WPost: Confessions of a (liberal) Christian film critic

WPost: Confessions of a (liberal) Christian film critic April 12, 2014

The following observations have little to do with the normal work that we do here at GetReligion, since our goal is to dissect the mainstream press coverage of religion news, seeking the good, the bad and the ugly.

Nevertheless, I think faithful readers of this blog will be interested in a new essay by Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday, which ran under this provocative headline: “Confessions of a Christian film critic.”

Right. And this very interesting essay opens with the following passage, which is long — but essential.

“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

It may come as something of a surprise for Washington Post readers to learn that these are the words I silently invoke every time I sit down to write.

It would surely shock the gentleman who recently e-mailed to castigate me for the “evil” review I wrote of the film “Son of God,” the screen adaptation of the “Bible” TV miniseries. “You will have much to account for the day you meet God,” the e-mailer wrote. “It is now evident you cannot write a review without your personal biases surfacing. That is not professional.”

My correspondent’s words stung — not only because something I had written had caused such obvious distress. In just a few short sentences, he summed up the tensions, contradictions and fleeting moments of grace I have experienced as a film critic who also happens to be a practicing Christian.

The truth is, my angry e-mailer had good reason to assume I’m not religious. I don’t make a habit of professing my faith in my writing — a reticence I chalk up to denomination and profession. A cradle Episcopalian, I grew up within a tradition that’s notoriously chary of proselytizing; as practitioners of that most mainline of mainline Protestant denominations, we tend to prefer evangelizing through our lives and actions rather than showier protestations.

Yes, that sound you are hearing is members of some other flocks — you know, the people in all those shallow flocks that are into that whole “showier protestations” and proselytizing thing — snickering just a bit.

In other words, try to imagine a film critic drawing a paycheck at the Post who is a cradle, oh, member of the Assemblies of God or a Catholic who is active in Opus Dei writing a similar essay and feeling free to express sentiments that are exactly the opposite of this.

Then imagine them feeling free to write this next passage in the same essay:

I don’t hide the fact that I attend church regularly — in fact, I’ve been fairly active in my Baltimore parish for the past dozen years, as a member of our pastoral care committee, as a Eucharistic visitor and as a Sunday School teacher (a fact that will surely strike terror into the hearts of those readers who weren’t so crazy about my “Noah” review, either). …

But my resistance to invoking God, Jesus Christ and matters of the spirit in my writing also has to do with something the “Son of God” e-mailer correctly identified: the journalistic habit of not allowing my personal biases to surface, thereby inappropriately using my work as a religious platform and alienating those readers who don’t share my faith or have no faith at all. Those individuals have every right to read a movie review or essay without feeling sermonized, excluded or disrespected.

Wait, there is more:

Rather than quoting Jesus, the prophets and the Bible in my reviews, I’m more likely to couch my Christian faith in language having to do with humanism, transcendence and cosmic mystery. …

In some cases, my aesthetic taste and spiritual temperament have fused so seamlessly that it’s difficult to tell which is which: I abhorred Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” far preferring Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” — but I usually tend to be repelled by sensationalism and fetishistic violence, and attracted by more expressionistic, even experimental endeavors. I tend not to be a fan of the earnest literalism of films like “Son of God,” but I have a well-documented soft spot for such satirically ribald (and, by my lights, sincerely devout) comedies like Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.”

OK, raise your hand if you are having a bit of trouble trying to imagine that, over the years, plenty of conservative believers have read the work of this elite and genuinely talented critic and — because of their own religious convictions and beliefs — have not seen evidence of her theological convictions. In other words, has she managed to demonstrate the “journalistic habit of not allowing my personal biases to surface, thereby inappropriately using my work as a religious platform and alienating those readers who don’t share my faith.”

Even in this very fine essay, there are plenty of examples of how her own beliefs and tastes have influenced her work as a critic — AS THEY SHOULD. The article is crucial and important because of its candor. It’s also crucial that she is talented and that she has valid observations to contribute to public discourse. In other words, she is good at what she does.

I simply found myself wondering if a conservative religious believer would ever be allowed to sit in a desk next to her and do the very same work, with the same skill, yet viewing the world of popular art through a different theological lens. Would the post consider publishing such a person and adding to the intellectual and cultural diversity in its print offerings? And would that person — perhaps a black Pentecostal writer, an Hasidic Jew, a Latino Southern Baptist, a Korean Presbyterian — be given the liberty of writing their own “confessions of” essay that is as candid as this one?

Maybe …

Dear Post Style editors:

Thank you for publishing the recent Ann Hornaday piece entitled, “Confessions of a Christian film critic.”

Since I am sure that, in the name of cultural diversity, there must be a religious conservative or two working on your staff, would you please ask one of them to publish a candid essay of this kind in your pages, an essay reflecting on how she or he blends their deepest religious convictions with their work as a critic?

In fact, why not hire such a believer to cover film, working alongside the excellent Hornaday and thus offering the public another point of view? I realize that this would be hard in the current economy, but it would still be worth considering.

Thank you for your time.

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