Religious films have new success

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at The Baltimore Sun.

A scene from the film "God's Not Dead" is shown.

In movie theaters around the country right now, families looking for Christian entertainment currently have a glut of options to choose from. If they wish, it would be possible to take in a quadruple feature of religious films "Noah," "Son of God," "God's Not Dead" and "Heaven is for Real."

All four films have been box office successes, according to "Son of God" and "God's Not Dead" have made huge profits by appealing to churches and Christian families, while "Noah," which has notably made changes to the biblical account, is struggling to recoup its costs in the U.S., though it is succeeding in the foreign market.

The films have all been released in the lead-up to Easter, which has long been the release window for religious films. Unlike Christmas films, which generally portray the cultural holiday with absent or minimal religious affectations, film studios generally produce and distribute Easter films as biblical tales or movies with an expressly religious bent.

Greg Alles, professor of religious studies at McDaniel College, said he attributes the divide to the cultural differences between the two holidays.

"Christmas is a much broader holiday than the celebration of Jesus' birth in a direct sense, whereas Easter doesn't really have that commercial aspect to the same degree," Alles said. "We don't talk about what percentage of the American economy depends on purchasing habits during Easter. That leaves more space for the religious, because the commercial stuff isn't there."

One of the reasons biblical epics and religious films have become so closely tied to Easter, regardless of their relationship with the resurrection story, has been ABC's annual airing of Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" every Holy Saturday since 1973. Last year, the television ratings board Nielson estimated almost 6 million people watched Charlton Heston declare "Let my people go!" Alles said he suspects this film was chosen out of the classic biblical epics, because, as an Old Testament Passover story, it appeals to those of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths.

The Rev. Bill Rumbaugh, of New Hope Fellowship Church in Westminster, said "The Ten Commandments" is required viewing in his household every Easter.

"The cast in that film is amazing. It's a classic, even though some of the special effects don't necessarily hold up," Rumbaugh said. "I try to get my kids to watch it with me, but they don't get quite the same thrill out of seeing the cast members from other films in it."

History of biblical films

Religious films have always been a part of Hollywood's history, Alles said.

"All the way back in 1916, there was this movie 'Intolerance,' and in that, there's a major role for Jesus and the disciples. There was this period initially where filmmakers used a lot of religious themes," Alles said. "Then people started to become reluctant to show that directly, so in the '50s you got these pseudo-religious epics where you don't really tell the story of Jesus, you tell stories of the time of Jesus. Think of 'Ben-Hur'; think of 'The Robe.' Maybe you'll see Jesus' shadow or his hand, because people were reluctant to actually portray him on screen."

That reluctance came about partially in response to the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, a self-regulatory system that monitored Hollywood's content from 1930 to 1968, Alles said.

The code was developed by Hollywood and the Catholic Church in order to regulate content without government censorship. The code detailed everything from sex - "Passion should so be treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower or baser element" - to violence - "Revenge in modern times shall not be justified" - and everything in between.

Though the code did not ban the portrayal of religious stories, it had detailed descriptions for them to be depicted - "No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith" - which stymied creative interpretation.

By the '60s, Alles said, the production code's grip on Hollywood had lessened, and studios began to feel comfortable producing films that directly addressed biblical stories. During this period, classics like "The Ten Commandments," "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and "King of Kings" were produced. Following this burst of biblical epics, religious films died down again.

"In the late '60s, when the code disappeared, people started turning to other subjects they could now approach, and those biblical epics went more or less out of fashion," Alles said. "Since then, every few years it crops up again. Every generation seems to need its religious films."

Justin Hanneken, former youth pastor at Taneytown Baptist Church, said Mel Gibson's 2004 film "The Passion of the Christ" was released at a critical juncture in his faith.

"I remember being in my early 20s, and it was an R-rated film, which I thought was good. The Bible is an R-rated book," Hanneken said. "It's become a tradition around this time of year that I want to watch it again. I look forward to when my kids are old enough to show it to them."

Hanneken said he looks for religious films that will spark conversations and cause the viewer to return to the Bible.

"I look for biblical accuracy. We're a visual culture, so I enjoy seeing a film that's well-done," Hanneken said. "'Passion of the Christ' was an emotional and spiritual film that's as close as we've ever seen on film."


Controversial depictions

"The Passion of the Christ" was hugely successful, Alles said, though it was seen in some quarters as being anti-Semitic. Religious films almost always court controversy, sometimes in their favor, sometimes to their detriment, he said.

"The Last Temptation of Christ" was Martin Scorsese's depiction of the Easter story, and featured an extended sequence where Jesus is tempted to abandon the cross and live a mortal life with Mary Magdalene, raising several children. Though the temptation is rejected, and the film notes in the opening credits that it is based on a work of fiction and not the Gospels, the film still caught the ire of many.

"'The Last Temptation of Christ' I saw down in the Charles Theater, and there may have been a bomb threat. Those kinds of films raised an awful lot of potential antagonism," Alles said. "That can be a way of creating interest in the film. If it ends up being too controversial, though, then it becomes a problem again."

"Noah," by Darren Aronofsky, is a new take on the Old Testament account of Noah's ark that is currently courting some controversy based on its entirely white cast, conflation of evolution with the biblical account of creation and deviations from the biblical account.

"I don't think - unless you don't know the Bible at all - you're going to mistake 'Noah' as an accurate account of what you find in the Bible, but when you take these stories and diverge from them, it creates difficulties in some people's minds and creates problems for trying to mass-market films," Alles said.

"It's kind of like the Bible meets 'Lord of the Rings' and 'Transformers.' The Bible provides an excuse for telling this story, but that's all it does. It provides the major plotline, and it provides the major theme of going from justice to mercy, which the filmmakers see as being one of the messages of the Noah account in Genesis."

Reflecting the Spirit

Rumbaugh said he appreciates when biblical films are treated just as films that state they are based on a true story. Though alterations can be made for the sake of drama, he said, the key points have to be kept intact.

"I think the stories of the Bible are perfectly interesting as is. In my opinion, there's no reason to do anything to the story of Noah and the flood because it's a perfectly interesting story to begin with," Rumbaugh said. "Though even more important than the story is the message. We want to get people who would not be interested initially in what the Bible has to say. We live in an age where everyone is distracted digitally, so why not produce really good movies that court their interest?"

Hanneken said he thought "Son of God," a retelling of the life of Jesus, was weak both spiritually and from a filmmaking perspective.

"I was really disappointed in the film. I thought it was really cheesy at moments, and it just wasn't well done," Hanneken said. "Additionally, the film takes a lot of really well-known quotes from Jesus, but then they changed the context. They took a lot of the dialogue and modernized it, which is all right, but I didn't think it was done well."

Alles said he sees a split between films that are interested in telling stories from the Bible from an artistic perspective and films that desire to proselytize and spread the faith.

"I think in the '50s there was an attempt to bring those together, to merge scholarship with faith, but I think lately with the rise of conservative Christianity in the late 1970s you start to see that kind of divide," Alles said. "Certainly something like 'The Last Temptation of Christ' isn't going to appeal to those who are more pious, whereas 'Son of God' or 'God's Not Dead' are appealing to a more classical viewer."