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Sunday, February 27, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine / Cover Story

Critical Choices: Jeffrey Overstreet uses movies to close the spiritual-secular gap

SITTING AMONG the center rows of a dim theater, film critic Jeffrey Overstreet stares at the blank screen that will soon serve as a portal into the world of "Million Dollar Baby." We've come together because I'm interested in seeing how he works and, mostly, what he will think.

He's a Seattle critic who reviews films from a Christian's perspective, but, he insists, "I do not write Christian reviews any more than I bake Christian cookies." What he means is he doesn't write the Christian reviews he read as a kid, which to him seemed mainly about counting the swear words and incidents of nudity and violence.

He views most mainstream films, looking for meaning — even in "Shrek 2" — and urges Christians to wade into popular culture and art. Besides keeping his day job in the communications office at Seattle Pacific University, Overstreet writes reviews for Christianity Today and other publications. He also maintains his own Web site, called "Looking Closer," and co-hosts an online arts-and-faith blog and message board.

Despite all the vanity that will be on display at tonight's Oscars, the film of the year in terms of effect and perhaps of history is one that wasn't invited. "The Passion of the Christ" was heartfelt, controversial, violent and, in the minds of record numbers of Christians whom we are told don't even go to R-rated movies, overdue.

It also has relentlessly been paired with anti-Bush film "Fahrenheit 9/11" as celluloid proof of the culture war between spiritual and secular camps. This idea of film as weapon sends Overstreet's eyes rolling.

He draws overlapping circles on the notepad he will use to track thoughts on tonight's movie. He scribbles in the top sphere, which he says represents right-wing Christians who feel every movie should be as devout as "The Passion" and that Hollywood has nothing to offer but sin. The space in the bottom circle, he says, represents hard-core secularists who despise or fear religion and spirituality and who are as judgmental as the people they criticize.

Then he shades the sliver left in the middle of the overlapping bubbles. This is where he operates. It is where you can celebrate art, culture and questions of faith in the same place, the same theater, as everyone else. He and a growing number of Christian film critics, writers and producers urge the church to be braver about joining — and changing — the popular-culture dialogue.

Of course, critics must take criticism, and he gets his share.

When he was introduced at a recent media question-and-answer junket in Los Angeles, a few of his "mainstream" peers snickered when he said he was representing Christianity Today. He says he was once told by a publicist that his scheduled interview with a director of a major film was canceled after the director decided she didn't want to talk to a Christian publication.

He gets letters and e-mails chastising him for essentially not being Christian enough because he appreciates certain movies even though they contain sex, violence, cussing. He has been criticized for enjoying Harry Potter movies by some who believe they celebrate witchcraft and devil worship. He got hate mail, as did other critics, from some Christians because he did not find "The Passion" flawless.

Good art, he says, should provoke. But the tragedy of choosing sides is that art, especially film, has unique power to teach, minister and bind.

"The divide we have created between the sacred and secular is crap," he says. "To say there is that divide is to say God can't be there, he can only be here. God likes to work everywhere. It's not just Christians who are missing out, either."

ONE SUNDAY NIGHT this winter, people from Green Lake Presbyterian Church gathered to sing and pray. They prayed for those among them coping with a death in the family, parents inching toward divorce and estranged from a sibling. They all rose and circled around Emily Statema, a church member who was leaving for Africa to minister to AIDS orphans.

The final 30 minutes belonged to Overstreet and his look at trends in the movies of 2004. He barely got a third of the way through his list before time expired, partly because he couldn't resist peeling layer after layer of each film to get to the moral kernel. He hit many of the big movies, from "Ray" to "Finding Neverland." The congregation groaned with him as he described the last line of "The Polar Express" — "It doesn't matter what train you get on. Just get on one."

His controversial sleeper favorite was "Saved!" — a satire about the hypocrisy among some Christian teens at a religious high school. Many Christians were offended by it, but he insists it contained legitimate points.

"Probably nine out of 10 Christian film critics wrote this off, but I went to a Christian high school and I knew these characters in the film," he said. "Christian young people can manipulate language like anyone else. But it blows it at the end, essentially saying Jesus was just about tolerance. He was about more than tolerance. It's important to note the difference between compassion and tolerance."

Green Lake Presbyterian embraces art. Over the years, Pastor Michael Kelly has lugged the heavy wooden pews out of the way to make room for "Gallery Night," in which painters, poets and musicians display their talents. That openness to art is part of what led Overstreet there.

"My calling is in the context of the personal work of Christ to help people to engage God through the gifts they have," says Kelly, who recently used "The Incredibles" in a sermon on being everyday heroes.

In fact, churches are using the power of film like never before to evangelize. Some use sermons from Movieministry.com, which Time magazine dubbed a "Holy Ghostwriter."

There also are signs of momentum for Christians who want to become more involved in movie making. Each fall for the past decade, Protestant and Catholic groups hold the City of Angels Film Festival in Los Angeles. Hollywood filmmakers and church leaders meld and use movies to find common ground and influence culture.

Festival leader Robert Johnston of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology and the Arts wrote a book, titled "Finding God in the Movies: 33 Films of Reel Faith," that examines meaning behind films as diverse as "Planet of the Apes" and "Life is Beautiful." The festival doesn't shy away from showing darker and irreverent films that accentuate discussion.

"Interest in spirituality is at an all-time high," co-director Barry Taylor says. "This doesn't necessarily translate into Christian communities, because I think our culture has, for the most part, chosen to look beyond Christian faith in its search for spirituality and meaning to life." He points to recent films such as "In America," "Lost in Translation" and "In the Bedroom" as examples of what he calls "this new exhaustion with the legacy of unbelief."

Still, what generally hits the big screen is, and has been for a long time, at odds with the values of the vast number of Americans who call themselves Christian. Hollywood has not just ignored them. It has often insulted them. Will "The Passion of the Christ," despite its awards snub, help reshape the landscape? It's too early to say, but a $370 million domestic box office made it clear that Christians represent a potent market.

Barbara Nicolosi, a former Catholic nun, founded and leads a Los Angeles-area organization called Act One, which helps Christian writers navigate Hollywood. She says "The Passion of the Christ" is known in Hollywood circles as "The Movie," and any producer can get his or her pitch heard if it begins with, "I have a movie for the audience who loved 'The Passion.' "

Jonathan Bock leads Grace Hill, an L.A. public-relations firm that specializes in bridging the divide between the entertainment industry and religious America. One of his approaches is to invite Christian writers to press junkets and set up a so-called "God Room," where they can ask their specific questions of stars and directors promoting a movie. "I want Hollywood to make millions off of Christians," says Bock, himself a Christian, "because if it does that means it is coming out with challenging, elevating films. And it means it will have incentive to do more. That's how you shape the culture."

OVERSTREET LOOKS younger but acts older than his 34 years. He has a cordial, slightly formal way about him and speaks, unlike most people, in complete sentences. He spends most of his time with his wife, Anne, a poet whom he met at a literature group he helped set up.

On his Web site at www.promontoryartists.org/lookingcloser/he has his say about film and music, and publishes his interviews with a diverse set of artists. It is no accident it is called "Looking Closer," because he goes well beneath the surface of things. Through the online message board, www.artsandfaith.com, other Christian movie reviewers share their opinions, ideas and concerns.

Overstreet grew up in a conservative Baptist family and community in Portland, where books and reading were precious but film typically was regarded with suspicion. His parents applauded reading, so he did, from vaunted Christian authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis to classics from the likes of Charles Dickens. He also ventured into darker stuff, like "The Heart of Darkness."

"There was no concern about what I read," he recalls. "It was completely different when it came to movies. It was, 'Movies are just bad in general, and once in a while, Disney will give us something presentable.' That's not a knock on my parents. They just wanted to protect me."

Thumbing through the family's Christian publications, he noticed that the movie critiques seemed preoccupied with the checklist of violence, swearing and nudity, any of which would disqualify a film from approval. He'd go anyway, find meaning and feel guilty. He was, and still is, bothered about how some church leaders regarded "Star Wars" as occultic.

"I saw my community alienating itself, making itself look ridiculous to the larger cultural conversation about the importance of 'Star Wars,' " he says. "When in fact, there are so many metaphors and true things in 'Star Wars' that we could have been talking about."

He went to Christian schools all his life, including Portland Christian High School, where his father taught. While there, he had an English teacher, Michael Demkowicz, who taught him how to set his suspicion aside and enjoy art, literature and film.

Overstreet moved to Seattle to attend Seattle Pacific and met Professor Linda Wagner, who directed a Christian writers' conference. Under her leadership, the Promontory Artists Association, with a mission of supporting Christian artists and bridging matters of art and faith, was formed. The group ultimately helped Overstreet launch his Web site.

"We kept finding people who, in their church, were totally misunderstood," Overstreet says. "They were doing art, but not the kind of art you find in a church, which is clearly religious and has an obvious point, like a sermon. We wanted to give Christians a way to explore and discuss art safely, and explore questions that usually aren't asked in churches."

Overstreet felt a kinship with Image, a quarterly literary magazine based at Seattle Pacific that thoughtfully explores issues of faith and art. The magazine's first edition rolled out in 1989, when the real "culture war" was raging in Sen. Jesse Helms vs. the National Endowment for the Arts.

The movie reviews began in earnest in 1994, after Overstreet graduated and missed the assignments of breaking down complex literature. Soon, he began contributing to publications, including Christianity Today, where he wrote a three-part series, called "Right, Wrong, and Rated-R," in which he invited Christian film critics and moviegoers to discuss nudity, profanity and violence. The profanity column generated responses like this:

"I think Christianity Today approves of those movies because it is a very carnal magazine with low spiritual standards. I believe the Christian message should be to avoid those rotten and evil movies altogether."

"I am an aspiring filmmaker, hoping to make it big in Hollywood some day. I am hoping to be a Christian who can impact the industry from the inside. Instead of making movies where everyone gets out their Bibles and discusses Scripture, I want to reveal the hope of our faith through stories of redemption and grace."

OVERSTREET AND I were fortunate that sneak-preview night. "Million Dollar Baby," a front-runner for Best Picture at tonight's Academy Awards, was stunning entertainment and posed a provocative dilemma about faith and choice.

As the credits rolled and the lights went up, the first thing Overstreet said was, "Well, there's your Oscar." The second thing he said was, "This is going to be a tough review." Tough because while he admired the film's art and skill, he was troubled by how the moral choices were handled. He knew most, if not all, Christians would be, too.

As a film critic, he felt forbidden from revealing too much of the third act that would so rile many in his primary audience. Christian reviewers, in general, think they have a duty to warn folks if a film may prove troubling.

At a coffee shop later, Overstreet scanned his notes, rattled off the pros and cons, and shared some personal pain he felt was relevant. He lauded the film's artistry, acting and score, but was specially troubled by the main character's priest. I had given the priest virtually no thought, and wondered as we parted if the ending and the priest would ultimately lead Overstreet to write a negative review for a film that clearly impressed him. (Mainstream critics were nearly universal in their praise, but as Overstreet predicted, some Christian reviewers were critical. One conservative Christian reviewer called the movie "abhorrent" and noted it contained 28 obscenities.)

A few days later, Overstreet posted his review, praising the film, but with reservations.

"The film's closing act does not justify the condemnation that the film is sure to receive from reactionaries," he wrote. "Just because a character commits a sin does not rob a story of all of its virtues, and even a misguided tale can create opportunity for rewarding discussion. Nevertheless, it is important to note that a desirable end does not justify deplorable means."

Refreshingly, Overstreet's reviews at Christianity Today and on his Web site conclude with a series of questions designed to generate debate. How often do we shell out money for a film, offer a thumbs up or thumbs down and never give it a second thought?

In fact, Overstreet relishes movies like "The Apostle," in which the character is troubled and often at odds with God and faith. It challenges viewers, especially Christians, by making them uncomfortable.

"Scriptures say, 'Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil,' " Overstreet says. "Film can often communicate meaning in ways far more effectively than a didactic sermon. And for crying out loud, Jesus was a storyteller. Pretty controversial stories, too!"

The Reviewer's Top 5 for 2004

1. "The Return," Overstreet's most highly rated film of the year "serves as a profound spiritual exploration, guiding us to consider our own attitudes toward parents, authority figures, and ultimately God."

2. "The Incredibles" is a "family-friendly film with a smart script, unforgettable characters, and as much meaningful subtext for the grownups as there is for the kids."

3. Whereas films like "Kinsey" and "Closer" portrayed the quest for love as one of self-gratification, Overstreet says, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" reminds us that real love is about more than sex . . . It requires sacrifice, honesty, acceptance of each other's flaws, and trust."

4. In "Dogville," the "shocking and subversive conclusion makes the film more than just a commentary on the dark side of capitalism . . . It reminds us that we deserve judgment for what we have done with the world, and poses the question, are grace and forgiveness too much to ask?"

5. "While 'Hero' was a little too excited about Chinese imperialism, it offered beautiful cinematography and enthralling choreography, elevating martial arts to the level of dance. I haven't been so awestruck by imagery since I was 7 years old seeing 'Star Wars' for the first time."

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at rseven@seattletimes.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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