When we watch old-fashioned westerns today, it is almost a sure thing that we will comment on the unfortunate, naïve caricatures of Native Americans. Similarly, we often fuss and flinch over movies just a few decades old that portray women in the confines of stereotypes, brainless beauties who exist only to serve men as objects of affection, damsels in distress, trophies for heroes, or as a mindless Mom.

But Christians are often shocked and dismayed over the stereotype that won't go away: the villainous, judgmental, legalistic Christian determined to spoil the party.

One particular instance of a film's portrayal of Christians—from 1960—has recently made the news. Inherit the Wind recounts the story of the 1925 Scopes Trial and was recently shown in a sophomore biology class at Shawnee Mission East, a Kansas City high school. When parents learned that the school was showing what they argue is a flawed and anti-Christian film, they went to the school board. The matter is now in the hands of a school district special committee.

The church is frequently portrayed on the big screen in an unflattering light. God, on the other hand, usually gets a positive (if shallow) portrayal. And angels needn't worry about their reputation either: in It's a Wonderful Life they're shown as kind and helpful, if a bit sentimental, and in Wings of Desire they're powerful messengers of comfort and pilgrims haunted by questions about spiritual mysteries and death. But why does the cliché of the scowling, ranting Christian continue?

In hopes of offering some consolation for persecuted Christians of the silver screen, I asked Film Forum readers to dig up some examples of Christians portrayed properly. The result was rather surprising. So many names were suggested that they overwhelmed the mentions of unflattering portrayals. It's enough to make me wonder if the days of the stereotype are numbered—or if the stereotypes were ever enough to merit complaint in the first place.

(I am indebted to Ron Reed, director of the Pacific Theater in Vancouver, B.C., for thinking and long and hard about the question. He responded with such an overwhelming archive of examples that I almost turned the column over to him.)

Our favorite portrayals of Christians in the movies are …

Eric Liddell of Chariots of Fire

It comes as no surprise that the overwhelmingly favorite portrayal of a Christian in a film was Ian Charleson's role as the Olympic runner and missionary Eric Liddell in Hugh Hudson's Chariots of Fire. Charleson's performance could have been hammy and heavy-handed, but the actor gave the religious runner a tone tenderness, quiet grace, and just enough childlike enthusiasm to be endearing. The dignity Liddell exhibits in the presence of the ruling authorities who challenge him is played as a perfect balance of respect and confrontation. I think Liddell's brief sermon during a cloudburst is my favorite movie sermon of all time, as it is spoken with such sincerity and warmth, and comes so clearly from the heart, with affection.

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Reed says, "If there was a movie that heralded the change from stereotype and condescension to at least occasional respect and recognition, it was Chariots of Fire, where audiences rooted for an unabashedly evangelical Christian, even cheering him on as he took a moral stand they would never themselves consider. Somehow, by some cinematic alchemy, Your Average Theatregoer perceived Eric Lidell to be a hero for refusing to run an Olympic race on the Lord's Day, and believing Christians sitting in those crowded movie houses, braced for the usual mockery of conservative Christian practices, experienced an intoxicating thrill as their values and standards were celebrated instead.

"Historical figures had long been allowed to be both Christian and honorable—it was acceptable for Richard Burton to defend the honor of God in the 1964 film of Jean Anouilh's Becket, or for Paul Scofield to take a similar stand two years later when Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons hit the silver screen, for example. Still, when the Chariots rolled it had been more than a decade and a half since Christians had been allowed to be Good Guys, and we were only protected from the Sprinting Scotsman and his gospel faith by decades rather than centuries. It was electric to hear this man tell his missionary sister (in what must surely be the line of dialogue most-quoted among Christian artists of a certain generation), 'God made me for China. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.' The runner's pleasure in the God who made him? Yes. The Creator's pleasure in his child, and in the gift being expressed? Yes."

"Sonny" Dewey of The Apostle

When Robert Duvall turned loose what may well be the most complex and passionate preacher the big screen has ever seen, moviegoers sat in a state of bewilderment and fascination. "Sonny" Dewey certainly makes an indelible impression, with his high-intensity, hand-waving, relentless, Southern-style sermons, the way he storms across the stage, the way he plays the congregation like a conductor leading an orchestra, moving from tirades to hushed meditations in a way that can only be described as musical.

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But when Dewey lashes out at the man who stole his wife's heart, he has to leave the sermons behind and flee from the churchgoers who turn against him. He runs from the law, yes, but also from the fear, the grief, the pain of betrayal, and—worst of all—the realization of his heart's own unfaithfulness.

But he never tries to run from God—if anything, he turns to confront him, to challenge him for allowing such trials to befall him. His passionate tirades against God bring to mind the angry cries of King David in the Psalms. While Dewey is clearly a sinner digging himself a deeper hole, The Apostle makes it clear that Dewey knows God will rescue him from his trouble and set him on higher ground. Such faith works in his heart to convict him, to comfort him, and eventually to empower him even when the time comes to pay the consequences for his crimes.

J. Robert Parks, film critic for The Phantom Tollbooth, says, "The Apostle is one of my favorite movies of the last decade. Having grown up in a somewhat small, charismatic church, I felt like I was watching my childhood. Duvall gets it exactly right."

Darrell Manson, a critic for Hollywood Jesus, call it "one of the most sympathetic views of the holiness segment of the church, but it is balanced, showing both the [Elmer] Gantry-ism that always is in the church and the love of God that keeps the church alive and constantly being reborn."

Reed calls Dewey "O'Connor-esque … [a] deeply flawed Southern preacher whose God-haunted story illustrates another apostle's assertion that 'the gifts and calling of God are without repentance'—and that grace abounds, even to the chief of sinners."

The Families of Ordet

Carl Dreyer's film about two families feuding over how to follow Christ properly is considered by many film critics—Christian and otherwise—to be one of the greatest works of cinematic art ever filmed. The father of one family struggles when one of his three sons declares that he has lost "faith in faith." The second son has devoted himself so completely to studying the Scriptures that he has gone a bit mad, wandering around in a sort of trance claiming to be Jesus himself. The third son has pledged his love to a young woman in a family whose Christianity is of a very different color.

"Ordet is … about faith," writes Darren Hughes at his website Long Pauses. "It's about the mysteries and contradictions and beauty of such irrational belief. Unlike any other film I can name, though, Ordet treats this subject with both measured skepticism and reverence, forcing us to distance ourselves, even if only temporarily, from our personal beliefs so that we might reexperience 'true faith' (whatever that is) free of cultural baggage and biases. Ordet … defamiliariz[es] the now-mundane words of Christ, while also making perfectly acceptable the probability of miracles."

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J. Robert Parks also praises the film as a unique work about faith. "The Christians themselves are a mix of the naïve and the severe Scandanavian kind we see so often in Bergman films. But the view of Christianity is one of faith and power, of the importance of prayer and dependence on God. This leads up to an awe-inspiring climax that I still can't believe I saw."

Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking

In Tim Robbins' sobering drama of a compassionate nun and a hardened criminal, Susan Sarandon's portrayal of the ministry of Sister Helen Prejean brought capital punishment into the spotlight, sparking a resurgence of interest in the issue and heated debates across the country. Just as the film did not shy away from the compelling arguments on both sides of the death penalty question, it portrayed Prejean's faith without flinching.

Film Forum reader Dan Buck writes, "Dead Man Walking has some of the best depictions of believers I have seen, for better or for worse. Sister Helen Prejean's authentic walk with Christ is humble and admittedly flawed. The families of the victims are having trouble grasping grace, the prison employees and people surrounding the execution quote convenient Scripture to maintain the status quo, and the truest step of faith we see is from the one who seems farthest from pious."

Reed calls Sarandon's work "extraordinary."

The Community, and Babette, in Babette's Feast

Based on a story by Isak Dinesen, Babette's Feast has become the standard-bearing film for new Christian cinema, a parable of grace, forgiveness, compassion, and healing, and an exhortation to celebrate God's many wonderful gifts. It is never preachy, it is full of quirky and endearing characters. And Babette (Stéphane Audran) moves through this village of simple-minded and stubborn old folks with the grace and majesty of an exotic queen.

Serving a pair of traditional elderly women who act as spiritual guides for a small village, Babette does a bit of spiritual guidance herself, introducing these disciples of self-denial to the unsettling world of sensual pleasures that characterize French cuisine. Once a first-rate chef in a classy French restaurant, Babette has struggled for years to follow the simple, crude culinary traditions of the villagers. But when she suddenly is granted an extraordinary opportunity, Babette pulls out all the stops in an act of generosity and art unlike anything that the villagers have ever seen, and they react in an amusing mix of fear, trepidation, and amazement.

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Reed writes, "For many Christians, Babette's Feast is the quintessential 'Christian-positive' film, a celebration of the via positiva over a soul-destroying, relationship-withering strain of asensual pietism. I find it ironic (and significant) that non-Christians read this film very differently, seeing in it the triumph of good old hedonism over life-denying Christianity. The former view Babette, and her celebration of the senses and communal celebration, as inherently Christian, making much of the subtle suggestions that the character is a Catholic believer: the latter simply assume that nothing this luxurious and tasty could ever come out of our rule-bound, heavenly-minded religion, and identify Babette as one of their own.

"Are the strict, ascetic townspeople caricatures of pietistic Christians? I don't think so—there's something about the climate, the landscape, and the history of these Northern believers that can too readily shrink and harden a soul, and to my eyes this is a pretty apt picture. Is Babette the embodiment of God's response to his own creation, the ringing great 'Behold, it is good!' of the Genesis creation account? I think so—but I don't know if Isak Dinesen would see it that way or not."

Officer Jim Curring of Magnolia

Reader Nick Alexander writes in with one of my favorites: John C. Reilly's character in Magnolia. He says it is "probably the most realistic, most sympathetic, most endearing Christian I've ever encountered in film. Makes me wonder if [director] Paul Thomas Anderson wrote about him based on a real event."

Reed also praises "Reilly's cliché-defying embodiment of an almost comically idealistic, inexperienced, unsure, naive, compassionate cop. The first time we see him, he is at the wheel of his squad car carrying on an animated conversation with someone we don't see—who turns out in fact to be Someone Unseen. The attraction-of-opposites romance that plays out between this naive, praying policeman and the strung out junky-in-need-of-redemption he meets on a routine noise disturbance call is not only hilarious but touching, and never does the film condescend to this endearing man or his faith."

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Jaime Sullivan of A Walk to Remember

Reedsays, "Sharing in my teenager's exhilaration about this story, seeing it through her eyes, I got to see the movie from the right vantage point. Mandy Moore plays a bright, self-possessed high school girl completely unconcerned with the preoccupations of other girls her age, appearance and popularity. Instead, she is living life on her own terms, working through a checklist of experiences she is determined to have before she dies. She is unapologetic about her life, about herself, and indeed about her Christian faith: and the constrained, anxious lives of those around her are weighed and found wanting when contrasted to hers."

He adds, "This film, interestingly, also included 'the other kind' of Christian character—the young woman's father, a standard-issue pastor/dad, harshly controlling and mistrustful. Fair enough, the guy has his reasons for being that way, and there are basic dramaturgical reasons why he was probably drawn that way, but Peter Coyote's performance played as one- or two-note caricature to me, pulled from the same bag of clichés as so many other ministerial monster parents—my mind turns immediately to Reverend Shaw Moore in that other mid-'80s teen dance flick, Footloose."

Also admirable …

Father Frank Shore of The Third Miracle offers an admirable alternative to the other religious figures in the film. Manson catalogues "A cynical bishop, a pompous cardinal, various supporters of causes for sainthood that have less than noble motives … but also the priest who has been stalwart throughout his priesthood … searching for truth and faith in spite of his doubts and disappointments."

The Lieutenant of Bad Lieutenant is a lapsed Roman Catholic so deeply lost in immorality that the film about him proves too unbearable for most viewers. The film follows him during a day on the job investigating the brutal murder of a nun. Along the way, he participates in gambling, plunges further into cocaine addiction, carries out violence, and inflicts a sickening act of humiliation and sexual abuse on two young women. But before the day is done, he has a transforming and crushing encounter with the one individual who can force him to face his sins. "Abel Ferrera's almost unwatchable (but I think profound) film featur[es] Harvey Keitel in a quintessential performance," says Ron Reed. "Keitel is unflinching in his embodiment of a man utterly given over to carnality—who is nonetheless pursued by the hound of heaven, snapping relentlessly at his heels."

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Billy Kwan of The Year of Living Dangerously, played with Oscar-winning intensity by Linda Hunt, seems at first like merely a curious supporting character. But Kwan's choices and exhortations to the central characters give the story its moral compass. Ron Reed calls Kwan "a man of obedience, of conscience, spiritually quickened—one of 'the least' who, in the upside-down Kingdom of God, is counted greatest."

A portrayal that never fails to break my heart with its beauty and purity, Sonya of Vanya on 42nd Street, is played by Brooke Smith in a performance of raw emotion, virtue, eloquence, and tenderness. Like Billy Kwan in Living Dangerously, Sonya provides the moral compass for other fractured characters, even if they fail to comprehend it, in Andre Gregory's screen adaptation of Chekov's dark play about despair in a cold, cruel, lonely world.

Reed calls Smith's performance "stunning. It seems every other director of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya treats this character's Christianity with anything from irony to contempt, dismissing it (and the character) as sadly naive and ineffectual. But Gregory, whose work is preoccupied with spiritual exploration (My Dinner With Andre), gives full weight to this young woman's beliefs and the integrity of her life, in clear contrast to the lives of indulgence and ennui around her. In so doing, [he] finds a fresh power and emotional centre in the play that lifts it above the oppressive pessimism that usually permeates. There is a simple quality of goodness, a directness and lack of jadedness or artifice which rings through in this actress's embodiment of the character and makes her final scene about the value of work and the hope of heaven deeply moving and memorable."

Others fondly remember:

  • the troubled small-town priest (Claude Laydu) in the Robert Bresson film that some consider his masterpiece, Diary of a Country Priest;

  • C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) of Shadowlands;

  • Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) in Ben-Hur;

  • Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) in A Man for All Seasons;

  • the loving and devoted father and Presbyterian Rev. Maclean (Tom Skerrit) in A River Runs Through It;

  • Corrie Ten Boom (Jeannette Clift) in The Hiding Place;

  • Maria (Julie Andrews) in The Sound of Music;

  • John Merrick (John Hurt) of The Elephant Man;

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  • Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), a slave who accepts Christ, in The Robe;

  • the "Saint-Francis-as-proto-hippie" in Brother Sun, Sister Moon;

  • Father Damien (David Wenham) in Molokai;

  • Edna Spalding (Sally Field), the widow who survives storms, the Depression, and tragedy in Places in the Heart;

  • a soldier (Gary Cooper) burdened by his anti-war convictions in Sergeant York;

  • Lindy Chamberlain (Meryl Streep), a grieving Seventh-day Adventist mother in A Cry In The Dark;

  • country singer Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) in Tender Mercies;

  • the French villagers who give refuge to the Jews in Le Chambon;

  • the courageous and compassionate Lutheran Rev. Wredmann (Bent Mejding) in Italian For Beginners;

  • the nervous but dedicated small-town pastor (Betsy Aidem) of You Can Count On Me;

  • Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) and Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert DeNiro) in The Mission;

  • Father Brian Finn (Edward Norton) in Keeping The Faith;

  • Jean Valjean and the Bishop in the various versions of Les Miserables;

  • Terry (Robert Sean Leonard) in Chelsea Walls;

  • the tragically delusional but aggressively prayerful Bess McNeill (Emily Watson) in Breaking the Waves;

  • Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a "superhero of faith," in X2: X-Men United;

  • and Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), the doubting ex-pastor who fights aliens in Signs (Brenda Nelson says Signs is "the only secular movie [in which] I've seen … someone showing appreciation to God when they recognized his hand in their lives").

Notoriously Negative Christian Portrayals …

There are plenty of unflattering portrayals of Christians, and readers had no trouble calling out their names.

Jay Ramirez mentions the ministers in The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter. "I think they both were a misrepresentation of Puritan ecclesiology."

Russell Lucas mentions "the Organ Lady in Edward Scissorhands."

Mike Hertenstein of Cornerstone highlights "the constipated old minister in Carnival of Souls" and "Bruce Beresford's memorable Catholic priests or nuns in Black Robe or Evelyn."

Manson writes, "Marjoe is another of the worst. It is a dishonest and mean-spirited distortion in the guise of a documentary that takes things out of context to make people look bad." He also mentions El Crimen de Padre Amaro, saying it casts the church "in a bad light. Mostly it's anti-clerical, but it also includes such things as a superstitious woman who takes the host home to feed her cat."

I'd add the pretentious, presumptuous minister eulogizing the murdered teens of Heathers.

Readers also grimly recall the following:

  • "the naïve young fundamentalist" (Peter Facinelli) of The Big Kahuna;

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  • Jake Van Dorn (George C. Scott) of Hardcore, a Dutch Calvinist who loses his soul while searching for his lost daughter;

  • a lifeless church in Breaking the Waves, "a church so sour it doesn't have a bell in the tower";

  • Father Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow) and Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) in The Exorcist;

  • the hard-hearted, judgmental church of Chocolat;

  • the cruel and unusual prison warden (Bob Gunton) of The Shawshank Redemption;

  • and a couple of characters who are intended to be positive Christian portrayals, but behave in ways quite contrary to the faith—the promiscuous, vague, arrogant, lapsed something-or-other (Matthew McConaughey) in Contact; and John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) of The Green Mile whose initials and words imply a connection with Christ, but who concludes his magical mystery tour of the prison with a request for his own execution because he is "tired" of dealing with evil.

Are negative portrayals really so bad?

For some Christian moviegoers, however, these negative portrayals are not necessarily worth protesting. In fact, they argue that some of these portrayals may be discomforting because they reflect the reality that Christians regularly abuse the name of their Savior by behaving in judgmental, self-righteous, and reprehensible ways that therefore deserve the caricature.

"I don't actually care that much how Christians are portrayed," admits J. Robert Parks, "which is why I don't have a big problem with the admittedly nasty warden in Shawshank Redemption. I've unfortunately known people like that. What really gets my goat is when Christianity itself is portrayed in a harmful or negative or stereotypical light—which is why I loathe Chocolat. It's the Easter 'sermon' that the priest gives at the end I find so revolting … this idea that the right form of Christianity recognizes that the 'true' meaning of Easter is that we should all just get along. I'm sorry, but that is not the true Easter message, as it completely ignores the all-important Good Friday message. And which is why I find Ordet so powerful and overwhelming. I realize that it's not always easy to separate the Christian from Christianity. But I find it easy to accept flawed or even wicked Christians. I have a much harder time putting up with a bland or trite view of the faith."

Similarly, Brenda Nelson writes in mentioning the troubling portrayal of a "sour and bossy Christian" mother in Bubble Boy. "If we are completely honest about it, in many ways they are bringing our downfalls into the light. Christians are imperfect people who often fail to uphold Christian ideals. Even though I don't want the media to rub my nose in it, hypocrisy is still rearing its ugly head in the Christian church today."

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Reed finds encouragement in the face of caricatures, having identified so many admirable alternatives. "For every clichéd film rendition of an axe-wielding, Bible-quoting psychopath or a standard issue missionary monster, there's another that features—can you believe!—a recognizable human being, whose flaws are nothing more or less than part of their palpable humanity. Who also happens to follow Jesus.  Kind of like the Christians I know. Kind of like me."

Next week: We'll catch up with 2 Fast 2 Furious and other new releases.