It may not yet be a cinematic Great Awakening, but something unusual is happening at the intersection of movies and religion. While many Christians and other believers decry modern pop culture as a swamp of secular sin, movie theaters are telling a different story.
On the one hand, a cottage industry of independent faith-based filmmaking that has existed for more than a decade is finding increasing box office success. “God’s Not Dead,” a low-budget but professionally made drama about a college student’s crisis of commitment, was fourth in last weekend’s box office rankings, coming in ahead of films like “300: Rise of an Empire” and grossing nearly $10 million at 780 theaters, including the AMC Loews Boston Common.
On the other hand, the big studios are starting to jump in. “Noah,” a long-held passion project from writer-director Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan,” “The Wrestler”), was released by Paramount on Friday with a stellar cast (Russell Crowe, Anthony Hopkins) and $125 million worth of special effects.
“Son of God,” a feature-length life of Jesus adapted from the 2013 History Channel miniseries “The Bible” and distributed by 20th Century Fox, has grossed $57 million since its late-February release. Next month will see “Heaven Is for Real,” an adaptation of the bestselling book about a boy’s after-death experiences; it’s directed by Randall Wallace (“Secretariat”), stars Greg Kinnear, and is being shepherded into theaters by Sony.
In December, 20th Century Fox is offering “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” directed by Ridley Scott and starring Christian Bale as Moses. In 2015, Lionsgate hopes to release “Mary,” a life story of the mother of Jesus that features newcomer Odeya Rush in the title role and Sir Ben Kingsley as Herod. And — this just in — the Christian News Service has announced preproduction on “Nicaea,” about the 325 A.D. Council of Nicaea at which Emperor Constantine and a convention of early Christian bishops hammered out the Nicene Creed. Producers are hoping for a 2015 release.
Is Hollywood getting that old-time religion? In a sense, it’s reverting to old-time moviemaking, since the American film industry has addressed faith in general and the Old and New Testaments in particular in on-and-off fashion for decades. What’s different is that where dramatic conflict used to be primarily external — between, say, Ben-Hur and Messala, or Moses and Rameses II — now the battle more often takes place in the heads, hearts, and souls of the major characters.
In the second half of “Noah,” for instance, the primary drama consists of the title character’s agonizing choice between humankind and what he believes is God’s will. Even films that seek to evangelize do so with a semblance of psychological realism. The struggle is now within.
Or perhaps such movies are more complex by necessity in a largely secular modern society. By contrast, the studio heads of Hollywood’s classic era — most of them assimilated Jews, with the Catholics of the Production Code Office keeping watch over onscreen morals — understood that they were creating product for a church-going nation.
If the movies didn’t explicitly name-check Jesus, belief in God was a given, as were prayer and miracles doled out by angels who looked like Cary Grant (“The Bishop’s Wife”) or Henry Travers (“It’s a Wonderful Life”).
Hollywood courted the faithful more directly in films like “The Song of Bernadette” (1943), “Going My Way” (1944), and full-on Biblical epics like “The Ten Commandments” (1956), “The Bible … In the Beginning” (1966), and 1961’s “King of Kings,” that last one starring blue-eyed Jeffrey Hunter and nicknamed “I Was a Teenage Jesus.”
Mainstream movies of faith died with the collapse of the studio system and rise of the counterculture in the late 1960s, but the early ’70s saw a surge of hippie-Jesus movies like “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell” (both 1973) and Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 TV miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth.”
More significant for the future, “Born Again” was released by the independent AVCO Embassy in 1978: The dramatized story of disgraced Watergate figure Charles Colson’s turn to Christ, the movie was arguably the first modern evangelical production in both story line and distribution. 1979’s “Jesus” (a.k.a. “The Jesus Film”), an independent theatrical release produced by the Campus Crusade for Christ, broke similar ground.
The genre lay fallow in movie theaters for much of the 1980s and ’90s, even as the open frontier of cable TV allowed for religious networks and programming of all sorts. While the culture wars raged, though, the landscape beneath was changing. The Internet gave rise to untold faith-based sites and online initiatives, connecting disparate flocks and encouraging support and conversation.
The arrival of digital video cameras and post-production software lowered the cost and bar of entry for filmmakers of all persuasions. And the nation’s chains of movie theaters, faced with the defection of mass audiences to home theaters and the Web, began to experiment with niche programing. Suddenly the Christian film industry found screens other than in church basements and local movie houses.
Thus the rise in the last 10 years of dedicated faith-based producers like Sherwood Pictures (2008’s “Fireproof,” 2011’s “Courageous”), Provident Films (2011’s “October Baby”), Ruckus Films (2012’s “Blue Like Jazz”), and many others. Some of these companies are aligned with major studios, some work on their own, and all use finely targeted marketing and outreach to funnel content into limited theatrical runs and onto online streaming platforms. Their films are rarely covered by the secular media and often seem to go out of their way to avoid mainstream attention. They’re primarily designed to preach to the converted.
The reason for major studio involvement with the Christian independents — and why big companies are taking big risks on big-budget Bible stories and Christian-themed films — can be summed up in five words: “The Passion of the Christ.” Mel Gibson’s 2004 passion play roiled with a brutality that appalled nonbelievers while making perfect doctrinal sense to evangelicals and other Christians. Despite and because of the controversy, the film went on to gross more than $600 million worldwide.
There’s gold in them thar hills, in other words. More to the point, there’s now a committed core audience and production/distribution structure to ensure that a low-budget Christian film can turn a profit, and there’s enough of a broader audience to persuade the studios to take the occasional splurge.
Still, is there a larger cultural impetus behind the new religious filmmaking? Are these movies, big and little, tapping into a need unanswered in other forms of media? It’s telling that almost all of these productions grapple in one way or another with doubt — with crises of conscience that play out on a field of faith tested, explored, found wanting, or affirmed.
These crises can be portrayed in terms simplistic or complex; they can cater to an audience’s desire for easy villains and righteous answers — check the pleadingly defiant titles of “God’s Not Dead” and “Heaven Is For Real” — or they can dramatize the struggle to believe in something that isn’t physically evident.
Sometimes they can do both: The young collegiate heroes of “God’s Not Dead” and “Blue Like Jazz” act out realistic crises of believers in a secular culture, but the opposing characters are often far too thinly drawn. The sneering atheist college professor (Kevin Sorbo) of “God’s Not Dead,” forcing his students to sign an anti-God pledge or flunk his class, is more a stereotyped reflection of a Christian audience’s defensive fears than a believable real-world figure. (On the other hand, perhaps the paranoia is founded: How many Christian characters in nonreligious films and TV shows are portrayed as complex human beings?)
It’s true that many faith-based movies end up validating their belief system as the only true one — they have to, since anything else would be commercial and theological suicide. But the better ones, whether they come from independent companies or the major studios, acknowledge inner conflict and dramatize it. “Noah” offers plenty of digital bread and circuses, but the only part that sticks is the battle within the title character between judgment and mercy — between divine punishment and divine love.
Ironically, whether the filmmaker is or isn’t a believer may be immaterial. The more pressing question is whether a religious movie should simply make an audience feel more secure in its particular belief, depict the challenge of maintaining faith in a faithless world, or, most daringly of all, illustrate how to navigate (and tolerate, and embrace) a world of many religions — and their commonalities — while holding on to one’s own. There’s a famous Buddhist saying about a finger pointing at the moon. Most of these movies look at the finger. Perhaps more of them should look at the moon.