Did you realize that one of the Ten Commandments is a warning about the way we use media?
“You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth,” says Exodus 20:4. The Church is quick to point out that this was never taken as an absolute ban and that, in the Temple and especially after the incarnation, images can point to God.
Nonetheless, the commandment’s point is well taken. From golden calves to celebrity culture, we quickly idolize the bright and shiny things that dazzle us. Here are ways today’s entertainment media lead us astray about who God is.
First: Often in entertainment media, religious people are abnormal.
In the 1990s, Michael Medved first noticed something that remains true today: More people report attending worship services each weekend than watch the Super Bowl each year. But movies don’t reflect that reality.
In movies, religious people are abnormal. In such classics as Field of Dreams and Shawshank Redemption, they are harsh killjoys. In Pulp Fiction, we meet a crazed gunman who quotes Scripture. In the X-Men movies and the 2019 post-apocalyptic film I Am Mother the Catholic character is a bizarre loner. We love sitcoms because they show the fun in normal life, but in our most beloved sitcoms, from Leave it to Beaver to Friends, from The Cosby Show to The Office, none of the delightfully normal people we meet are churchgoers.
Believers are thrilled when we see characters expressing their faith on the screen. Hallmark movies are popular for exactly this reason. We cheer when we see the women in Hidden Figures pray, and films as different as The Irishman and Les Miserables cheer religion’s redemptive role. But these exceptions should just make us realize how conspicuous by its absence religion usually is — for instance when no Christians are persecuted in Gladiator’s Colosseum, and when Unbroken and 42 tell stories of faith-filled real people who on the big screen have little or no faith at all.
Second: God is either absent or odd in our media.
To most of us, God is the creator-companion who looks over his creation with loving providence. We pray to him for direction when we are confused and for forgiveness when we sin. But that’s not who God is in movies.
He is the Force in the original Star Wars movies, and the more the follow-up films tried to explain what that means, the weirder they got. Yet that God is an odd force in such movies as Polar Express, Wrinkle in Time and Disney movies with a spiritual bent from Frozen to Encanto.
Pixar’s Coco is a great example of a movie with a strange understanding of God. Catholics cheer the religious imagery in the first half of it, but then are puzzled by the afterlife it envisions, where people last as long as their family remembers them. But, wouldn’t Jesus remember them? Wouldn’t their family members in heaven remember them? The ancestral divinities in Black Panther can remember their progeny, after all — but then they are also a strange take on God.
Marvel movies do have some promising “real-God” moments, such as Captain America’s remark in The Avengers, “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” But ultimately in the Marvel universe god is Ultron more than Trinity.
Third: In much of our entertainment, immorality is the key to happiness.
Speaking of Marvel movies, this year’s Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness falls into another mistake movies make regarding God — they make disobeying the commandments the key to happiness. Doctor Strange happily uses witchcraft to win the day, a decision which, in classical stories like Doctor Faustus never ends well.
Commandments, notably the fourth, are often obstacles to happiness. In kids’ movies from Little Mermaid to Moana, from Spy Kids to Turning Red, disobeying parents is the best path forward — a strange lie for us, as a culture, to keep telling our children.
Lying is a good thing in many movies, though, from School of Rock to Romantic comedies such as You’ve Got Mail and The Proposal. So is killing — notably, for Catholic dads, in the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings movies, where both Wormtongue and Sauron’s messenger are dispatched in ways that would have enraged J.R.R. Tolkien.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t (necessarily) forbid my kids from watching these movies. As I said last week when noticing other movie errors, it’s more important to have a conversation about what is true and false — and to watch movies for future men and future women that tell the truth about who we are.