Define "spiritual." Pick three films

The hero is stranded on a dying planet, lonely and yearning for companionship. Then a miracle occurs and his female counterpart -- her name is EVE -- arrives seeking a sprout of new life that says it's time to heal this world condemned by the sins of previous generations. Her mission is to take this green sign of hope back to the giant vessel that has sheltered humanity during this ecological storm.

Recognize any names, symbols and themes from an old book?

This is the story at the heart of Wall-E, the latest hit from Pixar. A panel of judges at selected this parable as the year's best "spiritual film," praising it as the story of a "lovable robot who miraculously rids our planet of pollution and causes a global spiritual transformation."

"Of course the robot Wall-E falls in love with is named EVE," said Dena Ross, entertainment editor for the interfaith website. "Some people see this as another Noah's Ark story, too, and it ends with humanity coming home to start over with a new earth. …

"So there are obviously biblical elements here. These themes of stewardship and creation will resonate with Christians, but you'll find these same themes in many other religions, as well."

Critics at Christianity Today reached a similar conclusion and selected Wall-E as the year's top "redeeming film," noting that, "Existential longing, awe and apocalyptic hope form the ambitious thematic terrain of this poetic, mesmerizing film." The biblical symbolism wasn't a shock, since director Andrew Stanton had previously discussed how his Christian faith influenced the film.

It didn't take a giant leap of faith to pin the "spiritual" and "redemptive" labels on Wall-E. But things get more complicated when applying these terms elsewhere.

After all, the 2008 "People's Choice" award from went to Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino," the story of a violent, racist, foul-mouthed Korean War veteran and his unlikely path to brotherly love, redemption and sacrifice. Laced together with Catholic threads, it ends with one of the most obvious visual references to a crucifix that moviegoers will ever see.

At the same time, judges and readers skipped over the evangelical hit "Fireproof" and "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," based on the novel by Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.

What is a "spiritual movie," as opposed to a "religious movie"? editors argued that "spiritual" movies "shed light on, or make a serious attempt to grapple with, the big questions. Why are we here? What's the meaning of life? Is there a God? Why is there evil in the world? Of course, this will inevitably include movies with overtly religious themes -- Christian or otherwise -- such as redemption, forgiveness, keeping faith, life and death, good vs. evil, and more. But sometimes they're simply about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity."

Christianity Today critics used this definition when listing their "redeeming" films: "We mean movies that include stories of redemption -- sometimes blatantly, sometimes less so. Several of them literally have a character that represents a redeemer; all of them have characters who experience redemption to some degree. … Some are 'feel-good' movies that leave a smile on your face; some are a bit more uncomfortable to watch. But the redemptive element is there in all of these films."

The critics at, for example, struggled with "Slumdog Millionaire," which was named Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The story of a boy's rise from the Mumbai slums wove together themes of destiny, compassion, love and justice. It was a feel-good movie, but was it "spiritual"?

Over at Christianity Today, the same movie was described as a "Dickensian chronicle" that rises above its success story plot to become a tale "about providence and how all things are used for good by something greater than ourselves. As the film clearly says, all things happen 'because it was written.' "

The bottom line is that it's impossible to put these artistic and spiritual judgment calls into simple formulas, stressed Ross. But people who care about the mysterious role that faith plays in real life know a spiritual movie when they see one.

"There are movies," she said, "that appeal to religious people and there are also movies that, in some strange way, appeal to all kinds of people by touching their souls. That's hard to describe, but that's real."

Final Harry Potter wars? Part II

Coming soon to a parish near you: Sunday school with Harry Potter.

This could happen if your congregation buys the new "Mixing it up with Harry Potter" study guides from the Church of England. The goal of the 12-part series is to use scenes from these omnipresent books and movies to help children discuss big issues such as death, sacrifice, loneliness, fear, mercy and grief.

"Jesus used storytelling to engage and challenge his listeners," said Bishop John Pritchard of Oxford, speaking on behalf of the curriculum. "There's nothing better than a good story to make people think, and there's plenty in the Harry Potter books to make young people think about the choices they make in their everyday lives."

In his introduction, study-guide author Owen Smith addressed the concerns many believers have voiced about J.K. Rowling's books. As most residents of Planet Earth know by now, more than 325 million copies of the seven Harry Potter novels have been sold so far.

"The magic in the books is simply part of the magic that J. K. Rowling has created, in the same way that magic is part of the world of Christian writers such as C. S. Lewis," said Smith. "To say ... these books draw younger readers towards the occult seems to me both to malign J. K. Rowling and to vastly underestimate the ability of children and young people to separate the real from the imaginary."

At least three kinds of critics have knocked Rowling's work, when it comes to religion. Some say the books are secular and contain no theological content at all, while, on the other side, many others insist that Potter-mania may lead to interest in witchcraft. Some simply say the books send mixed signals and should be avoided.

However, there are also at least three positive schools of thought about Rowling's take on faith.

* Like the Church of England educators, some supporters say the Potter books can -- at the very least -- be mined as acceptable sources of stories to help teach young people about faith. One early evangelical book making this case, "The Gospel According to Harry Potter" by Connie Neal, was blacklisted in many Christian bookstores.

* While Catholics have debated the merits of Rowling's work, a Vatican voice on culture has said the novels portray clashes between good and evil in a manner consistent with Christianity. Speaking in 2003, Father Peter Fleetwood noted that the author is "Christian by conviction, is Christian in her mode of living, even in her way of writing."

Rowling has confirmed that she is a Christian and a communicant in the Church of Scotland, which has Presbyterian roots. In one oft-quoted interview, she told a Canadian newspaper: "Every time I've been asked if I believe in God, I've said, 'yes,' because I do. But no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that and, I have to say that does suit me."

Thus, this group of Potter supporters argues that Rowling is a Christian -- perhaps one with liberal beliefs -- who has chosen to write mainstream books containing Christian symbols and language. In other words, she is a Christian who writes books, but not "Christian books."

* Some go further and find elements of overt Christian storytelling -- especially in the new "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." They may, for example, see parallels between Potter's willingness to surrender his life to save others from the evil Lord Voldemort and the redemptive sacrifice made by the Christ figure in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" by Lewis.

There's more. In a pivotal baptism sequence, Potter dives into deadly waters to recover a sword -- described as a "great silver cross" -- required to destroy evil treasures. Finally, there is a vision of life after death set in a heavenly "King's Cross" train station.

Literary critic John Granger of has been making this argument for years. He thinks Rowling must be considered a "Christian artist," yet one who faces her own doubts and struggles.

"The Gospel messages and allusions in the series finale were so transparent and edifying, surely, I thought, the Harry Haters must be having second thoughts, if not regrets about things they have said with such conviction the past 10 years in print and from the pulpit," said Granger. "I haven't seen any sign of this. Have you?"

Shadows of THE wardrobe

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- The tall wardrobe in the office of the Westmont College English department isn't much to look at, but visitors from near and far keep visiting to peek inside.

A previous owner described this piece of oak furniture as a "perfectly ordinary wardrobe," a big one of the "sort that has a looking glass in the door." It was big enough to hold "a second row of coats hanging up behind the first one," yet the threshold was low enough that a small child -- perhaps a girl playing hide and seek -- could step into it.

It helps to know that this previous owner was a scholar named C.S. Lewis and that he wrote this precise description of this wardrobe, or an imaginary armoire just like it, in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." This was the first book published in his classic fantasy series "The Chronicles of Narnia."

Naturally, legions of Lewis lovers want to see and touch the wardrobe.

"Day after day you see people coming through to pay homage," said Paul J. Willis, whose office is next to this doorway into the land of Aslan, the Christ figure in Narnia. "There is that part of me that wants to say to each and every one of them, 'Hey! It's just a wardrobe!' ... Yet part of me also thinks that it's funny, and significant, that we are so serious about our literary relics. Why is that?"

There is no sign of declining interest in the life and work of Lewis and this is especially true of the Narnia novels, with more than 100 million copies sold over the past half a century. Meanwhile, the film version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" grossed $745 million worldwide and the first sequel, "Prince Caspian," is slated for a May 2008 release.

Willis has a unique perspective on this phenomenon and not just because he teaches at Westmont, a liberal arts college on the coast north of Los Angeles. The professor and novelist is also a graduate of Wheaton College in Illinois, which includes the Wade Center, a famous center for Lewis studies. This collection includes his desk, 2,400 books from his personal library, 2,300 of his letters and an ornate, double-door oak wardrobe handmade by Lewis' grandfather in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Wheaton obtained this item in 1973 and researchers stress that, according to the famous author's older brother Warren, this spectacular wardrobe was in their family home during the years that shaped their imaginations and childhood games.

Willis remembers the emotions stirred by the arrival of this wardrobe on campus. Some people seemed to think it was an object worthy of worship, because of its connection to the "unofficial patron saint of Wheaton College." Willis even wrote an editorial in the student newspaper, jokingly suggesting that administrators could cut slivers out of the back and sell them as relics.

It's crucial to remember that the Narnia wardrobe is the "threshold to fantasy," wrote Willis, in a 2005 book of essays entitled "Bright Shoots of Everlastingness." For many readers devoted to the novels, this physical wardrobe had become "a sacrament of the literary imagination. It was the closest thing we had to Narnia."

And then there were two, when Westmont obtained its wardrobe in 1975.

This was the last piece of furniture left in The Kilns, the house near Oxford in which the Lewis brothers lived while the Oxford don wrote his Narnia novels and many other books. This wardrobe was about to be destroyed because it was too big to be removed through a narrow doorway created by renovations Lewis had made to his bedroom.

Thus, Wheaton has a beautiful wardrobe linked to the childhood of Lewis, the time when he began telling his first tales about magic lands full of talking animals.

Westmont, meanwhile, has a Lewis wardrobe that fits the description of the one that the adult writer inserted into his most famous fantasy. It is an ordinary, everyday wardrobe like thousands of others in homes throughout England.

"Lewis, of course, would say that neither of these wardrobes are the real thing," said Willis. "They are merely copies. They are what Lewis would call shadows of the wardrobe. What really matters is the wardrobe in the story, because that is the doorway into the land beyond our own -- the true land of Aslan."

That Da Vinci sex code

In the beginning, Judaism was a faith built on sacred sex.

At least, that's what Dan Brown told 60 million readers in "The Da Vinci Code," speaking though a fictional Harvard University scholar named Robert Langdon. And while the characters are fiction, the novelist continues to affirm the statement that opens his book: "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate."

One of those "secret rituals" is an eye-opener.

"Langdon's Jewish students always looked flabbergasted when he told them that the early Jewish tradition involved ritualistic sex. In the Temple, no less," wrote Brown, in one of many long speeches that explain his iconoclastic plot. "Early Jews believed that the Holy of Holies in Solomon's Temple housed not only God but also His powerful female equal, Shekinah. Men seeking spiritual wholeness came to the Temple to visit priestesses ... with whom they made love and experienced the divine through physical union."

For most people, the big news in "The Da Vinci Code" story was its message that Jesus was a brilliant and charismatic man -- but not the Son of God -- who was married to St. Mary Magdalene, had a child and tried to start a church built on secret truths and goddess worship. But Jesus was killed and, after a few centuries, powerful men crushed the Gnostic Christians. Meanwhile, the secret bloodline of Jesus lived on in Europe.

That's the side of the book, and now the movie, that makes headlines. But there is a message in the novel that is even more controversial and, for traditional Christians and Jews, more radical, according to philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi, who was born and educated in the diverse religious culture of India.

"The Da Vinci Code" is absolutely right when it states that the Judeo-Christian tradition, through the ages, did everything that it could to suppress sexual mysticism, fertility rites and goddess worship. The early church, he stressed, emerged in a world that was packed with pagan sanctuaries filled with scores of temple prostitutes.

The Judeo-Christian tradition emphasized the holiness of marriage, but never taught that sexual intercourse was -- in and of itself -- a sacred rite in which the spirit escapes the body and is able commune with some all-embracing deity.

"Dan Brown is right about the following: some pagan converts to Christ did bring sexual mysticism into the early church," said Mangalwadi, in a speech he delivered this week at Hollywood (Calif.) Presbyterian Church. In fact, the Book of Revelation condemns two early churches that tolerated believers who "practiced religious sex. It is possible that before becoming Christians these women and men had participated in prostitution in pagan temples. ...

"Given the fact that Christianity was an ascending religious force, they may have found it to their advantage to attract customers in the name of Christ. Some may well have re-written the life of Christ in the light of pagan spirituality to justify their preferred 'religious' practice."

In "The Da Vinci Code" itself, Brown stresses that the use of sexual rituals to create union with the gods and goddesses is older than the Christian faith and could, he claimed, be seen in Judaism. A one point, a central character witnesses a modern ritual in which a couple has sexual intercourse while surrounded by a circle of other members of the secret society that is preserving the true Christianity.

Thus, Brown's alter ego explains: "Historically, intercourse was the act through which male and female experienced God. The ancients believed that the male was spiritually incomplete until he had carnal knowledge of the sacred feminine. Physical union with the female remained the sole means through which man could become spiritually complete and ultimately achieve gnosis -- knowledge of the divine. ... 'By communing with woman,' Langdon said, 'man could achieve a climactic instance when his mind went totally blank and he could see God.' "

The key is that this experience is the "sole means" for transformation. This theme is explicit in the novel, even though the movie does not stress it.

"Dan Brown is promoting a mystic experience in which our mind goes 'totally blank' -- beyond words, thoughts, ideals, beliefs and values," argued Mangalwadi. "This is a non-rational experience. Mystics promote it because the consider the intellect to be the source of ignorance, not a means to gaining knowledge."

Rushdie says, 'Get religion'

It remains Salman Rushdie's fervent conviction that it's wrong for clergy, jurists or politicos to threaten writers' lives simply because they think their books are terrible.

Not even the shocking success of "The Da Vinci Code" has weakened his pro-novelist stance, he said, drawing laughter at Calvin College's recent Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Mich.

This faith in free speech isn't surprising since the apostate Muslim has lived in hiding ever since his 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses" inspired Iran's top ayatollah to issue a fatwa calling for his death. No one knows better than Rushdie -- who calls himself a "dreadful old atheist" -- that faith, ink and blood can be stirred into a deadly brew.

Nevertheless, he also believes that writers who refuse to wrestle with the power of faith and the supernatural are refusing to deal with real people in the real world. Consider, he said, the daily lives of the gods and believers in his homeland -- India.

"The people in India do not think of the gods as abstractions," said Rushdie. "They think of them as real beings who move amongst them and work upon their lives every day. If you have something that you need, if somebody is sick, if a child needs to get into college or whatever it may be, you would go and find the relevant deity to make the offering to and you would believe that that would increase your chances of getting what you needed in life."

Rushdie, 58, understands India -- with its tense mix of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity -- from the inside out. As a child, he enjoyed asking his Muslim grandfather why he practiced a faith in which the prayer regime required him to spend so much time with his rear end higher than his head. Meanwhile, Rushdie's father was both an unbeliever and a Muslim historian.

After years of airing his doubts, the pre-teen iconoclast celebrated his own loss of faith with a symbolic culinary sin -- a ham sandwich. The fact that God did not strike him dead with a thunderbolt confirmed his newborn atheism.

As a writer, Rushdie said that he has always insisted on treating religion as a "normal part of life." Thus, his goal was "not to give it special treatment, not to hedge it around with the language of taboo and respect because that has always seemed, to me, to be anti-intellectual."

However, skeptics have their own way of avoiding the truth when dealing with intensely religious cultures, he said. Even writers who are unbelievers must realize that almost everyone in a land like India believes in one god or another and views life through the lens of that faith. Skeptical writers who refuse to accept this reality are practicing another form of intellectually dishonesty.

Rushdie does not, of course, believe writers should surrender their right to deal with religion in an irreverent or critical manner. However, he stressed that skeptics must be willing to doubt their own doubts and remain open to the possibility that the believers may, in some mysterious way, be right.

After all, he said, the real world is not completely realistic. Ordinary people believe in miracles and their beliefs are considered normal. Even in modern America, real life contains moments that are utterly surreal.

"So the sense that the miraculous and the mundane, that the supernatural and the everyday, coexist in a completely natural way, is everywhere," he said. "The idea that, somehow, these are separate categories of thing is quite alien. So if you are going to write about that world, you have to take cognizance of that fact. You have to recognize that this is how people think."

Ultimately, religious faith is one of the most powerful forces shaping the myths and stories that bind together families, nations and cultures, said Rushdie. In a free society, people are free to tell and interpret their own stories. Tyranny is when other people have the right to censure or kill the storytellers who get out of line.

"We are, as human beings, storytelling animals," he insisted. "We are the only creature on the earth that tells itself stories in order to understand what it is and what its life means. Therefore the story is of unusual importance to us, whether we are writers or not. It is something unusually important to human nature."

Terrorism, fiction and the Truth

WASHINGTON -- One of the most sobering sights that novelist Joel Rosenberg has ever seen was the glitter of Manhattan outside the windows of a Learjet a few months after Sept. 11.

Since this was a private plane, its passengers did not pass through a metal detector and have their ID cards checked. There were no security procedures at all.

"It was the middle of the night and we were flying right over Ground Zero," he said. "I remember saying at the time that there was nothing -- literally nothing -- except our own morality that could stop us from taking a private jet like this one and doing pretty much whatever we wanted to do with it. That's still true."

This moral blind spot in the war on terror has bugged Rosenberg for years. That's why his first novel -- the 2002 bestseller "The Last Jihad" -- opened with a private jet exploding into a presidential motorcade in the not-so-distant future.

Rosenberg was writing the final chapters of that book on the morning of Sept. 11. That meant he had some rewriting to do.

But those kamikaze pilots were front and center in chapter one, written in 2000. So was the author's emphasis on faith. This is what happens when a Jewish Christian who used to work for Rush Limbaugh and Israeli politico Benjamin Netanyahu starts writing thrillers about nuclear terrorism. The religious content increased in the 2003 sequel, "The Last Days," which earned Rosenberg a $1 million advance.

Many secular critics have been brutal, including the Washington Post's infamous verdict that his work was "an act of terrorism on the reader's brain."

Rosenberg is unapologetic. He said he simply started asking "what-if questions" about terrorism in America and the Middle East and tried to figure out the answers. As it turned out, the timing was right to ask big questions about good and evil.

For example, one of Rosenberg's fictional heroes is a retired Israeli spy who is convinced that American leaders cannot wage a war on terror because they no longer believe that evil is spiritual reality. Thus, they also doubt the existence of eternal, absolute truth.

This theme shouldn't be surprising, said Rosenberg, because his ancestors were Orthodox Jews who fled the pogroms of Russia. The writer's father was Jewish and his mother Methodist. Both converted as adults to evangelical Christianity, as did their son.

"Because of my own faith and my family's experiences, I truly believe in the reality of evil. ... But many, many people in this town do not," said Rosenberg, sitting in a coffee shop on Capitol Hill. "That includes lots of people in the U.S. intelligence community and the state department. They had a hard time conceiving of a 9/11 because they didn't BELIEVE it could happen.

"What we had was not so much a failure of intelligence as it was a failure of moral imagination. ... It was a worldview problem."

All Rosenberg did was take these religious convictions and blend them with what he knew about politics, economics, world affairs and intelligence work -- creating fiction. It also didn't hurt that his political roots gave him bullet-proof ties to the rulers of talk radio. During one blitz, he was on 160 radio and television programs in a month.

Some of these shows were religious, but the vast majority of them were secular. Also, his books were published by a mainstream company, rather than a religious one. This was intentional, he said, because the Christian writers he admires the most -- such as J.R.R. Tolkien and John Grisham -- dominate shelves in secular bookstores.

Now it's time to navigate the minefield of making a movie in mainstream Hollywood. Rosenberg also faces hard decisions about the content of his future books. What happens to his themes of moral absolutes and religious conversion?

"I don't know if Hollywood producers are going to want those scenes in a movie," he said. "We'll have to see. Whatever happens, it won't weaken my conviction that Christians and other conservatives have not been doing enough to tell these kinds of stories in the secular media.

"We have to try. Who knows? We may have stories that people want to hear and see. That is, if the stories are good enough."

Mission? Filling hole in Hollywood

Look up "mission" in a dictionary and it's clear why the word makes Hollywood nervous.

A "mission" can be "an aim in life, arising from a conviction or sense of calling." That's nice and secular. But what if "mission" means a group set apart "by a church or other religious organization to make conversions"?

So film insiders flinch when a studio's mission statement proclaims: "Walden Media believes that quality entertainment is inherently educational. We believe that by providing children, parents and educators with a wide range of great entertainment ... we can recapture young imaginations, rekindle curiosity and demonstrate the rewards of knowledge and virtue."

Say what? When a studio starts combining words such as "parents" and "virtue," Hollywood folks assume all its movies will start with a roar from Dr. James Dobson, instead of a lion. Wait, isn't that William "Book of Virtues" Bennett atop the Walden advisory committee?

"Our goal is wholesome, uplifting, family-friendly entertainment that is still competitive in the marketplace," said the Rev. Bob Beltz, director of special media projects for billionaire investor Philip Anschutz. "I'm not going to say that all of our films will be faith-based. But I can say that we hope they will all be faith-friendly. ...

"We want to be a positive influence in Hollywood. But we have to sell tickets to do that."

Take "Holes," for example, which features Louis Sachar's screenplay based on his Newbery-medal winning novel. The movie opened on 2,331 screens last weekend and soared towards $20 million at the box office.

"In a time when mainstream action is rigidly contained within formulas," noted critic Roger Ebert, "maybe there's more freedom to be found in a young people's adventure. 'Holes' jumps the rails, leaves all expectations behind and tells a story that's not funny ha-ha but funny peculiar."

Amen, said Beltz. This story does have a strange, edgy "parable-like feel to it," he said. But it is the movie's serious themes of good and evil, hope and despair, grace and judgment that are catching viewers off guard. Still, while "Holes" contains many religious themes and symbols, it never resorts to preaching. That made it perfect for this new studio.

"When you have a story like that, you don't want to add anything to it or take anything away," he said. "You just want the story to speak for itself."

Millions of American students already know about Stanley Yelnats IV, a good kid who ends up in the wrong place at the right time and is sentenced to dig holes at the hellish Camp Green Lake in West Texas. The lake is dry and the lovely town on the shore is long dead. But there are serpents, scorpions, killer lizards, bitter memories, buried secrets and enough shame to cover everybody. The sins of the fathers are literally being visited upon the sons.

On one level, "Holes" revolves around a gypsy fortuneteller's curse on Stanley's "no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather." But the emotional heart of this multi-generational tale is the divine judgment that hangs over Green Lake. The town's elite once killed an innocent black onion-picker for the crime of falling in love with a white schoolteacher.

The book spells out what the movie acts out: "That all happened 110 years ago. Since then, not one drop of rain has fallen on Green Lake. You make the decision: Whom did God punish?"

In the end the guilty are brought to justice, the innocent go free and the curses are lifted. Stanley and his friends dance as life-giving water pours from the sky onto the parched earth. The big question: Who can make it rain?

Viewers can make up their own minds about that, said educator Michael Flaherty, the president of Walden Media. But if movies are good enough, many will want to dig deeper.

"Many companies that set out to produce family entertainment make the mistake of defining themselves in terms of what they are not going to do," he said. "They say, 'Don't worry. We're not going to have any bad language in our movies.' Or they say, 'Don't worry. Our stories won't have all those bad parts.'

"We think we can do better than that. We think we can make high-quality films and still be true to our mission."

'Joshua' keeps on preaching

The doctor's verdict was blunt and he didn't want to quibble about details.

The patient's heart and blood were in terrible shape. He was working too hard and the stress was about to kill him. The doctor said he should quit his job -- immediately.

But the 50-year-old patient was a Roman Catholic priest.

"I thought I had, maybe, a year," said Father Joseph Girzone. "I remember thinking: What do I want to do before I die? What is it I need to say? I decided I wanted to write a book about Jesus. I wanted to write a simple little book about the Jesus that ordinary people met and loved, the Jesus that Jewish people saw walking down the street."

That was 20 years ago. The book was called "Joshua" and it became a surprise bestseller, with many sequels. Now "Joshua" is poised to visit movie theaters.

Girzone is alive and well. Still, his once-fragile health plays a role in this story. Because the priest felt he had nothing to lose, he poured his feelings about the modern church into a "parable" based on a simple, but risky, concept: What if Jesus quietly returned and set up a wood-working shop in a small American town?

Then the questions kept coming. What if Joshua visited Northern Ireland? What if he set up shop in the inner city? What if he returned to the bloody Holy Land?

Most of all, Girzone kept asking a question that infuriated many: What if Christreturned and started prying into the affairs of the Catholic Church and otherflocks, as well?

"I want Joshua to have a strong, prophetic voice," said Girzone, who works through offices and retreat centers near Albany, N.Y., and Annapolis, Md. "I want Joshua to point out where his church has gone wrong and to help put his people back on course. ...

"If Jesus came back today, I think he would be very critical of those who abuse their teaching authority. I think Jesus would fight against secrecy and corruption."

Those are loaded words, especially right now.

Joshua doesn't just touch souls -- he critiques Vatican dogmas. He doesn't just heal the blind -- he captivates Jews with his teachings on the Trinity. He doesn't just raise the dead -- he counsels angry Catholic clergy.

"If my father has not given you the gift of celibacy, that is his business," Joshua tells a tired, dispirited priest in the first novel. "The Church must respect the way the Holy Spirit works, especially in the souls of priests, otherwise she will destroy her own priesthood. What Jesus has made optional, the church should not make mandatory."

This scene does not appear in the Christian-television-friendly film that opens April 19 in selected theaters, mostly in smaller Heartland and Bible Belt markets far from the long knives of major-media critics. "Joshua," the movie, omits many scenes in which Joshua judges the actions of specific brands of clergy and churches.

Girzone said the movie had to be careful not to offend too many viewers. It is also strange to see a movie that focuses primarily on Catholic characters, yet clearly -- with its cheerful style and pop-gospel music -- is targeting evangelical Protestants.

"It is hard to capture -- on film -- someone who is gentle and loving, yet powerful and prophetic," he said. "Being un-offensive is not the same thing as being holy."

Yet the film hints at Girzone's main theme, which he believes is at the heart of many struggles in Catholicism and other churches. Love, he insists, must never be confused with law. Here is how Girzone puts it, speaking through Joshua in a confrontation with his Vatican inquisitors at the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrines of the Faith.

"Religion is beautiful only when it is free and flows from the heart. That is why you should guide and inspire but not legislate behavior. And to threaten God's displeasure when people do not follow your rules is being a moral bully and does no service to God. You are shepherds and guides, but not the ultimate judges of human behavior. That belongs only to God."

To which millions of American Catholics and Protestants will now say, "Amen."