Johnston, a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and co-director of its center on religion and film, called Reel Spirituality. In 1917, Johnston noted, a Congregational minister named Harold Jump wrote a pamphlet comparing watching movies to hearing parables. In the 1920s however, the excesses and scandals of Hollywood (nothing new under the sun, as the Good Book says) led to a religious reaction against films, as Catholic and Protestant leaders started counseling followers to avoid movie houses as proximate causes of sin.
After World War II, however, movies became ubiquitous, and even biblical. "The Ten Commandments" and "King of Kings" and all manner of other epics pleased religious leaders and believers, and who could resist the family fare -- and values -- of Disney's movies?
That said, many believe that films are becoming more explicitly and intentionally spiritual as both filmmakers and audiences have grown up without any formal religious practice or training, but still with the desire to explore and connect to spiritual ideas.
"We define 'religion' more broadly than we used to," said Lyden. "A few decades ago, it probably meant 'Going My Way' or 'Ben Hur' to most people, but now we can see religious or spiritual content in everything from science fiction to romantic comedies."
And that's not such a bad thing, either.
"I think that religion is actually the most interesting where it is the least assumed," said Plate. "In other words, films don't have to be about saviors, priests, and rabbis . . . I think the 'analogy' approach is safer for mass audiences. Films like Scorsese's 'Last Temptation' and, on the flip side, Gibson's 'Passion of the Christ' are powerful for some, and repulsive for others. It depends on what side of the fence one is on."
Moreover, films that try to represent how religious events actually occurred are often hindered by the burden of realism, which can deaden their effect as works of art -- and spirituality. "A biblical film, a traditionally religious film, works when the characters and the sets and costumes make you think they're real," said Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University who teaches courses on religion and film. When that realism fails -- think about watching "The Ten Commandments" today -- a religious movie risks becoming banal, at best, or a joke at worst.
So has all this recent "celluloid spirituality" been good for films -- or for religion?
The critics, not surprisingly, disagree, and with characteristically religious fervor.
The Web site SpiritualityandPractice.com
loved "Avatar" and listed seven of the ten "Best Picture" nominees on its list of "The Most Spiritually Literate Films of 2009." But at Baptist Press
, critic Phil Boatwright had "Avatar" as one of his worst films of 2009 and "The Blind Side" as the best -- though "The Blind Side" didn't even get an honorable mention at SpiritualityandPractice.com.
At Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical magazine, critics rated "The Blind Side" as No. 2 on the list
of "most redeeming" films of 2009. (The animated film "Up" was No. 1.) But "The Blind Side" didn't crack Christianity Today's list
of the Top Ten overall best films. That was led by "The Hurt Locker," which CT's critics said "goes beyond politics to show various aspects of the human condition." ("Up" had to settle for second place on that "best of" list.)
The bottom line is that religion is everywhere in the movies, and more than ever and in more forms than ever. But if you're looking to faith to help you win the Oscar pool on Sunday night, you probably haven't got a prayer.