Oh, dear. Maybe. I’m not sure.
It depends on what choices in moviegoing signal about the American character. I see I’d better explain.
The word came on Monday that the new PG-rated film "The Nativity Story" hadn’t had the large opening expected for it — just $8 million (in 3083 theaters) vs. $11 million for "Déjà vu" in its second week and $15.1 million for "Casino Royale" in its third, not to mention the Penguin thing, "Happy Feet," at $17 million. May it be inferred that American moviegoers are dissing Jesus, Mary and Joseph? If so, how come? Are the End Times upon us?
"The Nativity Story," a warmly reviewed account of Jesus’ birth, is supposed to be at the leading of faith-based films that trail the gargantuan "The Passion of the Christ" and "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." A journalist who has frequented the cinematic palaces since Gabby Hayes and Hopalong Cassidy were in vogue confesses that he himself hasn’t quite — not yet, despite splendid intentions — made it to "The Nativity Story" and therefore finds it hard to round on the millions who took their millions elsewhere last weekend in search of diversion. But he’s going, he’s going. Honest. Cross his heart and hope…
No doubt the atheist authors now crashing the best-seller lists will share looks of satisfaction if events cause them to conclude the public couldn’t care less about some old Nativity. On the other side of the coin is what we might call historical realism. Reading "the culture’s" mind is no easy endeavor. Did the once-broad taste for Charlton Heston bidding the Red Sea part in "The Ten Commandments" signal broad devotion to the Law and the Prophets? How about the teeth-gritting of Burt Lancaster in "Elmer Gantry"? By watching, were we, the people, affirming the absurdity of sawdust evangelism? I wouldn’t count on it. A large portion of us — each of us — seeks entertainment for the sake of entertainment, diversion for the sake of diversion. So it ever has been.
We are people of mixed motives. Take Christmas itself — the feast of the Christ Child’s birth and of Santa Claus’ coming to town. A populace that demonstrated its inner spirit by attending pious movies alone and pursuing pious pastimes the rest of the week would be … a little atypical, mightn’t you say?
Not so many years in the past, Christians didn’t necessarily hold with moviegoing — any movie. I recall 50 years ago hearing a local Baptist preacher relate with some satisfaction how he had torn up the free tickets he had received to "The Ten Commandments." No Charlton Heston for this guy — just the good old Book of Exodus, which likely a number of his own good folk couldn’t locate without some exertion.
It’s nice to see the culture affirm, via its ticket purchases, the good and the true and the beautiful — "The Nativity Story," shall we say, over "Borat." But it works that way only some of the time. Dare we forget the popularity of Britney Spears’ latest videos on YouTube?
Nor is culture — here, I think, is the basic point — the authoritative interpreter and expounder of Truth. (If it were, all Catholic priests would sing like Bing Crosby, and all evangelists commit lust with the zest of Burt Lancaster.)
Truth is Truth, projected on a screen or not. I think Christians may hope for, as well as toil and labor for, the success of any commercial endeavor that throws unexpected light on doings at the Red Sea or the Sea of Galilee. And yet, in some measure the thing is out of their hands. "God doth not need man’s works or his own gifts," interposed Milton. No bad realization, this. Takes the pressure off to some degree. Man is not — repeat, not — the measure of all things. A somewhat higher authority has claimed that prerogative, and doubtless means to keep it.