Film Is Risen: A Discussion of Religion in the Movies

Can cinema bridge the divide in our country?



    Randall Colburn (RC): I was a born-again Christian when The Passion of the Christ came out. I saw it with members of my church. I loved it. My Christian friends and fellow parishioners went multiple times, taking their secular friends and teenage youth groups. It had been years since many of them had seen a movie in the theater. They bought the DVD at Wal-Mart when it came out. I remember one family who would watch it in between Sunday’s morning and evening services. It was a treat to them, a reward for paying attention in church. Also, they didn’t have many other options.

    Surprisingly, the success of The Passion didn’t result in a boom of faith-based films. It was mostly more of the same: VeggieTales and straight-to-DVD cheapies starring D-list actors. Kirk Cameron did his thing, and the Narnia franchise made its metaphors blunt enough to make Christian audiences feel Hollywood hadn’t jacked its series.

    But then 2014 rolled around, giving us a veritable feast of faith-based features. Not only were these movies released theatrically, but they were also undeniable smashes. Despite almost universally negative reviews, God’s Not Dead ($62,630,732 worldwide gross on a $2 million budget), Heaven Is for Real ($101,332,962 worldwide gross on a $12 million budget), and Son of God ($67,800,064 worldwide gross, and that was lifted wholesale from the TV series The Bible for Christ’s sake) are currently among the top 50 highest-grossing films of 2014, and the top 10 highest-grossing Christian films of all time.


    Today, Ridley Scott’s biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings hits theaters, and it’s no stretch to say Hollywood is hoping the same Christians who turned out for those films will show up for this one.

    In anticipation of this film and the annual celebration of Christ’s birth, we decided to take a moment and consider the state of faith-based films: where did they come from, where are they going, and, perhaps most importantly, are they any good?


    Dominick Mayer (DM): 2014 has been a watershed year for the faith-based filmmaking subgenre. Like you mentioned, Randall, it’s not like Christian-interest (our operative point of discussion as “faith-based” goes) movies ever left at all, per se. Kirk Cameron made his claim on a small part of the possible box office riches years ago with entries like Fireproof and Left Behind, with the intention of simultaneously offering devout audiences a corner of the film universe specifically for them and reaching out to a larger, more secular viewership. The former ultimately proved to be far more lucrative and successful than the latter, but this nevertheless speaks to the power of an audience that may well feel as though Hollywood isn’t acknowledging them, or has only done so in oblique and vague ways.


    And I suppose, if we’re going to discuss 2014 as a renaissance year of sorts for the religious movie, we should start with the one that’s currently making the viral rounds, one that concerns Cameron, the Christian gadfly of our time that he is: Saving Christmas. Despite having its initial two-week release extended due to “popular demand,” the film had a historically bad fourth weekend, with a per-screen average that suggests an average of roughly two attendees per screening. It would seem that most audiences have proven uninterested in Cameron’s offering. And by “uninterested,” I mean that it’s now considered the worst movie ever made on IMDB, worse than disasterpiece luminaries like Birdemic and The Hottie and the Nottie. Why all the scorn, Randall?

    film_savingchristmasRC: Let me start with this: scorn for Kirk Cameron is altogether separate from scorn for Christianity. Cameron, after all, is a troll. His arguments — against evolution, homosexuality, the Grammy Awards, etc. — rely more on provocation than cogency. Remember the croco-duck? Or when he claimed Facebook “blocked” the trailer for Unstoppable? Or his latest stunt, when he tasked his fans with “storming the gates” of Rotten Tomatoes to trump the “haters and atheists” and raise its audience rating (it’s hovering around 32% right now, with 0% from critics)? Cameron routinely fashions himself a martyr, an innocent being bludgeoned for his radical beliefs. He’s extending that martyrdom to Christianity at large with Saving Christmas, which hilariously asserts that Christians are being persecuted for putting up Christmas trees and drinking hot chocolate. If that’s not trolling, I honestly don’t know what is. The bottom line is that anyone attempting to depict modern Christianity as a minority under attack, especially in light of its regressive beliefs regarding actual minorities, is asking for trouble. Cameron knows that if he can’t prove God’s existence, he can at least get them talking.

    But Cameron is simply the most vocal among a slew of movie-makers dedicated to faith-based films. And though Saving Christmas surely made a profit – I can’t imagine more than $200,000 went into it – it’s positively dwarfed by the box office pulls of contemporaries like God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real. Beyond that is the relative success of “indie” faith flicks like Mom’s Night Out and The Song, not to mention the abysmal, Nicolas Cage-led Left Behind reboot. Couple all of that with past smashes like The Passion, Fireproof, and the VeggieTales franchise, and it’s impossible to deny that the Christian community is hungry for cinema that speaks to it.


    The problem is, the movers and shakers in modern Christian film – producers like Elizabeth Hatcher-Travis, Paul Lalonde, David A.R. White, and the Erwin Brothers – fall right in line with Cameron’s us-against-them mentality. Whether it’s in the slaughter of Christ or the bullying of a Christian student, martyrdom and persecution is a running theme, resulting in films that feel overly defensive and accusatory. God’s Not Dead and Saving Christmas, for example, hinge their entire plots on characters defending their faith in the face of accusers that are presented as either cruel (Kevin Sorbo in God’s Not Dead) or dumb (Darren Doane in Saving Christmas). What we’re left with is neither entertainment nor evangelism, but self-justification. These movies weren’t made to entertain or enlighten; they were made to make Christians feel right. Dominick, you just watched God’s Not Dead. What was your reaction to it, one of the highest-grossing Christian films of all time?


    DM: Well, to the point of that “us-against-them” ethic, you probably can’t come up with a better example in 2014 than God’s Not Dead. I’ll have to offer this bit of full disclosure sooner or later, so I might as well now: I was raised traditionally Catholic and have moved away from it over time for numerous reasons. But I do know enough about it, and still feel enough of a kinship with it, to be especially disquieted by what you’re touching on here. You’re dead-on in stating that these movies aren’t trying to foster any kind of dialogue or mutual understanding. They don’t even feel particularly celebratory of religion, which is what really throws me. And by “these,” I mean the didacticism of Saving Christmas or God’s Not Dead, because it’s important to note that #notallchristianmovies are at the Cameron level of frothing hysteria. But God’s Not Dead is. Holy shit, is that movie ever. It’s at a rabid level of froth.

    And I think a big part of it is this notion that it’s no longer enough to simply be religious in a secular world. It’s now that the secular world is actively trying to eradicate religion and that any good Catholic must also be an aggressive evangelist, or else they’re remiss in their duties and not truly close to God. It’s genuinely depressing in a lot of ways, because the films are the latest manifestation of the “make it hip” idea that dweeby videos at CCD classes have offered for years, but hard-sold to a demographic that’s trying to reconcile its faith with the changing world. There are a lot of ways to make insightful, lovely films about that anxiety; I think of this year’s Calvary, a movie that explores the very Catholic themes of forgiveness, the futility of revenge, good and evil, redemption, love for your fellow man, piety in the face of overwhelming adversity, and a great many other things that would be incredibly relevant to and insightful for an audience interested in further engaging with those ideas. But that’s the thing. Engagement can lead you off the party line, and that’s not the business a film like God’s Not Dead is in.


    calvary-2014Opening dialogue means being challenged on occasion, but God’s Not Dead isn’t even so much a movie as it’s a lengthy primer/study guide that teaches you exactly how everybody who approaches the world differently from you is wrong bordering on evil, that it is impossible for a person to truly be good without believing in God (the Catholic God, specifically, which I won’t even get into at this time), and that education isn’t nearly as important as faith. The film is heavily centered on the dialogues/barely veiled death threats between Sorbo’s nefarious, athiest professor, who couldn’t be more cartoonishly evil if he were carrying around a roll of dynamite and a plunger, and Josh (Shane Harper), a devout Christian who refuses to renounce his faith for the sake of a philosophy class. Even if that idea might seem a bit ridiculous to many, there’s something poignant to that idea on paper, that it’s perfectly fine to assert your faith in a world that increasingly disrespects it. Had the film the tiniest iota of interest in nuance, it could make for an interesting setup. As it stands, the name of the game is the shittiest possible take on Magnolia, with fun doses of sexism and, ironically enough, religious intolerance peppered in throughout.

    My point is it’s not just that I hate God’s Not Dead, because I do. Setting aside any and all moral issues for a moment, it’s just a poorly made, ridiculously overlong rant masquerading as a film. Bringing those back, I think it borders on irresponsible in its hard-line fetishization of never once questioning what you’re told, lest you become one of those dastardly backsliders who wants you to engage with your ideas instead of being spoon-fed them wholesale by film studios that stand to make tons of money parroting people’s long-held opinions, anxieties, and fears back at them. But then, I also readily and fully acknowledge that I’m just about as far outside this film’s target demographic as you can get. So, I don’t really know anymore. What’d you make of it?

    RC: My girlfriend, who identifies as Christian, summed up God’s Not Dead thusly: “Why does it have to be so bad?” Notice the emphasis on why; she’s genuinely curious, and so am I, as to why so many Christian filmmakers ignore the basics: a well-told plot, engaging characters, stylish cinematography. Measured by those standards, God’s Not Dead is objectively a bad movie, devoid of anything resembling nuance, depth, or humanity. To be honest, the best part is Kevin Sorbo’s performance, as he manages the Herculean task of finding pathos in pure evil. But if Grown-Ups 2 taught us anything, it’s that bad movies can make big box office. “You can do better!” we scream at the crowds bowing before Adam Sandler’s flip-flops, and I’d shout at the same thing at those lining up for God’s Not Dead.


    And there are good, faith-based films out there. Good call on Calvary, Dom, though were it released by a major studio, it would probably be shunned in the same manner as Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, which dared to tell a Biblical story without sermonizing it. Truly, one of the best faith-based films out there is also the highest-grossing. Say what you will about The Passion, but Gibson’s direction is positively gorgeous, as are Jim Caviezel and Monica Bellucci’s performances. There’s plenty to hate outside of that, but you have to give Mel Gibson credit for giving his audience more than just a message. On the opposite end of the scale is a quiet film like Paradise Recovered, a micro-budget indie about a girl finding freedom from an abusive fundamentalist sect by forming friendships with atheists, who ultimately end up strengthening her faith. The filmmaking itself isn’t far removed from God’s Not Dead, but the story anchors itself on plot and character rather than message, resulting in empathy that embraces the secular and faithful alike.

    By far the best faith-based film to come out in the past 30 years, however, is Robert Duvall’s The Apostle. The story of a Pentecostal preacher that kills a man, then attempts to find salvation by bringing revival to the Louisiana bayou, The Apostle is essentially a love letter to the forgiving nature of Christ and the meaning it can impart to wayward souls. But it also paints its protagonist, played by Duvall, as flawed, broken, and sometimes cruel.


    There’s a fear, it seems, in Christian filmmakers to present flawed protagonists. As we’ve mentioned, films like God’s Not Dead and Saving Christmas follow characters who are routinely posited as being morally superior. And even when a protagonist sins, such as in Fireproof, it’s in the sort of whitewashed, defanged manner that cheapens the actual struggle, be it an addiction to pornography or a hot temper. The Apostle, on the other hand, begins by showing its protagonist smashing another man in the head with a baseball bat. That takes balls.


    Of course, no studio would finance The Apostle. Duvall paid for it himself. It seems, though, that today’s studios are taking more of an interest in faith-based films, as we’ve seen with the wider releases of Heaven Is for Real and Left Behind. Do you think this is a trend we’ll continue to see, Dom? Or will faith-based movies continue to be mostly shuffled off to DVD and Netflix?

    DM: I think one of the great curiosities of these films is that, outside of the films you’ve mentioned and to a lesser extent Mom’s Night Out (released through Sony’s Affirm Films, a distribution label specifically for the faith-based subgenre), most of these movies haven’t seen the widest release to begin with. It’s actually a brilliant marketing model in a lot of respects. Go watch the trailers for a few of these movies, and note how nearly all of them end with either an e-mail address or a hotline number of some sort for group screenings. These films are being hard-sold to churches, youth groups, et cetera, and they’re making a tidy sum doing it. The second key is that they’re not coming out in large portions of the country. For instance, around here in Chicago, God’s Not Dead didn’t actually show on any screens in the city proper. It was at one theater up in Rosemont, a near northern suburb, and a few farther-flung suburbs as well. I’d guess a lot of other major cities not in the South or the more rural parts of the country saw the same. I mean no condescension here; it’s a smart model. Put the film in front of the people likeliest to be receptive to it, and don’t waste time/money/resources selling it to people who may well not be.

    persecutedThe model of selling these films to audiences of similar sensibility is smart, but again, it’s also a cause for concern when some of these films operate with such an inherent bias. Here I’m not just thinking of God’s Not Dead, but of Persecuted, a smaller release that made the rounds over this past summer. It stars James Remar (Dexter‘s ghost dad) as a megachurch preacher who takes a stand against a federal bill that would require all religions to integrate the customs and writings of other religions into their own doctrines. Horrified by the notion of intersectionality, Remar rises up against it on television, only to be framed for the murder of a prostitute by both his own money-hungry church and the dastardly liberal government.


    From there, it’s basically a no-budget knockoff of The Fugitive, but with some idealized religious discrimination for extra flavor. And the thing is I think this will eventually be a problem, more so than it is already. This polemic rhetoric is working well enough for the time being, because apparently Christianity is under assault by people looking to eradicate it from the Earth and replace it with gay sex or something, but I can’t see that vitriol holding sway over the larger conversation forever. And when things settle into a point where the religious and the secular can return to more of an equilibrium (I won’t be so naive as to say it’ll ever fully reach that point), movies like Persecuted probably won’t have a place at the table.

    And I think, if anything, that this is what we’re calling for. I, for one, am all about the idea of entertainment for an audience burned by the garish sexuality and violence of a lot of mainstream Hollywood cinema. There’s absolutely a place for that, and for as corny as I might find a lot of a film like Mom’s Night Out, there’s also something sweet about it, in the sense that it’s strongly devout without beating you across the face with its messages and simply integrates a strong sense of faith into a sitcom-style comedy.

    I think the Christian film will live on and indeed continue to grow; look at Exodus: Gods and Kings this week or Noah. There’s clearly enough of a market for these movies that the Charlton Heston-style Biblical epic can return to even the highest tiers of the film industry. I think we’re seeing the start of something significant, but I also don’t think that its current didactic state will hold.



    RC: There’s already been a resurgence of faith-based genre films, what with the appearance of two (yes, two) found footage horror movies about demonic boxes of porn. The Lock-In was released online earlier this year, while Harmless lit up the blogosphere back in 2012 with a wacky trailer and Kickstarter campaign. Harmless, unfortunately, never came to fruition, but I can say that The Lock-In is every bit as awful as it sounds. And though there’s something desperate about this kind of capitalization, there’s also something to be said for devout filmmakers attempting to branch into genre.

    Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time. Christian filmmakers have never shied from using the biblical rapture as fodder for action (with Mr. T, no less!), or incorporating the Gospel into loopy science fiction narratives (hello, Judd Nelson). But the problem with those movies is the same problem plaguing modern Christian films: they’re incompetent, they’re out of touch, and they’re just not good.

    Exodus: Gods and Kings, on the other hand, is competent. Some might even call it good (though we didn’t). But modern Christian audiences will never fully embrace a movie like Exodus: Gods and Kings. Why? Because it’s not really a Christian movie. Rather, it’s a Biblical story with Biblical characters that allows every plague and miracle to be perceived as either holy or man-made. Did God part the Red Sea? Or was it simply low tide? Exodus leaves it ambiguous, and, if movies like Son of God and God’s Not Dead are any indication, ambiguity is the last thing that the audience wants.


    There is a place in between, I think. A place where characters of faith can exist without strictly being defined by that faith. A place where Christian morals and issues can be explored in ways that welcome both the secular and the devout. It may take America reaching that point of equilibrium you discuss, Dom, because since G.W.’s reign there has been a fierce divide, in society and in culture. What it will more likely take, however, is something much more manageable: talent. And I don’t mean the casting of a Hollywood titan (again, see the shitshow that was Nicolas Cage’s Left Behind). I mean a singular vision, a filmmaker who can bridge the gap the way Duvall did with The Apostle or Hugh Hudson did with Chariots of Fire or hell, Gibson did with The Passion.

    Because if we can’t bridge the divide in our country, we could at least maybe do it through the movies.


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