Values from Hollywood? Not a prayer!

December 07, 1992

The following is the second of two excerpts from "Hollywood vs America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values," by film critic Michael Medved. Imagine what conclusions a perceptive Martian might draw about the way we live and worship in these United States if his only source of information were an interplanetary rent-by-mail service that provided him with video versions of the lately Hollywood releases.

This outer-space observer would never guess that religion played a powerful role in the daily lives of tens of millions of Americans. How many times in recent films would he have seen contemporary urbanites entering a church -- except for the occasional funeral or wedding? Based on his movie viewing, our Martian would surely assume that the Judeo-Christian tradition had shrunk to the status of a seedy sideshow in today's society, exclusively engaging the energies of deranged or devious individuals.

The summer of 1991 provided several appalling examples of the movie industry's insistence on erasing even the most rudimentary religious feelings from the characters it creates. In that single desultory season, Hollywood unleashed three big-budget medical melodramas -- "Dying Young" (with Julia Roberts), "The Doctor" (with William Hurt) and "Regarding Henry" (with Harrison Ford). In all three films, the protagonists faced dire illnesses and long hospitalizations, with life and death hanging dramatically in the balance. At no point in these proceedings, however, did the main characters, or any of their friends or family members, turn for even one moment to the power of prayer, or ask to see a member of the clergy, or in any way invoke the name of God.

While Newsweek reports that 78 percent of the country prays at least once a week under ordinary circumstances, it seems safe to assume that the propensity toward prayer only increases as an individual deals with death. The old saw suggests that "there are no atheists in foxholes"; by the same token you will find precious few atheists on operating tables. Hollywood's refusal to show religious reflection on the part of vulnerable people in this -- situation is not only a waste of obvious dramatic opportunity, it is fundamentally unrealistic.

Equally unrealistic was the portrayal of the fictional village of Grady, S.C., in yet another release in the summer of '91: "Doc Hollywood." The plot of this inoffensive and intermittently entertaining comedy is intended as a paean to "small-town values": after a highway mishap forces him to spend some time in a rural hamlet that desperately needs a doctor, yuppie physician Michael J. Fox decides to give up his dream of glitz and glory in L.A. and to throw in his lot with the quaint and lovable locals.

In one sense, he has indeed found a new home that is remarkable: the village in the movie must be the only town of any size in the entire state of South Carolina with no church to serve its citizens. We see dozens of these colorful characters fishing on the lake, tending their farms, staging the annual Squash Festival, working in an auto shop, feasting at a barbecue in the mayor's backyard, and hanging out endlessly at the Greasy Spoon on Main Street, but not one of them -- regardless of race or age -- ever attends church or participates in religious services. This may represent Hollywood's dearest dream of small-town nirvana: a village with all the homey virtues of the Deep South but none of that embarrassing and unwelcome religiosity you normally associate with the Bible Belt.

This anti-religious bias has been stifled only in exceedingly rare instances in recent years, allowing for a few films that have portrayed organized faith in a favorable and affectionate light; not surprisingly, these exceptions invariably involve some exotic setting, far removed in space or time (or both) from today's big-city realities. The museum-piece approach in each of these films presents organized religion as a fascinating -- even beautiful -- relic from the past that may continue to exist in some isolated pockets in the boondocks, but that is no more meaningful to mainstream America than the artifacts of the ancient Aztecs. In these nostalgic affirmations of that "old-time religion," the church is sufficiently distant from the daily life that most of us lead that it represents no threat to the militant secularism that Hollywood embraces so enthusiastically; religion remains at all times reassuringly irrelevant.

Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins.

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