Yesterday I came across the following bizarre piece in a newspaper.
“Two of the Catholic Church’s expert exorcists in Britain have warned that a fascination with the supernatural and a fading of Christian practice have led to an increase in those asking priests to exorcise a demonic presence from them or their homes.” The article has one of the priests observing (from which I infer lamenting) that “popular culture is full of the preternatural. Young people are watching things about vampires and Harry Potter, and however much people claim to have moved away from mainstream religion, there remains the need to believe in something invisible.”
All I can say is that, even if vampires and Harry Potter’s magic wand are displacing Christianity, the Church is hardly in a position to start calling Hollywood to account for peddling such nonsense, having itself spent the last 2000 years propagating, extolling, even sometimes going to war for, a collection of fairy tales encompassing scores of miracles – most notably but by no means confined to a virgin birth, a corpse rising from the dead and its subsequent ascension into Heaven.
In fact, the Church and Hollywood used happily to collaborate in the production of biblical or religious-themed epics. Most of them were made at huge financial risk to the studio concerned, but at no risk of offending the religious souls who coughed up ticket-money to see them. Some were laughably absurd, and most were theologically inaccurate – if one assumes the Gospels to be authentic – despite the usual and mandatory presence on-set of so-called ‘religious advisors’. These were demanded by the studios moguls – most of who were Jewish – and were gladly loaned for the occasion by the Vatican (never, it seems, from other Christian denominations) presumably to make sure that the script-writers did not try to sneak into the plot Jesus getting involved in a steamy romance or ending it by having him riding off into a Technicolor sunset.
The genre included such monumental clinkers as Quo Vadis, The Robe, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, King 0f Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told – to mention just a few of the more glaring examples. For these, we were invited, while munching on our popcorn, to marvel at a variety of miracles on display, on screens so wide that the audience resembled a crowd at Wimbledon, with further inspiration provided by solemn music written by, as the publicist on TGSET memorably put it, a “world-famous composer”.
As Dwight Macdonald, the acerbic dean of movie critics in his day (1940-1970) observed: “It seems to be impossible for this Christian civilization to make a decent move about the life of its founder. From (Cecil B.) De Mille’s sexy-sacred epics up to the (TGSET) they have all been, as art or as religion, indecent.”
So, admittedly, are the vampire-zombie-magic wand offerings coming out of Hollywood these days, but no more so than their quasi-religious predecessors, and without the sanctimony or the vulgarity or those coy depictions of Jesus, usually seen only from the rear or at a great distance.
One of the Catholic priests quoted earlier said, “It’s normal for humans to have a morbid fascination with the battle with evil, and to paint a caricature, the exorcist coming like a wizard to help”. Of the Hollywood film The Exorcist, he commented that most exorcisms were ‘run of the mill’ and had ‘little of the glamour’ of that film.
‘Run of the mill’ is a strange phrase to use for an exercise designed to expel the Devil from a desperately disturbed human being and ‘glamour’ is hardly the term I would use for a film that many of us found as disturbing as it was disgusting. All of which makes me wonder what we are to make of these strange people – who think that Harry Potter is somehow corrupting but that a story about a resurrection is uplifting, people who find grappling with the forces of evil as mundane as working in a bank.
Why do countless millions around the world believe a word of what they say?
Beats me, but I see that Ben-Hur is on television tonight, so perhaps I’ll find a clue there that I missed when I last saw it fifty years ago. (I’m reminded of comedian Mort Sahl’s comment, that he ‘loved Ben, hated Hur’. Actually, my recollection, to out-do Mort, is that I hated both of them.)