What Gets Left Behind
by Jordan Nelson
Released in 2014, the first installment of the revamped Left Behind series might very well be the last. With the opening weekend topping out at $6 million in box offices sales and production costs exceeding $30 million, it appears to have had considerably less impact than producer Paul Lalonde had hoped.
Evangelical media—whether big-budget productions or "church-basement movies"—still suffer from a negative stigma. Even the few relatively successful evangelical productions have not hit it as big as most Hollywood blockbusters. But that hasn't stopped either the major studios or small independent production companies from trying to crack what Religion Dispatches' Daniel Silliman calls "the formula of the faith-and-family blockbuster."
One of the biggest obstacles is the sheer volume of people tuning into the latest movies and television shows. With success measured by how many viewers can be drawn into the theaters, film writers and producers are finding it increasingly difficult to compete in the global market. Marketing to a specific demographic is no longer acceptable. In order to be deemed Hollywood-worthy, movies must be able to pull in consumers from all walks of life.
This is a challenge for evangelical media producers who are trying to market a specific message to a broad demographic. "The trick," writes Silliman, "is to pull in two audiences. A big Christian film, to be really commercially successful, has to get churchgoers into theaters, and get theatergoers to see a movie that might seem more suited to church."
Some wonder if making a successful film requires altering, oversimplifying, or watering down spiritual truths. Various critiques of God's Not Dead described it as a lazy representation of the Christian message, a poorly developed lesson on the dangers of philosophy and the virtues of Christian rock bands. To Save a Life essentially communicates that everything will work out if the outcasts and the cool kids can just get along. The "sanitized Christianity" of War Room can leave viewers feeling cheated. These pseudo-Sunday school stories are wholly misleading and pander to an immature view of Christianity.
Whether intentional or not, sudden epiphanies of faith that somehow mend the situation are instances of false advertising that can prove more detrimental than beneficial. "We usually know a sales pitch when we see one," says Mark Eaton, former adjunct at George Fox University. "If these moments of grand revelation seem to solve all the character's problems, then I think the astute audience member spots it as clumsy marketing, whether they've personally experienced such a moment of Grace or not."
Propaganda, even if well-intended, also poses the risk of leading nonbelievers into a false sense of what it means to be a Christian. Eaton says of these viewers, "When they realize that we haven't told them everything from the beginning, that we 'nailed them in the fine print,' as it were, they're as apt to walk out, feeling like they've been had. And they'd be right."
This highlights the importance of striking a balance between adhering to a narrative arc, appealing to the audience, remaining realistic, and remaining true to the message. George Fox University senior Heather Harney says, "We can't make a movie that is three hours of suffering and not show a moment of revelation or healing," but we also cannot produce a realistic version of faith without conveying perpetual struggle and striving.
Surprisingly, this balance is relatively easy to identify, because it is the ultimate goal of both religious and secular productions: to satisfy the audience. "I believe people have a void in their lives," says Mat von Ehrenkrook, student pastor of Grace Chapel in Wilsonville, OR. "When we see, get close to, or even touch the real answer to that void in our lives, our souls know it and want more."
"I believe people want to hope," adds Harney. "Stories reach into our souls and move us. A movie doesn't have to say 'Christian' to move people." Films that tell the truth about life, faith, struggle, joy, loss, growth, fear—as opposed to films that push a message—will move people.
As consumers, we wield tremendous power in the digital market. It is time for evangelicals to stop settling for half-hearted attempts and modified truths in Christian media. It's time to recognize that when we produce an agenda and call it art, it's the truth that gets left behind. "If we cause some people to stumble," says Eaton, "let them stumble over the truth we are living, not our clumsiness or dishonesty."
Jordan Nelson is a recent graduate of George Fox University and works as a writer for Merchant Maverick.
Films that tell the truth
We did an informal survey of staff and friends, asking which films they they think depict spiritual realities convincingly. Below is our list, in no particular order. What would you add to (or subtract from) this list, and why?
Pay It Forward
Tuesdays With Morrie
Passion of the Christ
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Book of Eli
Blue Like Jazz
What Dreams May Come
Twelve Years a Slave
The Color Purple
Of Gods and Men
Crimes and Misdemeanors
The Exorcism of Emily Rose
The Tree of Life
Thirteen Conversations About One Thing
Here's a list we compiled in 2007, so it won't include more recent films, but it includes some great titles not listed above: