Heavenly Features

Moving into the mainstream, the Christian right tells Hollywood to have a little faith

This Friday, Ang Lee's tragic gay romance Brokeback Mountain rides into limited release, having already drawn the ire of conservatives—one blogger calls it "the next step in the Gay Left's Indoctrination Program"—and the fury of Christians, angry with Hollywood's heathen ways. But there's another film opening this weekend in over 3,000 theaters nationwide that suggests the movie industry isn't so sacrilegious after all.

Based on C.S. Lewis's Christian parable, Disney's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe marks Hollywood's first move to court the evangelical audience since Mel Gibson's independently financed and distributed The Passion of the Christ, which grossed over $600 million worldwide in 2004. No longer relegated to low-budget fringe fare like the apocalyptic Left Behind sermons, Christian entertainment is entering the mainstream.

Financed by Walden Media's Philip Anschutz, an evangelical Christian billionaire who has funded organizations that oppose abortion and gay rights, Narnia is being sold to both a standard fantasy audience as well as a Passion-type fan base. For the Christian audience, Disney has hired Motive Entertainment, the marketing agency that Gibson's Icon Productions used to galvanize churches and religious leaders. One Christian group, BarnaFilms, whose aim is to be a "catalyst in moral and spiritual transformation in the United States," has sold an estimated 500,000 tickets for preview screenings the day before the film opens.

The movie's director, Andrew Adamson ( Shrek), says in press materials that Lewis's tale of four children who discover a magical world is simply "the story of a family, [exaggerated] to the level of the battle between good and evil." But the Christian community is rallying behind the film as a "discipleship tool," as Thomas Williams, author of The Heart of the Chronicles of Narnia: Knowing God Here by Finding Him There, writes on the website pastors.com. Williams cites the film's "specifically Christian content," such as "God's providence, prayer, temptation, joy, sin, Heaven, creation, redemption, God's love, and other doctrines."

Earlier this year, evangelicals expressed concern on websites that Hollywood producers would soft-pedal the story's Christian principles. But those fears have now been allayed by former nun Barbara Nicolosi, head of Act One, a Los Angeles–based Christian screenwriting program. "People particularly want to know if Aslan comes off as a Christ-figure, or just some warm and fuzzy magic lion," she writes in a press release accompanying her new book Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture. "Well, I personally cried every moment Aslan was on the screen. . . . So, I am going to say that Aslan is absolutely discernible as a figure of Jesus—for those who have eyes to see."

Within the Christian entertainment community, Narnia is not just another $150 million Disney family movie. With its Jesus-like "vision of Aslan getting shaved and killed," as Nicolosi notes, it's a victory that mirrors what the Christian right has accomplished on a larger scale, according to Didi Herman, co-author of Globalizing Family Values: The Christian Right in International Politics. "The Christian right has adopted an approach that involves attempting to reshape dominant culture from the inside," she says. "Often this is at the local level," for example, getting onto school boards to impact education policy. "In terms of cultural change the strategy is similar: Get conservative Christians into the media, into the film industry, and the values and politics of those institutions will change."

In a speech delivered last year at the Hillsdale National Leadership Seminar in Florida, Anschutz outlined his plans for Walden Media: to make family films that are "entertaining," but also are "life affirming" and "carry moral messages." Upcoming Walden projects include Disney's Bridge to Terabithia, based on former missionary Katherine Paterson's children's novel; Michael Apted's Amazing Grace, starring Ioan Gruffudd as an evangelical abolitionist pioneer; and an adaptation of the vaguely Christian children's book The Giver (set up at 20th Century Fox, which recently launched foxfaith.com, a reportedly thriving website that directly targets the family-values set with titles ranging fromThe Passion to Woman Thou Art Loosed to Doctor Dolittle).

Anschutz also outlined an educational unit that is in contact with some 10,000 schools. The teacher's guide for Walden's release of Narnia, for example, encourages secular educators to emphasize themes of "forgiveness, sacrifice and faith that shine throughout the book and film."

But there is no explicit mention of Christianity in Anschutz's speech or Walden's materials, reflecting another strategy among members of the Christian right that involves cloaking their goals in secular language. As Didi Herman explains, "The [Christian right's] more sophisticated elements quite consciously avoid religious rhetoric; they know it doesn't work. The language of sin, apocalypse, redemption results in them being 'loonified' by the media." For example, Mel Gibson, in discussing his latest project Apocalypto (also to be distributed by Disney), rejected rumors that his new film was an end-times narrative inspired by sacred Mayan texts, saying at a press conference that it is "not a big doomsday picture or anything like that."

Indeed, Barbara Nicolosi, who encourages her students to emulate her favorite author Flannery O'Connor and films like Todd Field's In the Bedroomand Jim Sheridan's In America, says she wants the arts to "explore the spiritual side of human nature. Too much art is coming from the one limited perspective of pure materialism."

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