By Ann Hornaday
The Washington Post
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 emailed 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 emailer wrote. "It is now evident you cannot write a review without your personal biases surfacing. That is not professional."
My correspondent's words stung. 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 emailer 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 wary of proselytizing; we tend to prefer evangelizing through our lives and actions rather than showier protestations.
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.
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" emailer 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.
Still, I believe that work -- like every other aspect of daily life -- is both a venue and a crucible for exploring and expressing our deepest values. 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.
But even those safely secular work-arounds are proving challenging this year, which has already witnessed a bounty of Christian-themed movies: "Son of God," "Noah" and "God's Not Dead" have all been hits at the box office; "Heaven Is for Real," which opened this week, is predicted to meet with similar success and "Exodus: God and Kings," starring Christian Bale as Moses, is set for release in December.
As a critic, my first obligation is to assess each of these films not as theology, but as a piece of commercial entertainment, whether the form it takes is a mass-market spectacle or a more niche-oriented product that preaches to the choir. After praying, I always ask myself three questions about any movie I'm writing about: What was the artist trying to achieve? Did he or she achieve it? And was it worth achieving?
The beauty of that framework is that it allows me to set pure subjectivity aside, the better to judge every film on its merits; the answers get a little dicier, however, when I'm asked to analyze an explicitly Christian film. At that point, my beliefs inevitably come into play, whether I interpret the Old Testament as a divinely inspired but not necessarily literal text in "Noah," or whether I feel that the starchy, simplistic approach of "Son of God" failed to capture the most subtle and powerful elements of the Gospel of John.
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.