Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein admits that he laughed early and often during the Steve Martin comedy "Leap of Faith."
But afterwards, he was troubled by the 1992 film's portrait of a barnstorming preacher, faith healer and fraud who fleeces halls full of trusting, simpleminded and ultimately pathetic sheep. Surely such hucksters exist, Eckstein decided. However, as president of the Center for Jewish and Christian Values, the rabbi had worked with enough Christians to know that charlatans are not the norm.
And there's the rub. Anyone seeking more balanced, sympathetic images of preachers at the local multiplex and video store will need to hunt a long, long time.
"Is it any wonder that so many have negative views toward evangelists and, I would say, evangelical Christians as a whole?", asked Eckstein, during a Washington, D.C., forum on Hollywood and religion. "The fact is that Christian beliefs are belittled. ... The cherished symbols of their faith are put to blasphemous uses. If there is a Christian character in a film, you can almost always be sure that he is . a fool, a liar, a cheater, a murderer, a fraud or a crazy person."
At the very least, said Eckstein, such displays of media bias have hurt efforts to promote tolerance and understanding between opposing camps in America's culture wars. It's highly likely they've poured fuel on the flames.
The rabbi's remarks came before the start of the latest clash between the entertainment establishment and critics who accuse it of undercutting parents, clergy and other moral leaders. Right now, the usual suspects are debating the merits of the new television ratings system.
It's significant that many key actors in the TV Parental Guidelines drama have played leading roles in disputes over Hollywood and religion. Thus, in the months ahead, Jack Valenti and the Motion Picture Association will continue to sing the praises of those flickering icons that proclaim TV-G (general), TV-PG (parental guidance), TV-M (mature) and so forth. Off stage, others will quip that studio executives should be candid and stick other initials in the top-left corner of TV screens, such as PG-ABC (anything but Christianity).
It's hard not to notice the "peculiar wall of separation between God and screen," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.). "The common, Judeo-Christian principles that motivated our Founding Fathers' thoughts and actions and that have served as our society's moral safety net have been replaced with a brand of moral relativism that not only tolerates but frequently celebrates the perverse, the grotesque and the degrading."
The senator and other critics noted the irony of a recent Fox network decision to pull an episode of its horror series "Millennium" which centered on a series of clergy murders. The Washington Post reported that producers felt the timing was awkward, since this program would have aired the night after the death of Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. However, Fox decided it would be fine to use the episode a week later - dead priests and all.
Meanwhile, a rare chorus of feminists and evangelicals is attacking the critically acclaimed film "The People vs. Larry Flynt." Both groups are furious that it whitewashes parts of the Hustler publisher's perverse past, while fundamentalists also wonder if part of the film's popularity with Hollywood insiders is its use of the Rev. Jerry Falwell as a villain.
And so it goes, world without end. Hollywood bashes conservative religious leaders, many of whom respond with simplistic attacks on Hollywood.
Clergy must realize that it isn't enough to curse the darkness, said the Rev. Doug Millham, preaching at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. They should tell the faithful to pray for those who create the media products consumed by millions and support efforts to minister to the more than 2,000 committed Christians in Hollywood. They can encourage talented young people to enter the entertainment industry.
"There's no middle ground," he said, in a sermon reprinted in Movieguide magazine. "One change of producer, one change in script, one change in network leadership, will alter the course of what millions of people think and feel and believe about life itself."