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Perspective: Perception of Religious Tones in Cinema

View of how religious intolerance and movies intersect

I recently attended a movie about which I knew little. It told a meaningful story, presented a dramatic transformation in at least two of the leading protagonists, including their move from despair to compassion and confidence by way of sacred religious experiences. I went to a website to read reviews and find out more, particularly because it was based on a true story. Most of the reviews were extremely positive.

The few reviews that dissented from the overall positive remarks were typically the lowest rankings—1 or 2 stars—as compared with the predominantly 9 & 10 ratings (with 10 being the highest possible rating). A recurring theme in the negative reviews was that the film suffered from being a “message” movie. I thought any story worth telling has some kind of message but I soon realized reviewers were complaining about the kind of message. For example, among the 6% of reviewers who rated the movie as a 1—the lowest rating possible—are two examples: “Christians will love this drivel, of course, but anyone outside of their blind obedience to god, stay away from this movie.” Or, “It's high reviews are based on a Christian bias I used to see all the time in my church days.”

Their issue wasn’t really that the movie had a message, it was that the message was religious. Religious beliefs were presented sympathetically and were central to the transformation of characters from living hostile and destructive lives to finding compassion, peace, and forgiveness in their approaches to life. Perhaps the positive reviewers were familiar with and experienced the sacred in their everyday lives. The negative reviewers may represent at least two categories of religious experience:
1) some do not hold anything sacred and thus do not see what is meaningful about religious belief.

2) It is also possible that some are seemingly offended by solutions to problems that draw on religious faith, in part because they have turned their hearts away from things they once held sacred.

It is odd, in a culture supposedly committed to diversity and inclusion, that the responses to a film that takes religion seriously would be so “polarizing.” I suspect that those offended by the positive presentation of religious beliefs might have had bad experiences with people of faith. It is also likely that those reviewing the movie positively take religious faith seriously. That was a typical feature of the 69% of reviewers who rated the movie a 9 or 10. Speaking philosophically—or even religiously—movies that illustrate the resolution of conflicts do it either through revenge or through forgiveness.

Religious beliefs include forgiveness and generally eschew revenge. Sometimes religious beliefs are camouflaged or non-explicit. For example, the Star Wars movies do not invoke religious belief, but nevertheless, encourage, “May the Force be with you.” Irrespective of whether believers or unbelievers are in the majority or minority regarding what messages are legitimate in movies much more is at stake. The quality of human interaction is threatened in a community when differing religious beliefs are viewed with disrespect, lack of compassion, or explicit denial of freedom of religious expression. My experience in a large high school (2500+ students) in New Mexico was in a time when the attitudes toward religion in the public culture were respectful, compassionate and not an attitude of taking offense at religious beliefs. Specifically, students overwhelmingly showed respect for religious beliefs not their own.

Our student body included fifteen 15 Jews, a dozen Mormons, as well as hundreds of Protestants and Catholics. Students not only did not take offense at others’ beliefs, they respected those differences far better than do today’s frequently contentious and disrespectful interactions. What is the cost to the community when someone’s beliefs, values, and commitments are excluded from the public domain? It is good to be reminded at a general level, that the First Amendment to the Constitution declares, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” But it is at the individual and community levels where the free exercise (or rejection or ridicule] of religious beliefs takes place.

If the cinema, a major purveyor of popular culture, excludes religious themes, we might find religious messages to be intrusions, rather than meaningful contrasts to secular norms. Respect, compassion, and forgiveness may contribute more to community cohesion than we realize. Or, when we have become so familiar with the absence of positive religious messages in a culture, we may not recognize the value of what we have lost. As G. K Chesterton noted“, Fish discover water last,” perhaps until there is a lack of water.