The Gospel According To Spider-Man

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ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY THOMAS REIS

The Congregation for today's service of the journey, "a casual, contemporary, Christian church," fills the Promenade, a theater on upper Broadway in New York City. The Sunday-morning faithful — a few hundred strong — have come to hear the Journey's laid-back pastor, Nelson Searcy, give them the word. The word made film. Searcy, 32, who in jeans and a goatee looks like a way less Mephistophelian Charlie Sheen, is about to deliver the last of the church's eight-part God on Film series. The topic? "Catwoman: Discovering My True Identity."

Searcy points to a large screen at his right that shows other comic-book heroes with multiple identities. In his sermon, he alludes only vaguely to the Catwoman myth and gives the impression that he (like most other Americans) hasn't seen the Halle Berry version. But Searcy knows that a person tormented by questions of image and identity can find encouragement in the message of Genesis 1: 27: "So God created people in his own image." That biblical quotation is projected on the screen, which also features an icon of a smiling cartoon Catwoman sporting purple tights, a feather boa and a whip.


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For decades, America has embraced a baffling contradiction. The majority of its people are churchgoing Christians, many of them evangelical. Yet its mainstream pop culture, especially film, is secular at best, often raw and irreligious. In many movies, piety is for wimps, and the clergy are depicted as oafs and predators. It's hard to see those two vibrant strains of society ever coexisting, learning from each other.

Yet the two are not only meeting; they're also sitting down and breaking bread together. The unearthly success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ helped movie execs recognize that fervent Christians, who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on religious books and music, are worth courting. Publicists hired by studios feed sermon ideas based on new movies to ministers. Meanwhile, Christians are increasingly borrowing from movies to drive home theological lessons. Clergy of all denominations have commandeered pulpits, publishing houses and especially websites to spread the gospel of cinevangelism.

What's the biblical import of, say, Spider-Man? "Peter Parker gives us all a chance to be heroic," says Erwin McManus, pastor of Mosaic, a Baptist-affiliated church in Los Angeles. "The problem is, we keep looking for radioactive spiders, but really it's God who changes us." What's the big idea behind The Village, according to the website movieministry.com? "Perfect love drives out fear." Behind The Notebook? "God can step in where science cannot." And, gulp, Anchorman? "What is love?" If your minister floated those notions recently, it may be because movieministry.com provides homilies for Sunday sermons. The website is a kind of Holy Ghostwriter.

By spicing Matthew and Mark with Ebert and Roeper, ministers can open a window to biblical teachings and a door to the very demographic that Hollywood studios know how to reach: young people.

"Film, especially for those under 35, is the medium through which we get our primary stories, our myths, our read on reality," says Robert K. Johnston, professor of theology and culture at the Fuller Theological Seminary and the author of the newly published Finding God in the Movies: 33 Films of Reel Faith. It was members of that generation, says Johnston, who "even if they loved God, were simply not going to church. Clergy are realizing that unless we reorient how we talk about our faith, we will lose the next generation." He sees movies as modern parables that connect to an audience that seeks not reason but emotional relevance. "As the culture has moved from a modern to a postmodern era, we have moved from wanting to understand truth rationally to understanding truth as it's embedded in story," he says.

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