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The Gospel According to Hollywood

Greg Garrett
Westminster John Knox, 165pp

The Gospel According to HollywoodFollowing in the tradition of Mark Pinsky's The Gospel According to the Simpsons, Greg Garrett's book is an extremely helpful insight into how contemporary Hollywood is deemed to be awash with theological and spiritual content. There is more than a hint of the confessional about this publication. Garrett says his work is motivated by what he felt on first watching Pulp Fiction: though ostensibly 'a cleverly written film about gunplay, drug use, profanity, and forced sodomy', he was 'watching something miraculous… I felt that I was in the presence of something holy'. For Garrett, even in a film considered by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as 'morally offensive', it is possible to discern God 'as powerfully through elements of the culture as through a formal religious service or in a religious setting'. Even though 'very few commercial movies are ever intended as some sort of religious experience', he contends that for believers in the incarnation the world is charged with God's grandeur - 'and with wisdom, prayer, and persistence we can discern God in the works of God's creation and in our own creations as well'.

Garrett is clearly conversant with a number of academic debates, quoting authorities from Kierkegaard to Rowan Williams, but this book is not written with the theologian or student in mind. Rather, the book's appeal is to open-minded theists who, like him, will not wish to 'miss out on any possibility that God may be speaking' to them through the movies. Although he does not refer explicitly to Niebuhr's seminal 1952 publication Christ and Culture, Garrett's awareness of some of the different ways in which Christians have treated secular culture would be of enormous use to any church or university programme which wanted to apply Niebuhr's five models of how Christianity and culture relate to the present theology-film conversation. His talk of 'the desire to shut ourselves off from parts of the world that upset or confuse us', corresponds with Niebuhr's 'Christ against Culture' model, while his reference to Christians trying to create 'explicitly sacred imitations' of secular culture in the form of 'Christian romance novels, Christian thrash metal' and even 'Christian breath mints' correlates with Niebuhr's fifth position, 'Christ the Transformer of Culture'.

For students of the philosophy of religion, the analogy that Garrett draws between Paley's watchmaker argument and Hitchcock's Rear Window - in which we even glimpse the director at one point winding a clock, thus reminding us that the 'intricate camera movements, startling camera angles, and expertly edited scenes have both an order and an Orderer' - is quite effective. Garrett certainly writes with conviction and zeal. He is also particularly good at explaining theological terms in accessible language. In particular, his argument on the Trinity, that film itself is 'a kind of trinitarian phenomenon', being made up of one reel of film containing thousands of individual frames, is convincing. According to Garrett, we can no more look through all of the frames at once than we can, to paraphrase Anselm, see all of God's attributes at once.

The book is less likely to appeal to more critical, or agnostic, readers. Garrett takes it as a given that 'there is an order at the heart of creation, a presence beyond our perception', to which a film such as The Truman Show, might be found to bear witness, exploring as it does the relationship between a (TV) creator and his creation. There is an implicit sacramental understanding of the relationship between God and creation. He sites American Beauty to show that there are no substances (even the prosaic plastic bag which Ricky, so lovingly films) that were not made by God and through which one cannot but 'look back through' and 'see God'.

Garrett argues that 'People who might not choose to see a story about Jesus' crucifixion may plop down eight bucks to see a movie about Spider-Man's' - but he does not consider whether the two are entirely synonymous. Indeed, if Spider Man is performing the same function as Jesus ('Screaming in agony, arms outstretched like the cruciform sacrifice of Jesus, Spider-Man saves those aboard the train at the apparent cost of his own life… and then he comes back to life') are cinematic heroes simply emulating Jesus, or actually replacing him, acting as agents of redemption in a way that presents a threat, rather than an endorsement, to the Church? Do the selfless and salvific actions of superheroes make Christ more relevant, or make Christ redundant by doing the same job in a more entertaining and culturally relevant way? In a useful discussion on peace and justice, Garrett suggests that 'both the Robin Hood and Gospel stories… feature counter-cultural heroes working against a corrupt and corrupting system to try and bring justice' - but who is to say whether audiences find Robin Hood pointing to Jesus, or whether Jesus points to Robin Hood, so that Jesus becomes, in effect, a 'Robin Hood-figure'?

To be fair, however, these are criticisms which could be said to apply to much, if not all, of the literature in this area. As the target audience of this book are Christians who recognize that if one is 'going to grow spiritually, it's likely that it's going to have to come from something other than a sermon', Garrett has done a very good job of outlining how movies can be 'windows to the sacred'. He is willing to look in all sorts of unexpected places for key religious insight, even to the point that 'bad Hollywood Christmas movies' are able to 'show how important our culture finds some of the core components of faith and belief, and we can draw valuable lessons from them'. For its intended audience, this is a very worthwhile, accessible and thought-provoking book.

Chris Dearcy