A journalist friend just asked me for some thoughts about the ongoing popularity of religious, Bible-based faith movies. So I sent him six or seven graphs, of which he might use a line or two. Here’s the whole outpouring in one great gush:
Christian movies are principally made for people in the conservative hinterland regions who do not, shall we say, have a circumspect view of the scriptures. They believe in literal interpretations of the Bible, start to finish and top to bottom. Christian movies are therefore not about realism — they’re fantasy projections of what people would like the world to be governed or ordered by. Or at least projections of what they think will happen when they die. Or what happened to a certain Judean rabbi when he died at age 33.
There are a lot of simpletons out there who believe, for instance, that the Noah’s Ark saga actually happened, chapter and verse. And who believe that, like in Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth was more or less a WASP, and that he resembled a handsome, European-descended quarterback with broad shoulders and freshly shampooed honey-brown hair.
The operative terms are fantasy or fanciful visions, which is what a belief in a non-provable, non-tangible vision or philosophy boils down to. Christianity is a form of optimistic denial, and that’s what these movies offer — a reflection or a dramatic fortification of that fantasy. Which a lot of people want to swim in.
At its core, Christianity is — or at least used to be — about love, compassion, brotherhood and turning the other cheek. No longer. Not in this country, at least. Over the last 35 years Christianity has become a kind of measuring stick in the culture wars. If a person calls himself or herself a Christian it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that he/she is philosophically in bed to some degree with the conservative Republican flock. Unless they’re a Jesuit or a Franciscan Catholic or a believer in some other kind of humanist faith.
Christianity doesn’t just encourage compassion and charity for others. It also brings about a great sense of tolerance for mediocre filmmaking chops, which these films deliver in spades.
Why are these films successful? Because of smart entrepeneurs in the Christian-conservative community who finally woke up to the fact that there was real movie-ticket, VOD and DVD money to be made from Christians. Probably because of all the money that Mel Gibson‘s The Passion of the Christ made.
The same people out there who believe in literal interpretations of the Bible are in many cases the same ones who support the Tea Party and who are afraid of people of color, of gays, of multiculturalism, of Obamacare, etc. And who think that climate change is a mind-control plot by liberals. Not all, of course. There are some liberal-humanist Christians out there, but they are outliers for the most part.
Christian-themed movies of the ’50s and early ’60s were pious, but they reflected the values of a more-or-less homogenous society that used to exist in this country. That America no longer exists. Southern yeehaws were always slower and less educated and more resistant to modernity, but the differences between their culture and engaged industrial culture of the ’50s and early ’60s were striking but not all that radical. This, of course, was well before the crazies took over the Republican Party and hijacked Christianity as their own.