The Common Good
May 1994

The Book and the Silver Screen

by Arthur P. Boers | May 1994

Biblical stories as movie scripts.

When Gerald Forshey was still a university student some four-plus decades ago, his mother told him that he could never be a minister because he loved movies too much! Forshey, however, went on to be an ordained United Methodist pastor, do a doctorate in film at the University of Chicago, and teach extensively on film history.

Forshey’s blend of concerns led him to realize that there is a glaring omission of serious works on big religious movies in film scholarship. American Religious and Biblical Spectaculars is a study long overdue and Forshey delivers well on the subject. He analyzes such films as Ben-Hur, Godspell, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus Christ Superstar, King of Kings, The Last Days of Pompeii, The Last Temptation of Christ, and The Ten Commandments (to name just a few).

Almost all of the religious spectaculars Forshey considers were set in the biblical period. He comes up with many intriguing observations, noting for example that religious spectaculars were most popular in the 1950s but were also most ignored by critics. More significantly, he critiques the many cultural uses of religious movies.

"Over the years, as American religions struggled with the place of a naturalistic world view, the concept of the righteous nation, and the basis of individual ethics, American film making was changing," he writes. Films purporting to be biblical inevitably reflected the ethos of their society and promoted American values and the American way of life "so effectively that it is often difficult to distinguish between patriotism and religion." (Cecil B. DeMille was particularly unabashed at promoting his view of the American Dream in films.)

Religious spectaculars are particularly subject to coinciding with generally accepted views on social issues "because the general public knows so little of antiquity, and much of this knowledge is shaped by the mass media." Three themes emerged in all of the films: Miracles, ethical behavior, and the relationship of the natural world and religion. A most persistent theme in all is that duty is preferable to pleasure.

Biblical spectaculars are a little more free from manipulation as the biblical text is well-known and people resent too much tampering. Neverthe-less, again and again, these films too reflect contemporary political situations and political views.

FORSHEY HAS many intriguing insights on films about Jesus. There were five such commercial films in just 14 years, beginning in 1961, with three in 1973 (including Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell). He discusses the difficult dynamics of choosing an actor to portray Jesus and what those choices revealed.

The greatest difficulty in such films is that so much of the story is known. How does one develop anything new with integrity? Nevertheless new developments do occur. Forshey notes the moral ambiguity of Superstar, a complete reversal of the unambiguous morality of such spectaculars as The Ten Command-ments.

Forshey also considers the role that protest and boycotts played with such films, most recently of course with The Last Temptation of Christ. Many of the boycotts were ill-informed and only served to promote their targets. Ironically and unexpectedly, biblical films have always helped lead the fight against censorship.

Forshey notes that secular critics are "rarely impressed by religious films." Yet he gives us an impressive arsenal of information for appreciating just such enterprises, even as spectaculars are waning and becoming more infrequent. Their big-picture style often does not play well on the small television screen. Moreover, their moral directness does not play so well anymore either in multicultural, pluralistic, secular society.

This book is useful in many respects, not the least for uncovering the hidden agenda of such spectaculars. There is also plenty of information and "inside dope" on many classics. It is a fine text in learning how to study and analyze any films, delivering many tools for prospective film-lovers, whether they want to be ministers or not.

American Religious and Biblical Spectaculars. By Gerald Forshey. Praeger, 1992.

ARTHUR PAUL BOERS pastors the Bloomingdale (Ontario) Mennonite Church and is the author of Lord, Teach Us to Pray and On Earth As in Heaven (Herald).

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