It’s rare for a mainstream, big-budget film to deal directly with Christianity or, for that matter, religion in general. With some minor exceptions, few films in the last couple of years have tackled the topic with anything more than a passing glance. For the most part, Hollywood films take place in a purely secular world where religion is an afterthought.
But several recent films approach religion with surprising directness. Kingdom of Heaven, a sword-and-sandals Crusades epic from director Ridley Scott, is built entirely on the axis of medieval religious war. Worlds apart in tone and subject matter, zany science-fiction comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy also deals with religion, presenting an intergalactic sect—whose ceremonies are clearly designed to imitate traditional Christian liturgy—devoted to the deification of the sneeze. The problem with both of these films is that they treat biblical Christianity with condescension, imposing a humans-first aesthetic on what ought to be a God-centered belief.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a charming, often funny film, but it lobs a series of satirical bombs at religion, finding belief to be little more than an absurd set of ridiculous rituals led by the corrupt. The film, which begins with the destruction of Earth, follows Brit Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) and his alien pal Ford Prefect (Mos Def) on a series of planet-hopping adventures as they search, literally, for the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything. On one of these stops, they encounter a very silly religious ceremony ordered around sneeze-worship that is led by priest-figure Humma Kavula (John Malkovitch).
It’s quite funny, in a Monty Python-esque absurdist fashion, but it’s also designed to sneer at Christian ceremony, painting the ritual of worship as nonsensical idiocy. Kavula is quickly revealed as deceptive and violent, and the worshippers are depicted as waiting for a great, holy sneeze—a sneeze which will clearly never arrive—suggesting that Christians wait for an undignified event that will never occur.
Much of the film concerns protagonist Dent’s continued annoyance at nearly everything. Whizzing through the galaxy in his bathrobe, he exists in a permanent state of just-woke-up fluster. His planet is destroyed. His love is stolen by a sleazy, arrogant cad. No matter where he goes, he is unable to find a good cup of tea, all of which makes him very cranky indeed.
Beset by an unending string of annoyances, Dent’s grumpy, mildly repressed manner is only balanced when he is shown that his happiness lies in creating his own good. In the film’s final sequence, Dent discovers a planet-building factory run by a loopy world builder named Slartibartfast (Bill Nighy). In a bravura effects sequence, Dent is given a tour of the planet-building facilities, and Slartibartfast extols the joy of creation. Hitchhiker finds human happiness in the manipulation of one’s surroundings, concluding that humans and human creativity are the ultimate, best good.
Kingdom of Heaven addresses Christianity more directly, but reflects a similar set of secular humanist values. Its topic is the Crusades, and its heroes are all supposedly Christian warriors. But far from shedding positive light on Christianity, these characters’ words and actions all suggest that Christianity is acceptable only if it concerns itself solely with earthly, human matters. Faith and a relationship with God are absent at best, evil and murderous at worst.
An early scene shows the hero, Balian (Orlando Bloom), murdering a priest in a fit of righteous rage, outlining the movie’s negative attitude toward religion from the very beginning. Before long, Balian is in Jerusalem at the onset of the Second Crusade, and we see him being given advice on how to approach Christianity by the mentor figure Hospitaler (David Thewlis). When Balian expresses disillusionment with Christian beliefs, Hospitaler says, “Holiness is in right action,” and tells him that “by what you decide to do every day you will be a called a good man.” Here, he is telling Balian that “right action”—works—are what make men good and holy. This sort of secular doubt is not only historically unlikely, but it also effectively guts some of the basic spiritual tenets of Christianity, warping it into a series of good works rather than a personal relationship with God. It’s equivalent to saying hamburgers are great as long as they are made with neither bread nor meat; what is important is removed, leaving something that barely resembles the original.
The film throws its complete support behind this idea when Balian, having taken over Jerusalem’s leadership, rallies the citizens to defend the town “not to protect these stones, but the people living within its walls.” Characters that speak well of evangelizing or personal faith are painted as monstrous villains: arrogant, violent sociopaths who take sadistic pleasure in murdering under the pretense of God’s will. The implication is that the religious significance of the town is not only unimportant, but it leads to a destructive fanaticism. Instead, the only true value is in human action. Like Hitchhiker’s Guide, Kingdom of Heaven places good in people and their works, treating faith and evangelism with disdain.
Hollywood has never been a place particularly sympathetic to Christianity, and these films cross the line from secular dismissal to humanist propaganda. Where many films simply ignore religion, these movies are actively commenting on it, trying to force religion into the narrow, faithless mold of secularism. But this may be a positive sign after all: Christians are asserting themselves in the worlds of politics and culture, and can no longer be ignored. These big-budget, mainstream films show that Hollywood is finally taking serious notice of religion.
None of this is to suggest that Christians need to start picket lines and letter-writing campaigns against either of these films. Hitchhiker is a tremendously amusing film, filled with gleefully absurd non-sequiturs and some sharp science-fiction landscapes. Kingdom of Heaven is a less successful film, but the period décor and intricately layered production design mark it with a solid visual appeal. But when Hollywood films deign to touch on religion, it is important to be aware of the attitudes they purvey. It is only after we understand both the way these messages are delivered and what they say that we can combat them.