The Gospel According To Spider-Man

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ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY THOMAS REIS

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The cinevangelists would say that the churches' appropriation of pop culture is nothing new. "Jesus also used stories," Johnston says. "In his day, parables were the equivalent of movies." Marc Newman, who runs movieministry.com, traces pop proselytizing back to the Apostle Paul. "In Acts there's a Scripture describing how he came to the Areopagus, the marketplace in Athens where people exchanged ideas. Paul speaks to the men of Athens and refers to their poets and their prophets. He used the things they knew as a way to reach out with the Gospel."

If Paul could cite Greek poets to the Greeks, then today's proselytizers will bring the church to moviegoers and, they hope, vice versa."Today, with DVDs and the VCR, all of us can engage a movie text," Johnston says. "When a person in a worship congregation refers to The Shawshank Redemption, either people have seen it or they can rent it." In addition, 3,000-screen bookings and saturation marketing guarantee that a film that opens Friday will have been seen or at least talked about by Sunday morning.

Some conservative clergy prefer using the Bible, not Bruce Almighty, as the text for a sermon. "It's not my cup of tea," says Jerry Falwell of movie-inspired sermons. But progressive Christians love plumbing the subtexts of comedies, satires and action movies. Now, says Ted Baehr of movieguide.org, "a church group can highlight biblical teachings by using anything from Dodgeball to Saved! to Kill Bill."

Baehr, who grew up in Hollywood (his father was ranger Bob Allen in cowboy serials of the '30s), has put his Columbia University Film School education to use by giving a Christian take on current movies. "We try to teach people media wisdom. If Christians didn't believe in communications, they wouldn't believe that in the beginning was the word and the word was God and the word has a salutary effect within society."

But movies? From the beginning, they were considered, in the words of Catholic doctrine, an occasion of sin. The Catholic Legion of Decency was more notable for proscribing movies than promoting them. Some of the sterner Christian sects forbade filmgoing. And that was when Hollywood still produced religious films, from uplifting tales of jolly priests (Bing Crosby in Going My Way) and selfless sisters (Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story) to outright miracle plays like The Song of Bernadette, with Jennifer Jones as a French girl who had a vision at Lourdes.

By the '70s, the religious film had virtually disappeared. Today, The Passion aside, the genre exists only in niche markets: Mormon films (Ryan Little's Saints and Soldiers, Richard Dutcher's God's Army), well crafted and proudly square; and Rapture movies (The Moment After, Caught in the Rapture), which announce a personal and earthly apocalypse. Both types of film usually fly under the radar of studios, critics and audiences.

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