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FIRST-PERSON: Spiritual awakenings in the movies

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP)–Occasionally, a motion picture comes along that conveys a profound concept significant for Christians. Allow me to suggest a few films -– young and old –- that aided in my spiritual growth. A prayer of mine for this coming year is that you will find movies that not only entertain, but contribute to your spiritual well-being.

In my last column “The Best Movies of 2006,” I featured both “TSOTSI” (Rated R for language and violence) and “Facing the Giants” (PG, no objectionable content), so I won’t repeat my descriptions of those two powerful films. Suffice it to say, both reminded me that any life can be transformed by God’s love and that we have been placed on this planet not to garner temporal treasures, but to develop that which lives throughout eternity.

In 1939’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and decades later in Disney’s animated version, a lowly gypsy girl enters a cathedral to pray for her suffering people. She is surrounded by finely dressed, haughty aristocracy, each praying for their individual desires. That motif has always stuck with me. From time to time that image pops into my mind, reminding me that if I put more attention on the needs of others, God won’t forsake my own.

When it comes to the biblical teaching concerning the pardoning of others, “Schindler’s List” (Rated R for language, some sexuality and violence) and “Places in the Heart” (PG) spring to mind. In “Places in the Heart,” a repentant adulterer is finally forgiven when his wife, moved by the pastor’s sermon, takes her husband’s hand, signifying the restoring of a relationship through Christ’s love. In “Schindler’s List,” the adulterous Schindler vows his unfaithfulness will end, whereupon he is absolved. Both these touching moments take place in a church, further symbolizing a spiritual recovery.

Now, the following film may cause a lifted eyebrow or two, but I actually learned something about the power of Christ in -– ready? –- “Dracula.” The 1931 Bela Lugosi fright flick was actually a good vs. evil morality play. Amid other subtle biblical directives, several scenes feature the demonic vampire helpless before the sign of the cross. As he’s about to take a bite out of some poor soul’s pulsating neck, suddenly the crucifix is dangled in front of the victim-to-be and the Count has to turn away. The look on Dracula’s face is one of sheer agony. Of course, this is a fictional character, but that visual helped defeat my fears of the bogeyman. I was old enough to understand that nothing is more powerful than the will of God.

In “The Apostle” (PG-13, violence), Robert Duvall plays a Pentecostal minister who runs from the law after hitting his wife’s lover with a baseball bat. Upon rededicating his life to the Lord, the minister sets up a much-needed church in a small southern town, while waiting for the authorities to catch up with him. This perceptive, astonishingly respectful drama never condescends, nor is it antagonistic toward people of faith while telling its gentle story of the redemption of a good but imperfect man.

I’m not suggesting our hero is without flaws. He begins his ministry on a lie, and is hampered by imperfections none of us hope to find in our pastor. Furthermore, we could debate whether the lead should have immediately turned himself in, but when I saw this man crying out to God and other characters giving without seeking acknowledgment, I was uplifted. Not only is religion not ridiculed, but it contains testimonies, conversions, charity and forgiveness. There’s even an altar call!

“The Passion of The Christ” (R, violence) is the first film about Jesus where we literally see God’s pain. The end of Christ’s journey at Golgotha is seen from above, the camera pulling back, revealing the momentary bleakness of earth, when suddenly the scene is blurred as if viewed through water. Indeed, it is a tear drop falling from Heaven. It is the most moving moment I remember in a film.

The New Testament makes it clear that Christ came to die for the entire world, and that all men placed Him on that cross. He, who was without sin, made the ultimate sacrifice by taking on the sins of all people. Mel Gibson’s film, while showing the physical horrors Christ endured, is not really about what mankind did to Him, but about what He did for us.

The question arises; does the only marginal box office success of the recent “The Nativity Story” foreshadow the demise of Hollywood’s new-founded interest in Christian themes? Not just yet. Several studios, including 20th Century Fox, have invested heavily in upcoming faith-based productions. I fear, however, that if these ventures fail to draw the spiritually inclined, as did “The Nativity Story,” then these branches of major studios will quickly shrivel up. And you won’t be able to blame Hollywood anymore.

There are some positive, promising movies on the horizon. On Feb. 16 FoxFaith will release “The Last Sin Eater” (PG-13, violence but no other objectionable content). Its story: a ritual carried over from their homeland has Welsh immigrants believing in a shrouded figure who shows up at funerals and takes the sins of the departed upon himself. Learning of this mythology, a young girl, guilt-ridden over the cause of her sister’s death, seeks out the Sin Eater in order to rid her burden.

I wouldn’t call “The Last Sin Eater” a great movie, but Michael Landon Jr. proves he’s got the same stuff as his old man. He’s a storyteller, one bent on enlightening while entertaining. What’s more, he’s a Hollywood filmmaker with the guts not only to incorporate spiritual themes, but to proclaim Jesus as the Christ, the one and only “sin eater.”

“Jesus, Mary and Joey” (PG-13 for language) from Panorama Films, will also find its way to some movie theaters in January. This is a light-hearted romantic comedy about an aimless 20-something Italian-American who falls for a cancer survivor. Joey, from a Catholic family, is so moved by his girlfriend’s spiritual devotion that he becomes born again. The girl is an honest Christian who loves God and puts her faith into action. The boy ultimately finds this real experience. (“Jesus, Mary and Joey” has language, and some of the characters smoke and go into nightclubs.)

Even the Weinstein Company has formed a faith-based branch, with soon-to-be released projects that include “The Penny,” from a book by TV host Joyce Meyer and Deborah Bedford, and “The Christmas Candle,” a story by Max Lucado centering on a 19th century candle maker who receives a visit from an angel. This from the Weinsteins? Truly, the Lord works in mysterious ways.
Phil Boatwright is the editor and film reviewer for previewonline.org

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