Some people might see the new movie "Woman, Thou Art Loosed" because -- for their own cathartic reasons -- they want to see a victim of child sexual abuse exact revenge on her abuser before she starts healing her psychic and spiritual wounds.
Others might see the movie, which opens next Friday, for the heartfelt performance of Kimberly Elise ("Beloved," "The Manchurian Candidate") as the abused woman "loosed" from her past. Some folks might just want to see it for the hats.
But what struck me most about "Loosed" -- which, in the tradition of a certain type of black theater, is broad, frank and accessible -- is its setting. It's an urban community in which the local Pentecostal church is a haven for a (mostly) committed flock that, as star Elise said, "like in real churches, shows true religious commitment and hypocrisy in the same congregation."
In "Loosed," folks love their church. In fact, communities of similarly serious Christians -- and Muslims and Jews and Hindus and others -- exist in every corner of our nation. A recent Pew Research Center poll shows that Americans have become slightly more religious since the late 1980s. Eight in 10 of us say that prayer is an important part of our daily lives; 87 percent of us agree with the statement, "I never doubt the existence of God."
How often do you see that reflected in movies, on prime-time TV or in popular music?
I'd say not often -- but more often in the past few years. The religious-themed books "The Purpose-Driven Life" and "The Da Vinci Code" have been mega-bestsellers for months. The acclaimed CBS drama "Joan of Arcadia" -- an update of the Joan of Arc story in which a regular teenager (played by Amber Tamblyn) communicates with God -- garnered three Emmy nominations. Kanye West's hit song "Jesus Walks" has been on the top-10 rap charts for five months. Sample lyric: "God show me a way because the Devil's trying to break me down."
The staggering, $370 million box-office success of "The Passion of the Christ" suggests that moviegoers will patronize a frank, authentic-feeling depiction of religious events. But for every viewer who saw "Passion" out of faith, another checked it out to see what the shouting, and controversy, was about. As for "Loosed," an upcoming "Oprah Winfrey Show" focusing on the movie's theme of healing after child sexual abuse should ensure that some victims and their advocates will see it. Even more of its audience, I suspect, will be like the film's major characters: Bible-based Christians for whom church is a central motivating force rather than a Sundays-and-major-religious-holidays thing.
And many, no doubt, will be Bishop T.D. Jakes fans.
If you just thought, "Who?" take my word for it: The guy is huge. Touted in a 2002 Time magazine cover story as a successor to the Rev. Billy Graham, the Pentecostal bishop is a Grammy-nominated gospel singer who presides over a 26,000-member Dallas megachurch. He also preaches to millions on Black Entertainment Television and the Trinity Broadcasting Network.
Personal trainer Shannon Wiggins, a fan of Jakes's, said the minister "definitely breaks down the Bible into layman terms." Wiggins, 27, plans to see "Loosed" through his church, the First Baptist Church of Glenarden, which is renting a theater to screen it. (Much as with "Passion," "Loosed" is being marketed to churches through advance group ticket sales.) Wiggins would like more religious-themed entertainment. But he's concerned that "religion is almost a fad now," he said. "Having a religion and having a relationship with God are two different things."
The heroine of "Joan of Arcadia" has a most direct relationship -- she chats with God through such unexpected people as an elderly librarian and a Goth-dressed youth who has multiple piercings. My friend Candie, who calls herself a "questioning Christian," loves that the show "deals with [religious] issues . . . in a way that's relatable to a lot of people."
"It may sound weird for a girl to have conversations with God," said Candie, 23, "but I was one of those teenagers trying to deal with life issues through such conversations. Nobody else on TV acknowledges those issues."
So more shows should acknowledge spirituality, right? But the creator of "Joan" was genuinely intrigued by Joan of Arc's inspiring story. Elise insisted that Hollywood is most often inspired by something more base.
"Hollywood is all about money -- it always comes back to that," Elise said. "Now that 'Passion' has made money, there will be more [entertainment] like it. . . . But if we're going to tell spiritual stories, the inspiration should come from a real place.
"Once these films start making money, it will come from a money place."
There's an art to marrying popular culture and religion, said Senior Pastor David Anderson of Bridgeway Community Church in Columbia, an unusually diverse, 2,000-member congregation. Bridgeway's Bible-based services feature skits, costumed superheroes, purposely un-hip white rappers and church-produced films to amusing -- and inspiring -- effect.
"Movies like 'Passion' and bestsellers like 'The Prayer of Jabez' tap into something that people intrinsically value: the condition of their soul," said Anderson, who in December will appear on the "Crossfire"-like religion show "Faith Under Fire," which premieres next month on PAX.
"But guess what: You can't produce something you don't have inside," Anderson continued. "The producer of 'Touched by an Angel' was someone personally touched by God, and that's hard to fabricate."
People want the same thing in spiritual entertainment that they want in a church, Anderson suggested: that which "grows their relationship with God rather than that which offers ritual that's void of meaning." So producers who would jump on the religious bandwagon, if there is one, should note Anderson's words:
"People know when something's authentic or not."