How Hollywood is Rewriting the Way We See God, the Devil and Ourselves
|By: Dr. Kathleen Waller / Dr. Michael O’Keeffe; ©2001|
|Drs. Waller and O’Keeffe look at the movies The Seventh Sign, The End of Days, Bedazzled, Little Nicky and others to explain how Hollywood has interpreted Christian themes of end times and the devil. What are our young people learning through these movies?|
HOW HOLLYWOOD IS REWRITING THE WAY WE SEE GOD, THE DEVIL AND OURSELVES
[Michael E. O’Keeffe is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, IL. Dr. O’Keeffe teaches a variety of courses in the area of Catholic Studies. He received his doctorate in Systematic Theology from the University of Notre Dame where he specialized in Christology, Trinitarian theology and Pneumatology. Kathleen Waller is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, IL. Dr. Waller teaches courses in Christianity and culture, systematic theology, Christian ethics, Women Studies, and in the Honor’s Program. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Divinity School, Dr. Waller’s doctoral dissertation was on the authority of Scripture for Christian theology. Dr. O’Keeffe and Dr. Waller team-teach the popular “Religion and Film” course at Saint Xavier University that explores several of the themes examined in this article. They lecture widely on the impact of the mass media on American Christianity and are currently writing a college-level text on religion and film.]
The caution of theologian John Calvin against “undue speculation” is completely ignored by an ever-expanding cluster of films that explore the relationship between the demonic and eschatological events. Our experience is that students find these movies particularly appealing, even when the films present untrue, perverted, and wildly erratic images of Christianity. The most popular of this genre continues to be The Seventh Sign, a 1988 film starring Demi Moore. Not a semester goes by without students referring to The Seventh Sign as their prime example of the Bible’s account of what will happen before the world comes to an end. So convinced are they that this film portrays an accurate picture of Christian eschatology, it is often difficult to persuade them otherwise!
In the movie, Moore plays a young housewife, Abby, who is pregnant and eagerly anticipating the birth of her first child after several miscarriages. Shortly before her due date, Abby begins to have frightening dreams that involve demons and titillating flashbacks to supernatural events earlier in history. Unable to interpret these visions and convinced they are somehow tied to her unborn child, Abby seeks solace from her husband who summarily dismisses the reality of demonic forces. We learn that Abby has no spiritual resources to muster since she has not attended church for years and, when she went to Sunday School as a child, she was taught “God is a God of love.” Abby quickly recognizes that this teaching is totally ineffective in the face of evil power.
In the midst of Abby’s problems David, a mysterious stranger, suddenly arrives to rent the apartment over the garage. On the day David moves in, Abby goes to the apartment to invite him for dinner and discovers an intriguing seal on his desk covered with obscure writing. Abby traces the writing on the seal and later tries to have it translated. In the course of her research, Abby learns the story of the Guf, a so-called “Jewish-Christian mythology,” that signals the end of the world is imminent. The Guf, she is told, is the home of all unborn souls. There are a finite number of souls in the Guf and when they are depleted the next child born will have no soul, thus enabling it to be overtaken by demonic forces. This is the seventh and final sign before the apocalypse. Abby, convinced that this is the fate of her baby, begins to study the Book of Revelation. She seeks guidance from Church leaders but they condescendingly minimize her concern and confess they have no means to thwart the power of Satan.
Abby, remembering the strange seal on David’s desk, determines that he alone holds the power to ensure that her child will not be born without a soul. She confronts David and passionately pleads for the life/soul of her baby. David listens impassively and replies, “I came as the lamb and return now as the lion.” Clearly, David will not help her. Tension escalates as Abby seeks to find any means to satisfy the forces of evil and guarantee there will be at least one soul left in the Guf. A series of evermore unbelievable and theologically preposterous events leads to the predicable conclusion: Abby delivers a baby boy, but dies during childbirth, thus giving her own life so her child can have a soul. “God’s grace is empty,” one of the characters in the movie proclaims, since Abby has only delayed the inevitable triumph of the demonic over the forces of good.
Similar themes are found in The End of Days, another movie mentioned often by students. Simply stated, the plot of the film revolves around the classic struggle between good and evil, in this case between Satan and the flawed, but good character Jericho, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The premise of the movie is that Satan, every one thousand years, takes on human form to impregnate a pre-designated young woman between 11 p.m. and midnight on December 31st. The special child born of this union will be his chief representative on earth and the source of all demonic power for years to come. The movie opens with a flashback to December 1979, showing the ceremony sealing the infant selected for Satan. Without explanation, the scene then shifts to the Vatican which, we discover, is fully aware of the details of Satan’s plans, but cannot decide on an appropriate course of action—should they find the baby girl and kill her, or should they attempt to locate and protect her from the Devil? Once again, Church leaders are powerless before evil.
Moving forward twenty years to the end of December 1999, we witness a fast-moving jelly-like blob take possession of a milquetoast character, played by Gabriel Byrne, who emerges suddenly as a very suave, all powerful, and violent Satan determined to consummate his millennial quest. We also meet Christine, the young woman in question, on the subway in New York City where she is attempting to ward off the demons that have pursued her throughout her life, in eager anticipation of her December 31st tryst. Christine, like Abby in The Seventh Sign, is powerless in the confrontation with evil. But, Jericho, played by Schwarzenegger is not, even though he has lost faith in God and is struggling to deal with the recent death of his wife and daughter. Christine and Jericho cross paths in an unlikely scenario, but he comes to believe she is in danger and offers protection. This is not an easy task as Satan has disciples everywhere and many people Jericho thought he could trust betray him. Jericho and Christine go to a Catholic Church hoping the resources of the Church can help. Christine recalls that “according to the scriptures, [Satan] can’t see in the house of the Lord.” Jericho then asks the priest, “If the devil does exist, why doesn’t your God do anything?” The priest responds nonchalantly, “[God] doesn’t say that he will save us, he says that we will save ourselves.” Once again, church leaders are unwilling or unable to deter the forces of evil or even to assist those on the frontline of the confrontation, although the supernatural power associated with a church building temporarily hides Christine.
Satan then appears in Jericho’s apartment to convince him to reveal where Christine is hiding. Satan tempts Jericho by offering him anything he wants, including the return of his dead wife and child. Nothing it seems, except for the knowledge of Christine’s whereabouts, is beyond Satan’s power or control. Attempting to persuade Jericho, Satan says, “You and I are so much alike… [God] is the biggest underachiever of all time. He just had a good publicist. If something good happens, it’s his will. If something bad happens, ‘he moves in mysterious ways’.” When Jericho refuses to accommodate Satan, he is crucified and later rescued by a Catholic priest, perhaps the only laudable act committed by a Christian in the entire film. As the consummation hour draws closer, Satan’s efforts to find Christine intensifies, and, at the appointed time, he locates her in the Church. In a show of complete sacrilege, Satan throws Christine on the altar, and just as he begins to undress her, Jericho appears. Their ensuing battle is spectacular and manages to desecrate several Christian symbols in the process. The message is unambiguous: bombs and guns stand a better chance of overcoming evil than Christian faith. As Satan’s earthly body is blown up in the Church, he moves into Jericho’s body. Jericho/Satan, now unable to resist the temptation to rape Christine, impales himself at the altar at midnight, thus postponing the end of days for another thousand years.
These two films, The Seventh Sign and The End of Days, are representative of many others that deal with the demonic. The themes portrayed are consistent: malevolent supernatural forces are real, humans are powerless in the face of evil, Christian doctrine and religious training provide no recourse or significant spiritual guidance in the struggle with evil, and the Christian Church and its leaders are powerless before Satan and his minions. In addition, God is too distant, or uncaring, unable, or unwilling, to check Satan’s power. These films, and others like them, borrow freely from Christian teachings and symbols, but usually subvert them beyond recognition or take such dramatic license that any sound theological insight is lost. They often purport to quote from the Bible or to interpret biblical eschatology, but these interpretations are horribly skewed at best. Several of the movies are visually stunning in their special effects so, even if one is able to recognize the faulty theology, the world they portray is so compelling that it is hard not to accept Hollywood’s version as true. Thus it is not surprising that many of our students are unable to distinguish the unorthodox teaching in these films. Instead, they come away convinced they have learned something valuable about Christianity and its inability to deal with evil.
A parallel distortion is also problematic for us. Films that portray Satan and the demonic realm in humorous or glamorous ways provide equally false representations. For example, Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick plays the devil, Daryl Van Horne, who is a lusty, fun kind of guy whose presence lends excitement to three single women living in a conservative New England town. Van Horne woos the sanctimonious citizens of Eastwick and represents evil as exciting, sexual, comical, and only slightly naughty. In the film Bedazzled, Elizabeth Hurley appears as the female version of Nicholson’s Van Horne. Beautiful, seductive and wily, she willingly grants seven wishes to the boorish Brendan Fraser in exchange for his soul. Even the seemingly innocuous film Little Nicky, aimed at the lucrative audience of teen aged boys, which tells the story of Satan’s “good son,” distorts the Christian conception of the demonic by portraying the devil as a comedic figure. A different, but related tactic is employed in The Devil’s Advocate, a film mentioned often by our students. Here Al Pacino’s character, John Milton, is a devil who is rich, successful in his profession, irresistible to women, and thoroughly enjoying a lifestyle envied by all who take their cues from the culture. Milton is larger than life and powerful enough to pulverize anyone foolish enough to challenge him. Even when we acknowledge that Milton’s morals are slippery, he cuts an imposing figure who is difficult to disregard. “Yes,” students say, “he is over the top, but wouldn’t you want to live like that for at least a little while?” A large element of Milton’s appeal is that he totally controls his destiny and avoids the mundane aspects of everyday life. Evil is exciting, fast paced and filled with all of the accouterments of success. The allure is difficult to resist, even if one knows that these are not accurate and surely not Christian understandings of the principalities and powers taught in the Bible. Why be Christians, students ask, when the other side is having so much fun and is so successful?
A final film for consideration is Stigmata. This movie combines all of the distortions we discussed above, and it is extremely popular with our students. It is, moreover, particularly adept at manipulating Christian images to create and support a plot that, although untenable, is engaging. In spite of or, more likely, because of the film’s calculated use of rock music, Christian symbols, and visual stimuli, students are drawn to this movie with many of them admitting they have watched it several times. Although convoluted in detail, the plot runs on parallel tracks and is rather straightforward.
The Vatican has secretly appointed three linguists to translate one of its many “hidden” gospels, which has been preserved from public scrutiny for 2000 years. The gospel is written in Aramaic and dates from the time of Jesus. To ensure the secrecy of its translation, the Vatican official, Cardinal Housemann, has appointed linguists from three separate religious congregations, and given each linguist random pages from the text. Unfortunately for the Vatican, the plan backfires when the scholars confer and determine that they have rediscovered the actual words of Jesus. They conclude that Jesus’ words on the Kingdom of God are deeply incompatible with the institutional church. So, in a desperate attempt to unveil the real words of Jesus, and thereby free Christians from the tyranny of the institutional church, Father Alemedia, one of the linguists, refuses to return the gospel and flees to Brazil. He soon dies under mysterious circumstances. The spirit of the dead priest returns, initially causing a statue of Mary in the rural Brazilian church to cry tears of blood. Another Catholic priest, Father Andrew (played by Gabriel Byrne), unwittingly becomes involves. Trained as a scientist, he is a researcher for the Church and describes his work as “I travel around the world investigating miracles, and then I disprove them.” While in Brazil on assignment, Father Andrew makes a side trip to a local church where he encounters the weeping Mary statue.
We are then introduced to another principal character in the film, Frankie (played by Patricia Arquette). The ‘Hail Mary’ is being recited, with a rock song “Whatever Happened to Mary” playing in the background, when we first see Frankie, a hip, urban, hair stylist who does not believe in God. By a strange set of circumstances, Frankie comes into possession of Father Alemedia’s rosary. While taking a relaxing bath, Frankie examines the rosary closely when she suddenly and violently is pulled under the water. There is a flash of nail piercing, and we see copious amounts of blood gushing out of her wrists. At the hospital, the doctor informs Frankie her wrists contain identical puncture wounds that barely missed a main artery. The doctor’s conclusion, despite her protests to the contrary, is that Frankie attempted suicide. This is the first in a series of bizarre incidents in which Frankie experiences the wounds of the stigmata. She comes to the attention of Father Andrew who initially dismisses Frankie’s “case” as she is a self-described atheist and all stigmatics are deeply religious people. Frankie now becomes the channel through which Father Alemedia will work to disclose Jesus’ message and to dismantle the church. Speaking to a friend, Frankie states: “You know what is scarier than not believing in God? Believing in him…because if there is a God, he hates me because he is ruining my life.” Exactly why Frankie has to endure the wounds of Christ in order to reproduce the hidden gospel is never clear, but she experiences the stigmata-like wounds in very public and gruesome ways (which of course captivates students’ attention). While investigating Frankie’s wounds, Father Andrew learns of the hidden gospel and discovers Cardinal Housemann’s effort to keep it secret. Father Andrew then sides with Frankie against the church. In the closing scene, Father Andrew rescues Frankie from Cardinal Housemann, who is trying to kill her, and from the spirit of Father Alemedia, who agrees to leave Frankie alone once Father Andrew has demonstrated his faith, and his courage to expose the church, by placing his hand in the fire.
Even a cursory glance at the movie reveals all three distortions. Every religious leader, with the exception of Father Andrew, is hopelessly corrupted, consumed by power and self concern. Cardinal Housemann knows “the Gospel of Thomas” contains the real words of Jesus, but cannot reveal the message since it will “destroy the authority of the modern church:” “Look around, the true church of Jesus Christ is so much more, not in buildings made of wood and stone. I love Jesus. I don’t need any institution between him and me. You see, just God and man. No places. No churches. The first words in Jesus’ Gospel are ‘the kingdom of God is inside you, and all around you. Not in buildings of wood and stone. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me.’” Father Andrew chooses friendship with Frankie over membership in an unnecessary church. Also evident is the absence of God. The miracles that do occur, namely, bleeding statues, empowered crucifixes, miraculous healings, consuming fires, macabre visions, and grizzly wounds are due to Alemedia, who is forced to act since it seems God can do nothing to unveil the true words of Jesus. Finally, the image of the demonic is twisted. While Frankie experiences her agony, it is not clear whether she is under the influence of holiness or evil. As Father Andrew says, “the nearer people are to God, the more open they are to temptations, to evil visions, to the torment of their demons.” So, after a particularly intimate moment with Father Andrew, when Frankie begins to speak with the guttural voice of a woman possessed and curses God, the audience is not sure if she is under the sway of Alamedia or Satan. Similarly, after being sequestered in the rectory by the evil Cardinal Housemann, the audience is not clear about the exorcism taking place; is it really God who seeks to dislodge the “spirit of lust,” or Satan who is trying to dismantle her relationship with Father Andrew? Even at the end of the film, when it is clear that the stigmata is the work of Alemedia, we are never told why Alemedia had to torture Frankie, or how the work of the saints is different than the work of demons. The audience is once again left with the impression that the forces of evil are much stronger than God, a fact that seems apparent since it has taken God 2000 years to find someone to disclose the “real” message of Jesus.
Many adults view Stigmata, and dismiss its premise as outrageous and without merit. Students, however, who often question their faith and have limited theological insights, are swayed by the visual force of the film and are much more likely to accept its message. Not only are students intrigued by the bizarre possibility that one could share the wounds of Christ, most never having heard of the stigmata before, they are suspicious of church officials and, therefore, find a plot in which clergy would hide a gospel with the words of Christ to be very believable. Many students are truly shocked to learn that the text of the “Gospel of Thomas”—the “hidden gospel” in the film—though non-canonical, has not been suppressed by the Christian church but, rather, is available to them, in English, on the Internet! One young woman claimed that she “really liked” the movie because it did not “glamorize Christianity or church leaders.” Sadly, she is representative of so many students we encounter whose limited knowledge of Christianity is matched by their low expectations of their churches.
We are truly grateful to be witnessing a renewed curiosity about Christianity from our students; and in many cases, this interest has been prompted by the kind of movies reviewed here. Adults may not be familiar with most of these films, hence our attempt to provide a plot summary, but we can assure you that your children are well aware of them! Our Monday morning lecture notes often remain untouched as spontaneous discussion erupts on points of contention raised by the latest weekend movie fare. Although we welcome this heightened interest, we remain deeply disturbed by the influence Hollywood’s faith has on our students. Reflecting Gabler’s quote above, what consistently “grabs” and “holds” our students’ attention is what they see on the screen—and it is not Christian. What students see are skewed theological visions where the Christian church is portrayed as corrupt and ineffectual; where God is everything but sovereign; and, where the reality of spiritual entities other than God dominate the universe. We are deeply concerned that the majority of popular movies sensationalize extraordinary religious experience at the expense of a stable spirituality, contain numerous factual errors, and demonstrate an obdurate unwillingness to treat Christianity as a respected and serious religion. Sadly, Christianity seems to have too little to offer, and offers too little to hold the interest of Hollywood’s filmmakers.