In the beginning, there was the movie gospel according to Cecil B. DeMille, whose reverent epics turned theater screens into pulpits.
Using Scripture as plot outlines, films like DeMille's The Ten Commandments and The King of Kings were devout cinematic sermons, right down to the "thees" and "thous." Few depicted the violence chronicled in the Bible, and none broached the final chapter of Revelation when God destroys mankind.
Today's filmmakers aren't bashful about Armageddon, or unchristian acts that might be necessary, if and when the end comes. They're blending spiritual themes of end days with the secular thrills of action flicks — R-rated explicitness in the name of God — to mixed reactions from the churchgoing crowd.
"Christians aren't monolithic, so their reactions to these films aren't going to be monolithic, either," said Angela Walker executive editor of ChristianCinema.com, a reference site for more than 6,000 faith-based productions.
"Absolutely they can be offended. Faith is the core of our being. When popular entertainment starts playing with that core, we respond to it at different levels."
Ironically, it was devout Christian Mel Gibson who begat this uneasy convergence of faith and violence in 2004, when The Passion of the Christ turned the Bible's brief description of Jesus' torture into 30 minutes of feverish gore. It became the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time, earning $370 million in North America alone.
That success encouraged other productions in tempering the mass appeal of movie mayhem with spiritual themes.
And if any biblical topic is tailor-made for the movies, it's the end of the world.
Special effects spectacles like 2012 and Legion dramatize how it could happen. Brutally theological dramas such as The Book of Eli and The Road — both rated R for violence — depict the moral fallout.
"We all imagine: What if God did this? What would happen next?" Walker said. "We project stuff onto other people; why not do it to God's plan?
"As Christians, honestly, we all have our ideas of how we'd like God to (end the world). We want it to happen in a certain way according to Scripture and probably as many people as you'd talk to would have a different script running through their heads."
The Book of Eli clearly promotes the Bible as humanity's salvation after the apocalypse. Academy Award winner Denzel Washington plays a drifter protecting the last existing Bible in a scorched world of scavengers and cannibals. Eli is a believer, a daily reader of the holy book he carries, with Scripture quotes handy for any occasion, even showdowns.
However, Eli never turns the other cheek. Bad guys attempting to steal the Bible are graphically repelled by his martial arts skills, machete and firearms. Heads roll, blood spatters and squeamish Christians can be excused for wondering what in heaven's name is going on.
Living Waters ministry founder Ray Comfort is a Christian television and radio host who doesn't plan to see The Book of Eli. Comfort's discomfort with the secular movie industry was detailed in his book, Hollywood Be Thy Name, that protested the film industry's "godless agenda."
Like many Christians, he won't support films with the kind of violence Eli employs, whatever the motive.
"I don't think lopping off heads to protect the Bible is a legitimate way to spread the message," Comfort said in a telephone interview.
Eli's journey is bloodier but similar to that of a father and son in The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer prize-winning novel. Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Kodi Smit- McGhee) wander through an identically decimated Earth, searching for a promised land, doing whatever is necessary to survive. In print and on screen, The Road has been interpreted as a Christian parable, with Man ultimately sacrificing himself for the future.
Then there's the pure hokum of Legion, in which Armageddon brings an army of dark angels to Earth and the archangel Michael (Paul Bettany) rebels to save mankind. Michael and mere mortals use an arsenal of weapons to contradict God's will for the gratification of action fans.
Neither of those films is as overtly spiritual as The Book of Eli, which then inspired the Web site MovieMinistry.com to offer a downloadable packet (for $4.95) of questions and discussion points related to the movie.
“The Book of Eli can inspire talk about the nature and influence of faith, and how knowing God's Word intimately is a source of comfort, direction and strength," according to the Web site.
But how many Christians will stomach the film's explicit content is difficult to say. Nobody asks your denomination at the box office, where The Book of Eli grossed a robust $38.4 million in its opening weekend.
Walker saw the movie at a publicity junket where she interviewed Washington, directors Allen and Albert Hughes, and screenwriter Gary Whitta. Walker's online reports reflect her approval of the message and caution about the means used to get it across.
“The Book of Eli is less brutal than Gladiator and 300," Walker said, "but because it contains spiritual themes, there's going to be this feeling of, 'I don't want to see my faith played out in such violent fashion.' "
Comfort agreed, offering a bit of advice to filmmakers hoping to follow Eli's path:
"They should read the Sermon on the Mount: Love your enemies, do good to others in spite of the issue and don't lop their heads off in the name of the Lord."
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog at blogs. tampabay.com/movies.