There's a Weird Persecution Streak in Christian-Themed Movies
When I was in the fifth grade, I attended a public school in my mother’s hometown of Falkner, Mississippi. It’s a really small town, with only a few hundred people. One day a week, for an hour, a local pastor would come in and teach a Bible class, which I’m sure there’s no way it would pass constitutional muster, where the kids would play games and learn about the life of Jesus. And all of this happened almost thirty years after Engel v. Vitale.
This has always been something which comes to mind when I hear evangelicals lamenting the “war” against Christianity, whether it be red cups at Starbucks or being pissed at Disney because they refuse to discriminate. If one looks at the current tactics of media messaging, whether it be proselytizing a religion or advocating a political agenda, it’s sometimes easier to generate “OUTRAGE!!!” about perceived slights than it is to get people involved with “good news” alone.
This is especially true of a significant portion of faith-based films. Ever since the financial success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, there have been many attempts to mine the evangelical audience for box office gold. These films generally range from big budget adaptations of Bible stories (e.g., Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings), supernatural apocalyptic prophecy where the world has gone to shit after the Rapture (Left Behind and Six: The Mark Unleashed), movies about relationships where faith in God is central to the love between partners and family (Courageous and Fireproof), to smaller films with b-to-d-list actors based around miracles and perceptions of faith (Miracles From Heaven andSaving Christmas). In many of these movies, science and skepticism usually have an antagonistic function, since they are portrayed as the tools of alleged mistreatment by atheists and liberals, obfuscate and deny God’s glory, and put a barrier between the love of “good” people.
Over the weekend, God’s Not Dead 2 was released to very negative reviews. However, the first film was similarly horrible, and it made more than $60 million on a $2 million budget. God’s Not Dead 2 depicts a high-school teacher (Melissa Joan Hart) having to go to court to save her job from the meanies at the ACLU after quoting the Bible’s words about Jesus Christ during a discussion of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. This is buffeted by cameos by Duck Dynasty alums and Mike Huckabee, and a general message which argues policies of “diversity and tolerance” are the means by which Jesus will be persecuted in the 21st century. In short, it’s political propaganda rooted in stoking evangelical paranoia and a feeling that America is no longer a privileged place for Christians.
So this week I thought we might take a closer look at these movies, and what if anything this sort of persecution complex says about the films and the audience.
Historically, Christian narratives exist for one purpose: to give glory to God. That’s what it commands in 1 Corinthians 10:31, after all. Everything else—compelling characters, spectacle, humor—exists to serve that purpose. It’s here that Christian filmmakers cannot waver. So even in faith-based fare that hopes to inspire secular audiences, they’ll assert their beliefs with an ironclad sense of conviction. In Miracles From Heaven, for example, the miraculously cured Anna details her twee and kaleidoscopic vision of heaven before asserting that “not everyone’s gonna believe, but they’ll get there when they get there.” In the world of this film, Anna’s vision isn’t a comforting fiction, but a tangible truth that we’ll all accept eventually. Smug, right? But that, too, is the point. Matthew 18:3 says that “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The world of these films is the evangelicals’ world. Its logic is theirs.
I’ve had friends say to me: “The Bible is badly written.” Sure, it has many verses which are not exactly progressive when it comes to slavery, the treatment of women, etc., and it’s a mishmash narrative that’s barely cohesive. But as a collection of stories which speak to human notions of hope, love, regret, guilt, doubt, and aspirations to find some form of peace, it’s very well written in capturing the feelings associated with those aspects of life, even if one doesn’t exactly believe in the God who’s supposed to be behind it all. Moreover, if it was badly written, it wouldn’t have found an audience, and writers wouldn’t have spent the past thousand years ripping it off for material and themes.
Because within those stories are trials and tribulations of credibly, even painfully flawed, human characters wrestling with sordid relationships, betrayal, and conflict. This is important to why current faith-based fillmmaking, whether it be from big studios, production houses like Pure Flix Entertainment, or church-funded filmmakers like Alex Kendrick, largely fails on a critical level, and how it differs from the source material it’s supposedly giving glory towards. The characters in these movies are largely two-dimensional caricatures meant to deliver a moral in some unquestioning and insipid way that can only be enjoyed by people who want to see something which reinforces their beliefs, whether it be specific religious beliefs or the politically conservative variety.
So, not for nothing, here are some dominant tropes and themes one sees in a lot of these films and the reaction to them.
- Religious audiences are as bad as fanboys in fidelity to source material: The studios for both Aronofsky’s Noah and Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings attempted an outreach to churches and evangelicals in marketing those movies. However, religious audiences largely rejected them as not “real” religious films since they make artistic choices in interpreting the material. Also, there were some indications Ridley Scott’s religious views —he’s described himself as an atheist in interviews— was held against Exodus with evangelical viewers.
If actor Kevin Sorbo or “Growing Pains” star Kirk Cameron is involved, you’re most likely watching a movie with the explicit goal of evangelizing. That objective is more important than production values or plot, which explains why these movies fare so poorly with critics … Sorbo thinks Hollywood learned its lesson about using self-described atheists, such as Scott. “You don’t get Atheist directors to direct movies that deal with the Bible,” he told Fox News. “It’s ridiculous — at least get an Agnostic!”
- Prayer is the solution to any and every problem: Last year’s War Room, a movie with a majority black cast and marketed to black audiences, posits that any problem on this planet can be solved by “prayer warriors.” Some of the people involved with War Room gave an interview around the time of the movie’s release, claimed prayer was the best way to combat police shootings and racial tensions was prayer, as outlined in the movie. This notion, in and of itself, may be incomplete and naive. Because I know many people who find comfort and peace in daily meditation and prayer. So, for some people with some things, there may be validity. But when coupled with other evangelical ideas about what can be prayed away, it can take on a much darker connotation. And there’s also the ridiculous, where in a movie like Fireproof, Kirk Cameron needs to pray away his internet porn addiction.
- The end of the world is a function of big government and the Devil: Ironically, almost all of the Rapture-based, end of the world fantasies feature a lot of the same elements in Ayn Rand’s (atheist) Objectivist vision in Atlas Shrugged. They both share the belief a move towards bureaucracy and larger government will one day take away freedom, just the evangelical version has a world where the government brands a bar code “mark” onto its followers/citizens and Christian values are made illegal. And just like Rand’s story, there’s a significant figure at the center of it all. With Atlas Shrugged, John Galt is the heroic, selfish asshole who brings about the downfall of a corrupted society by withholding his talents. In faith-based apocalyptic fantasies, an Antichrist is leading civilization towards a fall from grace by offering false promises. By the way, the same sticklers for fidelity I mentioned above forget about it when dealing in these types of movies. The word “Antichrist” does NOT appear anywhere in the Book of Revelation. The word does appear in other books of the Bible (e.g., First Epistle of John), but not in the context or meaning behind supernatural horror movies like The Omen or end of days books like the Left Behind series. To get a little kid with 666 on his body, one has to combine interpreted characteristics of both "Beasts" from the Book of Revelation and the "Man of Lawlessness" in Second Thessalonians. And then this is only true if you believe the text of the Book of Revelation to be a prophecy for the future, which is a topic of much debate and dissension even among theologians.
- Medical miracles are proof of God: Both Heaven Is For Real and the recent Jennifer Garner vehicle Miracles From Heaven, are both marketed by Sony as being “based on a true story.” That’s the implicit appeal of these films in evangelical circles. It’s demonstrable “proof” that God is real, a just universe and a rewarding afterlife await, and sometimes God finds a way to help. And of course medicine and science are at a loss to explain the circumstances, which validates any other time when science and medicine contradict with a personal belief, let it be climate change, vaccinations, etc.
- These sorts of movies have appeal across different demographic groups: Tyler Perry has made a small fortune in selling morality tales to black audiences. Perry's Temptation has a woman unhappy and sexually unsatisfied in a relationship, who cheats on her spouse, and gets disciplined for it by God. Now I'm not going to argue it's a great thing to cheat on your partner, but it is a bit much when a movie basically lectures people in despondent relationships they should stay loyal otherwise they may die. Yes, there’s a Tyler Perry film which argues "that if you cheat on your spouse, you deserve a terrible disease." Beyond just this, a very memorable episode of The Boondocks has pointed outthere’s a formula to many of his films.
Perry’s movies have always been offensive in their vicious portrayals of black men, showing black life through a misandric lens that implicitly attributes the broader ills of black America to the moral failings of black men. Perry’s first film, Diary Of A Mad Black Woman (which he wrote, but didn’t direct) wasn’t bashful about setting the Perry agenda early on: Madea (Perry) and Helen (Kimberly Elise) attempt to destroy the home of Helen’s cartoonishly cruel ex-husband. Madea, wielding a chainsaw, exclaims, “This is for every black woman who’s ever had a problem with a black man!” But Perry’s films often hold black women in as much contempt as black men. Diary has an anti-feminist message, as another man shows up to teach Helen that she was right about needing a man to complete her, she just chose the wrong one. To complete his problematic trinity, Perry tosses in his most famous character, the mammy-echoing Madea, as a black female grotesque.
- Dark forces are attempting to silence Christianity: A prevailing notion in many of these movies is that any appeal to reason, science, or basic logic is an affront to faith and God. Not only is that insulting to atheists who like logic, but it’s also pretty fucking repugnant to Christians who like science and logic too. In most faith-based films, depictions of scientists, professors, lawyers, or politicians are usually smug unfeeling bastards that are more concerned with hating Christians than the public good. In God’s Not Dead 2, Ray Wise’s ACLU lawyer explicitly states he “hates” proselytizing Christians. And the movie attempts to construe recent controversies as the slippery slope in the upcoming onslaught against Christianity. But it’s mainly a paranoid freedom fighter fantasy which sees the beginnings of fascism in stores using the term “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” in December.