A Sacred (Version of) Hollywood?

Few arenas are as fruitful for the study of the history of American Christianity than its relationship to American cinema throughout their histories. In two books, The Silents of God: Selected Issues & Documents in Silent American Film and Religion, 1908-1925 and Sanctuary Cinema: Origins of the Christian Film Industry, Terry Lindvall has captured both religious reactions to and uses of motion pictures and painted an entertaining and informative account of each. Along with Andrew Quicke, Lindvall continues this important research with their latest publication, Celluloid Sermons: The Emergence of the Christian Film Industry, 1930-1986.

Lindvall and Quicke pick up where Lindvall left off in Sanctuary Cinema. Though there was something of a despairing “end” to religious (read denominational) uses of motion pictures at the close of the 1920s, Lindvall and Quicke reveal that, beginning in the 1930s, a vibrant Christian film industry slowly emerged that paralleled, in some ways, the secular Hollywood industry. However, it would always be more of an underground movement that only occasionally inserted itself into the mainstream. Lindvall and Quicke present their work with sharp insight and humor. In the process, they reveal that the American Christian relationship with pop culture at large, and film in particular, has been more complex, even within conservative denominations than might initially appear. The authors, to their credit, are also unfailingly fair to even the most conservative productions that most film and religion scholars might dismiss out of hand. This continued research is important because few, if any, scholars have, as Lindvall and Quicke write, “specifically identified the role that Protestant films have played in constructing culture” (xii).

There are several avenues through which to undertake a discussion of American Protestantism after reading Lindvall and Quicke’s book. I’d like to echo a couple of interesting points that they raise before giving a broad overview of their work. Religious filmmakers and religious audiences’ reaction to their films were influenced by political and cultural influences. Lindvall and Quicke write about the reaction to one of Rev. James K. Friedrich’s films on the good Samaritan, “As war clouds loomed, however, a screening scheduled for the White House was canceled, and finally the project was put on the shelf. The theme was out of step with the times. Who would be taught to love your enemy when he may soon have to learn to kill him” (29). Unfortunately, as it is today, such prophetic (and scandalous) Christian theology is often a victim of the surrounding culture more than it is a transformer of it.

Despite their claims to the contrary, even the most conservative denominations were (and are) influenced by the emergence and rise of cultural power of motion pictures. Moderate to liberal denominations who embraced both film-viewing and filmmaking in their worshiping lives experienced varying degrees of success. On the other hand, denominations like the Southern Baptists, who tentatively embraced motion pictures, could never be as effective at changing the surrounding culture as they hoped to be with such schizophrenic approaches to an important cultural medium. Along with a lack of financial commitment to the emerging artform, few denominations had a clear enough vision for what motion pictures could or should be to allow them to enjoy sustained filmmaking ministries. Read on for an overview of Lindvall and Quicke’s excellent book.

In Chapter One, Lindvall and Quicke set the stage for the emergence of a Christian film industry, briefly highlighting the preceding Protestant and Christian reactions to the cinema at its development that paved the way for their current focus. What is chiefly characteristic of the setting is the religious cultural divide with, simply put, some Christians in favor of the films and others opposed to them(2). Attitudes began to shift enough, however, so that a sizeable Protestant population saw value in using films in the life and work of the church. Five genres of film emerged from the heightened Christian commitment to filmmaking: biblical films, missionary films, historical & biographical films, and even dramatci films. To varying degrees, creators of each genre sought to evangelize, uplift, and even entertain their audiences. Along with impacting a host of Christian audiences, some of these films even began to influence both Hollywood productions and foreign audiences. Lindvall and Quicke write, “Research findings on motion pictures in the 1930s demonstrated that Hollywood movies–in contrast to church-made films–handicapped missionary work, especially in the Orient, where viewers could no distinguish between true and false portrayals of American life” (19).

In Chapter Two, Lindvall and Quicke highlight the work of three important Christian filmmakers whose styles and filmmaking philosophies find parallels among Christian filmmakers today. Rev. James Friedrich, Carlos Baptista, and Dr. Irwin Moon made successful, even award-winning Christian films. Friedrich’s main drive was how to “‘make the Holy Scriptures a living experience for others,'” and to that end, he spent “an inheritance of $100,000 by investing it in a nonprofit motion picture company through which he might unify Christendom by means of the visual medium” (26, 28). For his work, Friedrich is perhaps most famous for starting Cathedral Films, which ran from 1948-1964. Somewhat prophetically, Friedrich shifted box office focus from theaters to churches “‘with a ready-made audience of sixty million,” anticipating the distribution and exhibition strategies of 21st century church-based film production companies like Sherwood Pictures and Graceworks Pictures (31). Unlike the Kendricks, however, Friedrich “made it a point to use ‘secular’ talent and crews. He believed that if you wanted a good film, then you would have to use good actors regardless of religious affiliation. He defended this practice to those who argued for using only Christian crews by comparing it to the making of a new church sanctuary […]” (32). Friedrich finds contemporary parallels among those Christians who are working within the Hollywood system trying to make aesthetically accomplished films.

Unlike Friedrich, Carlos Baptista cared less about aesthetics, privileging the message over the medium, and, in this fashion, he was much like the Kendricks, who are something of his filmmaking progeny. Lindvall and Quicke add, “Baptista strongly believed that everyone who worked on any aspect of his films must be ‘born-again'” (44). However, Baptista’s passion for motion picture evangelism is impressive, and he, unlike many of his contemporaries, anticipated the future existence of home video collections (45). Dr. Irwin Moon stands apart from Friedrich and Baptista in a number of ways. Rather than illustrating Scripture, Lindvall and Quicke write, “[…] Moon dreamed of communicating the creative truths of God by illustrating them through science and nature” (46-47). It’s almost impossible to think of a contemporary example of Dr. Moon, whose “Sermons from Science,” seem so far removed from anything that current Christian filmmakers are producing. Unlike many Christian productions today, Lindvall and Quicke note that, by 1986, “a total of thirty-nine [of his] educational films had won twenty-seven national and international awards, plus the Eastman Kodak Gold Medal Award was presented to Irwin Moon for ‘the advancement of the educational process through the many unique uses of the art of the motion picture'” (54). Dr. Moon also adapted his science films for both congregation and classroom use, exhibiting a kind of intellectual ecumenism that is often lacking today (53).

In Chapters Three and Four, Lindvall and Quicke outline denominational efforts at film production, distribution and exhibition from the ’30s to ’80s. Chapter 3 covers Methodist and Ecumenical films while Chapter 4 focuses on “dissenting” images from Lutherans to Baptists to Episcopalians. Again, the ways in which these denominations did or did not cooperate with secular producers says much about their approach to the surrounding culture. Methodists (65) and Lutherans (96) did, whereas Baptists didn’t. Methodists were wary of evangelical films (64), whereas this proved to be the bulk of Baptist output. One of the most notable ecumenical efforts was the Protestant Film Commission, which “coordinated the labors of nineteen religious denominations and thirteen leading interdenominational agencies. Its twofold purpose was to try to produce some high-quality dramatic and documentary Christian 16mm films for distribution to various churches, schools, and community groups, and to stimulate and encourage the production of films with positive religious themes from the Hollywood film industry” (81).

In Chapters Five and Six, Lindvall and Quicke turn their attention to, to put it one way, more industrial efforts at Christian filmmaking. Here, Christians cooperated with one another to create production studios and distribution networks that more closely paralleled their secular counterparts. These companies and their output are with us yet and perhaps even a few of them are more familiar to a larger portion of Lindvall and Quicke’s potential readers. Companies include Family Films, World Vision, Gospel Films, Focus on the Family, World Wide Pictures, and Gateway Films. The latter two are perhaps the most popular, the former being Billy Graham’s filmmaking ministry and the latter for its production of The Cross and the Switchblade.

Thankfully Lindvall and Quicke devote an entire chapter to Mark IV Pictures and their apocalypse-themed films that have inspired a host of sacred and secular releases. Lindvall and Quicke tread more lightly through these films than some of their peers, most notably Heather Hendershot. While Hendershot is more critical of their theology, Lindvall and Quick prove more behind-the-scenes information on how these films came to be. In the next chapter, Lindvall and Quicke discuss less fearful cinematic evangelism efforts with the likes of Ken Anderson and Ray Carlson attempting to create gospel films in global contexts. Of course, nothing compares to The Jesus Film (featured image above), which has an estimated viewership of over 6 billion and boasts over 225 million conversions to Christ. At the conclusion of this chapter, Lindvall and Quicke also discuss a little-known film, Karunamayudu/Man of Mercy, a Jesus film in an Indian context (you can see a YouTube version of the film below).

In their conclusion, Lindvall and Quicke highlight a brief renaissance in Christian film production with so many young, talented, and promising Christian filmmakers attending traditional film schools like those at NYU, USC, or UCLA, and attempting to create less explicitly religious (though by no means less theological) productions that break the mold of their more didactic predecessors. Unfortunately, many Christian viewers are hesitant to embrace these films, which, perhaps explains the reason why so many talented Christian filmmakers have moved into secular Hollywood to work with more accomplished colleagues. Lindvall and Quicke point to this reality as a source of future research. Here’s hoping they get to work on that book sooner than later.

Check out a couple of videos below. The first is a YouTube version of Karunamayudu and the second is a sample of one of Dr. Moon’s science films.