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When Hollywood puts God on screen
This promotional photo provided by Marquis Films shows actor Jarreth Merz, who plays Simon of Cyrene, right, help actor Jim Caviezel, portraying Jesus Christ, carry a cross during a scene from Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," in this Jan. 24, 2003, file photo. - photo by Mark A. Kellner
Editor's Note: This article is part of "The Ten Today," a series that examines the Ten Commandments in modern society. This story explores the second commandment, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image."

Look at God in movies over the years and you'll see a wide variety of portrayals.

Today's digitally projected deity is far from the disembodied voice Charlton Heston, as Moses, encountered in the 1956 epic "The Ten Commandments." That 220-minute film took a reverent attitude toward God, choosing not to physically depict him, but rather to use Heston's voice in the burning bush scene and other, unidentified voices for God in subsequent scenes.

Fast-forward to December 2014 and the premiere of "Exodus: Gods and Kings," a $140 million movie directed by filmmaker Ridley Scott and starring Christian Bale as a post-modern Moses. Here, God appears in human form: that of young Malak, played by Isaac Andrews, an 11-year-old British actor.

These two extremes a disembodied voice inspiring reverence and a petulant adolescent "channeling" God reflect the way cinematic portrayals of the Almighty have changed over the years. God in today's movies isn't understood so much as being "on high," or above temporal affairs. Instead, to borrow from the song made famous 20 years ago by Joan Osborne, God is often depicted as being "One of Us."

While having a more approachable Almighty might make sense to some of today's audiences, traditionalists sometimes chafe at the change. More controversial depictions of God can even draw protests, such as those that surrounded "The Last Temptation of Christ" in 1988 or Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" in 2004. While these portrayals may not be quite the "graven images" of God prohibited in the second commandment, they do illustrate the power of depictions of God in a society where many already conceive of deity in a particular and personally meaningful way.

But what do user-friendly portrayals of God, whether as an 11-year-old or as the approachable-but-serious mop-wielding Morgan Freeman in 2003's "Bruce Almighty," say about the society in which they're created? Is God now our "good buddy," or does He remain on a higher level?

Some movie experts including Sister Rose Pacatte, a Roman Catholic nun in Los Angeles who blogs about film for are more sanguine about movies that push the envelope with their depictions.

"I'm not afraid for God," Sister Rose said. "I think God can pretty much hold his own."

Evolution of God

Between the Cold War-era depiction of God in a burning bush and last year's imagining of him as that 11-year-old, Hollywood has gone far in evolving how God is portrayed. Reverence is being shrouded in familiarity and even casualness.

Max Von Sydow portrayed a rather formal, even inelastic, Jesus in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" in 1965. But within a few years, Britain's "Monty Python" troupe had begun satirizing God in its weekly BBC television series and movies including "Life of Brian" (1979), which milked Jesus' crucifixion for laughs. Similarly, the "South Park" animated series, which has been running for nearly 20 years, so regularly takes aim at God that "religious humor" is one of the key phrases associated with the series in the IMDB entertainment database.

In 1973 the cinematic image of Jesus underwent another dramatic transformation. Portrayed by Victor Garber for "Godspell" and Ted Neeley for "Jesus Christ Superstar," Jesus' life became a song-and-dance act, albeit evoking key elements of the gospel story. Garber's Jesus, for example, cheerily interjects, "Let's have some wine!" as the disciples are told to let their light shine before others. In "Superstar," Jesus is the love object of Mary Magdalene, who pleads, in song, "I Don't Know How to Love Him."

Musical treatments aren't the only way in which an incarnation of God on-screen has changed. God-as-funnyman first surfaced in 1977's "Oh, God!" with longtime comic actor George Burns showing a "good-natured old man" persona, as told it, to a grocery manager played by John Denver. Enough people were enchanted to lead to two sequels. Morgan Freeman's God in "Bruce Almighty" echoed Burns' good-neighbor idea, but added an edge: You think being God is easy, Jim Carrey? You do it for a while. That movie, too, led to a sequel.

In dramas, however, God's image became at once both more nuanced and perhaps more jarring. Willem Dafoe's Jesus in "Last Temptation" endured a dream sequence in which a physical relationship with (again) Mary Magdalene was held up as an enticement. Indeed, so many protests surrounded "Last Temptation" when it opened that filmmaker Martin Scorsese skipped the event out of concern for his safety. On the other hand, Jim Cavizel's Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ" hewed closely to a Catholic-themed biblical narrative, but was so graphic as to shock some viewers. (One critic, discussing the movie with a reporter, said director Mel Gibson "nailed it" when showing the horrific scenes of whipping and crucifixion.)

Today, depictions of God and Jesus seem to occupy two extremes: Hollywood blockbusters, such as "Noah," where God's presence is treated in an almost-experimental fashion, and more reverent films such as "Son of God," which deeply resonate with people of faith. Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, who produced "Son of God," are returning to the traditionalist well with the series "A.D.," premiering on Palm Sunday, while the forthcoming film "Last Days in the Desert," in which actor Ewan McGregor takes on the roles of both Jesus and Lucifer, takes the more Hollywood approach and is predicted to draw mixed opinions from people of faith.

The divine decentered

Having differing images of God onscreen may not be an entirely negative development, one observer said.

"I think this is part of a broader cultural process in which the divine is decentered in ways that I think are actually hopeful to us," said Jeffrey H. Mahan, Peck Chair in Religion and Public Communication at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. "Not all of these presentations are thoughtful or substantial, but overall as a kind of process, you see a contemporary spirituality that thinks our experience of the Divine is going to come to us in unexpected places."

Scholars such as Mahan and Eric Michael Mazur, director of American Studies at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Virginia, assert the new depictions of God are merely keeping pace with the times in which the new films are made.

Mazur, who edited the 2011 "Encyclopedia of Religion and Film," a 644-page compendium of celluloid portrayals of faith, said the new wave of God-films are "reflective of things going on in society, (but are) not responsible for them."

He asserted that the old style of a Jesus "floating on a cloud" would no longer attract audiences.

"To have a film that would be like 'King of Kings' or 'Ben-Hur' would, I think, not play as well with a general audience, many of whom are much more comfortable or at least familiar with some type of presentation of God in human form," Mazur said.

He said changes in the way America worships have also influenced the way in which movies portray God.

"One of the things we're seeing since World War II is a greater emphasis on an 'embodied experience,' as is found in Pentecostalism and revivalism," Mazur said. "People relate more to God in human form than if it's a voice coming out of a bush."

But embodiment isn't a license to wing it, said Roma Downey, who with her husband Mark Burnett produced 2013's "The Bible" miniseries and last year's "Son of God" movie for theatrical release. "A.D. The Bible Continues," the couple's next project, premieres on NBC the evening of April 5, and depicts the resurrected Jesus as the disciples begin the New Testament church.

"Playing Jesus is not just a role," Downey said. "It is a person with a voice that lives in the hearts of billions (of people) around the world."

She said actors Diogo Morgado ("The Bible," "Son of God") and Juan Pablo Di Pace (Jesus in "A.D.") each "came into this process realizing it was a great responsibility." As producers, Downey added, "we needed to strike the right balance of strong and charismatic coupled with the humbleness of a carpenter" when depicting Jesus on screen.

Script consultant Linda Seger, who has worked in the field since 1981, sees a dichotomy in the way God and Jesus are being portrayed on screen. Raised in a Lutheran household, she's now a Quaker and holds a doctorate in drama and theology.

"What you basically have now is two schools" of filmmaking, Seger said from her Cascade, Colorado, office. She said there are "evangelicals seeing film as an evangelistic project, and other people who are trying to learn the craft of writing and directing and see the film as more expressive."

The notion of film-as-evangelism is perhaps most strongly connected with evangelist Billy Graham, who more than 60 years ago set up World Wide Pictures as a way to produce theatrical-style movies with a preaching subtext. A 1965 picture, "The Restless Ones," was perhaps the most successful of these ventures. Similarly, Pentecostal mega church pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes has worked with Hollywood producer DeVon Franklin to develop movies that bring moral and biblical themes shrouded in contemporary drama.

By contrast, the more expressive films as Seger called them generally are birthed in the traditional studio process. And while some are well-received by secular critics, others, including Ridley Scott's "Exodus," receive harsher scrutiny, generally more over technical aspects than faithfulness to the Bible.

Seger said she believes Tom Shadyac, director of 2003's "Bruce Almighty," is a Christian who "is using more filmic devices and even having some fun with it, without by any means being non-reverential. He was going in a direction of what I think the future of faith-based (film) is" that is, blending the familiar with the sacred.

Another fan of "Bruce" and its portrayal of God is Sister Rose, who also teaches media literacy as part of her work at the Pauline Media Center.

"Bruce Almighty is a great film. The image of God in that movie is fabulous: Approachable, caring, willing to engage with this human who's kind of dumb when it comes to spiritual things," she said.
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