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New Cultural Approach for Conservative Christians: Reviews, Not Protests

By JOHN LELAND (NYT) 1362 words
Published: December 26, 2005

Like other reviewers of ''Brokeback Mountain,'' Steven Isaac was impressed by the quality of the filmmaking. But for Mr. Isaac, who reviews movies for the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family, the movie, about a love affair between two male ranch hands, posed other critical challenges.

''When Ang Lee brings his considerable talents to a film that promotes homosexuality, which I believe personally hurts our culture, you get a movie that sells its message more effectively than one by someone less talented,'' Mr. Isaac said in a telephone interview. In a review that acknowledged the film's virtues, published on the Focus on the Family Web site pluggedinonline.com, he objected that it portrayed the characters' tribulations as consequences of an intolerant society rather than of ''the destructiveness of acting on homosexual temptations.''

''Brokeback Mountain'' has received overwhelming acclaim from mainstream critics, but elicited a different reaction from conservative Christian media: respectful and often laudatory, but finding biblical fault with the film's content.

As the Office for Film and Broadcasting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops put it, ''While the actions of Jack and Ennis'' -- the film's cowboy lovers -- ''cannot be endorsed, the universal themes of love and loss ring true.'' The office originally rated the movie ''L,'' for limited, signaling that it was suitable for adults who can evaluate it from a Catholic moral perspective. But it changed the rating to ''O,'' for offensive, so readers would not think the movie's treatment of homosexuality was ''an acceptable Catholic moral position, which it is not,'' said Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, director of communications for the bishops' conference.

This critical ambivalence represents a change in the way conservative Christians engage popular culture, said Robert Johnston, a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical institution, in Pasadena, Calif. Until recently, he said, Christian groups would have ignored a sexually explicit movie like ''Brokeback Mountain'' except to protest it.

''Ten years ago, conservatives would say 'Schindler's List' should not be shown because of its nudity,'' said Professor Johnston, adding that he had not yet seen ''Brokeback Mountain.'' ''But just as in the wider culture, evangelicals as a group are becoming more sophisticated in their interaction with popular culture. There's been a recognition within the evangelical community that movies have become a primary means, perhaps the primary means, of telling our culture's stories. For this reason, evangelicals have become much more open to good stories, artfully told, but they also want stories whose values they can affirm or understand.''

Reflecting this new approach, Christian media have increased their cultural coverage and influence lately.

The mainstream evangelical magazine Christianity Today last year started Christianitytodaymovies.com to coincide with the release of Mel Gibson's ''Passion of the Christ.'' The site gets 125,000 visitors a month.

''HollywoodJesus.com,'' which has not yet reviewed ''Brokeback Mountain,'' gets one million visitors a month, said its founder, David Bruce, a former Protestant minister who has also worked in television and publishing. Focus on the Family, which started reviewing movies in 1990, gets 800,000 monthly visitors to pluggedinonline, and 50,000 see the magazine in print, a spokeswoman said.

Like their secular counterparts, Christian critics are diverse in their judgments. Most laud the semi-allegorical ''Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,'' based on the spiritually infused novels by C. S. Lewis, as well as tales of salvation like ''The Shawshank Redemption,'' ''The Last Samurai'' or the ''Lord of the Rings'' trilogy, which many pastors cite in sermons. But many also praise wholesome fluff like ''Serenity'' or serious fare like ''2001: A Space Odyssey,'' which appears on the Vatican's 1995 list of 45 great films for its blend of ''science fiction and metaphysical poetry.''

At Decent Films Guide (decentfilms.com) an independent Roman Catholic site that gave ''Brokeback Mountain'' three and a half stars for ''artistic-entertainment value'' and an ''F'' for ''overall recommendability,'' Steven D. Greydanus praises the latest Harry Potter movie. The more conservative MovieGuide, which runs on syndicated television, radio and online at movieguide.org, warns, ''Protect your children from the evil occult power of Harry Potter.''

The willingness to engage controversial movies does not always sit well with readers.

Mark Moring, managing editor of Christianitytodaymovies.com, said many of his readers thought the magazine should ignore movies with objectionable sexual or moral content.

Last year, the site favorably reviewed ''Vera Drake,'' about a British woman who secretly helps terminate unwanted pregnancies, saying that it ''portrays immoral behavior and leaves us to make up our minds about the film.'' While Mr. Moring said many readers objected to a Christian publication endorsing a movie that showed abortion in a positive light, the site named ''Vera Drake'' as one of the Top 10 movies of 2004, a list headed by ''Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.'' (''The Passion of the Christ'' did not make the list, but was named one of the year's Ten Most Redeeming Films.)

With ''Brokeback Mountain,'' Mr. Moring said, ''My first inclination was, hey, this would be an easy one to ignore. It's such a hot button issue for our readers. But if our mission statement is to help Christian moviegoers make discerning choices, the only way we can do that is to review movies that some might be uncomfortable with.''

Still, he advised the reviewer, Lisa Ann Cockrel, to be careful about appearing to endorse homosexuality. And he appended an editor's note to her generally positive review: ''As for the 3-star rating, that is only in reference to the quality of the filmmaking, the acting, the cinematography, etc. It is not a 'recommendation' to see the film, nor is it a rating of the 'moral acceptability' of the subject matter.''

At movieguide.org, a Web site dedicated to ''redeeming the values of the mass media according to biblical principles,'' the movie merited no such critical somersaults. In the words of the reviewer, Tom Snyder, it is ''too long and at times twisted, laughable, frustrating, sadomasochistic, plotless and boring.'' The organization, which has been reviewing movies since 1985, rated the film ''abhorrent,'' a designation it shares with ''Syriana,'' ''Rent'' and ''Breakfast on Pluto.''

''I think it has a pernicious effect on society,'' said Mr. Snyder, who has a doctorate in film studies from Northwestern University. ''Hollywood projects a leftist homosexual agenda, which goes along with radical feminism, and a misunderstanding of what Christianity teaches.''

So far the religious reaction to ''Brokeback Mountain'' has been limited to the review pages. In a season where some Christian organizations are decrying a ''war on Christmas,'' and the American Family Association threatened to boycott of the Ford Motor Company because it advertises in gay magazines, there has been little organized outcry around ''Brokeback Mountain.''

This too represents a growing sophistication in the way conservative Christian groups engage the popular culture, said Stuart Shepard, managing editor of Focus on the Family's daily e-mail news updates, which go out to 115,000 subscribers. ''We're not going to go out and protest it because it would probably play into the marketing plans of the producers,'' he said. ''They'd say, the Christian right is opposed to this movie, so you really, really, really want to see it.''

He pointed to the 1988 protests of ''The Last Temptation of Christ'' over its depiction of a sexual Jesus, as well as Focus on the Family's more recent criticisms of the cartoon ''SpongeBob SquarePants,'' both of which resulted in lots of publicity but little practical gains, he said.

''We learned from 'Last Temptation of Christ' that if it wasn't for the protest, the film wouldn't be remembered today,'' Mr. Shepard said. ''Our expectation is 'Brokeback Mountain' won't do as well in the heartland, but protest would bump that up.''

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