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."