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NPR Arts & Life

Movies Explore The Intersection Of Religion And Violence

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR PRACTICE)

CHORUS: (Singing).

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

We recorded that a few days ago - the trebles from the Washington National Cathedral choir practicing for the big day tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR PRACTICE)

WERTHEIMER: We were at the Cathedral to chat with its Dean, the Very Reverend Gary Hall, about another pre-Easter ritual - the spate of television programs about the Bible and the life and death of Jesus, including a dramatization of the book "Killing Jesus" by Fox News Bill O'Reilly. And NBC has a ten-part sequel to its series, "The Bible," this one is called "A.D. The Bible Continues." Reverend Hall notes that biblical movies have become more realistic since epics like "The Ten Commandments." For one thing, in the current crop of programs, Jesus is made to appear like the Semitic Jewish peasant he was.

REVEREND GARY HALL: Jesus and his disciples did not look like the Nordic ski team, but actually looked, you know, like a bunch of Middle Eastern folks. And I think, to their credit, I think the people that have produced "The Bible" and "A.D. The Bible Continues" really understand the kind of particularity of the Middle Eastern location of Jesus and his contemporaries. And it does feel - it's one of the things - it does feel much truer about these then of the ones that I certainly grew up, the kind of four color pictures of Jesus that I grew up with.

WERTHEIMER: What about the reality of the gospel? I don't mean the quest for the historical Jesus, I mean, their faithfulness to the words and the stories that are told in the Gospels. Do think they're being fair to the text?

HALL: Where I would say that I don't think they're being faithful is that we know a lot more now about the realities of life in that era. And it makes the Romans just seem like bad guys because they're just bad guys. You know, I mean, they're like Darth Vader or something. They're just oppressive people. In fact, the Romans didn't like the early Christians, or for that matter the Jews, precisely because of how - the radical implications of those religions. You know, there was - Christians were persecuted in the Roman Empire because they fed hungry people, they developed whole kind of social service network that the Romans found very dangerous. And that's why Christians were oppressed. They weren't oppressed just because they liked Jesus or because Romans were just mean.

WERTHEIMER: Do you have a sense that for some reason in this season in 2015, we're seeing more of this kind of liturgical movie than we've seen before?

HALL: It does. And I think there are a couple of reasons for that. Hollywood people really underestimate the size of the faith community in the United States. And so I think one of the things, especially the success of that Bible show last year on the History Channel, it really shocked, I think, Hollywood folks into realizing that there really is an audience for this stuff. And it's not just popular with evangelical Christians, it's popular with other folks. So I think there really is a hunger for that stuff.

I'd say the other more disturbing issue for me as a Christian, again, I mean, all of the numbers for mainline faith communities are going in the wrong direction right now. Attendance, membership, giving - we're facing into a lot of social challenges. So we've got this situation where the institutions that historically delivered this narrative to their public, are really declining in their impact on the culture. And so in some ways, the media is taking up and responding to something that - now there's people aren't coming to church, but they're turning on their TVs. Why are people not turning to us but they're turning to the History Channel and NBC?

WERTHEIMER: The producer of the new series "A.D..."

HALL: "The Bible Continues." (Laughter). I know, it just...

WERTHEIMER: But anyway, one of the executive producers of that program described it as "The Bible" meets "Game Of Thrones."

HALL: Right. It is very - they are very much like "Game Of Thrones." And what's sort of interesting to me about that is that, you know, you think about all of this kind of 20th century mythology that got written by say J.R.R. Tolkien with "The Lord Of The Rings" and C.S. Lewis with the Narnia stories - the Narnia chronicles. Those were Christian people who had studied Scripture, especially Tolkien studied mythology, and then went and wrote a kind of made up myth that kind of fit the archetypes of the Christian story. And that's what Lewis did as well. And now we've had, you know, 60, 70 years of that, and now we have a bunch of Christians essentially reading these made-up myths and then trying to retell the Jesus story in the way that Tolkien and C.S. Lewis told the story. And - but it is, I have to say, it is compelling television.

WERTHEIMER: I wonder if part of the reason that this is happening now is that it's happening against a backdrop of tremendous and dangerous religious conflict in the world?

HALL: I think that's true. And I think at this moment in history people are really trying to ask the question about - are violence and religion necessarily connected? And I think these stories, the popularity of these stories is like horror movies in the '50s when I was growing up, you know, when you had all of these movies that came out after the atomic - Hiroshima and the atomic bomb test. Suddenly these movies started showing up that asked, is the world safe and is science going to kill us and all that stuff. In the same way, I think these religious shows really express a kind of cultural dis-ease about violence and religion.

WERTHEIMER: The Very Reverend Gary Hall is the Dean of the Washington National Cathedral here in Washington, D.C. Dean Hall, thank you very much for talking to us.

HALL: Oh, it's a great pleasure to meet and speak with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.