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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Ben Huh?

I always think of films such as The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur as Christian movies, but are they Christian, or merely religious?

          I'm gonna have a golden calf, see...

The Ten Commandments can't really be a Christian film per se because it depicts events that happened roughly 1500 years before the birth of Christ. But Ben Hur is absolutely in the Christian genre in my opinion. It's interesting to ponder just how many films out there could be considered religious or Christian. However, not being a film historian, any list I might put forward would simply be parroting Wikipedia or some university project. There have certainly been films in recent memory that evoke Christian themes, most of them negative:
  • Constantine (2005)
  • End of Days (1999)
  • The Exorcist (1973)
  • Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Credit Mel Gibson perhaps with kicking off a renewed interest for mainstream cinema's relationship with Christianity through the evocative and very successful, The Passion of the Christ (2004).

One of the biggest differences for me between religious films and Christian films is that one is fictional and the other is based on Biblical precedent. Gibson's Passion is based on the New Testament Gospel accounts of the arrest, death and resurrection of Jesus. Whereas films like those in my list above and even more recent offerings like Angels and Demons (2009) are fully fictional tales weaving together elements of religious text, dogma, hearsay and supposition into the plot.

The latest teen sensation film The Hunger Games, opened with a whopping $214 million at the global box office this past weekend. Flying in under that huge radar - but no less noteworthy for its top ten showing - was October Baby, a film with a very strong anti-abortion message. There has been an overwhelmingly positive response in the Christian community to October Baby, as you might imagine. It is not a Christian movie in the sense that it depicts Biblical events on the big screen. No, it's a Christian movie because it depicts a strong Christian worldview message on the big screen.

Much as the films Flywheel, Facing the Giants, Fireproof and Courageous have done, October Baby takes a real-life situation and presents compelling characters that live through it while communicating a God-honoring message. These films are not in the vein of the Left Behind series, that seek to illustrate what we read in the Bible as a modern cautionary message. They go one step further, taking life lessons that are clearly taught in Scripture and unapologetically bring them to the big screen.

Driving in to work this morning, I listened while NPR's David Greene interviewed the film's co-director Jon Erwin. Greene asked why the director believes Christian films are resonating now.

"No. 1," Erwin says, "I think that the values that we hold dear as Christians are immensely appealing — things like sacrifice and virtue and honor and destiny and things like that. ... I think when they're presented correctly, they're appealing to everybody."

Erwin said another reason is that Christians are again engaging with the arts as a faith community.

"If you think about art and faith, there was a time that Michelangelo worked for the church," Erwin says. "And there's been this bond and this link between art and faith, and somehow, I believe that in the past few decades, we've lost that."

NPR's segment noted that Erwin sees re-engaging with the arts as a way Christians can reach people and — because he believes the values being presented are good — as an effort that can only benefit people's lives.

One of the most interesting things that came out of the interviews NPR conducted was noted by Paul Bond of the Hollywood Reporter. Fox and Sony have both set up separate divisions to produce Christian films. Obviously, when a film like Passion is made for about $45 million and grosses $600 million, that's enough to make any studio sit up and take notice. But, Bond notes, when good Christian films can be made for around $2 million and bring in $20 million, that's a good investment.

Just as Christians are excited about having more - and better - film choices with movies that fit in with our worldview and don't rely on vulgarity, violence or puerile innuendo to get their message across, will the major studios ruin all that for the sake of a dollar?

And really, what should our stance be in that regard? Will it be a victory of sorts in the Christian community for mainstream studios to recognize the mass appeal of films with a Christian message? Or will it be a Judas moment when these same studios roll out films that are marketed as Christian but end up being merely religious, or worse?

Does this whole issue communicate that Christians just want to be treated fairly and have films they can go watch like everyone else, without having to ignore bad language and more? Do we believe that through an increase in Christian-themed films that we will have more success in sharing the message of Jesus Christ with others?

Or is this a slippery slope that we were warned about in Romans 12:2?

Don't get me wrong, I've seen most of the Sherwood Pictures films listed above, and they are awesome. But I wonder at what point in the future we will confuse the medium with the message...

What do you think?


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