Glittering Images

A profound Christian rethinking of power is overdue.

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today, February 2004 (vol. 48, no. 2), p. 78.

Barbara Nicolosi believes in the future of Christians in Hollywood. A Catholic veteran of the film industry who founded the screenwriting program Act One, she speaks enthusiastically of the time when believers will be well-enough represented in the ranks of studio executives to influence which films and TV series get the green light. “Right now, there simply aren’t enough talented Christians who have paid their dues,” she told a group of cultural-creative types in a coffeehouse near Washington, D.C., last fall. “But within five to ten years, we will see Christians in Hollywood with real power.”

A young man wearing a beret waved his hand. “When you say ‘Christians with power,’ ” he said, “I get really nervous.”

Cultural power often accrues less from leadership than from connections, talent, and fame—not to mention money and sex.

“Well, you’re here in Washington,” Nicolosi responded. “Does it bother you that Christians have political power?”

“Yes it does, actually!” he responded—and a dozen others nodded intently in agreement.

Strange. No one would have been in that room, after all, if they didn’t care quite a bit about power. Nicolosi filled a room and held our attention not just because of what she knew—though her knowledge of popular film and television is encyclopedic—but also whom she knew. In the currency of Hollywood, first-name anecdotes about Barbara Hall, producer of the spiritually attuned Joan of Arcadia, or Mel Gibson, director of The Passion of the Christ, are as good as gold.

Just as strange was the fact that many people in that room now have, or will soon acquire, significant power of their own. They aren’t in Washington by accident—they have pursued a path of education, training, and apprenticeship designed to give them access to culturally influential vocations and locations.

Indeed, 50 years of evangelical efforts to reverse fundamentalism’s cultural withdrawal have borne fruit. Christian colleges and universities, along with the ministries that are thriving in the penumbra of secular institutions, have nurtured a generation that takes cultural engagement for granted. Fundamentalists asked, Should we watch movies?—and usually, wary of worldliness, answered no. Evangelicals asked, What kind of movies should we watch?—and usually, wary of irrelevance, answered anything without sex. But now believers are asking, What kind of movies should we make? That’s a question about power.

As Nicolosi’s audience made clear, even many Christians who are acquiring power are ambivalent about it. The fourth century historian Eusebius could celebrate the life of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, with a heroic biography, conveniently glossing over small matters like the emperor’s post-conversion murder of his wife and firstborn son. But we are millennia away from the euphoria that accompanied that first Christian ascent to cultural dominance. And in a post-Christian world, dominance is hardly in the cards. To acquire cultural influence one must cultivate numerous allies, most of them indifferent to faith, not to mention genuflect before consumer desires.

So a profound Christian rethinking of power—its possibilities and dangers—is overdue. Nearly 20 years ago, writer Richard Foster put the issue in context in Money, Sex, and Power. Each of these things, he observed, is fundamental to life, potentially full of blessing, and also potentially deceptive. Today there are sermon series and ministries to help Christians be stewards of their money. Store shelves groan under the weight of Christian books on sex. But Christian reflection on power generally stops with business-friendly topics like “leadership.” Cultural power often accrues less from leadership than from connections, talent, and fame—not to mention money and sex. (There’s a reason that the top-grossing star of What Women Want was able to make a movie about the Passion.)

Indeed, Christians who want to think more deeply about these things might well go to Mel Gibson’s movie, whose controversy-ridden existence indicates the extent, and the limits, of Christian cultural power today. The Passion of Christ, after all, reminds us of the many ways that power can go wrong—a nervous procurator with his garrison of occupying troops, a conniving royal family with paper-thin claims to legitimacy, religious leaders bent on preserving pious decorum amid precarious alliances.

At the center of it all we find a thirty-something man with considerable political savvy, a gifted storyteller with a keen eye for shrewd symbolic acts. Moreover, he has the divine power to multiply loaves of bread, heal the sick, and raise the dead. Yet his most decisive, powerful act is not an action at all, but a passion—suffering the brunt of power itself, grieving, forgiving, waiting. If Christians are sometimes called to acquire power, we should probably begin by watching our Lord abandon it.