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Churchgoers Find Faith at the Movies

They say God is in the details, but a new genre of Web sites and the pastors who use them believe He's also at the movies.

Sites like Movieministry.com, HollywoodJesus.com and Reelspirituality.org offer biblical lessons found in popular flicks and ways preachers can incorporate these ideas into sermons.

“We live in an age of entertainment,” said Marc Newman, Ph.D., president of Movieministry.com. “We need to use what people know. And what they know almost universally is film.”

So, his site suggests, ministers who want to weave the popular but violent action film “Collateral” — which stars Tom Cruise as the villain — into their Sunday sermons can touch on the theme of “Discipline conquers doubt” using a specific scene suggested and the passage Luke 22:39-46 in the Bible.

“Doubt plagues everyone,” Newman writes on Movieministry. “The Scriptures reveal various disciplines that are designed to strengthen the believer. The disciplines of prayer, fasting, Bible reading, and doing good are habits of the heart that can turn defeated people into powerful warriors.”

The films analyzed on the Movieministry site include everything from “Princess Diaries 2” (“God exalts the humble”) and “Anchorman” (“What is love?”) to “Spider-Man 2” (“Confession is the first step of forgiveness”) and “The Notebook” (“God can step in where science cannot”).

“Our myths, our read on reality, our way of envisioning truth come from movie stories,” said Robert K. Johnston, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., which puts out Reelspirituality.org. “We are encouraging the church to learn from Hollywood and Hollywood to learn from the church.”

Churches have been going high-tech in the last decade or so. Referencing movies or showing film clips during services is one of the newer additions to multi-media religion, often happening at “mega churches” that draw hundreds or even thousands of congregants.

And though Hollywood and the church have often been archenemies, using pop culture in religion and vice versa goes back to the beginning.

“There’s a long tradition in this country of religion using the techniques of entertainment to hold the attention of its flock,” said FOX News Watch panelist Neal Gabler, author of “Life: The Movie.” “Some of the most popular figures of the 19th century were ministers. … These people were like rock stars.”

David Bruce, who runs HollywoodJesus.com and has a background in network television, said it’s foolish for the church to shun show biz.

“The church at its worst has been rock-throwing,” he said. “Hollywood is the easy whipping boy.”

But not surprisingly, the concept of using Hollywood to teach religion has detractors.

“Obviously, not everyone from the church is onboard, nor is everyone from Hollywood,” said Johnston, who with his wife Catherine Barsotti co-wrote “Finding God in the Movies: 33 Films of Reel Faith.” “But the percentages of those involved in the conversation are growing on both sides.”

The God-in-film trend is mostly catching on among Evangelical Christians — those who take the Bible as the literal word of God and go about the business of sharing their faith with others. And the majority of the Web masters have ties to California, where Hollywood’s power is keenly felt.

About 24 percent of Christians describe themselves as Evangelical, according to a May 2004 poll by Mitofsky International and Edison Media Research. Gallup reports that 50 percent of the population is Protestant and 23 percent Catholic, according to a recent poll.

Newman admits that the goal of the movement is missionary in nature: to convert others to Christianity using film.

“The answer is yes, but I’d defend it,” he said. “Everybody believes that the world view they represent is the correct one. Christians also believe that.”

As to how the religious movie sites reconcile films’ sex, violence and profanity with good Christian values, those involved in the effort point to the Bible.

“The Bible is filled with stories that are ugly, violent and rapacious,” Newman said. “There are lots of cautionary tales designed to be lessons.”

In addition to detailing film scenes and specific Biblical passages that apply, Newman offers a search tool to block out R-rated movies and “Sermon General’s Warnings” for each film.

For one “Collateral” scene Newman cautions: “If you choose to use this whole clip, you must be aware that Vincent uses the word ‘sh_.’”

Some skeptics raise eyebrows at the trend and wonder if it's a stretch to go looking for faith in a movie like "Thirteen Going on 30" or "The Village." But pop culture gurus say it can be mutually beneficial, considering how many people go to the movies and how many people attend religious services.

"They're out to attract an audience," said Gabler of church leaders. "Their competition is Hollywood."

But of course, spirituality can't be found in every flick.

“That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of worthless movies,” said Johnston. “The church does not need to see ‘Debbie Does Dallas.’”

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