Oscar Meets God

Experts say that the United States is growing ever-more secular. Studies and polls back that up. About 18 percent of us claim no religious affiliation these days, up from 15 percent in 2009.

But those numbers don\’t tell the whole story. Many of those non-affiliated Americans (colloquially called \”nones\”) believe in God. They pray, sometimes daily. Evidence of a stubborn sense of faith and religion is found everywhere in our society–including in our entertainment. And when I look at the films nominated for the Academy Awards Best Picture, I have to wonder: If we Americans are growing less spiritual, why are our films growing more?

Pi, from Life of Pi, might be forced to call himself a \”none\” if asked–only because there\’s no box to check for \”all.\” He claims to be a Hindu-Christian-Muslim, seeing God everywhere. He is, I think, a more accurate reflection of where American faith is moving. And it makes sense–if not theologically, at least culturally. We Americans like to think of ourselves as having no boundaries, no restrictions. We\’ve been taught from the cradle we can do anything we set our minds to. So why restrict ourselves to  one religion? Why follow one path when we can follow all?

As a pretty traditional Christian, I can think of lots of reasons why one path is better … but that\’s not really the point here. Pi still manages to express, I think, both the beauty and power of spirituality–something most of us feel at times, regardless of  belief. We\’ve been born with a desire to reach for God. God gave us that desire. And Pi conveys that desire better than perhaps any movie I\’ve ever seen.

I think that Beasts of the Southern Wild is another manifestation of \”none\” spirituality. Its worldview is very much secular. The main characters consider themselves–even pride themselves–on being \”beasts.\” They\’re survivors in a beast-eat-beast world, in marvelous union with each other and the world around them. There\’s no talk of God, no consideration of heaven. Heaven for them is in the rural backwoods \”bathtub\” that 6-year-old Hushpuppy and the adults around her call home.

And yet, the movie is still deeply spiritual–full of cosmic portent and divine energy. This is myth on a grand scale, full of morals and monsters and universal force. It suggests that even those who don\’t pay homage to God, any god, still feel that spiritual tug. Says Hushpuppy:

When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me lying around in invisible pieces. When I look too hard, it goes away. And when it all goes quiet, I see they are right here. I see that I\’m a little piece in a big, big universe. And that makes things right. When I die, the scientists of the future, they\’re gonna find it all. They gonna know, once there was a Hushpuppy, and she live with her daddy in the Bathtub. 

In almost every movie nominated for a best picture Oscar this year, God is somewhere in the picture. Sometimes you can feel His presence only at the edges. But sometimes He fills the screen. In Zero Dark Thirty, our hero, Maya, seems as hardened a secularist as there is. And yet she confesses that she feels as though she was \”meant\’ to track down Osama bin Laden–a sacred calling from an unknown source. In Lincoln, our title character believes that slavery is our nation\’s greatest sin and he means to expunge it once and for all–even as others suggest that keeping other people in bondage is somehow God\’s will. In Django Unchained, there\’s an implicit understanding that slavery is evil–a true evil that transcends and supersedes cultural, societal purely human-based whims.

And then we have Les Miserables–an explicitly Christian parable from beginning to end. We see the conflict between the Pharisaical Inspector Javert and the grace-filled reality of Jean Valjean–along with perhaps revolutionary France\’s version of the \”nones\” in Mr. and Madame Thénardier. As Javert and Valjean joust over what\’s right or true, the Thénardiers are more concerned with what\’s in it for them–a worldview that while not at all attractive in Les Mis, has some unapologetic adherents today.

As a Christian movie reviewer, sometimes I hear readers talk about how \”godless\” Hollywood is. And it\’s true that the entertainment industry doesn\’t produce many films that cater to conservative evangelical Christians. But truth be told, Hollywood is far from godless. It seems to me that filmmakers are searching–and sometimes finding–God all the time.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous says:

    These are some terrific observations. It was strangely refreshing to hear the priest share the gospel in Life of Pi, almost as if it was unbelievable for a secular movie to not misconstrue Christians. Hollywood scripts strive to have purpose and meaning behind the decisions their characters make and outcomes that follow. If that ends up looking an awful lot like God, that's rather nice.


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