When it comes to judging Hollywood, critics in pulpits and pews have been chanting the same mantra for decades.
All together now: There's too much sex and there's too much violence. Amen.
Then a strange thing happened. An evangelical named Randall Wallace wrote "Braveheart," which a Catholic named Mel Gibson turned into an Oscar-magnet about freedom, faith, sacrifice and truth. It was bloody violent and its wedding was followed by a nude wedding night. Many conservative believers cheered and began to have second thoughts about their R-rating phobias.
Then Gibson made "The Passion of the Christ."
"A movie comes along that is, in the words of one Los Angeles critic, 'a two-hour execution,' and people of faith everywhere are embracing it and being moved to compunction, repentance and spiritual renewal," said screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi, speaking at a global cinema conference last week in Valencia, Spain.
"What we are learning from all this is that the problem is not with violence on the screen. It is meaningless violence that is wrong in entertainment. The Passion reconnects violence to its source in rebellion against God. It never objectifies the subject of the violence, nor does it dehumanize the perpetrators of violence. It shows the effects of violence in all its horror."
Aftershocks continue in the marketplace and in churches, while Gibson's epic keeps climbing toward the $370-million mark at the U.S. box office. Meanwhile, Hollywood is trying to learn how to mine this bizarre demographic Gibson has discovered -- Middle America.
Nicolosi has argued that the big lesson is that masses of the faithful will buy tickets when a talented, name-above-the-title superstar finances, produces and directs a theologically sophisticated movie. But there's the rub. How many celebrities make that A-list?
Meanwhile, debates about the Passion may help traditional believers learn more about the craft of making movies for the modern marketplace, she said, in her written text. Questions about the film's shocking use of violence were highly symbolic.
"This movie will challenge future filmmakers to make the violence in their films just as meaningful," said the former Catholic nun, who leads the Act One screenwriting project. "It will also open the people of God to a broader artistic sensibility. ... My young filmmaking students are very concerned about the place of the artist in the world. They want to talk about an ethics that would go along with the power of the mass media.
"They want to know what is good for people to watch and what might harm people to watch. This is very good."
Anyone can make violent movies, she said. It takes talent, skill and vision to show violence that means something. The same thing is true of sexuality, after 40 "shameless years" in which "cinema has shown us every possible permutation of two naked bodies writhing around." The same thing is true of symbols and themes of faith and spirituality.
There are signs of change in Hollywood. Nicolosi called it the "Don't Show How Things Look, Tell Us What They Mean" movement. Are religious leaders paying attention?
Nicolosi is not the only conservative arguing that filmmakers must stop assuming that safe, squeaky-clean predictability is the same thing as artistic quality.
Even Christian consumers would rather watch "Spiderman" than "Left Behind -- The Movie" and they would choose "Toy Story" over another "Touched By and Angel" rerun on a family cable channel, according to Dallas Jenkins, president of Jenkins Entertainment. He created the company with his father, Jerry B. Jenkins, who is best known as co-author of the bestselling "Left Behind" novels.
At some point, religious critics must humbly study the art in films such as "Taxi Driver," "Traffic" and "Pulp Fiction" as well as criticize their moral content, he said. It is even more important to study edgy films that combine personal storytelling with issues of faith, such as "Schindler's List" and "The Pianist."
"Why can't we make movies like that about our faith? ... Great films, no matter how specific their subject matter, have universal appeal," said Jenkins, writing in Relevant Magazine.
"Where are the thought-provoking, morally important rated-R films? Every year there are dozens of big, successful family films, but only two or three landmark, important films for adults. Can't at least one be made by a Christian?"
NEXT WEEK: Hollywood struggles to understand the church.