Last November I wrote about the upcoming film, Noah, and noted the response of the Evangelical subculture. A few weeks ago, I caught a screening of Son of God, which honestly felt less like a film and more like a marketing scheme orchestrated by the creators of last year's The Bible mini-series, hoping to capitalize on box office by recycling white American Jesus for Church audiences. Additionally, 20th Century Fox is releasing Exodus later this year, officially marking a trendy comeback of Biblical Epics.
Adapting the Bible for the silver screen has been popular since forever. In 1916, the life of Jesus was featured in D.W. Griffith's epic film Intolerance, an ambitious illustration of "love's failure throughout the ages." This is interesting to note because, at least according to Western cinema, popular depictions of Jesus typically stumble at the crossroads of religion and tolerance. Jesus inherently gets caught up in the midst of a culture war, with more attention being paid to his significance as a religious icon than as a human character in a cultural context. This is why Jesus' character in Son of God barely registers as human: it is far easier for Evangelicals to treat him as a traditional, two-dimensional icon than to skirt potential heresy by making Jesus "too relatable" as a character. Perhaps we should just stop trying.
Lest we get confused in our labelling, here's a secret as to what makes a film or piece of entertainment "Christian" as opposed to what does not. It has to do with agenda. The makers of Son of God are Evangelical Christians first, artists second. Their product has more to do with using cinema as a tool to evangelize the masses than it does with honesty or humility. (I'll come back to this point in a bit.) Noah, on the other hand, is crafted by an artist who's interested in shattering the established Noah conventions built up in our cultural mind's eye through years of Sunday School flannel boards and illustrated Bible stories for children. Despite the fact that both films draw their source material from the Bible, I expect them to be met with very different responses. Which film will prove itself to be more "Christian" in the long run? I guess we'll have to wait and find out.
With or without religious agenda, it's important for filmmakers to be aware of the different approaches to cinematic narrative and the effect their artistic choices have on their audience. Intolerance was produced just as Hollywood was being shaped into the iconic industry of glamour and fantasy it represents today. From the 1920's onward, the major Hollywood studios have been primarily interested in romantic cinema, so far as it persuasively sells escapism to its audience. While Frank Borzage was helming romantic melodramas in the days of silent cinema, Walt Disney was experimenting with magic and fantasy. While George Lucas was crafting galaxies far, far away, Steven Spielberg was realizing childhood wonder and bliss alongside iconic John Williams scores. Thanks to box office, Hollywood escapism quickly became the recognizable formula for movies and movie genres. Most people buying movie tickets take emotional manipulation for granted: of course the musical score is going to tell me how I should be feeling during this scene. Of course reality is mercilessly bent out of shape in order to conveniently tie up these plot threads. Above all, movies should make me feel good!
There is, of course, nothing wrong with Star Wars or Indiana Jones. They are carefully crafted idealisms that excite our imagination and inspire us to be adventurous and heroic. The trouble comes when romantic escapism is failed to be recognized for what it is, and is mistakenly compromised by actual projections that subvert reality in very real and dangerous ways.
Case in point: the Evangelical entertainment industry.
Recently, three different films have come to my attention and I believe they need to be called out for the messy distortions of reality that they are. Not because I want to bully independent filmmakers, but because I want to believe that we can and should be doing better.
1. God's Not Dead
Projection: American Evangelicals are suffering persecution at the hands of God-hating intellectuals.
Reality: The persecution complex found in Western Evangelicalism is a recent phenomenon, stemming from a culture war that was inflamed when the Scientific Enlightenment was perceived to clash with Biblical truth. From a series of unfortunate misunderstandings, popular Evangelicalism adapted something of an anti-intellectual stance: You have to choose between Billy Graham or Nietzsche. Nietzsche's philosophical statement, "God is dead" is, in fact, the very straw man being propped up by the title of the film (and Newsboys song). Choosing to ignore the complex nuances of philosophical practice, the film projects a black and white worldview onto an imaginary villain and, using the same logic, delegitimises intellectualism entirely by theorising that the only reason anyone would deny God is if they hate him for some reason. Sure makes the superiority complex easy to maintain. Throw in some Duck Dynasty and a rockin' CCM concert and look how easy it is to buy into this escapist distortion of reality!
2. Heaven is for Real
Projection: Heaven is an actual, physical plane of existence, and near-death experiences that conveniently support this theory should unquestionably be taken seriously.
Reality: Neuroscience is a complex thing. The subconscious is even more difficult to make sense of. Popular Christian interpretations of near-death experience fail to fully recognize this, and opt to attribute out-of-body reports to actual, literal ascension to Heaven. The problem is, this version of Heaven is something our culture has collectively imagined as an idealistic place in the clouds, and has very little Scriptural basis. That's not to say it's necessary to be totally cynical. In fact, near-death experience is great material for a movie plot! What's wrong with sending your protagonist to heaven? Lewis sent his characters into Narnia, right? The difference is that The Chronicles of Narnia is self-aware; the authors of this book/film are not. C.S. Lewis embraced the art of allegory and let truth speak from subtext; Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent skip subtext altogether and take Hollywood-style fantasy literally. Is sensationalizing the story of a 4-year old child who claims to have been to heaven while under the influence of medication all that different from sensationalizing any other popular conspiracy theory? Idealism needs to know its place, or else it isn't any good to anyone past providing escapism.
Projection: Religious freedom is under violent persecution by any political agenda that is not the American conservative right wing.
Reality: See No. 1. Also turn that scenario into a political drama with spies and guns.
Perhaps without realizing it, each of these filmmakers have modelled their narratives after the Hollywood escapist formula, crafting manipulative fantasies that fail to recognize the difference between reality and idealism. In doing this they have severely undermined their own agendas. I don't feel I can stress this enough: I'm not here just to throw scepticism in the face of independent filmmakers who are acting in earnest. I admire the ambition to collect funds, get your church together, whatever it takes to make a feature length film production! I'm only addressing a movement of filmmaking that I believe to be severely self-defeating. As film production becomes less expensive and more accessible, it becomes easier and easier to mimic the superficial qualities of the Hollywood formula. Is superficial as far as we're willing to go?
This brings us back to the crossroads of religion and tolerance in cinema and entertainment. Earlier I addressed agenda-based motivation as opposed to an honest and humble engagement of cinema. Does turning movies into an artistic platform seem pretentious? If it does, I think we may have missed something important along the way to purchasing our movie tickets. If we're supporting fantasy-based films that are pretending to be representative of Christian faith, we're missing opportunities to tell honest stories of faith and spiritual practice. Perhaps an alternative approach would start with a step of humility, and admit that maybe, just maybe, heaven might not be for real. And if it is, it should take more than a poor engagement of cinema to compel us.