The Resurgence of Religious Cinema

I recently worked on a project on the resurgence of religious cinema in the United States and linked it to the religious responses to early American cinema that focused on “moral uplift” and the educational and spiritual benefits of the cinema. After briefly tracing this history, I examined five recent films that fit what I believe to be a contemporary example of “moral uplift.” The films are The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, End of the Spear, One Night With the King, Nativity Story, and Amazing Grace.

I argue that these films fulfill, in part, a role of cinematic worship most powerfully exhibited by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ only a few years earlier. What made this film so wildly popular? I argue that we must certainly recognize the spectacle of it as one of the more violent films ever made…or at least containing one of the most violent scenes in film history, and as a result, some viewers simply attended to see what all the fuss was about. On the other hand, perhaps a significant portion of audiences went to see this Jesus film as a modern worship experience. Moreover, when the film released, countless reports told of ministers renting out entire theaters to show the film for free to their congregants and guests. The website for both Amazing Grace and The Nativity Story specifically provide information on how religious organizations can hold private screenings of these films. As such, the exhibition of these films becomes something akin to a cinematic worship service.

Critics, however, often fail to consider this aspect of religious film in their reviews, citing only their cinematic successes or failures. In his review of The Nativity Story, New York Times film critic A. O. Scott asks, “How do you make piety entertaining without seeming impious?” Of course, this question could apply to all of the films discussed here, and we will see that some fare better than others in meeting this challenge. However, we could argue that one viewer’s piety is another viewer’s worship experience…one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Perhaps it is in the sappiest moments of religious film that some viewers find the most sacred, serious moments for worship. Moreover, these films not only provide worship experiences, but also encourage people to live out their faith outside the theater, as original moral uplift films did. I would like to group these films into two categories, one that concerns itself with the often-discussed Jesus/Christ story and the other that inspires viewers in their daily lives. Of course, these films could easily blend into each genre, but for the sake of discussion, I want to keep them separate.

Cinematic Worship and the Christ/Jesus Story

narnia_aslan.jpgThe Chronicles of Narnia might be the film that most effectively embodies all the levels of moral uplift that we have discussed, uplifting, financially successful, entertaining, and worshipful. This film had a cumulative box office return of over $290 million dollars along with over $30 million in rentals so far. Production and advertising cost around $200 million, but coupling box office receipts with returns from product tie-ins like video games and toys makes for somewhat significant financial success. In fact, Walden Media and Walt Disney have been so pleased with its success that they have optioned the rest of the books in the series with Prince Caspian scheduled for release on May 16, 2008, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader scheduled for a 2009 release.

One cannot ignore the possibility that The Chronicles of Narnia banked on the success of The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003) trilogy by C. S. Lewis’ colleague, J. R. R. Tolkien. Though not nearly as epic in scope or technical achievement, most critics gave favorable reviews to the film, with most negative reviews panning its technical shortcomings and thematic blandness. The Chronicles of Narnia tells of the Pevinsey children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, who are sent to live with a relative during the London blitz of WWII. While in Professor Kirke’s countryside home, they find a wardrobe that transports them to the magical world of Narnia. Unbeknownst to the Pevinseys, they fulfill an ancient prophecy by helping Aslan, a lion-ruler of Narnia, defeat the wicked white witch and become kings and queens of Narnia forever, or at least until they stumble back through the wardrobe years later. The story contains all the ingredients for a good fantasy complete with talking mythical creatures, gorgeous scenery, and a triumphant final battle.

On the other hand, any spiritual subtlety present in Lewis’ original text has been eradicated in the film, and many audiences, even religious viewers, might find the Aslan-as-Christ emphasis a bit too heavy handed. Nevertheless, The Chronicles of Narnia serves as an excellent example of a work by a Christian author being successfully adapted for the silver screen. The scene in which Aslan sacrifices himself so that Edmund may live and the dialogue surrounding it offers a fantastical retelling of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, even down to Aslan being a lion. The action and music in the film slows down significantly so that this “crucifixion” and resurrection can happen. Though it passes quickly, it allows audiences to cinematically experience, worship, or remember the Lion of Judah, and provides them the ability to tell again the Christ/Jesus story to both children and adults.

nativity-story-2006.jpg On a more specific note, New Line Cinema released The Nativity Story on December 1, 2006 at a cost of $26 million in production and marketing. This film debuted to less critical acclaim and a shorter run at theaters, yielding only $37+ million at the box office and $9+ million in rentals thus far. Most critics panned its bored retelling of Jesus’ birth and recognized it as geared mainly towards religious audiences looking for a holiday movie. I tend to disagree with most critics and side with Scott’s review. He writes, “The Nativity Story sticks to the familiar details of the narrative and dramatizes them with sincerity and good taste. There are no flights of actorly or cinematic bravura—though all of the performances are credible, and some better than that—and very few big, showy, epic gestures. Rather than trying to reinterpret or modernize a well-known, cherished story, the filmmakers have rendered it with a quiet, unassuming professionalism.” He continues, “The movie has been cast with an eye toward authenticity rather than renown, which spares audiences the distraction of seeing familiar movie stars in robes and sandals.”

I appreciate this simple, straightforward approach. Although the film often plays it safe with scenes of violence, the film reveals the very real scandal of Mary’s (Keisha Castle-Hughes) pregnancy and the difficult position in which it placed Joseph. In fact, Oscar Isaac’s performance as Joseph is one of the true highlights of a film that plays very much like a love story to Joseph who is shown as kind, devoted, loving, and faithful. However, certain elements of the film betray simple storytelling, especially for religious audiences. The film begins with the theme of “O Come, O Come, Emanuel” and concludes with “Silent Night.” Thus, the film becomes a chance for Christian audiences to worship this familiar story in a new way. Though not necessarily sung in the film, a Christian audience cannot help but hear the words of these hymns and connect them to the image on the screen. Moreover, one of the wise men asks another, “How’s your faith now,” but given the camera’s straight-forward medium shot, he might as well be asking its audience. The spotlight of the star shining on the stable where Jesus is born might blind audiences to the film’s liberating conclusion. “Silent Night” plays as Mary, Joseph, and Jesus make their way to Egypt, and Mary narrates the “Magnificat.” In the end, the film serves as a reminder of Jesus’ stance for the poor, but unfortunately, some may be too blinded by the spotlight and deafened by the carols to see it.

Cinematic Worship or How Shall We Now Live?

Films like End of the Spear, One Night With the King, and Amazing Grace could all fit in the first category as they each have their own Christ-like characters that give of themselves for the salvation of others. Furthermore, they also provide opportunities for religious audiences to worshipfully celebrate heroes of the faith be they Esther, the Elliot family, or William Wilberforce. Yet in these cinematic celebrations of courage lie guidelines for how to live out one’s faith in their day-to-day lives or when facing especially adverse circumstances.

one_night_king.jpg One Night With the King is by far the poorest critically received film of this group and also the least financially successful bringing in $13+ million from the box office and just a few thousand more in rentals to date, against $20+ million in production and marketing costs. The film tells the story of Esther, a Jew, and her experiences in King Xerxes’ court. When the king’s prime minister, Hamen the Agagite, convinces him to wipe out all the Jews, Esther comes to the rescue. The film boasts high production value with gorgeous sets and even cameos by Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif. However, the lead roles of Esther (Tiffany Dupont) and King Xerxes (Luke Goss) are poorly cast and even more poorly performed.

The film takes an otherwise epic, sexually scandalous story and sanitizes it, turning it into a love story for its religious audiences. Despite the high production value, the film moves at a terribly slow pace, and the script has virtually no direction or consistency. The few positive reviews of the film noted Esther’s bravery and humanity that contributed to her triumph rather than divine intervention. I would argue that this is part of what the filmmakers had in mind here. This film reminds its religious audience, especially its young women, to stay faithful to God first and then to their men. Do so, and your faithfulness and bravery will be rewarded. In the end, the film, contrary to the biblical story, is as sexually pure as possible. The message? No sex before marriage.

endspear1.jpg End of the Spear, a film of much better quality than One Night With the King, tells the story of five missionaries to the Waodani tribe in the eastern rainforest of Ecuador. This violent tribe, defined by revenge killing, speared these missionaries to death when they made first contact. Rather than fleeing, the missionaries’ families moved into the rainforest with the Waodani tribe. Steve Saint (Chad Allen), one of the missionaries’ sons, narrates the film as he reflects on his father’s work to reach the Waodani and his own personal journey to return to the rainforest, a journey that uncovers the true meaning of love and forgiveness.

The film took in $11+ million from the box office and $21+ million from rentals thus far, against $12+ million for production and marketing. The film’s website also offers information on performance licenses for private organizations to show both End of the Spear and Beyond the Gates of Splendor, the documentary about the same story, both of which are no doubt responsible for the film’s financial success as DVDs. The film’s tag line challenges audiences to “Dare to make contact.” As such, the film is, in part, about proselytizing as missionary work and the conflict that ensues when different cultures and faiths make contact. It glorifies these missionaries who have braved the journey to the rainforest of Ecuador to reach a “lost” tribe. When Steve returns to the rainforest, he meets Mincayani, one of the Waodani who killed his father but has since then been converted to Christianity. As Mincayani confesses to Steve, he tells him that they all saw angels as the missionaries died, and the visual flashback to the massacre supports Mincayani’s testimony. At this point, Steve and Mincayani are fully reconciled. Thus, the film implicitly challenges its audience to “make contact” with the “lost,” and in so doing, practice the power of forgiveness in the face of potential conflict.

opening-amazinggracesm.JPG Finally, we arrive at perhaps the most well-made film of the group and of any recent religious production, Bristol Bay’s Amazing Grace, financed in large part by Philip Anschutz. In 1999, Anschutz met producer Ken Wales who was also interested in making morally uplifting films. Ironically, both Anschutz and Wales wanted to make films about two close historical individuals. Anschutz wanted to focus on William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian who worked to abolish slavery in the English empire, and Wales hoped to make a film about John Newton, a former slave ship captain who repented of his ways, became a minister and eventually wrote the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Newton would later become Wilberforce’s pastor, close friend, and an advisor during his fight for abolition. Anschutz (and his money) won out as Walden Media released Amazing Grace in February 2007, on the 200th anniversary of the British parliament’s vote to abolish the slave trade.

Amazing Grace is perhaps the most critically well-received of the lot and is well on its way to considerable financial success with a $20+ million box office take thus far, against about $28 million for production and marketing. The DVD has yet to be released but will arguably boost the film’s revenue. The film is a simple, straightforward telling of a most important story. It is loaded with absolutely wonderful British actors who never miss a beat. The film follows somewhat of a cycle in and out of Parliament focusing on both Wilberforce’s public and private life. In the end, Amazing Grace reveals that Christian faith and effective socio-political activism do indeed go hand-in-hand.

Watching this film, it is hard not to draw contemporary socio-political parallels. Indeed, director Michael Apted commented, “If the film can in some way draw attention to the world we live in, that would be great.” In fact, the film was released and promoted in conjunction with a campaign called The Amazing Change in an effort to end the practice of human slavery that still exists today. The campaign also encouraged churches to participate in an Amazing Grace Sunday in which they would all sing “Amazing Grace” and pledge their support to the campaign. Marketing also distributed informational packets that included a history of slavery and abolition, a DVD with clips from the film, and discussion guides for group leaders. Again, the film’s website also advertised the ability for church groups to hold private screenings.

Unfortunately, several religious groups drew other connections to the world in which we live. I doubt the attention that many conservative evangelical churches gave the film was what Apted had in mind. After seeing the film, these audiences used its message of uncompromising faith and determination to fuel their socio-political stance against issues like abortion and stem cell research. Rather than fully participating in the effort to raise awareness of the still present evils of slavery, they saw the film as an encouragement to continue their fight against these contemporary evils. Richard Land, Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President, argued, “You’d have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to see the parallels between, first of all the abortion issue and slavery, and, second, the general condition of the culture then and now.” Furthermore, Charles Colson wrote, “Wilberforce’s efforts remind us we must tirelessly persevere in battles against modern moral horrors: abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, AIDS.”

Thus, we see that the rise of new religious cinema not only provides audiences with cinematic worship experiences but also encourages them to live out these experiences through personal devotion and political action. However, if religious organizations are taking active roles in lobbying for more morally uplifting cinematic content, with a significant portion of Hollywood responding in kind, other religious groups are taking up filmmaking by themselves. Given the decrease in costs of quite capable digital video cameras and editing software, some churches are beginning to produce their own films. With low overhead, in light of volunteers both in front of and behind the camera, these productions can reap a return via DVD sales to their congregants and others like them. In fact, the film’s website offers information on how customers can buy the DVD in bulk, by the thousands.

ftg_desktop3_1280.jpg Perhaps the most popular example of this new congregational filmmaking comes from Sherwood Baptist Church (Albany, Georgia) and Sherwood Pictures’ Facing the Giants. This film tells the story of a struggling high school football team and its head coach. When the coach prays to God for help, the team goes on an unprecedented, miraculous winning streak all the way through to the state championship. Funded by the church, written and directed by the church’s media minister, Alex Kendrick, and with performances by church members, the film has surprisingly good production value. However, it painfully suffers from horrendous acting and a predictable script that proselytizes with an iron fist. Yet to focus on these shortcomings alone would be to miss the goal of Sherwood’s cinematic ministry: to create films that entertain, uplift, and change audiences’ lives. As such, cinematic worship happens not only when religious audiences watch The Nativity Story in theaters together, but also when the church unites to produce a film of its own.

While some observers may be shocked when Fox announces the launch of FoxFaith or other ministers gripe about using church funds to produce motion pictures, we must realize that these are not simply twenty-first century debates. Rather, they find expression throughout the history of American cinema as examples of the moral uplift of the motion picture. The financial wealth that Fox and Anschutz represent, the presence of a large religious market in the United States, and decreasing production costs for independent filmmaking show that religious cinema is alive and well and will remain so for some time to come.