- (Photo: Michael Guillen)
Like many others, I have been paying close attention to the lively debate that the recent parade of faith-friendly movies has ignited among Christians. It has been particularly interesting to me because I know personally, and respect in equal measure, many of the persons who have been widely quoted on both sides of the impassioned arguments. I offer the following thoughts in hopes of adding constructively to what has already been said.
As I see it, there are several serious questions behind the current public discussion, namely:
When it comes to what we Christians consider the underpinnings of Truth – that is, God and the Bible – is it really the case that there is no such thing as bad publicity? Is supporting even approximations of the Truth ultimately fruitful because they at least get people talking and thinking about it?
Are the messages communicated through entertainment harmless? Should we Christians be overly exercised by movies that improvise on the major narratives, themes, and creeds of what we consider Truth?
How much can and should Christians rely on mainstream Hollywood to help promote the Truth?
There's no denying that in our day and age of vacuous celebrityhood, publicity of any kind generates "buzz," which ultimately helps sell whatever it is you're peddling. Even products that most Christians would consider eminently worthwhile have benefitted hugely from "bad publicity" – THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST being one. It's tempting to say the same about the not-so-clearly-worthwhile NOAH; but there was something more curious and controversial at work in its promotional campaign: unexpectedly glowing testimonials from certain Christians who, in effect, argued that there is no such thing as bad publicity, even when it comes to God and the Bible.
The Bible makes it abundantly clear that God is able to use anyone – even those hostile to the Truth – to further His divine purposes. Think of persons such as Judas or Pharaoh, whom Paul refers to in Romans 9 as vessels of "dishonor." NOAH's director, a self-proclaimed atheist, clearly had no intention of glorifying God with his movie and yet, following NOAH's release, Bible websites reported a spike in the number of visitors.
That said, the Bible makes it equally clear that we Christians are not to endorse – much less champion – false teachings, even (especially?) when disguised as mere entertainment. In 1 John 4:1, we're admonished to test uncertain or outright deceptive communications "to see if the spirit they have comes from God." Moreover, 2 John 1:10-11 warns us not to aid and abet any agent of such misleading messages because: "Anyone who encourages such people becomes a partner in their evil work."
We are further instructed in this matter by the very history of Christianity. Jesus, the disciples, the early church fathers – all who have vigilantly defended the faith over the centuries, oftentimes with their lives – were swift, fierce and uncompromising in their outspoken denunciation of any and all distortions of the Truth. It isn't hard to imagine the disaster that would have resulted had any of them taken the more tolerant position that there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Clearly, messages delivered through entertainment are neither harmless nor inconsequential. Artist-activists from time immemorial – think Molière, Charles Dickens, Bob Dylan, Oliver Stone – have used their creative gifts to package singular worldviews into books, plays, movies, lyrics, you name it.
It's why today we generally eschew a show such as "Amos 'n' Andy," which depicts African-Americans in a poor light. Why the Hollywood establishment reacted with such naked antagonism towards Mel Gibson's PASSION. Why David A.R. White and company bothered to make, and millions of moviegoers continue paying good money to see, GOD'S NOT DEAD. Why Christians apologizing and outright cheerleading for NOAH believed it would help drive masses of people toward Truth and light; and why Christians concerned about its secular-minded "artistic twists" feared that just the opposite could happen.
Some Christians who defended NOAH most zealously and urgently argued that we must support such big-budget, well-meaning movies otherwise shame on us for complaining that Hollywood has no soul. They made it sound as though Christians do not deserve better than whatever Hollywood offers up and that the entire future of mainstream, faith-friendly entertainment rested on the success of this one movie.
How effective was their passionate campaign for NOAH? We're now able to formulate an answer to that question and the results are quite revealing.
I begin by observing that among the trio of movies cited here we have three quite different production budgets and models of movie-making. In NOAH, made by Paramount for $125 million, no one "above the line" (i.e., producer, writer, director – individuals with real clout, not so-called "consultants") has any recognizable credentials in the faith-friendly space. HEAVEN IS FOR REAL, made by Sony for $12 million, was written by Randall Wallace, a well-known and highly respected Christian in the industry and co-produced by T.D. Jakes, the ubiquitous chief pastor of The Potter's House. GOD'S NOT DEAD, made for a puny $2 million by Pure Flix, a Christian production company based in Scottsdale, Arizona, was written, produced, and directed for the most part by ardent Christians.
Interestingly – and I believe tellingly – the movie with by far-and-away the largest return on investment is GOD'S NOT DEAD and the one with the smallest is NOAH. As of this weekend, the two gross ROIs stand at roughly 24 and 2.3, respectively – an order of magnitude difference. If one takes into account the movies' P&A budgets – what the filmmakers spent on promotion – the disparity is even greater. And whereas NOAH's box office has been falling steeply ever since its opening weekend, GOD'S NOT DEAD is continuing to perform strongly and remains in the top ten. Moreover it is now beating NOAH in per-screen earnings and is poised to actually beat out NOAH in next weekend's domestic box-office matchup, even though it is in far fewer theaters.
One take-away from this intriguing, three-way, head-to-head competition, I believe, is that we Christians do not – and should not – depend entirely on mainstream Hollywood for worthwhile, faith-friendly entertainment. In fact, a cynic (which I am not) might even argue that the only thing more troubling than Hollywood's longstanding neglect of the genre is its sudden interest in it.
It's not that the people working in Hollywood are evil – like any industry, it has its good and bad characters. It's that Hollywood, like any business, is out to make a profit, period. Its god is money. That's why, even when a major studio hires people of faith to participate in the making of a faith-friendly movie, it will always feel pressured to water down the message in order not to "offend" any potential customer. We see a bit of that in HEAVEN IS FOR REAL, which unlike the book, throttles back on devout references to Jesus and portrays the father-pastor character as more of a seeker than a solid man of God.
You do not need to be a an Old Testament prophet to predict that, in the months and years ahead, we will see an increase in the number and quality of faith-friendly movies. It is equally certain that we Christians will not react monolithically to each of them, nor should we; despite our shared faith in Jesus, we are as different as Peter and Paul, Mary and Martha.
However, what we must do, I believe, is remain unwilling to support anyone who in the name of artist license, a noble-sounding personal agenda, or anything else seeks to toy with or compromise the foundational stories and tenets of our faith. God is not just another hero and the Bible is not just another work of great literature. They are sacred and deserve nothing – not one jot or tittle – less than to be treated that way.
Michael Guillen, PhD, is known and loved by millions as the Emmy Award-winning Science Editor of ABC News, a position he held for 14 years (1988-2002). He is the producer of the award-winning family movie LITTLE RED WAGON; host of The History Channel's series WHERE DID IT COME FROM?; best-selling author of Can A Smart Person Believe in God? (W Publishing Group, Thomas Nelson); and former Harvard physics instructor. For more information, see www.michaelguillen.com.