The Rev. Mac Brunson recently took his kids out and, while the movie was forgettable, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas was hooked by one of the coming attractions.
It was a trailer for the comedy "Raising Helen," in which Kate Hudson plays a hot New York City fashion star whose life changes when she has to raise her sister's three children. Five-hankie chick flicks require hunky love interests and, lo and behold, this time the blonde falls for a handsome, charming pastor.
"I thought, 'No way Hollywood will get that right,' " said Brunson, senior minister of the 12,000-member Southern Baptist superchurch. "You see a pastor in a movie today and he's almost always going to be an idiotic, dangerous, neurotic pervert or something."
Brunson aired some of these views when interviewed for a People magazine cover story called "Does Hollywood Have Faith?" What happened next was a parable about studio insiders trying to do their homework in pews and pulpits. It's a trend that predates "The Passion of the Christ," but is surging along with Mel Gibson's bank account.
After reading Brunson's remarks, publicists working for Disney called and made the preacher an offer he couldn't refuse. Before long, Brunson was sitting in the Tinseltown multiplex in suburban Dallas, watching an advance screening of "Raising Helen" with 200 church members.
The tough Baptist crowd was pleasantly surprised, said Brunson. Yes, the Lutheran pastor was played by John Corbett of "Sex & the City." Yes, this is the rare pastor who never mentions Jesus, faith, church and the Bible with a woman who has three children in his Christian school. But it's clear that Helen is seeking moral stability and she ultimately decides to embrace her children, rather than worship her career. And the romance was clean.
"It was just a normal movie, or what people used to call normal," he said. "This pastor is a moral guy. He falls in love. He gets to be natural. He's romantic and he kisses the girl. ... At the end it's clear that he's helped stabilize things and they're becoming a real family.
"So hurrah for Disney, on this movie. They got something right and we ought to praise them for that. Let's hope and pray that they do it some more."
But bridge-building efforts like this are tricky. While Disney is making progress with one powerful Baptist -- remember that the Southern Baptist Convention has been boycotting Disney for seven years -- MGM is traveling a rocky road trying to evangelize church groups on behalf of its edgy satire called "Saved!"
An online mini-guide for youth leaders says the movie presents "Christian teens who make poor choices, have a crisis of faith, seek answers and ultimately emerge with a genuine faith." Studio executives say it contains a pure Christian message of tolerance and love. Meanwhile, producer Michael Stipe -- the androgynous REM lead vocalist -- has said it's a high-school vampire movie, "only here the monsters are Jesus-freak teen-agers."
The movie's American Eagle Christian Academy has a giant plastic Jesus figure (in running shoes) and born-again gunners practice at the Emmanuel Shooting Range ("An eye for an eye"). One girl has a vision to sleep with her boyfriend to cure his homosexuality. The pseudo-hip Pastor Skip has an affair with a troubled mother (the area's top Christian interior decorator). The villain is a true believer who rules the popular girls ("The Christian Jewels") with an ironclad Bible.
The executives behind "Saved!" simply haven't done the "cross-cultural homework" required to reach religious believers, said Walt Mueller, head of the national Center for Parent/Youth Understanding in Elizabethtown, Pa. While much of the movie's satire is accurate and even constructive, it's the actual theological message that will offend most Christians.
"If you're into a real postmodern, smorgasbord, all-tolerant blend of Christianity and every other conceivable faith in the world, then you're going to love this movie," said Mueller. "What is amazing is that the people marketing this movie don't seem to realize that they are attacking lots of people's beliefs. ...
"The bottom line is that there are good Christians and then there are bad Christians and Hollywood gets to decide which is which. We're supposed to buy that?"