Has the MPAA begun rating films based on religious content?
It depends on who you believe. The one thing everybody agrees on is that Facing the Giants, a church-made film about a Christian football coach who conquers the "giants" of fear and failure, deserved its PG rating. But was it for the adult themes of infertility and depression, as the Motion Picture Association of America claims, or was it for its evangelical Christian content, as its producer, Provident Films, maintains?
Provident spokesperson Kris Fuhr told Scripps Howard News Service that the MPAA used the word "proselytizing" in its explanation for giving the film — which contains no sex, violence, or profanity — a PG rating. "They decided that the movie was heavily laden with messages from one religion and that this might offend people from other religions," Fuhr said, adding: "It is kind of interesting that faith has joined that list of deadly sins that the MPAA board wants to warn parents to worry about."
Christian bloggers went ballistic over the news, and the MPAA received 15,000 angry emails, along with a letter from Majority Whip Roy Blunt asking MPAA president Dan Glickman for an explanation. Pointing out that — according to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health — the MPAA's standards for onscreen sex and violence have weakened dramatically in the last decade, "This incident raises the disquieting possibility that MPAA considers exposure to Christian themes more dangerous for children than exposure to gratuitous sex and mindless violence," Blunt wrote.
In a letter of response, Glickman denied that religion had anything to do with the PG rating, which is intended to warn parents that material in a film may be inappropriate for children. And MPAA ratings board chair Joan Graves told Daily Variety that promoters for Facing the Giants acknowledged that "they made a mistake" in believing that religious content affected the film's rating — a claim Provident Films head Ben Howard called "absolutely inaccurate." Provident Film's Nancy Lovell insists that it was the MPAA that changed its position, not Provident.
"The first communication from the MPAA was that religion was a factor in the rating. Since then, the MPAA has revised those factors to no longer include religion," she told Daily Variety. If the MPAA has indeed decided to rate films with an eye on religious content, it will be interesting to see how consistent those ratings will be. Will only Christian films be suspect, or will parents also be warned about films with Jewish or Buddhist or Muslim-friendly messages? What about films that attack or mock religious doctrine — such as The Da Vinci Code and The Last Temptation of Christ?
After all, film-goers have a right to know what they're exposing their children to. And God forbid that innocent moviegoers find themselves inadvertently supporting a religiously-themed film with intolerant truth claims. One only wishes that, given how many people rent older films, the MPAA would warn viewers of potentially offensive religious themes they may encounter in these pictures.
For the religiously-sensitive viewer who doesn't want to wait, here are some updated warnings for some films of yesteryear:
The Sound of Music; 1965, Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer. Winner of five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Warning: Explicit depictions of Roman Catholic singing nuns, convent life, religious dialogue, and obedience to Christian God. For mature audiences only.
The End of the Affair; 1999, Julianne Moore, Ralph Fiennes; two Academy Award nominations. An adulterous woman embraces Roman Catholicism and gives up lover. Proselytizing, miracles, exclusive heavy focus on one religion, discussions of sainthood. Warning: Conversion theme may offend atheists.
It's a Wonderful Life; Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed. Best Picture Oscar, 1946: Warning: Film depicts man praying exclusively to the Christian God for help, and receiving it in the form of an angel. Intolerant depiction of the local atheist as the meanest man in town. Parents strongly cautioned.
A Man for All Seasons; 1966, Paul Scofield, Wendy Hiller. Eight Oscar nominations. Flagrant religious fanaticism ("I die the king's good servant, but God's first!"); religiously-inspired inflexibility; religiously-motivated violence, and too many lawyers. Viewers strongly cautioned.
The Robe; 1956, Richard Burton, Victor Mature. Contains graphic proselytizing; propagandizes for the Christian religion. Features exclusive truth claims and homeless, roaming apostles. Depicts crucifixion and alleged resurrection of Christ, miracles, and conversion of governmental authorities. Insensitive to other religious traditions. Parents strongly cautioned.
I Confess; 1953, Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter. Film by Alfred Hitchcock depicting a fanatical Catholic priest who refuses to violate the sanctity of the confessional even at the risk of his life. Heavily laden with messages from one religion which may offend viewers from other religions.
It Happened One Night; Best picture, 1935. Upholds the repressive Judeo-Christian teaching that sexual relations should be reserved for marriage. Gratuitous biblical references to the walls of Jericho.
The Bells of St. Mary's; Best picture, 1945. Propagandistic depiction of nuns teaching at a Catholic school and the priest who oppresses them. Heavily laden with messages from one religion; flagrant display of sexist religious practices. Not suitable for children.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; 2005, Georgie Henley, Tilda Swinton. Warning: Contains heavy proselytizing by means of Christian allegory; impressionable children may be tricked into converting to Christianity. Religiously intolerant plot implies that the religion of a big yellow lion is superior to that of a skinny white witch. Parents strongly cautioned.
Sergeant York; 1941, Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, two Academy Awards. Warning: Features graphic conversion scene involving Tennessee hell-raiser Alvin York. Gratuitous Bible-thumping; Christian faith used to justify move from pacifism to willingness to kill in wartime. May offend Amish viewers and Jim Wallis.
Chariots of Fire; 1981, Ian Charleson, Ben Cross, Best Picture Oscar. Contains heavy proselytizing for Christian religion; religious fanaticism (character's refusal to run on Sundays). May offend athletes who do run on Sundays.
The Greatest Story Ever Told; 1964, Max Von Sydow. Contains intolerant insinuation that other religious stories are less great.
Mrs. Miniver; 1942, Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Best Picture Oscar. Features belligerent, pro-war sermon by Protestant clergyman; lusty singing of "Onward Christian Soldiers;" intolerant implication that only the Christian religion provides comfort and solace in times of trouble. Not appropriate for children. Not appropriate for adults, either.
My Fair Lady; 1964, Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison; Best Picture Oscar. Contains song, "Get Me to the Church on Time," which may offend viewers who prefer to see Alfie Doolittle arrive at other types of houses of worship in a punctual manner; insensitive to viewers who may prefer to see Professor Henry Higgins marry Freddie.
The MPAA's ratings system came about because parents wanted to know how much in the way of violence, sexual content, adult themes, and foul language a film contained so they could determine if their children should be exposed to it. If large numbers of parents are now demanding religious warnings about films, we're not hearing much about it — which suggests that the only people taking offense at Christianity on screen are the MPAA raters themselves.
By Anne Morse