Spiritual Lessons at the movies – and on TV – and at the Theater
by Phil Boatwright

It’s been a fairly satisfying month for your intrepid film reporter as the movies (and the theater) produced several offerings that not only entertain, but also feature spiritual insights. Along with a transfixing cinema version of Les Miserables (it gets its own column later this month), I was moved by the realization that thoughts of God were still a part of the consciousness of some storytellers.

Life of Pi interview…

Profound and spiritual, Life of Pi, a probable contender as best picture come Oscar time, is also the most visually stunning film of the year. Like Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Life of Pi bedazzles with CGI visuals that add to and support the film’s viscerally emotional impact. As with Mr. Malick, filmmaker Ang Lee is unafraid of bringing the subjects of God, faith, and the seeking of spiritual fulfillment to the cineplex.

The film concerns a 16-year-old Indian boy whose passage to a new life in Canada aboard a freighter ends in a shipwreck. He is left to fend for himself on a life raft with only one other passenger – a Bengal tiger.

This vibrant and esoteric work of art doesn’t promote one religion over another. It does, however, what so few films do: it suggests that we become aware of spiritual matters and rely on faith when the conundrums of the day overwhelm. Like any artist attempting profundity, writer David Magee and director Ang Lee provide a complex tapestry that sets a mood for the scrutiny and confirmation of our own beliefs.

Days before I left for a press junket in New York, I had the opportunity to interview Oscar-winner David Magee, the screenwriter of Life of Pi.

PB: “I know the film wasn’t intended to proselytize, but as a follower of Christ I found it full of Christian symbolism.”

DM: “Good. We were hoping it would speak to people of faith. But this is also a film about storytelling. It’s about the way we deal with the chaos in our lives. And the meaning behind the journey. It can be seen as having different lessons for different people.

“Ang and I are storytellers at heart. We love the different journeys that people go on and to be able to express the lessons they learned on those journeys.

“For instance, if you want to see the tiger as something more than just a tiger, I think you can. You know, Pi is an innocent. He’s grown up in a protected world and now he faces reality not just from without, but from within. I think you can see elements of Pi in the tiger, elements Pi is unaware of so far.”

PB: “What were you hoping viewers would take away from the film?”

DM: “I look at it as a sort of Rorschach test. After going through this journey with Pi I think people will have different interpretations. What actually happened to Pi on that sea adventure? How much of it was true and how much of it was Pi’s mind playing tricks on him. I hope by the end of the movie, they’ve have enjoyed a beautiful, entertaining story and on their way home, they find themselves talking about how they see the movie.”

Okay, I was hoping Mr. Magee would profess a devotion to Christ and a desire to point moviegoers to the path, not just a path. But I was pleased that his work and the film adaptation resonated with spiritual and life-altering subjects. As for the all-roads-lead-to-salvation theory, I quote John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Didn’t mean to turn this into a sermon, but see what the film did for me? Whatever the filmmaker’s intent, the film causes reflection. I get excited about a film like Life of Pi because it is different and it does cause one to ponder that which will last.

“Scandalous” Aimee Semple McPherson and devout Kathie Lee Gifford…

A gang of years ago Kathie Lee Gifford (then Epstein) and I attended ORU, did a play together and became friends. Indeed, it was Kathie Lee who a few years later introduced me to the producer of Days of Our Lives, which led to a 25-year association with the TV-biz union AFTRA. (That’s also another column.)

Skip ahead 30 years: I interviewed the vivacious and forthright Ms. Gifford via the phone. Days later during my trip to NYC for the Les Miserables press junket, I had the opportunity to see Broadway production of her play Scandalous (it was the first time I had ever attended a Great White Way production).

Two-time Tony Award nominee Carolee Carmello (Parade, Mamma Mia!) stars, with the book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford (music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman) about evangelist and founder of the Four-Square Church, Aimee Semple McPherson. Before women had the vote, Aimee Semple McPherson became the most celebrated and controversial woman of her generation. But the play is not about promoting the Four Square denomination, or the Pentecostal movement. I assure you the production is not about proselytizing, but rather a sincere look at someone seeking God’s forgiveness, His guidance and His pleasure.

PB: “Do you think the production met with some hostile reviews because of the religious aspects in the show?”

KLG: “Here’s what I know. Not what I believe. What I know from being in this business for about 45 years. Our media and our culture tend to believe that if you have a faith in Christ, you’re either a fool or a phony. You rarely see a person of faith portrayed fairly.

“Someone asked me, why I would want to do a play about Aimee Semple McPherson? And I said why wouldn’t I? Because she was a hypocrite, he responded. “Well, we’ve all been hypocrites at times. Right away you’re coming at it from a prejudiced view.”

She continued, “The culture condones most everything, but it dismisses people of faith and harshly judges them. It seems they are the only people they harshly judge. Look what they did to Romney. They ridicule anyone who believes in a Higher Power. It’s as ugly as racism or any other prejudice, but this belittlement of people of faith is, for some reason, accepted within the media as a whole.”

PB: “What were you hoping theater-goers would take away from the play?”

KLG: “Number one, that God loves them. I’m not a religious person. I’m a faith-filled person, but I’m really uncomfortable around religious people. And by religious people, I mean people governed by the law, not God’s grace. Jesus had trouble with the Pharisees because they were consumed by rules, not love or compassion. I’d rather have dinner with sinners and share my faith and God’s love with them.”

Concerning her reasons for writing the play, Kathie Lee responded in the press notes: “My goal was not to sugarcoat the Christian faith, but represent it faithfully as the true journey over mountains and deep valleys of despair that every true pilgrim’s walk ultimately is.”

The Bible…

It was a whirlwind three days in New York. Along with attending Scandalous and seeing a press screening of Les Miserables, I also met the producers of The Bible, a 10-episode special that will appear on the History Channel in March. Roma Downey (star of Touched by an Angel) and her husband, Mark Burnett (producer of Survivor and many other shows), were enthusiastic, nearly giddy about their new production.

“Just think about all the people who don’t know the Bible,” said Ms. Downey. “We pray they will become interested in God’s Word and that believers will be reminded to make Bible study a part of their daily lives.”

Indeed, the well-made biblical vignettes will surely be of interest not just to the viewers of the History channel, but to all the other outlets this series will no doubt encompass. But, again, that’s another column for another day.