God, movies and cancer

Hollywood bean counters have started calling them "God films." The typical faith-based indie has a tiny budget and most of the actors are amateurs or second stringers from television. It doesn't take much money to promote one because churches are eager to hold pre-release screenings that fire up clergy and volunteers to spread the word -- on foot and online.

Southern Baptist entrepreneurs in Georgia made the pro-marriage drama "Fireproof" for $500,000 and it grossed $40 million at the box office, before the DVDs started reaching Bible bookstores. The new Possibility Pictures team spent only $3 million making its first film, "Letters To God," which opens this week.

Studio people can do the math.

"Lots of people are interested in that 'Fireproof' business model," said Patrick Doughtie, who wrote the original "Letters To God" screenplay and helped direct the movie. "They don't really know what they're looking for in terms of content, but they know that these movies are reaching an audience and making some money."

Doughtie, on the other hand, knew exactly what he wanted to see when "Letters To God" reached movie screens. He began studying screenwriting in order to tell a highly personal story based on the life of his son, Tyler, who died in 2005 at the age of 9 after a battle with an aggressive brain tumor.

After wrestling with anger and depression, Doughtie finally realized how much his son's faith had touched the lives of the people around him, old and young, and especially other members of Grace Baptist Church in Nashville.

This provided the hook for a fictional story about a boy named Tyler who has brain cancer and begins writing letters to God full of questions about his own life, as well as prayers for his family and friends as they struggle with their fears that he will die. The letters end up in the hands of a postal worker who is struggling with alcoholism and the break-up of his own family.

After he had finished the basic script, Doughtie found a notebook in which Tyler had written some letters to God. This made him even more determined to find producers who were willing to tell the story with the faith element intact.

"All kinds of people are touched by cancer and they're going to know what this movie is all about," he said, days before the movie's April 9 release in 900 theaters nationwide. "But I didn't want to write a story that was just about cancer. I wanted to write a story about hope and about what needs to happen after a battle with cancer."

For years, the makers of these faith-driven films have insisted that they can serve as evangelistic tools to reach nonbelievers -- even though they are full of hymns, prayers, church services, mini-sermons and other acts of God that tend to appeal to people who are already in church pews.

Sure enough, most of the crucial scenes in "Letters To God" pivot on confessions of faith, accompanied by lilting flutes or heavenly choirs.

Even the most painful moments are squeaky clean. The alcoholic mailman doesn't shout a single curse when he hits rock bottom or when his wise local bartender refuses to serve him another drink. Tyler's mother, Maddy, is already a widow and, by the end of the movie, knows that she will lose her youngest son. Still, she loses her cool only once -- when her own mother reminds her of a biblical parable about faith. She shouts: "I wish everyone would stop quoting the Bible to me. It's not curing my son."

Doughtie said that he hopes nonbelievers will see "Letters To God," but he knows they will not be the primary audience. More than anything else, he hopes the movie will inspire church leaders to learn how to minister to families affected by cancer.

"People wanted to help us, but they didn't know how," said Doughtie. "They loved us. They prayed for us. They brought us casseroles. They wanted to help. ... But what are you supposed to do after you pat someone on the back and say, 'Hey, I'm sorry you lost your kid'?

"What we have to do is remove the stigma from childhood cancer. People in our churches need to take their blinders off and get more involved with cancer families."

A spiritual year at the multiplex

In one of Hinduism's most sacred poems, the lord and sustainer of the universe chooses to be incarnated in human form -- the ancient term is "avatar" -- to help the Pandava people fight evil invaders and defend what is right. In director James Cameron's blockbuster "Avatar," a U.S. marine is transformed by technology into a blue-skinned warrior on a planet called Pandora, where he helps the Na'vi people fight evil corporate invaders and defend their sacred lands and traditions.

There seem to be some similarities in these epics.

"The ancient Hindu scriptures have forever reiterated that whenever the world would be on the brink of disaster and mankind faces extinction, whenever the vessel of sin is about to spill over to create death and destruction, the divine Lord Vishnu would ... manifest himself in mortal, palpable form to save mankind from the impeding doomsday," noted the Bengali director Sudipto Chattopadhyay, at the Passion and Cinema weblog.

When evaluating Cameron's movie, he added, one thing is clear. "The use of the word Avatar hence could never be an accident. ... The Avatar is meant to be the savior, the messiah of his own race and people."

It was that kind of year at the multiplex, with a parade of films rolling through theaters containing obvious religious images, messages, themes and characters. This made it both easy and hard for the team to select nominees for its annual Best Spiritual Film award.

"It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what a spiritual film is, since people have their own ideas as to what spirituality is," said Dena Ross, the website's entertainment editor. "We define it as a film which makes a serious attempt to grapple with the big questions in life: Why are we here? Why is there evil and suffering? Is there a God? Why do bad things happen to good people?"

This year, she said, made a conscious decision to nominate "more overtly religious films" for the Best Spiritual Film prize. A second category -- Best Inspirational Film -- focused on movies with uplifting messages, but few specific religious elements.

"We had so many amazing movies this time with strong references to religion," said Ross. "I mean, 'A Serious Man' is about a devout Jewish man. 'The Stoning of Soraya M' deals with serious Muslim issues. 'The Blind Side' is about an evangelical family that is practicing its faith."

Due to the historic success of "Avatar" -- $700 million-plus at the domestic box office -- there was a chance that Cameron's 3D myth would get the Best Spiritual Film nod from both the judges and the website's readers.

Instead, the judges selected "The Road," a bleak drama based on Cormac McCarthy's novel. It told the story of a father who teaches his son to remain "one of the good guys" while "carrying the fire" -- a metaphor for hope and faith -- in a post-apocalyptic world dominated by murderers and cannibals. The boy is shown praying for God's help, and keeps striving to help the people they meet.

To the surprise of the team, their readers then picked "The Blind Side" as the year's top spiritual film. In fact, 62 percent of the votes went to the real-life story of football star Michael Oher's journey from a Memphis ghetto into the home of a rich Christian family that, literally, adopted him as a son. "Avatar" got 18 percent.

Meanwhile, Pixar's "Up" was chosen as the Best Inspirational Film. It told the story of a crotchety old man who soars away on an adventure inspired by devotion to his recently deceased wife. Along the way, he forms a strong bond with a young boy who reminds him that his life still has purpose.

"Up" was another hit for Pixar, earning nearly $300 million at the box office, while "The Blind Side" shocked Hollywood with a total gross of nearly $250 million, with most of those tickets selling in the American heartland.

"In past years, we've gone back and forth trying to find films that fit our definitions. But this time it was much easier with all of these big, successful films that dealt with spiritual issues," said Ross. "Maybe it's a sign of the times. In hard times, people may be looking for these kinds of uplifting stories. It seems they went to movie theaters looking for something to inspire them."

The Book of Denzel

The first time Denzel Washington read the "Training Day" script, he had an intensely personal reaction to his character -- the charismatic, but fatally corrupt, detective Alonzo Harris. "I try to bend even the worst of my roles, like 'Training Day,' " said Washington, the day after a press screening of "The Book of Eli" in Los Angeles. "The first thing I wrote on my script was 'the wages of sin is death.' "

After that biblical pronouncement, the superstar pleaded for a crucial change in this role, for which he won the Oscar as Best Actor. In the original script, viewers learned about his character's death in a television newscast. Washington insisted that this urban wolf be yanked out of his car and forced to "crawl like a snake" before being riddled with bullets, while people in the neighborhood turned their backs on him.

"I said, 'No, no. ... In order for me to justify him living in the worst way, he has to die in the worst way,' " explained Washington.

For Washington, this "bending" process is part of his ongoing efforts to make sense of his Christian faith in the midst of a career as one of Hollywood's most powerful players in front of, and behind, the camera. The goal isn't to sneak faith into mainstream films, but to pinpoint themes about sin, redemption, justice, dignity and compassion that mesh with what he believes to be true as the son of Pentecostal pastor and an active member of the giant West Angeles Church of God in Christ.

That's what he was doing while playing Malcolm X, emphasizing that his sermons built on racial hatred were evolving into messages rooted in equality. In the violent "Man on Fire," Washington played a bodyguard who decides to sacrifice his own life to save a young girl from kidnappers. This "bending" process is easier in some movies than others.

In the R-rated "Book of Eli" -- directors Albert and Allen Hughes call it a "post-nuclear western" -- the actor plays a warrior who marches through a devastated American landscape while, literally, on a mission from God. He is carrying the last surviving copy of the King James Bible, along with his machete and a few other weapons that he uses with righteous fervor. Call it "Mad Moses" in "The Prayer Warrior."

"Here's a man who, like Saul, or Paul, gets knocked off his horse and has this epiphany, this moment," said Washington.

In a vision, the voice of God tells Eli, "Take this book west," and promises to protect him until he can deliver it into safekeeping. There is one big difference between Eli's story and the biblical account of St. Paul's conversion, the actor admitted, with a laugh. "I don't know if it said anywhere in there, 'And kill everybody on your way.' "

While early drafts of the script contained even more religious material, the film does show Eli reading the Bible and praying every day. In a pivotal scene, he teaches a young woman how to pray, while trying to protect her from a strongman who wants to seize the Bible to use it as "a weapon aimed at the hearts of the weak and the desperate."

Eli's basic message is simple: "Do more for others than you do for yourself." The movie ends with a prayer that includes a famous quotation from St. Paul: "I fought the good fight. I finished the race. I kept the faith."

Washington said these are the kinds of messages that linger after the Bible studies that he strives to fit into each day. He has worked his way through the Bible three times, spurred on by the example of Pauletta, his wife of 26 years.

While reading the Book of Proverbs recently, he began looking around his house, marveling over "all this stuff." This led to a sobering question: "What do you want, Denzel?" He focused on "wisdom," which led to the word "understanding."

"I said, 'Hey, there's something to work on. How about wisdom and understanding? How about that? I started praying, I said, 'God, give me a dose of that,' " said Washington. "I mean, I can't get … anymore successful, you know, but I can get better. I can learn to love more. I can learn to be more understanding. I can gain more wisdom.

"So that's where I'm at."

'Lying' about God onscreen

When it comes to comedian Ricky Gervais, journalist Paul Asay openly confesses that he is a fan. This may seem strange since Asay works for Plugged In, a media Web site sponsored by Focus on the Family -- a powerful brand name in evangelical media. Yes, he knows the hip writer, actor and director is a proud, articulate atheist. However, he also thinks that Gervais is "actually quite talented and a very funny guy."

Thus, Asay had mixed feelings when he reviewed, “The Invention of Lying,” the comedian’s new comedy. After all, Gervais had publicly pledged that it would be both a “sweet Hollywood” romantic comedy and the “first ever completely atheistic movie with no concessions.”

For Asay, watching the movie became a “frustrating, disturbing, deeply saddening experience. And it was funny. Which makes it, in some ways, that much worse.” While the movie displayed Gervais’ talents, it also revealed that he has “very little knowledge of what he seeks to skewer. He takes an infantile interpretation of spirituality -- one that most of us leave behind for deeper truths by the age of 3 or 4 and deconstructs it to the point of imbecility,” wrote Asay.

But here’s the plot twist. While “The Invention of Lying” has received bad reviews from most religious critics, it has not provoked headline-friendly calls to arms by the usual suspects on the religious right.

This has not, in other words, been “The DaVinci Code,” “The Golden Compass” or even the anti-faith “Religulous” sermon from provocateur Bill Maher. So far, the Gervais opus is drawing small crowds into theaters and zero protesters onto sidewalks. As it began its third week, it had grossed only $16,956,375 while sliding to 16th place at the box office.

“The whole movie industry today is such a one week and you’re done affair,” noted Asay. “If you don’t make waves right away, you’re kind of over. ... In retrospect, Gervais and his people may have wanted to pump up that atheism angle in the marketing to get a bigger splash in the press. They needed to do something.”

“The Invention of Lying” takes place in a parallel world in which people cannot lie. Thus, advertisements are rather blunt. The Pepsi slogan is, “When they don’t have Coke,” and a nursing home is called, “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People.”

Then along comes Mark Bellison, a pudgy loser who, in a moment of desperation, intentionally overdraws his bank account and gets away with it. This discovery changes his life, but he also learns that lying cannot solve all his problems. In the movie’s pivotal scene, the liar played by Gervais comforts his dying mother by telling her she soon will be reunited with her loved ones in a land of peace, love and happiness, where there is no pain.

Hospital workers overhear this proclamation and the loser quickly becomes a pseudo-messiah, offering stunning revelations about a great “man in the sky” who controls people’s lives and decides whether they spend eternity in a good place (lots of ice cream) or a bad place.

Nevertheless, the prophet knows he is a fake. While visiting his mother’s grave he confesses, in a fit of guilt: “I know you’re not up there in a mansion. You’re right here in the ground and I’m the only one who knows that.”

It was impossible to watch that scene, and others in “The Invention of Lying,” without feeling some kind of compassion, said Thaisha Geiger, a language arts teacher who reviews movies for the Web site.

Since she was not familiar with Gervais, she did some online research to learn more about his beliefs. She was struck by the fact that Gervais lost his faith as a young child. However, he also told, “I always knew that if my mum asked me when she was dying if there was a heaven, I’d say yes. ... I think that’s how religion started — as a good lie.”

That painful conflict made it onto the screen, said Geiger.

“The movie really is about his beliefs ... so he was probably expecting Christians to yell and scream after they saw this movie,” she said. “But I didn’t feel anger when I saw it. I really walked away feeling sad. ... I thought, ‘He’s an atheist. We should pray for him.’ Maybe he’s disappointed that more people aren’t mad.”

Dark Knight of the soul

For many years, Marc Newman used a simple test when asking college students if they thought some actions were always right and others were always wrong -- slavery.

Then something strange happened in his philosophy of communication classes. Students began arguing that slavery might be acceptable in certain cultures and under certain conditions. Besides, who were they to judge others?

So here's a new question. What if you had two ferries and each contained a bomb. One ferry is full of criminals, while the other contains ordinary citizens and, there's a catch, each contains a remote control that can trigger the other boat's bomb. Then there is this sick Joker who vows that he will destroy both, if one doesn't destroy the other.

Wouldn't it be moral for the good guys to destroy the bad guys?

This is, of course, a soul-wrenching scene in "The Dark Knight," the Batman sequel that is soaring toward the $500 million dollar mark at the U.S. box office.

"The audience is torn between these two choices and that's the point," said Newman, who teaches courses on the rhetoric of film at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. "You want to see good triumph over evil, somehow. But just look how far these movies have to ratchet up the nature of these violent acts so that the whole audience can agree that they're evil."

Newman believes that one reason that consumers are paying -- over and over -- to see this dark, distressing movie is that they are drawn to its depiction of a culture in which violence has become senseless, random and all but unstoppable.

In one nihilistic sermon, the villain with a death-mask smirk tells the powers that be, "Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I am a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it. I just do things." Later, he proclaims: "Introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It?s fair."

This note of despair fits the times. Thus, the movie strikes a chord.

"We see in 'The Dark Knight a fictional expression of our own world gone mad," argues Newman, at his website. "Under interrogation, The Joker rejects the idea that his is some alien ideology. Providing his analysis of the bastions of rules and laws -- the police department -- The Joker explains, 'You see, their morals, their code, it's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you. When the chips are down, these civilized people, they'll eat each other. See, I'm not a monster ... I'm just ahead of the curve.' "

The question religious believers have to ask, he said, is "whether The Joker is right."

Newman is not alone in hailing "The Dark Knight" as -- like it or not -- a must-see epic for clergy and others who want to keep their fingers on the cultural pulse. But there are strong voices of dissent.

"No movie I've ever seen has been so emotionally disturbing and spiritually oppressive," warned Brian Fitzpatrick of Human Events. While some claim that the movie's tale of good and evil contains essentially "conservative" values, he argued that it "showcases violence, betrayal and sadism in the name of frivolous entertainment. The movie is morally corrupt."

The key to this tension, noted Newman, is that "The Dark Knight" leaves viewers yearning for its anti-hero -- Batman is aware of his own flaws and mixed motives -- to find a way to remain true to his personal vow to defend the innocent, even if that means bending society's rules.

As this movie lurches to its conclusion, it becomes clear that the Joker has only one goal and that is to strip Batman of his moral convictions, to shatter his belief that good can defeat evil without being corrupted.

This implies that some kind of moral absolutes do exist.

"But we are left," Newman added, "with an important question: Where does Batman get his convictions about what is right and what is wrong? He has a moral vision, but where did it come from? That isn't in the movie. There are no answers there."