The Gospel According To Spider-Man

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ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY THOMAS REIS

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Rarely, a Christian message is implicated in a Hollywood film. Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which an ordinary guy sees the light and travels far to make contact with extraterrestrials, was conceived by its original screenwriter, Paul Schrader, as Saul's transforming journey to become the Apostle Paul. The Matrix (the first one, not the sequels) was manna to hermeneuticians. In a recent Museum of Modern Art film series called "The Hidden God: Film and Faith," Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray comedy about a man who relives the same day over and over, was cited as a profound statement of faith, either Buddhist (rebirth), Jewish (acceptance) or Christian (redemption).

In the broadest sense, movies are getting more religious. According to Baehr, only one film in 1985 (The Trip to Bountiful) had "positive Christian content," compared with 69 in 2003 (including Finding Nemo, Spy Kids 3D and Master and Commander). Of course, it all depends on what counts as Christian and who's doing the counting. What's irrefutable is the growing number of theocentric movie websites, most recently a sophisticated one launched in February by the magazine Christianity Today.

The clergy may see all this as a revival; Hollywood sees it as a customer bonanza. New Line Cinema reaches out to Christian groups with films — like Secondhand Lions, about a boy living with his two codgerly, kindly uncles — whose themes might resonate. Says Russell Schwartz, New Line's president of domestic marketing: "The thing about all special-interest groups — Christian, Jewish, whatever — is that they have to discover something relevant to their experience." Some studio bosses go further. Baehr says he talked with a mogul who told him, "We want to be seen as Christian friendly. We realize there's a big church audience out there, and we need to reach them."

"It's a vast, untapped market," says Jonathan Bock, a former sitcom writer (Hangin' with Mr. Cooper), whose Grace Hill Media helps sell Hollywood films to Christian tastemakers. He pitches media outlets like Catholic Digest and The 700 Club and has created sermons and Bible-study guides and marketed such movies as The Lord of the Rings, Signs, The Rookie and, yes, Elf. "The ground was softened before The Passion," says Bock. "There are hundreds of Christian critics and Jewish writers and ministers who are writing about films." And millions of the faithful who see them. A July 2004 study by George Barna, the Gallup of born-again religion, shows that Christian Evangelicals are among the most frequent moviegoers. "Being a Christian used to mean you didn't go to Hollywood movies," says David Bruce, who runs the website hollywoodjesus.com. "Now it is seen as a missionary activity."

All this could just be the church's appropriation of Hollywood salesmanship: luring audiences with promises of a movie and some good talk, as the Journey's Searcy offered. Finding a Christian message in secular films like Catwoman and Spider-Man could be either a delusion or, as Jeffrey Overstreet, a critic for Christianity Today says, "a way of affirming that God's truth is inescapable and can be found even in the stories of people who don't believe in him."

Hollywood doesn't necessarily want to make Christian movies. It wants to make movies Christians think are Christian. Moviemakers are happy to be the money changers in the temple, even as preachers are thrilled that a discussion of — what, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle?--can guarantee a full house on Sunday.

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