CULTURE: by Bill MuehlenbergNews Weekly
Hollywood, religion and C.S. Lewis
, March 18, 2006
Secular Hollywood is still coming to terms with the record, box-office takings of The Chronicles of Narnia, writes Bill Muehlenberg
.Hollywood seems to be "getting" religion lately. Or perhaps more accurately, Hollywood is discovering that there is money to be made in religious films. The Passion by Mel Gibson was a big money-maker, and put Hollywood on notice that they ignore religious film-goers to their own financial loss.
Since then, there have been several other religious blockbusters - religious, that is, in the sense that the original authors were deeply religious, even though the filmmakers were not. I refer to The Lord of the Rings
and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Neither of the film producers, Peter Jackson and Mark Johnson, is religious; but the films are based on the fictional works of two religious writers, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
Tolkien, an English Catholic, was of course author of the Lord of the Rings
trilogy. And Lewis, a British Anglican (whom Tolkien led to faith), was author of the highly successful set of seven children's stories, The Chronicles of Narnia
, of which The Lion
is the first.Cynical
So why is Hollywood discovering religion? Well, one can be cynical and suggest it is only because of the large take at the box-office. And it is not quite accurate to say that Hollywood is involved in all these success stories. Gibson had to fund his production himself, and Jackson made his films in New Zealand. Only the Narnia
film can really be called a Hollywood production, being a Disney film.
In fact, Andrew Adamson, the director of the Narnia film, is a friend of Jackson's and both films were shot in New Zealand. And the C.S. Lewis Estate, along with C.S. Lewis's stepson, Douglas Gresham, insisted that the Narnia film be true to Lewis and the book, and not be Hollywood-ised.
Is this then the start of a religious revival among filmmakers? Maybe. Nevertheless, while the overwhelming majority of the world's population are religious, only a fraction of those involved in the film industry are. And that shows up quite clearly in what Hollywood produces.
Indeed, Hollywood has had a long-standing interest in religion, but mainly to attack it. In recent years the number of decidedly anti-religious films, or movies which presented people of faith in a bad light, have far outweighed those few pro-faith films.
Many of our cultural elite are simply secular through and through, and out of touch with the great majority of the ordinary - and religious - public. Film critic Michael Medved documented these truths in his incisive 1992 book, Hollywood Versus America
Thus while these recent religious films have done very well at the box-office, they have attracted many hostile critics. As but one example, consider this savage attack from a Guardian
(UK) columnist, Polly Toynbee. She claims that "Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America - that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain". It seems that God-hater Toynbee needs to take a pill and chill out.
How does she find all this nasty stuff in the Narnia film? She is quite wrong to suggest that this film extols militarism and force. Aslan the Lion specifically tells one of the youngsters that the use of the sword will do no good. It is only by overcoming evil with good that things will turn out all right. Only by the sacrifice of the innocent Aslan can the evils of others be atoned for.
The Narnia tales remind us that bravery, humility and self-sacrifice are virtues that we all should emulate, but that in a fallen world we need help from without to achieve them. This is not a bad message in today's self-obsessed society. It certainly is the message of Christmas (when the film first appeared), one that Ms Toynbee obviously despises so much.
Toynbee ends her piece by fuming, "we can do well without an Aslan". In the jaded world we live in, it might be truer to suggest that we can do without her poisonous columns.
Of course, Toynbee was not alone in her secular rejoinder. Many others foamed at the mouth over the Narnia
film. But that is to be expected from the secular left, a group of people quite happy to "tolerate" religion in general and Christianity in particular as long as they remain wholly private and unobtrusive. But their tolerance soon turns to hatred and attack whenever religious faith rears its head in the public arena.
While secularists, both within and outside Hollywood, do all they can to silence faith and/or mock and vilify it, it will not so easily be disposed of. The Christian faith in particular has endured 2,000 years of attack and revulsion, but it still stands strong.
We will have to wait and see, however, if there is a genuine turn to religion by Hollywood. If there is money to be made, there will undoubtedly be keen interest.
When the Narnia
film opened in Australia, it set box-office records. On the first day of its release (Boxing Day 2005), it took in a record $6.6 million. (The previous record-holder was The Return of the King
, the final part of the Lord of the Rings
trilogy, which took in $5.3 million).
And there are already plans for the second instalment of the Narnia
films. Indeed, given that there are seven books in the series, we just might see seven films coming out. Many would argue that this would be a nice (i.e., Christian) counterbalance to the projected seven books and seven films in the (non-Christian) Harry Potter series.
But in the meantime, we can expect to see more of the usual torrent of anti-faith and anti-family films, and to see secularists like Toynbee pour out her vitriol on those who dare to suggest that life is more than money or power, and that religious faith is a valuable and necessary asset - both for individuals and societies.
- Bill Muehlenberg has degrees in philosophy and theology and teaches at a number of theological colleges.