Jesus at the Movies

Tommy Tenney, a televangelist and author, likes to let his audiences in on a little secret about a new movie based on his novel, Hadassah, a fictionalized account of the Old Testament Book of Esther. Tenney equates the movie, "One Night With the King," with Jesus' parables. It advances an agenda that reveals a hidden truth, even if the audience is unaware of it. As Tenney writes on his website, "'One Night With the King' preaches the Gospel in a subtle and nonconfrontational way. I call it 'sneaky' preaching."

"One Night With the King," which opens today, is a production of Gener8Xion Entertainment, (8X) a media company run by Matt and Laurie Crouch, son and daughter-in-law of Paul and Jan Crouch, the patriarch and matriarch of Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), the world's largest purveyor of Christian programming. The movie is the first major production to be distributed by Twentieth Century Fox's latest nod to the growing evangelical toehold in Hollywood, its religious distribution label, FoxFaith.

TBN, a 30-year-old network that's expanded along with media technology -- growing from individual local broadcast stations to cable to satellite and the internet -- now has five channels through which it peddles its bizarre mix of prosperity preaching and Biblical prophecy, around the world, every hour of every day. Its programs, in which televangelist hosts plead for money, are often followed by a plea for a "love gift" for Paul and Jan, meaning a donation in exchange for a tchotchke, recently a small bottle of perfumed "anointing oil." TBN, a nonprofit, pays the Crouches nearly $1 million a year in compensation, and its many popular televangelists, such as Rod Parsley, a rising star in the Christian Right, and Armageddon lobbyist John Hagee, also live lavish lifestyles off the donations of their congregations and viewers.

Its televangelists have been subjects of investigations and exposés into scandals over fund-raising and controversial faith-healing practices. And two years ago, Paul Crouch was the subject of a Los Angeles Times investigative series charging that he paid hush money to a former male lover. But none of this has seemed to dampen viewer enthusiasm for TBN, which, through a conglomerate of nonprofit entities, pulls in nearly $300 million in revenue each year. And it certainly hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of the Christian Right, which is jumping right in with TBN in promoting "One Night With the King."

Although the movie, a lavish production filmed on location in India and starring such well-known Hollywood entities as Omar Sharif and Peter O'Toole, may seem on the surface a tale of political intrigue and romance, on TBN and in front of Christian audiences, the filmmakers relentlessly make clear their prophetic intentions. "Your destiny awaits!" proclaims a TBN ticker running across the screen during daily programming. As part of a special "pastors' screening tour" in September, TBN offered pastors' testimonials to the power of the film. "We have been called for a time such as this," said one. The film is "about leading others to the Kingdom," another intoned. The message for the modern audience? One pastor said, "Esther means ... it's time for Christians to stand up and save our nation."

The movie's marketers have somehow reengineered Esther's story to turn an Old Testament legend into a modern proselytizing tool for Christians. In Jewish tradition, Esther is a heroine, the brave queen who risked her favor with the King of Persia to save Jews from destruction at the hands of the evil Haman. Her story is celebrated on Purim by eating triangular pastries, wearing costumes, and making a lot of noise. But for evangelicals, Esther's story has long resonated as evidence that God chooses saviors in every generation. When Esther -- who had hidden her Judaism from her husband, the King of Persia -- balked at approaching the king for his intervention to stop his assistant, Haman, from slaughtering the Jews, her cousin Mordecai asked her: "Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?" It is those last six words -- "for such a time as this" -- that evangelicals have seized upon in maintaining that God chose Esther, and God can choose you, too. And the movie's promoters are driving home the point that the movie isn't really about Esther saving the Jews, it's about the viewer being saved.

This message wasn't lost on Pastor Jesse Edwards of Pentecostals of Philadelphia, whom I met in Washington at the Family Research Council's Values Voters Summit last month, where some attendees were treated to a screening of the film. Edwards said that while "The Passion of the Christ," to which "One Night's" promoters are comparing the film, was "great for Christians who already knew Jesus," "One Night" is also for people who "haven't made a dedication to Christ." He added "they will when it's over," and called "One Night With the King" "one of the greatest outreach tools of the church in this century."

The movie's promoters are reaching out to three different audiences. One is the believers in Biblical prophecy, who think that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a modern-day Haman. The second audience is women, lured by the fantasies depicted by the film's portrayal of royal pageantry while walking in the kingdom of God. And the third is the misbegotten: "minorities," "orphans," and even foster children, who will, the movie's promoters hope, see a chance for themselves to make their mark by finding Jesus.

The Biblical prophecy audience is often warned of remaining silent -- just as Mordecai warned Esther -- in the face of Ahmadinejad, who is compared to Hitler, the first modern-day Haman. Last month, when Hagee, the televangelist who has been at the forefront of pushing a military confrontation with Iran in order to bring about the Second Coming, hosted the younger Crouches at his church, Matt told his audience, "This isn't really a movie, this is a prophetic statement." Hagee added, "God used this one woman [Esther], just like He can use you, to change the course of human history." Edwards, the Pentecostal preacher from Philadelphia, told me that current events in the Middle East "are setting the stage for Jesus to walk again."

Although the film has experienced a series of production delays, the producers and promoters insist that God himself postponed its release date to coincide with escalating hostility between Iran and Israel and the United States. As Jan Crouch sobbed on "Behind The Scenes" on TBN in September, as she sat stroking a little white dog in her lap:

God saved this movie. We couldn't figure out why it couldn't come out ... and now, right now, just as the King of Iran, the President of Iran, has defied the whole U.N. Why? Because he doesn't like the Jewish people. Is this the most prophetic word? … one little orphan girl changed the course of the whole Israeli-Jewish nation. One can do it. We are one, the Body of Christ. We cannot get the Gospel into the beautiful hearts of those Muslim people until they realize the Jews are not their enemy … They've got to just relax.

For women, the film is presented as a spectacle of pageantry and romance -- you, too, can be a queen if you walk with Jesus. At Hagee's church, the Crouches promoted the film at a commencement ceremony for a King's Daughter conference, which is run by Hagee's wife, Diana. There, Hagee told the audience that Esther "used her beauty" for a divine reason, and that the Book of Esther teaches that "it is your destiny to rule and reign with Jesus Christ." (He later instructed the all-female audience to marry a man who has been saved and has a job to support his wife because wives shouldn't have to support "lazy louts." He bellowed, "If you are dating a non-believer, break up with him as soon as possible!") Tenney told Hagee's audience, "for the Esther that's within you, one encounter with the King of Kings can so change your destiny that you walk in peasantry and you walk out royalty."

At Falwell's Liberty University, the film was shown in conjunction with an Extraordinary Women Conference, run by the Extraordinary Women Association, which teaches women how they can be "the best you can for your family, church, and for God." In a TBN broadcast, Laurie Crouch would frequently giggle as she asked women if they thought the movie was "pretty," and several talked about how much they liked the "romance" of the film. But the real message of the film -- like the messages of the Extraordinary Women and King's Daughters -- is not, like the film's promoters insist, that Esther was admirable because she was strong. It is that she is admirable because she performed God's will.

Although the film received a PG rating from the Motion Picture Association of America "for violence, some sensuality and thematic elements," 8X and TBN are promoting it to children as well. One particular target is foster children, frequently mentioned by the Crouches and Tenney as modern-day Esthers (they like to refer to her as "a little minority orphan girl") whose destiny could be changed by seeing the film. One Texas organization, The Arrow Project, a Christian foster child ministry funded in part with state money, places foster children in Rio Bend, a planned community run by indicted former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's DeLay Foundation for Kids. (Back in the salad days, DeLay cajoled big money donors to curry favor with him by paying top dollar to participate in golf tournaments that were touted as Foundation fund-raisers.) The Arrow Project, whose executives believe that all people are in need of salvation, is arranging for foster children to see the movie gratis.

At the Values Voters Summit, Tenney, who was a featured speaker, described his role in the entertainment industry as being "enmeshed in the mission field of Hollywood." Sandwiched between other speakers who ranted about the promiscuity, homosexuality and amoral secularism that plagues Hollywood, there was more than a hint that the movie just might inspire Christians to rescue Hollywood from itself. "The spirit of Haman rises again," said Tenney, "but we are making headway."

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