"What movie had the greatest impact on you, in a religious sense, when you were younger?"

A colleague and I were asked that question recently by a reporter. Jimmy is a baby boomer in his 50s. At 32, I am the quintessential Gen-Xer. Jimmy responded, "Ben Hur." I said, "Planet of the Apes."

Ask your parents about "religious" movies and they will spout off titles such as "Quo Vadis" or "The Ten Commandments." Ask a Gen-Xer about religious films, and the list may include "Star Wars," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and a half-dozen "X Files" episodes. A Millennial might say "Seven" or "The Matrix."

What makes the difference? In years past, Sunday school and catechism could be counted on to shape the young. That's no longer guaranteed, or even likely. For Americans coming of age in a postmodern world, religious training occurs at the hands of popular culture and personal experience.

Religious training now occurs at the hands of popular culture and personal experience.

That makes film and other mass media the primary sources of popular theology and mythology.

Films raise questions about life--questions the church too often is unwilling to ask.

This doesn't mean we're not learning about Jesus through popular culture. He's a fixture in Hollywood, although you might not always recognize him. Can't find him in the credits? Here's why.

Cardboard Jesus
Like my friend Jimmy, many people associate Hollywood's spiritual agenda with what the film industry calls "the religious epic," those big-budget biblical dramas with the big-name actors. Baby boomers were raised on these. As church attendance soared after World War II, so did the popularity of the religious epics of the 1950s, which were a reflection of postwar optimism.

One of the most influential movies of this era was "King of Kings" (1961). It was a remake of the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille movie of the same name, which was the first film to depict Jesus on screen. Earlier movies showed Jesus only as a shadowy figure or kept him off-screen altogether.

Critics lambasted the 1961 film mostly for its main character. Hoping to broaden generational appeal, the studio had cast a teen idol in the title role, and credibility was instantly tossed.

Four years later came "The Greatest Story Ever Told." Again, the main target of criticism was Jesus. The Swedish actor Max Von Sydow was ridiculed for presenting a Jesus who acted like a robot: no emotion.

Despite the popularity of the religious epics, Jesus never really made it as a movie icon. So Hollywood took another route.

Rebel with a cause
The cultural upheaval of the late 1960s demanded a new kind of Jesus. The most interesting musicians and film characters of the time were rebels. So eventually, Jesus had to become the dissenter.

"Cool Hand Luke" (1967) marked a crucial transition and a defining moment in the way movies presented Jesus. Screenwriters discovered that it is not only possible, but also quite effective, to take the bare elements of the Jesus story and place them in a present-day setting.

Paul Newman plays Luke Jackson, a man sentenced to hard labor for destroying parking meters. In prison, Luke recruits "disciples" and tries to make hard time more endurable, even fun--doing things like wagering on whether he can eat 50 boiled eggs at once. Of course, conflict with the prison establishment is inevitable for this rebel. When he turns the arduous task of repaving a highway into a joyous game, the guards begin to fear his influence. From that moment on, the establishment knows there is a troublemaker in their midst, and they plot to ruin Luke.

"Cool Hand Luke" even concludes with two scenes that recall Jesus' Gethsemane and crucifixion. Pursued by the prison guards, Luke stands in an abandoned chapel and asks God, "Is this the way it has to be?" Then he is gunned down unjustly by the guards' fearsome leader who hides behind his ever-present sunglasses--the spiritually blind "man with no eyes." A "post-resurrection" scene follows in which Luke's disciples reflect on their experiences with him.

The "Cool Hand Luke" formula was later duplicated with critical success in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) and "Dead Poets Society" (1989). Both films have a "Judas" and a resurrection scene that vindicates the martyred nonconformist.

Unlikely redeemer
Today, Jesus is the unlikely redeemer--in the classroom of Dead Poets or in the home of an abused child, as in "Sling Blade."

Karl Childress (Billy Bob Thornton) is released from an Arkansas mental hospital after serving 25 years for the murder of his mother and her teenage lover. Returning to his hometown, he meets a young boy named Frank who lost his father to suicide.