Hollywood and Christianity

The other day I was watching a show that surprisingly made reference to “Dutch Calvinism.” To say the least, I was shocked because ordinarily reference to Christianity is dominated by either a generic evangelicalism, which at times mirrors spiritual mysticism more than biblical Christianity, or Roman Catholicism, which is one of the more common forms of Christianity—at least socially (not theologically) considered. On the other hand, as quickly as I was surprised and encouraged by the mention of Dutch Calvinism, I was discouraged by how it was portrayed. The main character in the scene pointed to a cross hanging on the wall and beneath it was a portrait, not of Jesus or the pope, but of John Calvin. Additionally, the character said something to the effect, “No, this person is not a smoker. She’s a Dutch Calvinist, and they believe the body is holy and a temple, and therefore would never smoke.”

Aside from the fact that the character’s statement was partially true—setting aside the issue of Christian liberty, a key Reformed teaching—I know of no one who places pictures of John Calvin beneath a cross. I suspect that the prop people and scriptwriters wanted to convey that the main character, a detective, was keenly aware of obscure facts and information, and thus quickly discerned that there was evidence in the house of an uncommon form of Christianity, i.e., Dutch Calvinism. The problem is, I suspect, that the scriptwriters and prop people had no idea how Dutch Calvinists express their piety. They knew how Roman Catholics do it, so they figured that they could simply replace a picture of the pope with a picture of Calvin and this would suffice.

Granted, this whole mention of Dutch Calvinism was a very minor point in the overall plot of this show; nevertheless, I believe it's an example of how Hollywood, no matter how hard it tries, never seems to present an accurate portrayal of Christianity. Movie companies and studios go to great lengths to get details right about so many things—they do research, and actors will shadow the real-life people they portray. So why is it that Hollywood can’t seem to get Christianity right?

Hypocritical prison warden Samuel Norton (played by Bob Gunton) in  The Shawshank Redemption ; MoviestillsDB.com

Hypocritical prison warden Samuel Norton (played by Bob Gunton) in The Shawshank Redemption; MoviestillsDB.com

I suspect it's because, as a general rule, Hollywood is far more interested in belittling and ridiculing the Christian faith that it has little time or interest in trying to understand it. How often are Christians portrayed as zealots, ideologues, racists, homophobes, women and child abusers, right-wing ignoramuses, or well meaning but naive do-gooders? By contrast, the efforts in the media and the press to protect, advocate, and fairly represent issues such as same-sex marriage or Islam show the great lengths the entertainment industry goes to portray accurately, fairly, and sympathetically other points of view. It would be one thing if the entertainment industry ridiculed Christians, but at least represented the ideas, beliefs, and doctrines accurately. At least one could say, “I recognize my beliefs in this representation, even if they are ridiculed.”

Why does this all happen? Is there a theological answer to this question? Yes. The Bible states, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2.14). The unbelieving world will always exhibit a degree of hostility towards Christ and the church. Our task, however, is not to worry about being accepted or fairly represented but rather fidelity to the church’s calling in the Great Commission. We know that even though the world will reject, ridicule, and malign Christianity, the Spirit of God is working to change hearts and minds and enable people to embrace the foolish message of the gospel.

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J. V. Fesko is Academic Dean and Professor of Systematic Theology and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California. He has written numerous books on the Christian faith, including Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on BaptismJustification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, and The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights.

This article by J. V. Fesko was originally published under the title "A Pastor's Reflections: Hollywood and Christianity" on Westminster Seminary California's Valiant For Truth blog. For more helpful content by Dr. Fesko, please visit jvfesko.com.

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