In the span of one week, my church received two screener DVDs of recent releases, our Acts 29 Director was in a conference call with Sylvester Stallone, and I was on the phone with a representative from Paramount Pictures wondering if churches would be interested in a documentary they’re considering. When God called me to be a pastor, the last thing I thought I’d be dealing with was Hollywood suits. It looks like 2007 could wind up being a very interesting year; I just wrestle with whether these relationships will fuel preaching or pandering.
In 2005, Mel Gibson’s controversial depiction of “The Passion of the Christ” blew Hollywood’s mind, making 370 million dollars in it’s theatrical release and becoming the highest grossing rated “R” film of all time. Coupled with the success of C.S. Lewis’ allegorical “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”, major studio executives surmised that Jesus and Christian themes were at least trendy and they set out to keep the faith alive, financially speaking. Whereas religion has been avoided like the plague in most film and television for the last few decades, creating a false mirror of a culture which may not be Christian but claims to be quite spiritual, 2006 gave us Port Authority Officers crying out to God while trapped beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center, Nascar driver Ricky Bobby praying to tiny baby Jesus in Talledega Nights, Rocky Balboa helping the helpless and reading scripture before a fight, and the Hallmarkish “Nativity Story” rolling out just in time for Christmas.
Studios have found bumps in the religious road, however. Gibson’s anti-Semitic comments in July ’06 cast a shadow on his “Passion”, leaving doubts about his future as a filmmaker. Fortunately for Gibson, Rosie O’Donnell and Michael Richards took the hate speech spotlight off Mel just in time to save “Apocalypto” from cinematic apocalypse. While Apocalypto fared well, featuring a native hero oppressed by the tyranny of the primitive kingdom and masking a subversive message about depraved cultures and the movement of Christendom, the more overtly Christian “Nativity Story” performed poorly at the box office. Marketing Executives for major film studios are still losing sleep and racking their brains trying to understand what makes Jesus cool. The church phone rings, I pick it up, and suddenly Hollywood is dying to know what Christians want to see and hear.
The question hangs in the air: do I want to help them?
Lord truly knows, the last thing I want is another decade of Christian-lite pablum. I wake up in cold sweats fearing the teaser trailer for “Touched by an Angel: The Movie”. Part of me would love to come alongside and tell Hollywood exactly what could be engaging and satisfying for a Christian audience, myself included. Believers could enjoy proper depictions of Christian characters without the usual ignorance associated with faith, or hyper-hypocritical stereotypes. We might get the occasional romantic comedy where they lovebirds don’t get horizontal before the wedding. We might even get an onscreen prayer that feels sincere.
Giving marketing executives the proverbial keys to the Kingdom, helping them master the art of milking Christians for their treasure, is not my goal. It could even do more damage than good, crafting for Christians an idol in the form of Jesus-styled entertainment, filling their time with self-indulgent placebos when they should be seeking the Word of God. Living one’s life for entertainment that walks and talks and comforts like Jesus is still seeking solace at the wrong address. Even Satan knows the best tactic is to twist a word here, a thought here, bending the truth so that it’s just a hair’s breadth from the real thing. As a kid who grew up driving with Michael Landon on the “Highway to Heaven”, I was still in the wrong lane for the better part of 25 years and it took a living Savior to pierce my darkness. It’s distasteful that Christians often create an insular entertainment culture, living in a virtual bubble that hamstrings contextualized evangelism; do I want to help educate Hollywood so people who don’t even love Jesus can do this for them?
Then I remember my friend Joey, who seems to instinctively leverage literature and media to broker a discussion about the gospel. I teach others that film can be an icebreaker for conversation about Jesus. Having a few more films out there with Christian character and references to our Savior creates more fuel for the fire of the Holy Spirit, as He works through Christians to proclaim the name of our King and Master. Moreover, God is not dependent on his human servants to pick up the slack where a film falls silent, or even reliant on the accuracy of the media. My friend Greg’s first step toward salvation came while he was still smoking pot, nursing his munchies and playing Final Fantasy VII, glued to his controller and becoming increasingly provoked by the game story, wondering if God might be real, vengeful, and coming like Sephiroth to destroy the world. His habits and theology have changed radically since that day, but God picked a strange place to initiate the call.
So the phone rings, and I find myself in a bit of a quandary wondering how much to give, where to elucidate and where to be concise, and how exactly these new relationships can further the gospel. I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words in his letter to the first century church in Philippi, when he was in prison and some other gentlemen were preaching Jesus for the wrong reasons: “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”
Film and Theology, one of Mars Hill’s ministries devoted to engaging popular culture that I’m privileged to host, is going to look at more than just the films shown this year but continue to examine and educate regarding this shifting relationship between Christianity and cinema, starting with Oliver Stone’s eerily reverent “World Trade Center”. Each issue of Vox Pop will deal with an aspect of this as well. If Hollywood can actually be persuaded to put an accurate depiction of Jesus, and His message on the big screen, I can put up with their spurious motivations. Our brothers and sisters can be encouraged by it, use it to foster friendly debate, and our King Jesus can utilize it however he wishes to change people’s hearts. Thankfully, I can also sleep soundly if the producers and screenwriters screw it up entirely, because Christ is ultimately this story’s director.