It’s a frustrating time to love movies and God. As a lifelong evangelical and a Christian film critic, I’m constantly alerted to the next faith-based movie. You know, your near-death experience drama, your Kirk Cameron vehicles, your God’s Not Dead franchise (see “part two” in theaters this week!) — “Christian“ films. Which, for someone who turns to movies for a dose of culture, often look like a pile of cheap cash-ins that make me break out in hives.
Hollywood’s definition of the “faith audience” boils down to churchgoers, often Evangelical Protestants, well enough off to afford a night at the movies, interested in inspirational Biblical adaptations and movies about heaven, family, and genial, good neighbors, and highly critical of any sexuality or bad language. If you’re not devout, you probably miss these movies entirely. But they’re a big business: in the last three years, low-budget Christian-themed films have earned over $445 million at the US box office. A lot of these are basically well-intentioned kitsch, innocuous in the manner of a lousy conventional rom-com or inept indie drama. But they can be worse than that. I can excuse (or ignore) a poorly made movie. But some of the most popular faith-based movies today aren’t just sub-par entertainment — they’re anti-Christian.
How Jesus convinced Hollywood to believe
After The Passion of the Christ made more money than anyone dreamed possible — still the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time in America — studios frantically tried to corner the faith market by producing movies that enticed churches to buy out theaters. There’s a long history of sword-and-sandal flicks before that, plus occasional apocalyptic movies like A Thief in the Night, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association made a number of solid films a few decades ago that were distributed directly to churches. But 2004 signaled something new, and producers took notice.
A few small movies succeeded with the “faith audience” after Passion of the Christ: Facing the Giants (2006), Fireproof (2008), and Courageous (2011), one of which starred Kirk Cameron, all indie films from the same church-backed production company. Less-explicitly specialized films, like the Narnia movies, The Blind Side (2009), The Book of Eli (2010), Of Gods and Men (2010), and Soul Surfer (2011), attracted sizable crowds of mostly Evangelical Christians. Soon, publicity firms found ways to market every conceivable film with a vaguely inspirational hook to pastors and parishioners, from The Avengers (look at these superheroes sacrificing themselves for one another, just like Jesus!) to The Monuments Men (look at these soldiers sacrificing themselves for one another, just like Jesus!)
Maybe someone in Hollywood read a tweet, or ate some Ezekiel bread, but all at once a wave of specific “faith” releases began to crest. The wave crashed in 2014, which saw Son of God (February), God’s Not Dead and Noah (March), Heaven Is for Real (April), Mom’s Night Out (May), Persecuted (July), The Song and Believe Me (September), the Left Behind remake starring Nicolas Cage (October), Saving Christmas (November), and Exodus: Gods and Kings (December). As a Christian film critic, I got calls from reporters all over the place, asking whether I could comment on what the “Year of the Bible Film” was all about. It was a thing.
Those aren’t ephemeral numbers: in addition to the incredible box-office hauls of God’s Not Dead and Heaven is for Real, several of the films made money (including Mom’s Night Out, which grossed $10 million on a $5 million budget, and Left Behind, which grossed $19.7 millon on $15 million). Son of God was a recut version of ratings juggernaut The Bible, which raked in 10-13 million viewers for the History Channel and led to a second series on NBC, A.D. The Bible Continues. And the trend continued in 2015 with Old Fashioned (competing with Fifty Shades of Grey on Valentine’s Day weekend),Do You Believe (March), War Room (August), the unfortunately titled 90 Minutes in Heaven, the thriller Captive (September), and football movie Woodlawn (October). We’re barely a quarter of the way into 2016 and have already weathered The Masked Saint, Risen, The Young Messiah, and Miracles From Heaven. This week we get God’s Not Dead 2 — a missed titling opportunity, if ever there was one — with a Ben-Hur remake and an adaptation of the popular novel Same Kind of Different as Me on the way.
What an actual movie-going Christian looks like
Fact: I am the intended audience for these movies. I’ve been a Christian all my life, attending evangelical churches, singing in the choir, and helping out at Vacation Bible School. I was homeschooled for religious reasons and grew up in a rural town. When I moved to Brooklyn, I became a communing member of an Evangelical Presbyterian church. Members of my family belong to a smorgasbord of churches all along the Eastern Seaboard, from Southern Baptist to Assemblies of God to Evangelical Free and Roman Catholic. I’m a film critic for Christianity Today, founded by Southern Baptist icon Billy Graham. I hold a full-time faculty appointment at The King’s College, a school founded by a radio preacher in 1938. I now teach undergraduates who were raised in churches across America. I am Christian.
I also love good movies and watch and write about them for a living. I care that they’re good. And the deluge of Christian movies brought on a deluge of bad reviews. It’s practically catechistic among many faith-based devotees and movie producers that mainstream critics pan the films because they “don’t believe in Jesus.” The problems run deeper. Jesus is all right; the screenwriters, not so much.
As onlookers laugh these movies off, I stand in the Internet’s corner, wincing and trying not to rail. I can’t just brush it off like others. Christian theology is rich and creative and full of imagination, that’s broad enough to take up residence among all kinds of human cultures. It contains within itself the idea that art exists as a good unto itself, not just a utilitarian vehicle for messages. (In the Greek, the Bible calls humans “poems” — I love that.) There is no reason Christian movies can’t take the time to become good art. Each one that fails leaves me furious.
It all came to a head with God’s Not Dead, which grossed $60 million on its $2 million budget and essentially launched the faith-based production juggernaut, Pure Flix. It’s essentially an adaptation of an Internet meme, in which an atheist professor loses an argument with a lowly undergraduate about the existence of God. At first I avoided the movie, because I thought it would be another shoddy Christian film and I’d already been inundated. I wanted it to go away. I eventually borrowed a copy of the movie from a friend. We all make mistakes.
Click here to read more.
Alissa Wilkinson is critic at large for Christianity Today, an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City, and usually a pretty sunny cinematic omnivore. Follow her weeks-late TV tweets and exhausted festival updates @alissamarie.