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Passion play isn’t easy

Religion takes the field

“The Tim Tebow Show” is done for the season, thanks to the Denver Broncos’ ouster from pro football’s playoffs. Yet the question of how to commercially tap into the evangelicals who flocked to watch the devout quarterback is something of an evergreen, especially since few in Hollywood have mastered the playbook.

As with “The Passion of the Christ,” the 2004 Mel Gibson feature whose box office muscle caused salivating studio execs to sit up and take notice, networks couldn’t help but gawk at TV ratings for Tebow’s playoff games. The stat sheet included 42.4 million viewers for Denver’s overtime victory against Pittsburgh — nearly a 50% increase over last year, and a record for any NFL wild-card game in the quarter-century for which CBS has data.

Some might recall, though, how the hunt for conservative Christians initiated by “The Passion’s” success rather quickly fizzled. And a slew of entertainment projects aimed specifically at that market for the most part proved stiff and boring — either apocalyptic, or as soft and gooey as the center of a caramel sundae.

Reaching a happy medium in the uneasy relationship between Hollywood and the Christian faithful is clearly a tall order, especially for those in showbiz like yours truly, who derived biblical learning by way of Cecil B. DeMille’s epics, or musicals like “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Good shows, but I’m not really sure how true they are to the book.

So I decided to solicit advice from someone with a better grasp of what might be called Team Tebow: Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, a Fox News contributor, former vice president of the Moral Majority and — at the risk of destroying his credibility with conservatives and mine with Hollywood — an occasional pen pal.

Like many conservatives, Thomas sees Hollywood as being uncomfortable with the issue of religion and in many ways hostile toward traditional values. “I am unaware of any other demographic that Hollywood would knowingly reject as a potential income stream,” he says.

At the same time, he also acknowledges the existence of a cottage industry consisting of “groups making money off criticizing Hollywood,” and says, regarding material produced directly for evangelicals, “There’s a lot of this stuff that’s an embarrassment. I wouldn’t go to it if it was free.”

Indeed, hitting people over the head with overt expressions of faith is every bit as irritating, and potentially limiting, as insulting believers. (Granted, one can argue those slights are frequently more perceived than intended, but for the purposes of this discussion, the distinction isn’t significant.)

In terms of a model lacking a crucifixion, Thomas harked back to the Oscar-winning “Chariots of Fire,” a movie that organically wove religion — if you’ll recall, a lad who wouldn’t run in an Olympic event because of commitment to his faith — into an inspirational story.

At the time, Thomas recalled, “It sent a powerful message to the believing community that Hollywood is not your enemy all the time.”

Still, that was 30 years ago, and the relationship has soured in the interim — in part due to a sharp rift over gay rights between the religious right and Hollywood.

To an extent, the great divide can be overstated, usually for effect by those with political motives. For all the talk about shunning Hollywood’s tainted product, plenty flock to big-tent items like “American Idol” or the next Batman movie, and a good deal of mainstream entertainment is inherently conservative in its values.

Where the fracture does exist, however, there are few easy solutions — in part because stoking Christian indignation and feelings of victimization has, for some, been so good for business.

Thomas maintains each studio ought to employ somebody who can credibly interface with the Christian community, and conversely suggests the faithful who wish to penetrate the media must educate themselves and build relationships if they “want to play in the big leagues.”

Notably, CBS Sports reached out to Tebow to participate in this weekend’s NFL coverage, recognizing a hot commodity when they saw one. He declined, but the quarterback has already gained ground for his religious brethren — at least, temporarily. Because like any strained relationship, it takes hard work and commitment to keep the passion alive.

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