Cinema’s Conversion?: Hollywood as Neighbor

At the bottom of the impulse to care for high-profile performing artists lie a couple of differing conceptions of mission.

On one end of the spectrum, the desire for these communities to know Christ seems to be primarily about two things: the salvation and regeneration of individual souls, and (as a by-product? a goal?) promoting a more top-down “Christian” culture, which might lead to something like hearing more high-powered, explicit Christian witness from Hollywood and seeing more “family-friendly” fare at the cinema.

On the other end of the spectrum are some who may find such a description of mission more than slightly hair-curling, but who may, ultimately, have a very similar goal in mind. This latter group may express their desire in terms of community renewal, truth-telling, goodness and beauty, and may judge what’s “clean” for the moviegoing eye rather in terms of meaning and necessity.

I fall harder toward the latter group myself, though the former group, to their great credit, does appear to pay more attention to the imaginative lives of children.

But whether the desire is to transform culture, shepherd souls, or move somehow deftly in between, I think both groups have seen two things.

First, Hollywood hurts. This is a well-documented drama. At the very least, whatever sins and weaknesses performers bring to the camera and stage, being viewed and captured by eyes and lenses not necessarily loving, cannot but find themselves pressurized—and often enough well-channeled into performances. But we can all think of examples, or at least rumors of examples, in which it seems clear that such pressure also contributes to and then subsequently magnifies some personal wound, some public disaster.

Second, Christians have always, in their more lucid moments at least, claimed a prerogative to bend toward those who are villified, who are “hung up” for others to view, vulnerable to scoffing and scorn, whether these hang on an instrument of death and torture, or on a magazine rack. In this sense, ministry to high-profile performers could potentially be seen as an act of identification, not with wealth and fame, but with weakness, shame, and a common humanity that finds both its desolation and its vocation at the cross.

But Hollywood also has power, of course—not least to catechize the public eye. Two recent (and very different) examples: Terrence Malick’s dense love song of a movie, To the Wonder, and newbie writer/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hour and half gesture of the “large and startling figures” of our culture’s relationship to sex, Don Jon. Both of these movies explore love, sex, and the possibilities of human relating, trusting truth enough to put pressure on lies: that romantic love calls the shots, and that pornography doesn’t necessarily hurt anyone. These films were not equally well-known (and I am giving myself away here by not being able to name any blockbusters with similar threads), but they are a foretaste, I hope, of a new trend in Hollywood. The fruit of prayer for the arts, and prayer for performers, should include more movies that ask hard questions about our communities, our human loves, and about their relationship both to divine love and bodily habits. Films that explore habits and imagination in a dig for truth are just right for our times.

Whether they (or we) like it or not, artists are stewards of imagination. So, in this sense, any outreach to performers is not just a missionary effort. Hollywood impacts me—the imagination of my community, my culture, my country, and to the extent that the church enjoys Western cinema, the Christian imagination, too. And for those who desire specifically Hollywood’s more explicit conversion to Christian faith, I say, right on. But I would also point to (who else but?) C.S. Lewis, whose imagination, he famously claimed, was baptized before the rest of him.

Amber Noel received her M.Div. from Duke University in 2012 after additional graduate coursework in theology and literature at Lee University. She lives in Durham, NC (USA) where she is exploring vocations in pastoral, artistic, and academic fields, and currently works as Assistant to the Director of Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts. In her spare time, Amber is either pursuing ordination as a deacon, eating breakfast, or watching Doctor Who. She has high-quality humans and/or cats around her most of the time.


  • Amber Noel Amber Noel received her M.Div. from Duke University in 2012 after additional graduate coursework in theology and literature, but she does not yet need glasses. She's worked as a teacher, writer, youth minister, and party-thrower, and lives in Dallas, Texas, where she pulls together various combinations of pastoral and creative shenanigans for the good of the church. She adores hot yoga, dubstep, and bedtime snacks, as well as spending time with fine humans and animals.

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