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RELIGION-US: Will ‘The Road’ Be a Tool for Evangelism?

OAKLAND, California, Nov 25 2009 (IPS) - Two movies with doomsday scenarios highlight this year’s pre-holiday releases – “2012”, a special effects spectacular, is based on the Mayan calendar, whose end date – not to be confused with the end of the world, most scholars agree – is Dec. 21, 2012.

In its first weekend at the box office “2012” took in 225 million dollars – 65 million dollars domestically and 160 million internationally. The other film, “The Road”, is an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning post-apocalyptic novel.

“Like a lot of great literature, ‘The Road’ is open to interpretation,” Rob Boston, senior policy analyst with Americans United (AU), which works to uphold the constitutional principle of church-state separation, told IPS.

“In some ways, the book could even be read as a humanistic parable. The world depicted in ‘The Road’ is so nightmarish and unpleasant that one is tempted to ask, ‘Has God abandoned humankind?'” he said.

“The boy (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his father (played by Vigo Mortensen) are left to rely on one another, and the bond between them speaks to the undying love parents have for their children – a message that resonates with atheist parents as much as Christian ones,” Boston pointed out.

“I suppose one could read the book as a metaphor for God’s love for his creation, but to me that message was in no way obvious in the book. Literal-minded fundamentalists are not likely to make that reach,” he added.

Even if the R-rated film contained “more overt religious messages”, Boston could not envision “conservative Christians flocking to the multiplexes to see a movie about an apocalyptic wasteland populated by shell-shocked cannibals and somehow seeing that as an affirmation of God’s awesome power.”

However, for A. Larry Ross, president of A. Larry Ross Communications – a high-profile Christian media company – the film provides an opening for church leaders to “participate in a robust spiritual discussion”.

Ross was asked by the movie’s production company to take “The Road” to the faith-based community. He believes with the film generating buzz and Oscar talk, Christians should get in on the action.

The film presents “a unique entry point for those in the faith community to share the hope of the Gospel in a hopeless world”, Ross said.

To that end, Ross has been instrumental in organising “advance screenings for church leaders nationwide.” A website featuring “free sermons and discussion guides” has been produced, and “a special trailer with extra scenes underscoring the film’s moral message” was developed, Entertainment Weekly recently reported.

Why did the film’s producers call on Ross? “Over the past few years, I’ve noticed a greater emphasis on popular culture – especially film – at events like the ‘Values Voter Summit,'” said AU’s Boston.

“Clearly the Religious Right wants to use the medium of film to spread its message of how society and culture should be ordered,” Boston added. “They want to go back to the days when movies were ‘wholesome’ and religion was never portrayed in a negative light – think 1950s with Spencer Tracy playing a friendly priest. The Religious Right used to rage against Hollywood; now they want to co-opt it.”

Over the past few years, A. Larry Ross Communications (ALRC) has been involved with pre-release publicity for several movies. While some have not fared particularly well at the box office, others far exceeded expectations.

“Left Behind”, a film based on one of a series of mega-best-selling apocalyptic novels by longtime Religious Right leader Tim LaHaye and his co-author Jerry Jenkins, fell flat at the box office. It did, however, sell more than three million videos. “Evan Almighty”, starring Steve Carrell, was a high-budget film (175 million dollars) that grossed 170 million worldwide.

However, the success of actor/director Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” – whose budget was 30 million dollars and which took in more than 600 million dollars worldwide – trumps all the others, setting the stage for Ross’s deeper engagement with Hollywood productions.

In light of the success of “The Passion”, “some major studios saw there was money to be made by reaching out to religious audiences and producing more films with religious themes,” Boston pointed out.

While Christian-based PR firms aren’t new phenomena, Ross’s group is among the few that have risen to the top in a crowded field. And while the groups, campaigns and individuals represented by Ross’s client list are prestigious, it is “the Kingdom of God itself [that] is a client of sorts,” the New York Times pointed out. “Publicity, marketing and branding are his ministry. So the real question becomes, Why does God need someone to sell him?'”

During any given week ALRC churns out numerous press releases – via Facebook, Twitter, as well as more traditional venues – for myriad evangelical Christian clients: it recently promoted “good, clean fun” in “The Cheesy Adventure of Captain Mac.A.Roni”; questioned health care reform on behalf of the Joni and Friends (JAF) disability ministry and its public policy initiative, the Christian Institute on Disability (CID); flacked for the Kentucky-based Creation Museum; and touted a series of websites run by Global Media Outreach (GMO) “dedicated to share the good news of Christ with the branches of the U.S. armed forces.”

American United’s Rob Boston allowed that he was not surprised to hear about the production team’s plans “to promote” ‘The Road’ to a Christian audience. “They would pitch ‘Saw V’ to a Christian audience if they thought they could make money. The studios want as many people as possible to see any film.”

And while Boston admits to not being “a film critic”, he is “sceptical” that “The Road” “can be pitched successfully to a fundamentalist audience. Fundamentalist tend to be literal minded. They enjoyed ‘The Passion of the Christ’ because it was the straight-up passion narrative with all of the blood you could stand. I’ve read ‘The Road,’ and while there are biblical references in it, they are nuanced and cloaked in metaphor.”

According to Entertainment Weekly, after watching an early cut of the film, Cormac McCarthy had “no doubt about” the film’s “spiritual resonance.” The film’s director John Hillcoat said that McCarthy had only one comment: “He said, ‘It would be great to hear the word God one or two more times.”

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