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FIRST-PERSON: Jesus returns to the movies

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP)–A few nights ago I viewed a film from 1950 on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). I was familiar with “Stars in my Crown,” but had forgotten its uniqueness.

Joel McCrea starred as a devout western town preacher. The episodic story had the reverend patiently witnessing to his Civil War comrade who refused to attend church services, and to a new town doctor, who found no place for religion in the healing process. The picture was replete with prayers, Gospel tunes that declared Jesus as Savior and a solid message pertaining to the need for faith. After viewing, I wondered if such a film would ever again find its way into a movie theater. Even if a filmmaker wants to deal with spirituality (as does M. Night Shyamalan in his films) the major studios prefer God to be generic in order not to offend practitioners of different beliefs.

What about “The Passion of the Christ,” you ask? Noted exception to the rule. But remember, it was not released by a major studio. It was a work of love by a producer/director who risked his personal fortune and movie star status with its production. What’s more, that was from two years ago. Though a couple of films did attempt to address spiritual matters this year, they either did so badly or surrounded by noxious material.

In “The Ant Bully,” the ants worship the Ant Mother, a goddess they believe will return to save them. It’s a cartoon about talking ants, and I’m not sure how concerned we need be with this conception of the deity. Still, throughout your children’s lives, the media will bombard them with New Age philosophies that tend toward the worship of the creation rather than the Creator.

Then there was “End of the Spear.” Oh, did I catch it for my negative review of this one. Some people believe we should support a film containing the Gospel message, despite its poor artistic merits or amateurish production values. Now folks, you can ask that support of anyone but a movie reviewer. How can one who examines secular media be expected to critique the work of Christians from a different standard? It’s not fair, it’s not honest, and, ultimately, it’s not helpful to those Christian filmmakers.

(I want to add that while I did not like “End of the Spear,” the same filmmakers did an exceptional job with their documentary version, “Beyond the Gates of Splendor.” The documentary chronicles the tale of five missionaries who lost their lives while reaching a tribe of Ecuadorian Indians in the 1950s. The documentary catches the spirit of people who trust so much in God that they are willing to sacrifice their lives in order to follow His will.)

“Freedomland” was released in February and concerned a white woman who blamed a black man for the kidnapping of her son. There are at least two instances where Samuel L. Jackson, playing the investigating detective, spoke of the need for God in our lives. The policeman had found redemption and witnessed this salvation to others. That’s an incredible element seldom found in cop movies. Though I admit to being moved by this character’s spiritual confession, I’m sad to add that the R-rated content battered me emotionally. Perhaps the most intense movie I have ever seen, I found myself so disturbed by the escalating theatrically charged events that I actually stepped out of the theater momentarily.

As I said, from a spiritual perspective, this has been a disappointing year at the movies. But wait, what’s this I see nearing a Dec. 1 release? In “The Nativity Story,” Academy Award nominee Keisha Castle-Hughs (“Whale Rider”) and distinctive newcomer Oscar Isaac (Spanish writer/Civil War martyr Federico García Lorca in “Beauty of the Father”) star as Mary and Joseph in the retelling of the birth of Christ.

There are many Christians involved with this production, such as screenwriter Mike Rich and producer Wyck Godfrey, plus a wide spectrum of Christian New Testament scholars and historians who have been involved in the pre-production process. Additionally, New Line Cinema brought some influential evangelical leaders to the set, including Anne Graham Lotz and Frank Wright, president of the National Religious Broadcasters. Here is what they had to say:

— Anne Graham Lotz: “From what I have observed, ‘The Nativity Story’ is biblically accurate, historically authentic and visually stunning. Written with heart, directed with sensitivity, produced with excellence and performed with artistic grace, it is destined to become a beloved, cherished classic.”

— Frank Wright: “’The Nativity Story’ is a biblically faithful and artistically superb expression of the most momentous event in human history -– when God became a man. For a generation of movie-goers unfamiliar with this truth and its implications for their lives, this magnificent film may well be transformational.”

For more information concerning this very promising production, visit www.thenativitystory.com. At the site, you can watch the new teaser trailer and a featurette on the drama. You can also view a photo gallery and read the detailed synopsis.
Phil Boatwright is the editor and film reviewer for previewonline.org.

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  • Phil Boatwright