By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Editor
Los Angeles (CNN) – For years, Ahmed Ahmed’s acting resume read like a rap sheet.
His first film role was Terrorist No. 4 in “Executive Decision.”
His first sitcom part: Hakeem, a terrorist, on “Roseanne.”
“I realized there was a big market out there for playing bad Arabs,” the actor said with a sarcastic laugh.
Born in Egypt and raised in Riverside, California, Ahmed - a friendly, round-faced guy - carries no trace of an accent and doesn’t look particularly sinister.
But he said he was rarely considered for parts playing doctors, lawyers ... or anything, really, but menacing Muslims during the early days of his career.
Meanwhile, a pilgrimage to Mecca, the spiritual home of Islam, pricked his conscience. He felt responsible, in some small way, for the violent images of Islam broadcast across American screens.
“I realized I was becoming a slave to the industry,” Ahmed said.
The role in which the actor was regularly cast, an Islamic extremist, has become almost as familiar a Hollywood cliché as the noble savage or gold-hearted hooker.
In films and television shows from “24” to “Syriana,” Muslims are the olive-skinned evildoers who cloak their violent schemes in religious rhetoric while cursing their American adversaries.
Ahmed wanted no part of that anymore. He quit Hollywood and went back to waiting tables, where he compensated for the bad food with a bonhomie that would blossom into a standup comedy act.
Opinion by Paul Burress, Special to CNN
(CNN)– As I sat backstage, I could hear the sound of thousands cheering as they waited for me to enter the ring.
“Lord put your covering over me,” I prayed in a whisper. “Use me as a witness. Use me to be a billboard for you."
I’m a pastor by trade, and the next morning I was set to preach the Easter sermon.
But on that night, I was preparing for something else entirely. This wasn’t the normal, churchgoing crowd.
I was about to enter the cage and compete in a mixed martial arts bout.
When I tell people I’m a pastor and a mixed martial arts fighter, I usually get some puzzled looks.
“How can you preach the Word of God participate in such brutal activity?” people ask. “Didn’t Jesus teach us to love one another?”
Opinion by Drew Dyck, special to CNN
(CNN) - The 4-year-old boy sees angels floating toward him. They start out as stars, then slowly become more visible, wings flapping behind orbs of white light.
As they approach, they sing a melodious song. The boy cocks his head, squints into the sky, and makes a strange request. “Can you sing ‘We Will Rock You’?”
The angels giggle.
So do people in the theater.
The scene is from “Heaven is for Real,” the latest in a string of religious movies soaring at the box office. Based on the best-selling book of the same name, the film tells the real-life story of Colton Burpo, a 4-year-old boy who awakens from surgery with eye-popping tales of the great beyond. The film took in an estimated $21.5 million in opening on Easter weekend.
Even Colton’s religious parents (his dad, Todd, is a pastor) struggle to accept the celestial encounters their son describes: seeing Jesus and his rainbow-colored horse, meeting his sister who died in utero, and talking to his deceased great-grandfather, “Pop,” who, Colton exclaims, has “huge wings.”
The book and film are part of a larger trend. Depictions of journeys to heaven have never been more numerous or more popular. There’s “90 Minutes in Heaven,” “To Heaven and Back,” “Proof of Heaven,” and “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven,” just to name a few.
Does God have a prayer in Hollywood?
So what should we make of such accounts? And what does their popularity say about us?
Opinion by Joel S. Baden, special to CNN
(CNN) - Most modern people tend to distinguish between the wrathful God of the Old Testament and the merciful God of the New Testament.
In our age, the merciful God reigns - or so we like to think.
But every so often, stories or books or natural disasters summon visions of a wrathful God, and nowhere is that more in evidence than in the biblical story of the Flood, now brutally depicted in Darren Aronofsky’s new film “Noah.”
With our notion of a God who loves us all individually, especially the little children, we struggle with a deity who would wipe out all of humanity. Surely there were many innocent people, children, who died in the Flood?
But let’s be clear: This is our problem, not the Bible’s.
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
Los Angeles (CNN) – Forgive Darren Aronofsky if he’s begun to identify with the title character of his new film, “Noah.”
Like the infamous ark-maker, the 45-year-old director has weathered a Bible-sized storm – and it’s not over yet.
Aronofsky’s epic, which stars Russell Crowe and boasts a $130 million budget (with marketing costs to match), rode a swelling wave of controversy into American theaters on Friday.
Despite fierce criticism from some conservative Christians, "Noah" was the top box-office draw last weekend, raking in $44 million in the United States.
Part Middle-Earth fantasy flick, part family melodrama, the film is an ambitious leap for Aronofsky, director of the art-house hits “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler.”
Both of those films were showered with praise and awards. “Noah,” on the other hand, has sailed into a stiff headwind.
Opinion by Carol Costello, CNN
Editor's note: Carol Costello anchors the 9 to 11 a.m. ET edition of CNN's "Newsroom" each weekday. Watch at 9:40 a.m. ET Thursday for a discussion of the new film about Jesus.
(CNN) - Clearly Jesus was sexy.
After all, He is the Son of God.
I don't mean to be disrespectful, but as I watched the trailer for the new movie, "Son of God," I found myself gawking at the actor portraying Jesus.
Diogo Morgado is one hot dude. His Jesus looks more like Brad Pitt than that nice man with the beard in all those paintings.
I'm not the only one gawking at Morgodo's Jesus. He inspired the hashtag, "#HotJesus". It went viral on Twitter. The actor told The New York Times he doesn't want his looks to distract from the movie, but, "If the message of Jesus was love, hope and compassion, and I can bring that to more people by being a more appealing Jesus, I am happy with that."
Clearly we have a new trend. A "more appealing" Jesus is not just a better prophet, he's ... sexy.
Opinion by Brett Robinson, Special to CNN
(CNN)— Forget the forbidden fruit logo and the cult of Apple jokes. The legacy of Steve Jobs is anything but religious.
Apple was conceived in the heady days of the counterculture movement. While Jobs and friend Steve Wozniak were busy hacking into AT&T’s long-distance phone lines from a Berkeley dorm room in the 1970s, the culture was awash in New Age experimentation and social unrest. Traditional institutions were under siege by idealistic youth rejecting what they viewed as mass-marketed delusions.
At the top of the hit list was organized religion. When Jobs and Wozniak got the phone hacking device to work, their first call was to the Vatican. They proceeded to hang up on the pope’s personal secretary before he could connect the call to the Holy Father. Jobs the iconoclast relished the prank.
By Eric Marrapodi, Co-Editor CNN Belief Blog
Baltimore, Maryland (CNN) - As the new Superman movie takes flight this weekend, filmmakers are hoping the Man of Steel lands not only in theaters, but also in pulpits.
Warner Bros. Studios is aggressively marketing "Man of Steel" to Christian pastors, inviting them to early screenings, creating Father’s Day discussion guides and producing special film trailers that focus on the faith-friendly angles of the movie.
The movie studio even asked a theologian to provide sermon notes for pastors who want to preach about Superman on Sunday. Titled “Jesus: The Original Superhero,” the notes run nine pages.
“How might the story of Superman awaken our passion for the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again?” the sermon notes ask.
By Alan Duke, CNN
Los Angeles (CNN) - When a film's credits list "prayer coordinator" before the hair/makeup and wardrobe teams, you might guess it is a faith-based production.
"Not Today," which premieres on 50 screens in 20 U.S. cities this weekend, was not funded by Hollywood investors, but with $1.6 million from the collection plate at Friends Church in Yorba Linda, California.
Still, the church couldn't avoid the controversies that seem routine in Hollywood productions — including a lawsuit over pay.
The idea for the film began during a trip to India where the church began building schools for the Dalit class - considered the lowest in India's caste system - in 2002. It's a project that fits Friends Church's Quaker tradition, said Creative Arts Pastor Brent Martz. President Richard Nixon's parents worshiped at the church, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year.
"Our hearts were totally ripped open for the Dalit people," Martz said. Social rules and poverty make their children vulnerable to human-trafficking in labor and sex.
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Editor
(CNN)—In spite of tepid reviews from some film critics, "Les Miserables" is booming at the box office, and that financial success can in part be traced to a group of its biggest boosters: Christians, particularly evangelicals whom NBC Universal went after with a microtargeted marketing strategy.
The story in "Les Miserables" is heavy with Christian themes of grace, mercy and redemption. The line everyone seems to remember is "to love another person is to see the face of God.”
NBC Universal looked to capitalize on those components and promoted the film to pastors, Christian radio hosts and influence-makers in the Christian community.
The latest film adaptation of the musical is raking in the cash. As of Wednesday, NBC Universal reported, it had pulled in $80.57 million in 2,814 theaters. After winning Christmas Day, the film finished third in the box office totals over the weekend, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, narrowly losing out to "The Hobbit" and "Django Unchained" despite being on significantly fewer screens.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.