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With the winter release of a variety of films—from Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas to O Brother, Where Art Thou?—evangelicals again debate the Christian value of these movies, especially their implicit or explicit religious content. But what exactly goes into movie producers' heads as they make decisions about how to treat religion? By what criteria should Christians judge a film that comes out of Hollywood? And what really makes for a "Christian-friendly" film? To prod our thinking about such issues, managing editor Mark Galli talked with William Romanowski, professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College, and author of the forthcoming Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (Brazos).
How have evangelicals traditionally evaluated Hollywood films?
The more conservative groups have simply condemned movies. One critic in the 1940s said Hollywood was "the place where Satan has his throne."
For most evangelicals, evangelism is the primary justification and purpose for popular art, both for producing it and thinking about it. Thus, for most evangelicals, what makes popular art "Christian" is the clarity of its presentation of the gospel, like films that are explicitly about the faith or about Bible stories. The religious classics—Ben-Hur, The Robe, Barabbas, The Ten Commandments—immediately come to mind, as does Chariots of Fire. More recently, there's The Prince of Egypt, the Dreamworks animated cartoon on Moses; some Christian reviewers liked it because they were hopeful the film would lead people into faith.
I take it you use a different grid.
I think the better way is to look at the life perspectives films represent, what Nicholas Wolterstorff calls "the world behind the work of art." There ...
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