Faith-based vs. faith-filled in Hollywood: Is there a difference?

"Madam Secretary" writer/producer Barbara Hall with Sr. Rose Pacatte, FSP

Have you noticed how much Hollywood seems to be into spirituality these days? I'm not talking about those paparazzi photos plastered all over the tabloids of Gwyneth and Madonna walking into the Kabbalah Centre or promotional videos of Tom Cruise talking about his devotion to Scientology.

No, in a turn of events, Hollywood has embraced the Judeo-Christian model -- well, at least financially. Executives are paying close attention to facts, like "Noah" made $86.7 million domestically and $162 million internationally. The trend doesn't end there: "Heaven is for Real," "Son of God," and "God's Not Dead" join "Noah" in surpassing the coveted $50 million domestic ticket sales mark. And look for the remake of "Exodus," starring Christian Bale as Moses, which will be released at the end of the year. As veteran film/TV reporter Anita Busch wrote on Deadline (the go-to business blog about Hollywood), "What Hollywood is learning from these type of films is that with the right budget and the right marketing, they can be extremely profitable."

We all know the film industry is first and foremost a business. But I've been wondering about the spiritual implications of these business decisions. Sr. Rose Pacatte, resident media expert nun for NCR and the IN Network, gave me her take on the faith-based movement.

"It's very evangelical and Protestant, and as far as I can tell, the only reason Hollywood is interested is because the 'genre' seems to be a money-maker," she said. "I would be very surprised if anyone came to faith through these films, which are mostly sermons; I have yet to see one that reaches the level of art ... These films just give answers and don't deal with the questions."

Of course, Sister Rose says there are exceptions to the rule. She reviewed "Noah" as "quite brilliant," and she liked "Heaven is for Real" and noted its lack of "preaching." I've been in pitch meetings with many of the faith-based companies responsible for these films, and I often get the impression they're more interested in biblical adaptations than original content raising spiritual questions -- questions, perhaps, deemed "too liberal" for the audience that faith-based companies are targeting. It puts a company like Loyola Productions in a bit of an awkward place. We're often seen as too conservative by mainstream production companies and, paradoxically, too liberal or Catholic by faith-based companies.

Now, I'm not saying these executives are anti-Catholic on a personal level. Rather, I think they're thinking from a bottom-line perspective and simply don't consider there to be a Catholic audience as profitable as the evangelical one. I'm not sure I buy that assessment, but I do know when it comes to the public Catholic response to Catholic-oriented content, we're an interesting bunch. Take, for instance, what occurred at my first TV job, working on "Nothing Sacred," the ABC drama created by Jesuit Fr. Bill Cain. I was a technical adviser on the show, but in true Jesuit fashion, wore a few hats. One of my jobs was to answer viewer mail. I've actually kept some of these letters because the amount of venom within them is equally unbelievable and unintentionally amusing. The majority of messages the show received were negative and came from conservative Catholics enraged by the storylines, which included, among other things, a priest questioning his vocation and a parish secretary dealing with the consequences of choosing to undergo an abortion. Needless to say, "Nothing Sacred" deviated from the Hollywood Golden Age view of parish life some Catholics believe should be the only type of portrayal. Instead, the show attempted to give an honest look at the complications and challenges of living out the spiritual life in the modern age. Although the series won a Peabody and Humanitas Prize, it was canceled before the completion of the first season after sponsors pulled out under pressure from conservative Catholics.

Interestingly, almost 20 years later, I still hear progressive Catholics bringing up "Nothing Sacred" and how much they enjoyed it. But it wasn't these voices ABC heard.

OK, this column is starting to get a little grim, so let me switch to the positive and look at this climate from a different angle. I've noticed that as these faith-based projects have increased, more and more mainstream dramas on TV are asking spiritual questions, and in my opinion, they are doing a fantastic job.

Spiritually, things have changed in this country since we entered the 21st century. Maybe it was 9/11 and the effect of terror being a constant presence in our lives. But the feelings of invincibility and materialism that accompanied the later half of the 20th century aren't quite the same, and new questions about meaning and our human condition keep coming up in both religious and non-religious circles, including the scripts of some content we wouldn't term faith-based.

"Many of the best shows on the premium channels find themselves thinking about some of the same things that keep theologians (especially those concerned with pastoral/spiritual issues) up at night," says Jesuit Fr. Jeff Johnson, an assistant principal at Strake Jesuit and film and television reviewer at The Jesuit Post.

"Take 'Orange is the New Black' as an example. It did a great job of looking at the effects of society on inmates," he said. "The show, I think, poses the question about the proper treatment of inmates. It did a good job of maintaining tension and nuance in considering the many factors at hand. ... I think it's a show about redemption: who is worth redeeming and who might have gone beyond the pale. What is a fair and just punishment for a crime? Why do bad things happen to good (but broken) people?"

Jeff said he's not certain shows like "Orange" are necessarily trying to be theological. Nor are these shows always accurate. "When ['Orange'] got into ecclesiology (the episode in which the fictional Sister Ingalls was excommunicated), it was very heavy-handed and showed a very poor understanding of the church. Nonetheless, I think it's a good show."

Some may find TV's natural and necessary reliance on continued drama and unresolved plot points somehow anachronistic to the search for God. We Catholics have a bit of a reputation for having answers to everything, as if the element of mystery integral to our faith doesn't exist. So, I actually find the emphasis on the unresolved on TV as a good thing spiritually. The writers of "The Leftovers," HBO's critically acclaimed drama that deals with the consequences of a rapture-like event, have insisted they will never explain the definitive meaning of the show's rapture. Instead, the series expertly portrays characters wrestling with the mystery of such an event -- some desperately trying to make it fit into religious or scientific understanding.

Jeff spoke to this in a review he did a while back on the spiritual underpinnings of Showtime's "Nurse Jackie."

"While there is a God, there is no God 'particle' that can be grasped and made to fit neatly into our puzzling human condition," he wrote. "God isn't meant to fill the gaps of our misunderstanding of the human condition. On the contrary, saints like Saint Jane de Chantal and nurses like Jackie [the show's protagonist] are meant to fill the gaps with service and compassion in spite of their own participation in life's puzzle."

This brings me to this week's video, Sister Rose's interview from late 2013 with television writer and producer Barbara Hall. Barbara created the Emmy-nominated "Joan of Arcadia," a network series unafraid to ask spiritual questions and that boldly portrayed God as available to everyone. Despite its critical acclaim, "Joan" was canceled after just two seasons. In recent years, Barbara has moved back into the "mainstream market," executive producing the political thriller "Homeland," and this Sunday, her new series, "Madam Secretary," will premiere at 8:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m. Central time) on CBS.

Although she's shifted from writing storylines overtly about faith, I believe she's one of those writers continually asking spiritual questions in her work. The questions "Homeland" posed about sacrifice, devotion to faith, and the complexity of Islam and its connection to violence reached a huge audience, including many who would never tune into a faith-based show.

Her own journey from agnosticism to Catholicism may have helped her in framing these questions.

"I spent a lot of time without a spiritual life and without a religion," she said. "[Because of that] I feel like I know how to talk to people without making them feel alienated. I feel like I understand how to invite them to the discussion ... I have nothing to preach. My thing is, I have questions. I have observations and I'm the last person on earth to be preaching to you about anything. But I want to have the discussion."

Indeed, I'm looking forward to seeing what questions come out of "Madam Secretary." Don't miss Sister Rose's interview with Barbara, in which she talks about her writing, her faith, and the "learning curve" of being openly Catholic in Hollywood. And let us know in the comments what your take is on the faith-based trend.


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