By Mark Rodgers
I have been watching with great interest the trajectory of two very different films that are deeply rooted in Christian language and (sub)culture.
Several weeks ago, I watched Calvary, the story of a “good priest” who is told, during confession, that he is to be murdered in a week. On the road to his Calvary the viewer meets the local Irish townspeople, each of whom harbors a secret, in most cases related to faith and the Church. At the end Father James, like Christ, sacrifices his life for the sins of others. (My friend, Steve Garber, reflects thoughtfully on the film in “A Good Man in a Bad World“). The film is rated R, and received an 89% critics and 83% audience review rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
This past weekend, the Left Behind reboot with Nicolas Cage opened. Based on the widely popular book series written by Evangelical leaders Tim LaHey and Jerry Jenkins, the film is about the world after the Rapture (when Christians are whisked from the face of the earth). The original 2001 film starring Kirk Cameron was given only a 16% critics’ review, but a much better 58% audience approval. Remarkably, the gap has widened, and the remake at the time of my writing this is getting a 2% critics’ review and 60% audience rating. I could comment on the Pew report on growing polarization in our society, reflected not only in politics but in culture and geography, but I won’t. I did that in an earlier essay, “Can Songs Save a Nation?.” For now, I want to comment on the “Evangelical Appetite” in culture content.
I have been observing, with some amusement, Hollywood’s chase after the faith market. This year’s box office bonanzas such as Heaven is for Real ($90 million), God is Not Dead ($60 million) and Son of God ($60 million) have been some of the industry’s most profitable films overall when factoring production budgets. At the same time, films such as Mom’s Night Out ($10 million) did not fare as well, and a film like Calvary ($3.5 million) with deep and authentic Christian themes barely registered.
What gives? What is the “Evangelical Appetite?” Important caveat — I share C. S. Lewis’ views when he wrote “the world does not need more Christian literature. What it needs is more Christians writing good literature.” What I am observing is what I think are the ingredients of a successful “Christian” story/film that satisfy the Evangelical Appetite, but sadly why a film such as Calvary is unlikely to:
(1) Christian as Hero. Historically, the portrayal of Evangelicals in mainstream entertainment have tended toward caricatures such as snake oil salesmen/preachers or religious psychopaths. Evangelicals are understandably looking to see themselves portrayed as the good guy for a change. Calvary comes close to this, but with more Catholic complexity than most Evangelicals will be able to embrace.
(2) Clear Conversion. Evangelicalism is, by definition, committed to sharing the Good News to the world, and for a film to hit the mark with them, it must do so as well … ideally with a clear moment of conversion for a leading character. In Calvary, none of the “sinners” come to faith, and the “saint” is not always saintly.
(3) Happy Ending. There is a temptation within elements of the Evangelical culture to believe that the life story of a believer, if faithful, will inevitably end well. I believe this is true, in an eternal sense, but certainly not from a temporal perspective … which is all that film allows us to see. Stories that express how faith in God is rewarded in an earthly way is preferable, for most Evangelicals, than more complex, nuanced endings such as in Calvary.
4) Biblical References. From an Evangelical perspective, the more Bible references the better, and the more explicitly/often Jesus’ name is mentioned the more so. Again, this is understandable, especially in light of the belief that God’s Word “never comes back void.” However, in an increasingly secular culture, Biblical literacy can’t be assumed, and films that require too much contextual understanding won’t resonate. Calvary is rooted in Biblical truth, but not so explicitly that it cites chapter and verse, and Jesus’ name is not mentioned often enough for the Evangelical Appetite.
(5) Absence of Offensive Content. For a film to succeed in the Christian marketplace, it needs to be approved by certain key validators, who rate it by its number of obscenities, whether verbal or visual. I have been involved in films that had to edit scenes, one of which was simply the portrayal of wine at a dinner, to be acceptable. Calvary is rated R. Enough said.
(6) “Backstory” of the Filmmakers. Sherwood Baptist and my former boss, Rick Santorum, are typical of Christian filmmakers who are part of the stories they are telling, outsiders who are making stories for their tribe, and hopefully making money in the process; winning at Hollywood’s own game. It is important for Evangelicals to know that they are supporting their own, not underwriting a system which they view as having been the cause of cultural decay. Calvary was underwritten by the Irish Film Board, hardly a validator for American Evangelicals.
In contrast to Calvary, the Christian online movie review source Movie Guide gave the new Left Behind 3 out of 4 stars for quality and a “+2 content” commendation: “Very strong Christian, biblical worldview for those who look for a pre-tribulation rapture of the church with references and quotes of Scripture, prayer and a clear message that Jesus is the only way; no foul language; some looting, a looter shot by a store owner, purse snatched, crashing and burning of planes and vehicles left unattended, a woman with a bloodied arm is seen unconscious in a car after it crashes, a young woman almost jumps off a bridge to kill herself; no sex, but a married man sets up an adulterous encounter that doesn’t come to pass; no nudity; no alcohol, no smoking, one person is clearly a heroin addict; assorted dishonesty and some ridicule of belief in God.”
To be fair, this glowing review is not shared by all Christian movie critics, such as Christianity Today‘s reviewer who wrote that he “tried to give the film zero stars, but our tech system won’t allow it.” (The Washington Post gave it a 1/2 star as well.
Thus the paradox… the more a film (or song, or book for that matter) is fine tuned for the evangelical appetite, the less salient it is for the culture at large. Ironically, evangelicals want their culture products to be attractive to the world, to draw people into the truth that profoundly transformed them.