Lisa Bahar, MA, LMFT, LPCC

Faith Playing a Role in Hollywood: Religion in Movies a New Form of Education Experts Say

Kim Pomares was on a plane the first time he saw “Evan Almighty.”

Turned off by religious comedies in the past, Pomares wasn’t sure if the 2007 film — a sequel to “Bruce Almighty” and a story about an unsuccessful congressman's transformation into a modern day Noah — would be suitable for him and his family.

But because of the flight’s length, he decided to watch the movie.

By the time the DVD reached its end, Pomares, a practicing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Toronto, was more than happy to show the film to his kids. Not only did he relate to the film’s characters, but he also felt the portrayal of God, played by Morgan Freeman, was respectful.

Even though the movie featured silly antics and presented religion in a comedic light, Pomares said it didn’t offend him. Pomares said he saw the movie as a way to learn about religion.

Since the days of "Ben-Hur" (1959) and "The Ten Commandments" (1956), religious-themed films have been making a stamp on the box office. With movies like “Noah” (featuring Russell Crowe and Emma Watson) and "Exodus" (by Ridley Scott) due for 2014 releases, there's a resurgence of religious-themed movies, which, experts say, help educate moviegoers about faith and how it's lived.

Despite many recent movies making light of religion, other films are used to teach a message shared by believers, experts say. According to the Pew Research Center, 68 percent of Americans believe there's more than one way to learn about religion.

And movies are one of those mediums.

Constructing the story

When Mufasa appears in a whirlwind of clouds and speaks to Simba in "The Lion King," Pomares said there's a religious message being taught: that life goes on after death.

He said it was a respectful way to present this religious idea.

It's scenes like these, or Freeman's portrayal of God, that are key elements to understanding religious films, said professor Maurine Sabine, who now teaches at the University of Hong Kong. She said God’s portrayal in movies, especially comedies, is a part of humanity’s desire to understand divinity.

“One could also say that this reflects a touching and altogether human desire to see God face to face," Sabine told the Deseret News.

But taking care of the details is also important.

Director Andre van Heerden, whose documentaries and feature films both deal with religious ideas, started his career directing religious documentaries.

In the early 2000s, Heerden dipped into feature films and developed such titles as “Judgment,” “Revelation” and “Tribulation” — all sci-fi thrillers with religious themes. After an eight-year break from 2002 to 2010, Heerden is back making religious movies.

Each time he makes a movie, the crew goes “an extra make to make sure we (are) being theologically correct,” Heerden said.

It’s important, he said, that religious characters are treated respectfully. Even though there isn’t a “set of rules” for filmmaking, religious characters “should always be portrayed as reverent,” he said.

Some filmmakers, though, will offer a different interpretation based on their market and intended audience.

But “there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed,” Heerden said. Movies shouldn’t try to be disrespectful toward God or religion, and that includes portraying characters that practice a particular religion in stereotypical way. He said the movie “Saved,” starring Mandy Moore, had Christian characters who were unrealistic and over the top, as Moore's character had visions of Jesus and preached religious text too often throughout the film.

Relatable religion

Building relatable characters is an important part of making religious movies, Heerden said.

“It’s the same thing as making any good film,” he said.

He said characters can’t be “too good” or “too evil” and must struggle with the same choices common to most people.

“There’s a balancing act” of telling the story you want to tell, but also connecting with the audience, he said.

For therapist Lisa Bahar, who uses films and TV shows with religious themes or ideas to connect with her clients, said these mediums create a conversation about issues people don’t want to discuss directly, like religion and drug and alcohol abuse.

Bahar said she’ll offer her clients specific movies to watch — like “Peaceful Warrior” (2006), a movie about a troubled gymnist who meets a spiritual guide, and “Little Buddha” (1993), which tells the story of a man's spiritual journey through Seattle — to help them through their issues, which range from substance abuse to conflict between mothers and daughters. Most of the time, she said, her clients’ decisions on how to solve their problems are reaffirmed by the movies she recommends.

“Movies are a creative tool to access us in a way that can be very comforting and can remind us of what’s good and right and what we all yearn for — a sense of belonging, and we are all the more same than different,” Bahar said. “Movies can be creative in a way that speaks to us, that reminds us there’s something bigger taking place.”

Modernizing faith

Though movies with religious characters or context have been around for a while, newer movies are bringing religion into the current culture, Sabine said.

Older movies like “The Ten Commandments," which is the second highest-grossing religious epic behind "The Passion of the Christ," aren’t going to connect with audiences now, she said.

“Personally, watching ‘The Ten Commandments’ now is equivalent to sitting through a very long and ponderous Sunday sermon,” she said.

Sabine said the newer films depicting religious characters — like the “Almighty” movies or the forthcoming film “Noah” — are ways to diversify God’s image.

“If religious churches, organizations and belief systems set themselves up as having a monopoly on God's image and revelations, and as custodians of ultimate truth, wisdom and morality, there will be an understandable tendency to knock them off their pedestal,” she said.

Heerden said modern depictions of God and religious figures can both people about faith traditions and share a specific theme. Some filmmakers will use religious themes to help frame their ideas (think of "Star Wars") while others use movies to show religious ideas and stories in a more literal sense, like 2004's “The Passion of the Christ."

Sabine said religious films and TV shows aren’t about connecting with new audiences “unless you are preaching to the converted,” she said.

“The question is not whether (a certain film) has religion in it, but whether the viewer will allow it to be the medium of religious questions and spiritual insight or the occasion for theological speculation,” she said.

It’s a new way of teaching religion, Pomares said.

“When you’re giving a presentation, you don’t want to just show a spreadsheet,” he said. “You want to say a story. You want to blend your facts with a story. That’s the most powerful presentations you can make.

“If you want to teach people about God or what your life could be with God in it, you want to tell a story.”