It’s one thing for some nerdy fanboy who lives in his parents’ basement to show his enthusiasm for The Dark Knight by dressing up as the Joker. But for a pastor to stand before his congregation in full Joker regalia, complete with ratty wig and gruesome makeup, and deliver a sermon on good and evil — that’s something else altogether. Last summer, in a radical attempt to engage his young congregants at the Christ Chapel Mountaintop Church in Manassas, Va., pastor Rob Seagears did exactly that. Each Sunday, Seagears dressed up as a character from that weekend’s top-grossing film and used the movie — no matter how vulgar, violent, or ungodly it seemed — as the basis for a discussion of Christian morality. One Sunday, he was Indiana Jones. Another, he rode up to the pulpit on a motorcycle in a Batman costume. The weekend Tropic Thunder opened, he showed up wearing camouflage and wielding a machete. The idea, for Seagears, was not to rail against the corrupting virus of Hollywood, as church leaders have in the past, but to transmute that virus into a spiritual vaccine to inoculate his flock. ”Pop culture is the language they speak,” he says. ”This was about meeting them where they are and trying to build a bridge back to God.”
Seagears hasn’t decided yet whether he’ll repeat his experiment this year (titles like Terminator Salvation and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen certainly seem ripe for the picking), but if he does, he may face a dilemma when the adaptation of Dan Brown’s best-selling novel Angels & Demons opens on May 15. Brown’s work has long been criticized by many in the Christian community who see it as a frontal attack on their faith. Three years ago, Ron Howard’s adaptation of Brown’s The Da Vinci Code — in which Tom Hanks’ Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon unmasks a Vatican-led conspiracy to cover up the lost bloodline of Jesus — unleashed a hurricane of controversy on its way to earning $758 million in worldwide grosses. For a pastor, dressing up as Robert Langdon would take major chutzpah.
The truth is, though, Angels & Demons seems unlikely to stir up as much controversy as its predecessor. The film has drawn protest from Catholic League president William Donohue, who charges that it’s filled with falsehoods designed to undermine the church — but so far it’s been a brush fire, not a global conflagration. In large part, this is because the story of Angels & Demons — which centers on Langdon’s attempt to foil an apparent plot by a secret society of scientists called the Illuminati to blow up the Vatican — is inherently less offensive to Christians than The Da Vinci Code, which questioned the very divinity of Jesus. ”The Da Vinci Code hit a real nerve,” says Howard, who returned to direct the next film. ”There’s another nerve being struck with Angels & Demons, but it’s not as supercharged.”
Still, Angels & Demons arrives at a delicate moment in the history of relations between Hollywood and the church. After years of often bitter struggle — stoked by films like The Last Temptation of Christ and Dogma — the two sides seemed to be heading toward a new partnership in the wake of the 2004 smash The Passion of the Christ. The staggering $370 million box office haul for Mel Gibson’s epic was a come-to-Jesus moment for Hollywood. Studios made a great show of stepping up their efforts to reach the Christian audience, with movies such as the Chronicles of Narnia series and The Nativity Story that might once have been regarded as too overtly religious. But while the studios have cultivated a faith-based home-video market and honed their ability to market to church leaders, many of their efforts to connect with Christians have flopped. ”After The Passion, there was a gold rush,” says Phil Vischer, co-creator of the Christian-themed cartoon franchise VeggieTales. ”Hollywood thought, ‘This is great! We can market movies to pastors and they will get up on Sunday and tell their whole congregations to go see them! It’s a new button we can push, and money will fall from the sky!’ It was doomed from the get-go.”
Meanwhile, the Christian community — never a monolithic entity to begin with — has become more of a moving target than ever. Young Christians are embracing mainstream movies — not just blockbusters like WALL-E and The Dark Knight but unlikely films like Juno, about a pregnant teen who chooses not to have an abortion, and Lars and the Real Girl, about a churchgoing man who falls in love with a blowup doll — that might have horrified their grandparents. For the subset of the Christian audience who want to see Hollywood movies but are concerned about crude language, violence, or sexual content, ClearPlay DVD players, equipped with filtering software, enable users to automatically skip over potentially offensive scenes. Though such editing has been criticized by Hollywood and has been the subject of lawsuits (a 2006 ruling forced four companies, including the Utah-based CleanFlicks, to stop selling edited movies), ClearPlay DVD players are now widely available and carry the blessing of the evangelical group Focus on the Family.