The Paranoia Express rolls on and on

PolarExpressOne of the most important facts to remember in discussions of red zones and blue zones — right up there with the reality of allegedly red people pigging out on blue culture all the time — is the fact that the blue zones coalition consists of both highly religious people and people who are secularists.

The religious right has a tendency to forget that the religious left is out there and has its own way of parsing scriptures and traditions.

However, it is clear that there are some people on the blue side of the aisle who are so mad right now, in the wake of 11/2 and other cultural battles, that they are seeing the red-zone, faith-based, values-voter enemy in all kinds of places that, when you stop and think about it, seem out and out wacky. It seems, in particular, that anything in popular culture that draws stark lines between right and wrong, good and evil, and offers a glowing view of family or even (gasp!) faith is going to be labeled a White House plot.

Exhibit A in this syndrome was the wave of paranoia that greeting the smashing success of The Incredibles (and the flop of the new Alfie). That story is not over yet, of course. To add fuel to that fire, check out this National Review Online chat with one of the Pixar czars.

Now, the trend-watching folks at SlateWashingtonPostNewsweek have found another evangelical plot to sway the nation away from reason. For, you see, one of the marketing people for The Polar Express is Paul Lauer, who was one of the people who led the drive to get red-zone people to turn out for (cue theme from Jaws) that movie — The Passion of the Christ.

Thus, as a public service, Slate’s David Sarno asked the ultimate nasty question:

But wait, is The Polar Express an evangelical film?

You’d certainly think so, considering the expansive campaign of preview screenings, radio promotion, DVDs, and online resources that Lauer unfurled in the Christian media this fall. This Polar Express downloads page includes endorsements from pastors and links to church and parenting resources hosted by the Christian media outlet HomeWord. There are suggestions for faith-building activities and a family Bible-study guide that notes, for example, the Boy’s Christ-like struggle to get the Girl a train ticket. “The Boy risked it all to recover the ticket,” the guide observes. “Jesus gave His all to save us from the penalty of our sins.”

HomeWord Radio, which claims to reach more than a million Christian parents daily, broadcast three shows promoting the film. At one point, the show’s host wondered excitedly if the movie “might turn out to be one of the more effective witnessing tools in modern times.” Motive also produced a promotional package that was syndicated to over 100 radio stations in which Christian recording artists like Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman, and Avalon talked about the movie as they exited preview screenings.

There’s more. The marketing troops even sent free promotional DVDs to churches, urging them to buy tickets for children, Sunday school classes, etc. These DVDs even included commentary from the evangelical superstar Max Lucado, noting how at least eight scenes in the movie affirm — oh my God — biblical principles.

Yes, it is true that the movie does not seem to contain anything that is specifically Christian, in terms of doctrine, and it certainly is not evangelistic. But the protectors of blue culture cannot be too careful. It would not be good too Hollywood try to reach out to middle America with products that affirm any of its alleged values. Stay tuned. Who knows what the GOP and the religious right will come up with next.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • sisyphusgal

    Mr. Sarno’s is not trying to fan the flames of fear that Hollywood movies are insidiously being Christafied. What he is commenting on is a trend in marketing campaigns to Christian groups. That is, taking a film that fits a moral template and further spinning it for Christian consumption, which can be a very lucrative endeavor.

    One of the common complaints of my extended family (who are Pentecostal) is the lack of entertainment available to them that is not offensive. They’re not even looking for bible lessons in everything that they watch, but they are looking for “wholesome”. So if a marketing firm can identify copasetic Christian films and figure out a way to advertise in churches (such as the DVDs sited in the article), you are both meeting a need in the Christian audience and potentially generating revenue for the studio. Sounds like a win for both the red and the blue to me.

  • skammer

    Actually, from a Christian perspective, I found the movie profoundly uninspiring. Its message is that Christmas is a celebration of.. what, exactly? Belief in Santa Claus? Or just general, non-specific belief? No hint that it really matters *what* you believe, nor did I detect any hint that Christmas might have any kind of religious significance.

    If I can recall the message of the movie correctly, as expressed by St. Nick, “The true meaning of Christmas is in your heart.” I’m skeptical that that message could get any real traction in Evangical circles (be they red-state or blue-state).

  • paddyo’

    “Ultimate nasty question”? I dunno, sometimes a question is just a question (and this one WAS, simply, a single question) — and a story about movie marketing is, well, just that. Period. I wonder if you’re looking a little too hard here for evidence of a blue-culture ghostbuster poking around under the bed for red-culture dust bunnies. By my reading, I see no “protector of blue culture” here, just a reporter asking questions, getting answers, and moving on. I suggest saving the sarcasm for a real case of blue-culture whining.

  • Stephen A.

    As noted by “skammer” above, many Evangelical Christians found Polar Express to be devoid of Christian content. Where was Christ in this film’s “christmas”? Nowhere.

    It was also quite scary in places – perhaps too scary for its target audience. But that’s just some reviewers’ judgment. Many people just saw it as a change from the sexually-soaked, ultra violent fare Hollywood crams down childrens’ (and adults’) throats at this time of year. And while it didn’t portray religious values, I suppose it didn’t portray religion in a bad light, as some films have in the past.

    As for finding a Christian message in this film, I’ll leave that to the imaginations of theologians.

  • Molly

    If feel good, I can take my kids to this movie and be sure they won’t hear the f-word, it must be good because Tom Hanks is in it – is the criteria for evangelical films, then evangelicalism is more brain dead than I thought.