Since its beginning more than a century ago, the film industry has had a complicated relationship with God. The Bible provided the epic stories for many of Hollywood’s earliest blockbusters—like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923), The King of Kings (1927), and The Sign of the Cross (1932)—and has supplied ample fodder for the big screen ever since (including last year’s meta sendup of the biblical epic genre, the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!). But Hollywood has also had a combative relationship with Christianity, often provoking censorship and boycotts and cries of “blasphemy!” This too persists today.
But as controversial as God may be as a subject matter, and as seemingly godless as the entertainment industry has become, the specter of religion looms large in Hollywood. Indeed, as secularism grows and unbelief becomes more acceptable in Western culture, cinema seems unwilling (or unable) to let God go.
As Charles Taylor illustrates in A Secular Age, the “immanent frame” of today’s disenchanted world is not wholly closed. There are ruptures. Cross-pressures. Pulls toward the transcendent. As much as we discount religion or the supernatural in theory, there are experiences of the world that nag at us and complicate our immanence.
Encounters with art are often the culprit. The movie theater is often the venue.
One of the marks of God-haunted Hollywood is the ubiquity of biblical themes and allusions onscreen. Some of these are more straightforward (though not uncontroversial) biblical epics, like Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) or last year’s Ben-Hur reboot and the Ewan-McGregor-as-Jesus movie Last Days in the Desert. Others offer more outlandish, subversive spins on biblical material, like this summer’s War for the Planet of the Apes or Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant.
On television there have been highly acclaimed recent dramas with decidedly biblical overtones. The Handmaid’s Tale, which recently swept the Emmy Awards, depicts an oppressive Christian theocratic regime called Gilead, ruled by the “Sons of Jacob.” The Leftovers, which recently finished its much-praised three-season run, is a rapture-themed show chock full of biblical allusions, from Genesis to Daniel to Matthew to (of course) Revelation.
Then there is the case of Darren Aronofsky. His two most recent films—Noah (2014) and Mother! (2017)—are decidedly provocative and divisive, but undeniably earnest in their engagement with biblical material and observations about environmental stewardship. Released last month, Mother! is an extended biblical allegory that takes viewers on a wild, disturbing ride from Genesis to Revelation, starring Javier Bardem as God and Jennifer Lawrence as the creation (“mother” Earth) that is relentlessly abused by God’s adoring fans.
Whatever else we might say about Aronofsky’s recent Bible films, the fact he’s making them (and getting them financed) is interesting. Raised culturally Jewish, Aronofsky clearly has conflicted feelings about religion and is captivated by the stories of Scripture, and he’s betting movie audiences are too.
While the prevalence of biblical themes and even movies about sincere Christian faith (think last year’s Hacksaw Ridge and Silence) are the most overt examples of a God-haunted Hollywood, a subtler but no less significant sign is the formidable ascendance of the horror genre in the 21st century.
The recent success of Stephen King’s It—already the fifth-highest-grossing film of the year—is the latest example of how horror has become one of Hollywood’s most bankable genres. Three other horror films this year (Split, Get Out, and Annabelle: Creation) are among 2017’s top 25 films at the box office.
This is part of a general horror resurgence in which films like The Ring (2002), The Grudge (2004), Paranormal Activity (2007), Sinister (2012), and The Conjuring (2013) have launched sequels and become lucrative franchises for studios.
What’s interesting about the trend is that all of these films presuppose the supernatural. They are ghost stories. And audiences flock to them. Amid our supposedly disenchanted modern world, and within the “immanent frame,” audience demand for supernatural narratives has never been greater. Witness also the massive popularity of Netflix’s Stranger Things and AMC’s The Walking Dead, shows that—like Lost and The X-Files before them—engage the supernatural and connect with audiences because they ask “what if?” questions that push beyond immanence.
Another mark of today’s God-haunted Hollywood is the prevalence of “god” narratives. That is: superhero films. Here again we see a genre enjoying a lucrative renaissance. Many of the highest-grossing films of the last few years have been superhero films: The Avengers and X-Men franchises, Batman v. Superman, Wonder Woman, and so forth.
Again, these films assume the supernatural. Their heroes have magical powers: they can fly, manipulate weather, read minds, lift cars, and turn into green hulks, to name just a few. Many have origin stories in extraterrestrial realms—“sent to earth” mythologies that barely conceal their Christian parallels.
It’s true that some superhero movies make a point of avoiding supernatural explanations. The “magic” in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, for example, as with his other films, is conspicuously explainable through technology and human heroics. Whether the illusions of The Prestige, the mind-trips of Inception, or the military “miracle” of Dunkirk, Nolan’s films are resolute in their denial of the supernatural.
But Nolan is an exception in a film landscape full of god-like superheroes and paranormal ghost stories. Most audiences, it seems, don’t need the magic to be explained. In fact, they long for its mystery, sensing its absence in a disenchanted world.
Indie Ghost Stories
The ghosts of transcendence are everywhere in secular cinema, even in arthouse and foreign films. This year’s A Ghost Story, from director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), stars Rooney Mara as a widow and Casey Affleck as her dead husband. Affleck spends most of the movie shrouded in a white sheet, a looming ghostly presence in a movie less about scares than scars: the painful ephemerality of love and connection cut short in a time-bound world.
Another 2017 film that explores hauntedness on an existential level is Personal Shopper, from French director Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours). The film is both literally about ghosts (Kristen Stewart stars as a personal shopper who also communicates with ghosts, chiefly her dead brother) and metaphorically haunted. With special focus on phones and technology, Shopper pinpoints familiar and unsettling things about how we exist in the modern world: connected but detached, digitally but not bodily present, experiencing the world at various mediated removes, ghosts to each other and to ourselves.
These two films are “haunted” in an explicit sense, but many more of the most acclaimed films of recent years are more subtly haunted: by death (Manchester by the Sea, Jackie), by connection (Moonlight, Certain Women), by technology (Her, Ex Machina), by racism (Detroit, 12 Years a Slave), by aging (While We’re Young, Boyhood), and so on.
Everywhere you look, artists and audiences are grappling with ghosts and grasping for transcendence.
How Should Christians Respond?
The specter of God in Hollywood isn’t new. Movies have always grappled with God and transcendence. As Think Christian’s Josh Larsen writes in his new book, movies are somewhat like prayers: yearning, lamenting, giving voice to the absences that plague our hearts.
And the absences are more cavernous than ever in our secular age.
How can Christians respond? Perhaps we can become more attentive to how and where these secular prayers take shape; more adept at recognizing “cross-pressures” in the movies, music, and pop culture around us.
All works of art are “attempts by fallen people to tell some truth about a fallen world created by God,” Alan Noble writes in TGC’s newly released book, Our Secular Age. “When we interpret these works, then, we are participating in a larger, collective effort to make sense of existence and to make sense of how others make sense of existence.”
Christians should not opt out of this work, thinking they have existence mostly figured out, Noble argues. But neither should they view cultural interpretation in a pragmatic, “New Evangelism Method” sort of way. Rather, it’s about bearing witness to God’s truth in a highly contested world and empathizing with “a horizontal longing for transcendence even though we have a robust belief in a transcendent God.”
Christians can see a God-haunted Hollywood, then, not as a source of friction but as a point of connection. We are all living in the immanent frame, and the ghosts are real for all of us, whether or not we believe.
Editors’ note: For more on how Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age can help us better interpret today’s popular culture, read TGC’s new book, Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor, now available through Amazon (Kindle | Paperback) and WTS Books.