Sunday, June 29, 2008

Twenty-First Century Foxes

Hello all you good Christians, its time for the annual Summer Doldrums Review of Faith on the Silver Screen, examining Hollywood as it looks to the Great Noisy Majority west of the east and east of the west!

The new century's surprise hit was Saddleback Mountain, a daring and poignant (or boring and insignificant) look at the lives, careers, and families of two young Christian men, pursued throughout their lives by a youthful homosexual affair at a summer camp run by Jimmy Swaggart Ministries. Gay rights organizations expressed outrage that the protagonists were not portrayed seeking a life-long monogamous commitment to each other. Instead, each sought to put the relationship behind them, marrying glamorous women and pursuing lucrative careers in the ministry. Media networks bearing The Name of Jesus as a business trade mark sharply criticized the movie, because the lead characters seemed driven by some purpose in life to keep coming back together.

The most poignant moment came when the two men ran into each other unexpectedly, at a national strategy conference for a Defense Of Marriage Amendment to the federal constitution. An intimate meeting in Pastor Dennis Elmar's hotel room after a day of passionate speeches inspired the pastor and best-selling author to tell Elder Hardtack Jewst "God, I wish I knew how to quit you." Viewers were left with the impression it was Jewst, not God, that Elmar desired to quit, but the mild blasphemy left this unclear. Or, perhaps the most poignant moment was when Elmar's devoted wife, Precious Rubies, observed him tenderly kissing the elder. Forced to consider whether the private Lear jet, the five mansions, the adoring team of missionary assistants, the seven-figure income, was worth throwing away in a fit of wounded outrage, she chose to buy another vineyard and stand by her man. Most of the American movie audience couldn't figure out why this one deserved any Academy Award nominations, or why anyone paid much attention to it at all.

Equally low on this year's list was The Michelangelo Cipher. Like Saddleback Mountain, this flic is based on a work of fiction, and received all the attention of new historical research. The plot revolves around the Italian Renaissance sculptor's discovery that a secret cult of patriarchal male chauvinists in the Roman Catholic Church, code named Dei Opus, was importing penguins from Antarctica to serve as sex slaves to celibate priests. This provided a dramatic and sinister motive for Pope Julius II's attempt to pull the scaffolding out from under Michelangelo as he painted revealing codes into the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It also provoked howls of civic outrage from the Bloom County Chamber of Commerce, and a sympathetic but undecipherable commentary from Mallard Fillmore.

Denunciations from exasperated Vatican censors -- rendered impotent by the Protestant Reformation, the separation of church and state, and the oblivious disregard of most practicing Catholic parishioners -- granted the story line a profile and importance it probably did not deserve. Particularly in the United States (where movies are commonly mistaken for Gospel Truth), a tremendous torrent of words was expended on the subject, in the end signifying nothing much. Evangelical Protestants objected to the original novel's reliance on apocryphal gospels. Academic theologians noted that neither the author nor the critics seem to have actually read these gospels. A panel of Orthodox Jewish rabbis announced that all the gospels are apocryphal, so they wouldn't object to anyone in their synagogues watching this bizzare story line. "Nobody familiar with the Talmud could possibly take it seriously."

An ecumenical moment came in the video tape broadcast by Al Jazeera satellite network, not authenticated, portraying a man who appeared to be Osama bin Laden. He denounced both movies as symptoms of western moral decadence, calling on "my brothers of the Curia, TBN and CBN to join me in a great crusade for godly rule in all nations." Urging "pious and faithful militants of God" to engage in creative jihad against any movie theater showing either film, the voice on the tape rambled that from such humble origins emerged the Islamic Revolution by "the apostate Shia heretics" of Iran. In a subsequent interview with Diane Sawyer, Ayatollah Ali Khameini remarked that he found the theme of Michelangelo "entirely plausible." Iranian President Mahmoud Amadinejad announced that Iran might have to produce nuclear weapons after all, and take complete jurisdiction of Antarctica, to protect the world's penguins from any further molestation.

The greatest sound and fury on the spiritual front this year was undoubtedly Mel Gibson's remake of The Last Passion of the Christ, subtitled Apocalypse Now. It is loosely based on obscure medieval manuscripts, an unpublished novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Book of Mormon, and selected passages from the books of Thor Heyerdahl. Gibson now assures the world in technicolor and surround sound that Jesus was crucified on Easter Island by a band of Maya priests descended from a renegade faction of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and that the experience was ten times as painful, bloody and gory as he presented in the earlier film version. The Southern Baptist Convention criticized the movie for implying that slavery destroys the morals of any culture which relies upon it. Fans of the Left Behind series raved over the Maya calendar's schedule for the world to end in 2012, confirming that we are indeed living in "The Last Days."

The highest grossing movie we examined provoked nothing like this sort of controversy. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe adhered closely to the story line of a book published more than half a century ago, by an author who quietly allowed his faith to shape his writing. C.S. Lewis wove into the Chronicles of Narnia an enchanting tale which was never presented as The Truth, but openly admitted to be magic. Appreciation for the movie was only slightly marred by Pat Robertson's incoherent demand that the CIA "take out that lesbian White Witch woman," thereby averting the sacrifice of Aslan on the Stone Table.

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