- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2005

Up for another Easter-time tussle over religion in movies? “The Passion of the Christ” returned to the large screen a week ago. Six minutes shorter and less violent this time, but no less tenacious theologically. And opening today in area theaters is British director Danny Boyle’s “Millions,” an adaptation of a novel by a practicing Catholic in which saints act decidedly worldly in the “Field of Dreams” of a young boy’s imagination.

Both movies, in their different ways, are infused with faith. Like “The Passion,” “Millions” appears to have sparked grass-roots interest, if the presence of Catholic clergy at recent screenings and the popularity of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s novel among local parochial school students is any indication.

“They loved it,” says teacher Barbara Emard of her fifth-grade class at St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington. She read the novel aloud to her students and found it a handy tool to discuss both arithmetic (the story assumes England is about to adopt the euro) and moral values.

However, assuming the populist upsurge that greeted “The Passion” is a replicable event, it’s unlikely “Millions” will gain traction among the “The Passion’s” core audience. If anything, it will split that audience.

Why? Mostly because conservative Protestants will not see their religion reflected in “Millions,” while “Passion”-friendly Catholics may have a soft spot for its message of deeds-based charity, which the previous group will find suspect. Secularists will find its doctrinal whimsicality unthreatening.

To understand the potential divide over “Millions,” recall the sticking points of “The Passion.” “Recut” or otherwise, it turned off secular-minded critics who said that the compressed narrative of Jesus’ death and suffering necessarily ignored who Jesus was and what He stood for. The abuse and Crucifixion, in themselves, signify little, these critics said; the Roman government executed lots of people that way. What made Jesus special isn’t how He died, but rather how He lived.

The Evangelical Christians who drove “The Passion’s” phenomenal commercial success saw it exactly the other way. For them, the life and works of Jesus were remarkable only inasmuch as they flowed from His perfect nature. What made, and what makes, Jesus special, in this view, is not especially how He lived, but rather how He died and lived again.

Outside a screening of the movie last year, one (believing) woman said to me: “If it isn’t true” — she meant Jesus’ divinity — “then it’s the stupidest movie I’ve ever seen.”

So: What of “Millions”?

On an escapist level, the movie should be seen for no other reason than that it’s funny and sweet and artistically inventive. Evangelical Protestants, who believe all true believers are “saints,” won’t dig the halos on all the capital-S saints, but it’s a family friendly movie that will warm hearts. For those, like me, who are always fixin’ for a tussle over telos, let’s scratch beneath the glitter and glue of “Millions’” construction paper.

Possibly, allegorically, it completes the picture that critics claim “The Passion” left unfinished. It’s social gospel untethered to the actual Gospels. It’s a witty reflection on good works, and the kind of faith the filmmakers believe is required to inspire them. (Hint: A belief in the exclusivity of Christianity, or any other faith system, is, like God in French mathematician Pierre Simon Laplace’s theory of the solar system, not necessary.)

Young Damian (Alexander Nathan Etel) is a motherless child in a working-class London suburb. An adorable misfit with overactive daydreams, he communes with various saints and martyrs, one of whom, St. Clare of Assisi, smokes hand-rolled cigarettes. St. Peter offers a glib rationalization of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The saints’ effect on Damian is to shepherd, practically and without cant, his obvious compassion into active charity.

Mr. Boyle, he of junkie dramas (“Trainspotting”) and zombie flicks (“28 Days Later”), is a lapsed Catholic. He told my colleague Christian Toto that memories of Catholicism “came flooding back” when shooting began on “Millions.” While those memories didn’t provoke hostility, Mr. Boyle is nonetheless a rejectionist.

If I read it right, “Millions” implicitly says nothing less than that Jesus’ Passion — the suffering and the execution — was an unfortunate event with no cosmic significance and no urgent bearing on our lives today.

Listen to what Mr. Boyle told an interviewer for the bawdy Webzine Suicide Girls: “The writer of the film [novelist Frank Cottrell Boyce] is a practicing Catholic. The idea of how we represent Catholicism is something we worked on very carefully together. The film shows that we should have faith in people rather than icons or a particular brand of religion.”

This aligns “Millions” squarely with those who occupied the middle ground of “The Passion” debate — social-gospel Catholics and mainline Protestants who consider Jesus’ life exemplary but hedge their bets on His divinity.

These are the heirs of Northern Baptists such as Walter Rauschenbusch, who wrote (in “Christianity and the Social Crisis”) that “Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus.”

Mr. Rauschenbusch’s is a disappearing legacy.

Before “Millions,” it appeared that religious movies were forking into dissimilar directions: the traditionalism and forensic attention to Scripture of “The Passion” and “The Gospel of John,” and the gimmicky horror of “End of Days,” “Stigmata” and “The Order.”

A reasonable case can be made that the fuzzy feel-goodery of a movie like “Millions” vitiates the truth claims of Christianity, but, at this point, it would be encouraging to see the audience for “The Passion” take a, well, catholic attitude to expressions of faith onscreen.

If a movie such as “Millions” makes millions, it would be yet one more lesson for a Hollywood establishment that treats religion simultaneously like a punchline and a plague.

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