When evangelicals think of Hollywood, they must imagine some sort of Babylonian brothel where not much happens that isn’t entirely hedonistic. It is a place not unlike Sodom, Gomorrah or Las Vegas: fun to visit but soul-endangering to stay. Such were the unspoken fears of my family last spring when I told them I was going to Hollywood to study and work in the film industry. If I hadn’t reminded them it was a Christian program (the Los Angeles Film Studies Center) and only a semester, I would surely have been branded a heathen. Christians and Hollywood don’t mix, do they?
For the evangelical right—especially the politically minded ones—Hollywood is the enemy. And for Hollywood types, Christians are just as scary—the unknown mass of Bush-voting farmers who occupy that strange land between New York and L.A. Of course, being enemies does not mean interaction is off limits. Economic exchanges between these foes take place daily. Christians comprise enough of the box office on a given weekend to be a force to be reckoned with—or at least not ignored.
So if Christians go to movies at very nearly the same rate as everyone else, why does Hollywood get such a bad rap in Sunday school? Why do Christian preachers, teachers, writers and talk show hosts still view Hollywood as a disease that must be contained—or at least regulated? Let’s face it: most middle-of-the-country evangelicals go to a movie on Saturday and a church service on Sunday. How long will it take for the absurd notion to take hold that perhaps the cinema has become more holy than the sanctuary?
That’s the question the Church must face, but it’s not being asked in many congregations. If Hollywood is ever mentioned in the context of church, it is usually as a prayer request. Not a bad thing. But there are other interactions between Christians and Hollywood going on beyond box office, boycotts and prayer requests. More and more Christians are making their way to Tinseltown and becoming part of “the industry.” Not only are more believers coming in to the industry, but more are coming out—of the Christian closet. For whatever reason (some say Mel Gibson is to blame), Christians already working in Hollywood are no longer afraid of exposing their faith. Again, not a bad thing.
But more Christians—outed or otherwise—does not a sacred Hollywood make. It’s all about the motivations. In my view, three major reasons are driving the Christian immigration to Hollywood. The first one is all about outreach: Hollywood as a mission field. This one is easy to understand. Is there a more concentrated area of largely secular culture-shapers anywhere? Probably not. Many Christians take this fact as a cue to reform the industry from within. This approach is a popular one, and utterly respectable. Filmmakers need the Gospel just as much as anyone.
Motivation number two is also evangelistic in nature, though in a very different way. This approach aims not to save Hollywood, but to use Hollywood to save. Christians in this group have infiltration as their chief tactic: embrace the industry, learn the craft and earn enough credit to make films that will spread Good News. Of course, there are those who bypass infiltration altogether and get straight to the point (and usually straight to home video). They are behind such soul-winning masterpieces as Left Behind: The Movie, Omega Code and the snowboarding romp Extreme Days. Thankfully the former group (the “let’s learn filmmaking 101 first” cluster) is increasingly more prevalent. The question remains: Will their final results be any different?
The third approach is the one hardest to swallow by the evangelical establishment. It is the one that treats Hollywood as a partner, not a prospect. It speaks of Jesus the least, but has Hm most in mind. It views cinema as art more than entertainment, and filmmaking as worship rather than mere vocation. These are the Christians who are in it to tell stories—honest, broken and, above all, true. The difference between these stories and more secular (as in, less mindful of the divine) narratives is often hard to detect, because—and this is sadly lost on many Christians today—the best of secular art is often more in touch with honest human experience than the most prolific “Christian” art.
So with all this talk of Christians in Hollywood, it is important to realize that those outside Hollywood have a duty as well. Not to boycott “filth” or count every profanity, but to think about cinema in a different way. To complain about godless Hollywood is to forget that we are largely to blame. Hollywood didn’t abandon Christianity—we abandoned it. But now we are going back, and a new understanding is taking shape. It is a radical idea, and one the church must take seriously. Perhaps a “Christian Hollywood” would not be all that different than what we have now. Perhaps the Hollywood we have now is not just a mission field, but also a missionary—reminding forgetful Christians that the holy, true and transcendent is not contained exclusively within church walls.[Brett McCracken urges Christians to drop everything and boycott the following things immediately: Napoleon Dynamite, Ashlee Simpson, National Cinema Network’s “pre-show countdown,” TLC’s Extreme Plastic Surgery, Ice Cube family comedies and Spongebob Squarepants (oh wait, aren’t we already boycotting this one?)]