God at the movies: Christians clash with Hollywood over biblical films

“Son of God,” from the producers of last year’s hit miniseries “The Bible,” garnered praise from Christian media groups upon its release last week. But other critics argue the movie is too complacent in playing to Christian viewers’ comfort zones. (AP photo)

“Son of God,” from the producers of last year’s hit miniseries “The Bible,” garnered praise from Christian media groups upon its release last week. But other critics argue the movie is too complacent in playing to Christian viewers’ comfort zones. (AP photo)

By Riley Manning

Daily Journal

Bible-based movies are nothing new, but lately, even secular film producers have gone out of their way to target the faith-based audience.

In developing its 2013 take on the comic book hero Superman, Warner Bros. consulted Christian marketing firm Grace Hill Media on how to make “Man of Steel” more appealing to Christian viewers.

Christians seem to be meeting Hollywood in the middle. Faith Driven Consumer, a group that seeks to advocate a biblical worldview in the marketplace, bestowed its blessing on “Son of God,” which was released last week to the tune of $26.5 million in its first weekend.

In fact, the group’s pressure was enough to prompt Paramount Pictures to include a disclaimer at the beginning of its epic “Noah.” The notice acknowledges the producers have taken liberties with the story, which spans four chapters in the book of Genesis.

Meanwhile, some critics have lamented “Son of God” is too convenient, too neat to have the depth needed for a profound experience.

As a consequence, ministers and movie-goers may find themselves stuck in the middle.

Opposite ends

Despite coming from the Bible, “Noah,” and “Son of God” may, as films, occupy opposite ends of the spectrum.

“Son of God” was adapted by producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, on the heels of their popular 2013 cable miniseries, “The Bible.” Costing only $22 million to produce, the movie features lesser-known actors as opposed to the big names.

Paramount Pictures rendition of “Noah,” the story of the great flood related in Genesis, promises to be a gritty take from a perhaps avant garde director producer Darren Aronofsky. “Noah” will hit theaters on March 28. (AP photo)

Paramount Pictures rendition of “Noah,” the story of the great flood related in Genesis, promises to be a gritty take from a perhaps avant garde director producer Darren Aronofsky. “Noah” will hit theaters on March 28. (AP photo)

As a film by Christians for Christians, secular critics also accuse “Son of God” of preaching to the choir.

“Noah,” on the other hand, cost over $120 million, and sports the faces of Russell Crowe, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson, and others. Its director, Darren Aronofsky, is known for his surreal, sometimes jarring films such as 2001’s “Requiem for a Dream” and 2010’s “Black Swan.”

The Rev. Keith Cochran, pastor of West Jackson Street Baptist Church in Tupelo, said their contrasting scriptural structures lend themselves to different types of narratives. The life of Christ is narrated four different times, while Noah’s story is told only once, and briefly.

“I would think if I were making a movie, I’d pick the Noah story,” Cochran said. “Because it gets less page space, there’s more freedom to fill in the blanks. For instance, the Bible doesn’t say exactly how Noah constructed the ark, just that he does it.”

Cochran said his biggest concern was that the movie remained true to the character of God’s word, and even acknowledged that movie makers would be hard-pressed to translate scripture with complete accuracy to the screen.

Father Lincoln Dall, priest at St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo, agreed.

“I have a problem if something people hold sacred is taken and mocked, like those pregnant nun Halloween costumes,” he said. “But sometimes I think people forget no matter how they read scripture, they are interpreting it somehow. It’s impossible to be completely objective.”

Even in “Son of God,” the creators would have to make decisions because the accounts of the four gospel writers don’t always line up.

A new demographic

Even if the movie industry only sees religious viewers as an un-mined demographic, said Corey Truett, youth minister at First United Methodist Church in Tupelo, what really matters is that the conversation has been started.

“You have to realize the source, and that any movie is made to make money,” he said. “But I do appreciate that it creates a buzz, a talking point.”

Truett said films could be a platform for healthy discussion with his youth about where the movie deviated from scripture, and where it remained true.

“And to see someone else’s interpretation can give us a perspective we didn’t have before,” he said. “It can also help us see the religious themes in other things that aren’t explicitly ‘Christian.’”

Cochran admitted the genre label of “Christian” can at times be somewhat of a misnomer, really meaning that the Christian music or movie is clean and safe for family consumption. Cochran said that while there is nothing wrong with G-rated media, it can be just as misleading as Hollywood.

“The irony about the Noah story is that it’s way darker than the storybook version in our children’s bedrooms,” he said. “Think of the death, the terror. God closed the door on the rest of mankind. Of course that weighed on Noah as a human being.”

On a broader level, Truett said he finds it interesting that Hollywood has had so much success playing up religious themes in Christian and secular movies alike.

“Media is a mirror that shows what society as a whole is after,” he said. “What does the popularity of these movies show that society is hunting?”

Dall had a similar feeling when he embarked on the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile trek through the Spanish countryside that traces the footsteps of St. James.

“Lots of people I came across were doing it not for religious purposes, but just for the adventure,” Dall said. “But later down the way found out they were searching for something and didn’t even realize it. I think we all have that desire for something that transcends us.”

riley.manning@journalinc.com