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Monday February 12, 2001

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Redemption at the movies

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Sociology professor Albert Bergesen reads his new book, "God in the Movies." Bergesen published the book containing religious references in films in collaboration with the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley.

By Angela Orlando

Arizona Daily Wildcat

UA professor co-writes book about religious references in film

In the 16th century, philosopher Michel de Montaigne said, "Man is certainly stark mad - he can't make a flea, yet he makes gods by the dozen."

The validity of this quote is especially linked to the arts, where the status of religious beliefs has been recorded throughout time.

Sometimes blatant, other times cloaked in metaphor, allusions to God thread in and out of films through codes only a conscious viewer can decipher.

Sociology professor Albert Bergesen and Father Andrew Greeley, sociology professor at both the UA and University of Chicago, sought God references and found plenty - enough to collaboratively write a book and teach a popular socio-religion class based on their prevalence.

Their recent book, "God in the Movies," is a treasure map for moviegoers looking for the deeper spiritual significance of today's films, especially in movies where God makes an appearance.

"We are like urban anthropologists reporting on the personality of today's culture," Bergesen said. "Not every movie is religious, but the theme certainly shows up."

The appearance of God does not always come as an image devout Christians would conjure.

The "force," for example, in the "Star Wars" movies, is, according to Bergesen, a modern metaphor for God or divine spirit.

"God doesn't necessarily have to be an old white guy with a beard," he said.

Greeley agreed. "God is forgiveness," he said. "God can be imagined as either male and female, and neither male nor female."

In "Flatliners," God could be depicted as pure white light. In "Ghost," God was disguised as barely discernible human-like apparitions.

In "Field of Dreams"- which always touched Bergesen, though he never quite knew why until he began watching movies with a newfound perspective - God took the form of an instructional voice and also the bond between father and son. He feels that the movie is spiritual in nature - a film about faith and redemption.

Hollywood critics have a reputation for rejecting overtly religious films, such as the docudrama "The Last Temptation of Christ."

Bergesen is convinced that metaphors should represent God in film, not in order to avoid critical censure but because "most people, when they sense God, sense him indirectly."

"To me, God could be in a mother's look at her child. Or, when I backpack, it might be the sunlight shining on the field of wildflowers," Bergesen said.

"Dogma," a recent controversial but popular film, starred Alanis Morissette as God(dess). "'Dogma' was vulgar, obscene and crazy. But it was also profoundly religious," Greeley said.

"Dogma," however, was not the first work of art to approach religion with apparent sacrilege. "(French writer) Rabelais did it all the time," Greeley said.

Other movies' allusions to God are more far-fetched. Neither the writer nor the director of "Jacob's Ladder" really knows what the movie is about, Greeley said. The film just "flowed through" its creators and evolved into what it is today - a surreal and difficult commentary about the relationship between man, war and God.

"Cinema is the most powerful of the lively arts," Greeley said.

Bergesen agreed. "These movies aren't made by fanatics pushing their cookies," he said. "They're about people believing in something else, wanting redemption and forgiveness. Something just bubbles up from below."

The duo wrote "God in the Movies" to appeal to a general audience, "everyone from the lay public to professors," Bergesen said. "This is dangerous because at times, it could come across as too general or too detailed."

Critic Roger Ebert wrote the book's preface. Ebert and Greeley work together for the Chicago Sun-Times and are close friends.