Hollywood Inaccurate

“Evangelical entrepreneur Philip Anschutz has been bankrolling mainstream movies with religious messages for years, most notably the big-budget ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ film series adapted from the C.S. Lewis novels.  The trend extends to lesser-known filmmakers outside the U.S.”   Yair Rosenberg

Religion: As Seen Inaccurately on Screen

Fed up with Hollywood’s portrayal of faith, some believers are making their own shows and films.

Yair Rosenberg, The Wall Street Journal, February 28, 2014, p. A 11

Son_of_God_film_poster“I learned who Rachel was in church,” muses a troubled character with the same name in the hit Netflix series “House of Cards.” “Jacob fell in love with her while she was watering a lamb, and she became his wife after he worked seven years to earn her hand in marriage. Rachel had one son, Joseph. He became a king.” There’s only one problem with this account: It’s wrong.Jacob agreed to work for Rachel for seven years, but ended up working 14. She had two sons, not one. And Joseph did not become king, but rather Pharaoh’s deputy in ancient Egypt.

This biblical bungling shouldn’t be surprising: Faith doesn’t play well in Hollywood, where TV and movie writers typically oscillate between ignorance and antipathy toward it.

In the debut episode of Aaron Sorkin’s political drama “The West Wing,” which won more than 20 Emmys during its seven-year run, the president’s staff meets with leaders of the Christian right, one of whom lectures them: “I’d like to discuss why we hear so much talk about the First Amendment coming out of this building, but no talk at all about the First Commandment . . . ‘honor thy father.’ “

At this, Toby Ziegler, the White House communications director, snappily retorts: “‘Honor thy father’ is the Third Commandment.” The moment would be a satisfying smackdown, if not for the fact that the commandment is neither the first nor the third in any major religious tradition.

When it comes to religious illiteracy, Hollywood is an ecumenical offender. In Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” a gung-ho Mossad agent confronts a colleague who is having moral qualms about assassinating Palestinian terrorists by saying, “Somebody pull down this man’s pants—see if he’s circumcised. I think we have a double agent.” But given that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians are Muslim, and that Muslims also circumcise their sons, this would not be a very useful test.

Comparable inattentiveness to Islam could be seen in Showtime’s “Homeland” when protagonist Nicholas Brody tenderly—but wholly unnecessarily, by Islamic standards—buried a Quran after it was thrown on the floor.

Traditionally, members of religious communities misrepresented on screen have taken two approaches. The first is to complain. Pointing to the stereotypical portrait of the Arab world in “Homeland,” a Muslim critic at Salon labeled it “TV’s most Islamophobic show.” Similar sensitivities have surfaced about Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming movie “Noah,” with some Christians expressing concern that it may not fairly depict the biblical narrative.

But angry op-eds and petitions can only go so far. Many more people will see a flawed film than read the criticism of it. That’s why some believers have settled on a very different solution to combating caricatures of their faith: Make culture, not war.

This weekend, “Son of God,” a re-enactment of the life and resurrection of Jesus as told in the New Testament, will open across the country. The film, which has already made $4.1 million in advanced ticket sales, is the product of husband and wife Christian filmmakers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who produced the movie in consultation with faith leaders. The film’s footage is drawn from the couple’s 10-hour History Channel epic, “The Bible,” which garnered 100 million viewers. Reflecting on Hollywood’s tendency to ill-serve people of faith, Ms. Downey has called “Son of God” a “love story” for an “underserved audience” that hasn’t seen Jesus on the big screen since Mel Gibson’s controversial “The Passion of the Christ” 10 years ago.

Evangelical entrepreneur Philip Anschutz has been bankrolling mainstream movies with religious messages for years, most notably the big-budget “The Chronicles of Narnia” film series adapted from the C.S. Lewis novels. The trend extends to lesser-known filmmakers outside the U.S.

In Canada, Zarqa Nawaz, an observant Muslim, was tired of watching religion being treated with “comic disdain in Hollywood.” So she made “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” a sitcom with record ratings that recently concluded its six-year run. “It was about Muslims who were not terrorists or wife-beaters,” she told me. “It was just ordinary people who were husbands and wives, people who were paying bills on their mortgages, and just lived ordinary lives.”

Rama Burshtein is another example. An ultraorthodox Jewish woman, she is also an award-winning Israeli director whose recent film, “Fill the Void,” depicts the struggles of a young ultraorthodox woman asked by her family to marry her older sister’s widower. The film swept the Israeli Film Academy awards last year and was the country’s entry into the Best Foreign Language category at the Oscars.

Ms. Burshtein had previously made films for her own religious community, but she decided to enter the mainstream to correct the misperceptions of her faith presented by outsiders. “I don’t blame them,” she said of the Israeli entertainment industry. “Because we shut up, we don’t say our version. We don’t have a cultural voice, so everyone can do whatever they want with us.”

As more filmmakers bring their faith into the mainstream, however, those days may be numbered.

Mr. Rosenberg is a writer at Tablet magazine.

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