The Church Moves Toward Film Discrimination

by F. Thomas Trotter

A graduate of Occidental College (AB) and Boston University (STB, Ph.D), Trotter was Dean and Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology. Later he was General Secretary of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church and President of Alaska Pacific University. His special interests are in religion and the arts and religion in higher education.

This essay is reprinted from Religion in Life, Summer 1969. Used by permission of the author.


In the early 1968’s, the National Council of Churches radically revised its approach to the film industry, moving from a self-serving pietism to a support for artistically superior films that deal honestly with the human condition.

One of the more urgent tasks facing the church today is the clarification of its posture in relation to the entertainment industry. Traditional attitudes still widely assumed to be valid are, in fact, generally bankrupt, The attempt to force Hollywood to produce "good" films has fallen with the demise of the old Roman Catholic Legion of Decency. The Protestant-. effort to ingratiate the film-makers has also failed with the increasingly complex character of the film industry. In the former case, hints that the industry might strike back via restraint of trade suits hastened th4 collapse of the old paternalism. In the latter case, the church has simply'' refused to be "delivered" to the box office by the clerical bureaucrats am publicists who conceived of their task as a noble effort to sacralize the industry.

We are now painfully aware of the fact that students ,entering graduate schools today are children of the television age. Their world is mediated by moving pictures, not primarily by books. Their perceptions are symbolized in visual imagery. They probably are harbingers of the future. Knowledge will increasingly be mediated by visual—i.e., filmic--events. Therefore, the church has an extraordinary responsibility to its people to educate for cinematic experience. What is needed is not primarily some dogmatic apparatus that will reassure churchmen that such and such a film is "safe." The church of the future will simply refuse to believe such data. What is needed is a new sense of style and discrimination that will enable the church adequately to apprehend and criticize the film. Unless the church can educate its people to the issues of discrimination in film experience, it will have nothing to say to its people in regard to the dominant mode of communication of ideas and values. If the latter is the case, then an entire section of contemporary human social experience will be untouched by the reflection of the church. The important question, then, is not "shall the church involve itself in the film?´ but "how shall it involve itself in the film?

The work of the Film Awards' Nomination Panel of the Broadcasting and Film Commission (B.F.C.) of the National Council of Churches has been one attempt to address this problem. Since its organization in 1963, the panel has struggled with the issues of interpretation and sought to prepare a slate of "award" caliber films for the B.F.C.'s consideration. Each of the years has been stormy and, to put it mildly, the films selected have not always pleased the constituency. But the process has been useful in clarifying the church's self understanding and in challenging outmoded assumptions in the stance of the church over against the film industry.

The film awards process was first proposed by the West Coast Committee of the Broadcasting and Film Commission. The B.F.C. formerly had a staff member and an office in Los Angeles, and a continuing committee of clergy and interested laity in the industry comprised the so-called West -Coast Committee. George Heimrich, now retired, was the director of the office, and Bishop Gerald Kennedy of the Los Angeles Area of The United Methodist Church was the chairman, The committee met twice a year and usually engaged itself- in desultory discussion of procedural matters including how to get the power centers of the film industry to pay attention to the churches. The primary work of the office consisted in script advisement by the staff member. The elimination of "offensive" language and scenes .derogatory to the church was the basic goal of this service The awards plan was one of the concrete achievements of this group.

A high level of hostility normally ruled in the West Coast Committee because of misunderstandings between It and the New York office of the B.F.C. The basic economic fact was that the decision-making center the film industry was New York, although the West Coast people contended that Hollywood was the production center. To add frustration to the situation, fewer films were being made in Hollywood. A certain pietism dominated the West: Coast group so that its members tended to conceive of their role- as "ministering" to the people who worked in the industry. It was tragically naive to assume that pastoral care to a "grip" or even an actor would possibly seriously affect the direction of the industry, controlled as it is from the financial centers of the Fast.

The basic division in the film awards process through the subsequent years has been between the pietists, who generally have reflected the style of the old West Coast Committee, on the one hand, and the more avant-garde, who generally reflect the eastern style, on the other. A fundamental paternalism dominated the early discussions of the panel. The assumption that the church could influence Hollywood by rewarding "good" directors lay behind much of the process. The eastern wing felt as strongly that the panel had to approach its work with a certain disinterestedness and critical distance and that its primary task was the education of the church in film discrimination.

The draft proposal for the awards was framed by a committee of the West Coast group chaired by the Rev. Hubert Rasbach, pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in Los Angeles. Pastor Rashbach is the only surviving member of the first panel still active in the group, and was its first chairman. I have been chairman since 1965. The original proposal called for awards to be presented in "categories." The "categories" were useful in clarifying the panel's work, but they proved to be confusing to the industry. The categories for 1964 awards were announced in the trade press and in more than three hundred direct mail invitations to producers. They were prefaced by the statement that the awards

may be given to American films of outstanding artistic merit that:

  1. Portray American life and culture in - the light of Christian ideals.
  2. Present family life in keeping with Christian principles,
  3. Show the application of Christian ideals to the growth of personality in children.
  4. Treat religious subject matter, whether biblical, historical or contemporary,- with accuracy, pertinence and moral value.
  5. Reflect the predicament and hope of man.

Most of the bias of the first committee is reflected in the statement of the categories. Note that only "American" films were to be considered. It was assumed that the "target" of the committee was the domestic film industry. Not only did the complexities of internationalization of the industry make this an untenable limitation; automatically excluded from the purview of the committee was an extraordinary group of films. It is also instructive to note that no awards were given in the first three categories because of the specific requirement that the films be "Christian" in orientation. Such films were simply not being made. The most fruitful debates in the panel had to do with its own methodology, not primarily with the merit, artistic or otherwise, of a particular film. A vast amount of energy was spent on the process of clarifying the critical goals of the panel. The temptation of the panel was always to substitute institutional questions --"What will our constituency think?"— for critical questions — "What is a film of outstanding artistic merit?" Attacks on the, panel have usually charged that the panel is nonrepresentative. This assumes that its task is sensing the majority views of churchmen and becoming a popularity poll. The panel's makeup was wisely designed to include theologians, pastors, critics, and denominational officers. Its work was to be prophetic, critical, and educative.

In an attempt to be more sophisticated in the awards process, the panel refined the categories in 1965. Eliminating the adjectival use of "Christian," it turned to the more situational- phrase, "within the perspective of the Christian faith."

The Broadcasting and Film Commission of the National Council of Churches may make awards annually to American-produced films of outstanding artistic merit that, within the perspective of the Christian faith and within one or more of the following categories :

  1. Portray with honesty and compassion the human situation in which man is caught in tension between his attempt to realize his full potential of his humanity and his tendency to destroy that humanity.
  2. Portray human society and its cultural environment in such a way as to enhance understanding of the family of man in its richness and variety.
  3. Treat religious subject matter, whether biblical, historical, or contemporary, with perceptiveness, accuracy, and pertinence.
  4. Bring qualities of imagination, beauty, and honesty to subject matter appropriate for children.
  5. Provide exceptional entertainment value appropriate for family viewing.

This statement was a considerable refinement over the original categories, but the industry was still mystified. This confusion clearly reflected the growing awareness on the part of the panel that it was inappropriate to think that the categories had any influence on film-making at all. Further, the careful theological refinement may have satisfied some theologically sophisticated critics, but failed to convince the church filmgoer. Most fatally, however, the categories tended to distract the committee from its proper work, which was identifying meritorious films. With some modest editorial changes, these categories were used in the awards of 1967. The most significant shift was the decision by the B.F.C. to include foreign films in the regular process for the first time.

Continued discussion in the B.F.C. and panel has let to the current mandate on selection which was used in the 1968 award deliberations :

The Broadcasting and Film Commission of the N.C.C. may make awards annually to films of outstanding merit that, within the perspective of the Christian faith, also (1) portray with honesty and compassion the human condition—including human society in its cultural environment -- depicting man in the tension between his attempt to realize the full potential of his of. his humanity and his tendency to distort that humanity, and (2) and portray the vitality, tragedy, humor, and variety of life in such as to provide entertainment value appropriate for family viewing and audience appeal; and (3) present subject matter which, in terms content, will fire the mental, moral and existential development youth."

The panel further proposes to use this statement. as its mandate but to submit films to the Board of Managers with appropriate, citations under the general categories of (1) for mature audiences, (2) for youth, and (3) for family viewing.

The trend toward simplifying the statement of fps reflects the growing cooperation between the B.F.C. and the National Catholic Office on the Motion Picture (N.C.O.M.P.). Members of each agency have been auditing the other's committee work and, in 1967. gave the first joint award. Each agency now looks forward to a completely ecumenical film award process. If this can be achieved, the church's posture in regard to the entertainment. media may have some of the force formerly attributed to it.


A survey of the award-winning films is instructive in understanding the panel's development. In the first award year, 1964, three films were cited—Fail Safe, Fate Is the Hunter, and Becket. Cinematically, Fail Safe has been forgotten, whereas Dr. Strangelave, rejected by the panel that year and also dealing with atomic annihilation, has survived as a classic. Fate Is the Hunter, a modest story of mirage in airline pilots, has long since been forgotten. Becket, an artistically superior film, was as close as the committee could come to "religious subject matter," although it begged a great number of historical questions.

In short, the first awards were not particularly distinguished. The "process" really said nothing at all to the industry.. The industry still hoped for a docile church agency that could "deliver" bodies to the box office. Henry Youngstein, producer of Fate Is the Hunter, at the awards luncheon said: "This is a tremendous step that the NCC would do this, and 'now the other half is helping us to make the pictures you like and that you think have something to say by giving us a hand in getting the word out to the local local churches throughout the country."

Edward Anhalt, the distinguished screen, writer, who accepted: the award for Becket at that luncheon, commented that he was then working on the script for BoeingBoeing, a sex farce considerably less "religious" than Becket, a fact that created minor uneasiness among the pious present. It was instructive for the churchmen to see how much the industry was dominated by purely business standards.

The 1965 awards year saw the most far-reaching decisions yet made by the panel. Film historians who worry about such things single out this event as a "turning point". in the church's relationship to the mass media industries. (Cf. G. William Jones, Sunday Night at the Movies (Richmond: John Knox Press. 1967), p. !6. 'See the New York Times, Feb. 4, 1966.) This was the year of The Greatest Story Ever Told. Some prominent members of the B.F.C. had been variously involved with director-producer George Stevens from the inception of the film. An extraordinary amount of energy was expended upon church officers and communications people by Stevens' organization. Trips to the Utah filming site were arranged. Extraordinary publicity releases, purporting to illustrate the pious environment of the production and the religious nature of the entire enterprise, flooded the church press. Not only was Stevens a good friend of high-placed churchmen in Southern California, but his staff cultivated these relationships during the production. One member of the panel itself, who fought tenaciously for the film, was subsequently revealed to have been retained professionally by the Stevens organization. Bishop Kennedy, George Heimrich, and others were outspoken in their support of the film and vigorously advocated nomination. After two days' debate and a subsequent telephone conference call, a majority of the panel voted not to nominate the film, and the silence was like a rifle report across the industry.

The secular critics panned the film without mercy. Time called it "three hours and 41 minutes' worth of impeccable boredom" (Feb. 26, 1965). Shana Alexander, writing in Life (Feb. 26, 1965), noted that "Christ never tried to please everybody"

Stevens has said that he believes his picture will have great ecumenical value because it does not offend any religion : Catholic, Protestant or Jew. But by not offending anybody, he first bores and finally outrages all but the most pious of movie fans. The main trouble with trying to blanket the screen with wall-to-wall good taste, I think, is that you wind up with nothing to show for it but a pile of beautiful pictures. Good taste, relentlessly applied, comes to seem like lack of discrimination, lack of risk, lack of daring, lack of invention, even lack of inspiration. But what the picture seems to lack most is courage. Given his title, his subject matter, his great cinematic talent and infinite resources, I wish Stevens had found boldness to match.