Two new movies explore religion in unique ways

Reported by: James Eppler
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Updated: 11/26/2012 1:18 pm

On Twitter: @JamesEppler

Religion and especially faith can be interesting things to explore when Hollywood dares to take them on. But too often, we're left with wishy washy swill starring the likes of Kirk Cameron or sentimental garbage like "Fireproof" or "Seven Days in Utopia" - movies with an agenda that seem hell-bent on "saving" its audience and feel like they should come with an altar call after the end credits.

I'm much more interested in movies that treat faith as part of the human condition. It's not about promoting one religion in particular, but rather examining the need to connect with something greater while developing relationships with other people or aspects of our world.

Two movies in theaters right now do that particularly well:

"The Sessions" is a wonderful drama telling the true story of poet and journalist Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), a man paralyzed from the neck down from polio and confined most of the time to an iron lung. He's a practicing Catholic, and as a man approaching 40 years old, he wonders whether his religion and his personal relationship with God will ever allow him to experience sex with a woman. His priest, played by William H. Macy, struggles with the question, but eventually decides, "In my heart, I think He will give you a pass on this one." Then they pray, as Mark sets about hiring a sex surrogate.
The religious facet of this story is fascinating on its own because it serves as a hindrance to Mark's sexual experience - his religious background has taught him certain things about it, some of which may not be true. But more importantly, we see how Mark seems to see God continuing to guide him through it. And his growing personal relationship with a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) teaches him more about himself and his faith.

Similar to Mark O'Brien, the character at the center of "Life of Pi" finds God at an early age. But he's able to see Him in various religions - from Krishna to Christianity and Islam. I'm sure tenants of each of those faiths would say, "Well, at least he got the right one in there."
But when you're stranded on a life boat with a Bengal Tiger, the particulars don't really matter, do they? And that seems to be the point. When Pi prays for help, or gives thanks, he's not praying to the "Christian" God or the Muslim God. It's just God. 

I'm not saying you have to agree with the points of view these movies are presenting, agree with characters' decisions, or compromise your own beliefs. What I'm saying is, these movies are to be admired for examining faith in ways that feel relatable, open, and honest. If nothing else, they can spurn some good discussion about what people believe, how they intersect, and how we can better understand one another.

How often does Hollywood do that?

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