The Gospel Coalition


Reforming Hollywood

William D. Romanowski | Review by: Barry Cooper

William D. Romanowski, Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought For Freedom At The Movies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 336 pp. $29.95.

The particular shock of the recent shooting in Aurora was that it happened in a sacred space. “The movie theatre is my home,” said Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan, “and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.”

For most of the 20th century and up to the present day, the cinema has been a functional church. It is a sanctuary, thick with worship and warning, joy and hope. It not only reflects who we are, it shapes us in trackless ways by offering us promises of what we might one day become. And Nolan clearly isn’t the only one to believe this: for many in America, even professing Christians, it feels like home.

As William Romanowski observes in Reforming Hollywood, the truism wasn’t lost on the religious elite. The movies were “probably reaching more people day by day than the combined Protestant churches of the country” (21), and they knew it. Was it possible, these leaders wondered, to safeguard the spiritual well-being of American moviegoers while also safeguarding the democratic freedom of the filmmaker?

Romanowski, professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, aims to “restore Protestants to American film history,” noting that “[a]lthough Protestantism was close to America’s cultural center well into the 20th century, it is markedly absent in histories of American film” (4). One of the revelations in this scholarly work is just how far Protestant Christians were prepared to go to protect artistic freedoms. Film historians tend to represent all church leaders as intractable bluenoses who view theatrical presentations as, to quote one such leader, “five-cent trips to hell” (8). Thankfully, though Romanowski steers well clear of Protestant hagiography, this clumsy stereotype won’t stand up to his careful excavation of the facts.

Predating the better-known Roman Catholic “Legion of Decency” formed in the 1930s, Protestants who engaged with the nascent movie industry differed drastically in their approach to Hollywood. Unlike their Catholic counterparts, they strongly resisted censorship. As one spokesperson put it: “We don’t want to curb artistry in movies by legislative censorship. Any type of censorship is obnoxious to us. We much prefer the regulation of self-choice. It is this human choice, after all, that is the basis of our religion” (124).

Instead, they favored “persuasion and voluntary regulation, which were seen as being in accord with individual freedom and responsibility” (10). In effect, they were hoping for a workable system of self-censorship that would be embraced by film producers, if only to ensure their movies would be seen by as big—and profitable—an audience as possible.

Tale of Two Methodologies

Reforming Hollywood, then, is effectively a tale of two methodologies, two diverging strategies for reforming the movies. In the blue corner are the theological conservatives who take a pietistic approach. They hold that social problems are solely “the result of personal shortcomings and failings” rather than harmful social conditions. This lower view of human nature tends toward a desire for top-down censorship. In the red corner are those who are more theologically liberal, and espouse a structural approach. They are “more optimistic about human nature” and seek the transformation, rather than the wholesale rejection, of culture that exerts a harmful influence on people’s lives (9). Though the strategies aren’t entirely exclusive, Protestants have generally occupied the latter territory, with Catholics favoring the former.

As becomes apparent in Romanowski’s analysis, one of the historical issues with the Protestant structural approach is that it assumes (or at least hopes for) a happy correlation between what is most profitable and what is most morally edifying. But that, of course, is not always the case. Without belaboring the point, Romanowski leaves us to ponder whether the structural approach places too much faith in the audience’s demand for redemptive moviemaking—and in the producer’s exercise of benevolent self-restraint.

The grand irony of the book comes in the final chapters as he surveys the current evangelical approach to Hollywood. After decades of Protestant resistance to a hard-line pietistic approach, evangelicals have stepped in to the strident shoes of the old Legion of Decency. Favoring coercion over friendly persuasion, they have, for example, advocated block boycotts of certain movies, thus perpetuating the view that consumerism rules and that financial profit is the ultimate Christian apologetic.

As Romanowski comments, “The emphasis that evangelicals put on market-based strategies ran against the grain of the central Protestant route to substantial and lasting industry reform. While understanding the need for the studios to make money, mainline Protestants had long argued that the bottom line had to be about artistic integrity and social responsibility, not just profits” (210). In other words, it’s getting harder to spot the difference between Hollywood producers and many professing evangelicals. One exalts self-interest, individualism, the acquisition of wealth and power at the expense of social responsibility, and doesn’t care much about artistic integrity or excellence. And the other is a Hollywood producer.

Much of the ground covered, particularly in the first half of the book, is admittedly byzantine. Fans of Romanowski’s Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture should brace themselves for a more academic read, and may well find themselves flicking feverishly to the glossary as names and acronyms begin to pile up.

But for those wanting to think more deeply about how artistic freedom, profit margins, and Protestant concern for public welfare have related to one another, the groundbreaking Reforming Hollywood will be just the ticket.

Barry Cooper studied English at Oxford University and theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is director of product development at Christianity Explored Ministries and is helping plant Trinity West Church in London. You can follow Barry on Twitter

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