Take 2: Now and Then


With four faith or Bible oriented films in release at the same time in the Spring of 2014, and more in production or post production, one can rightly claim that the on and off again romance between faith and film is back on.  The connection between the film industry and faith community dates back to the earliest days of the medium.  One could say that faith is at the heart of cinema as the design that enables projected motion picture is named the Maltese-cross System after the Maltese cross shaped gear that is connected to the sprocket wheel which pulls film through the projector.  The connection to faith was not just inside the projector, but outside as well as faith oriented, Biblical films were among the earliest film productions.

BenHurAuguste and Louis Lumiere offered the first public presentation of projected film in Paris in 1895. These earliest films, called “actualities,” depicted daily life such as the arrival of a train in a station, or workers leaving a factory. Though immediately popular, the public quickly tired of such simple offerings and began demanding more complex, story based films.  Because of the public’s familiarity and the use in other art forms, Scripture was one of cinema’s original story reservoirs. “The Passion Play” was filmed by various producers in 1897, 1903, 1905 and 1907. The first filmed version of General Lew Wallace’s popular 1880 novel, “Ben-Hur” was also produced in 1907. Though D.W. Griffith’s  “Intolerance”  was the most successful of the films depicting the passion of Jesus in the teens, the highpoints of faith filming during the silent era were 1925’s “Ben-Hur” and Cecil B. DeMille’s  1923 “The Ten Commandments”  and 1927’s “The King of Kings.”

With the public wanting more escapist entertainment during the depression and much of the industry’s talent serving in the military or making films to support the war effort, the number of faith films declined both in pure numbers and as a percentage of the films produced during the 1930’s and 1940’s. The 1950’s and early 60’s saw a revival of faith centered films in the United States and Europe culminating with DeMille’s 1956 blockbuster remake of “The Ten Commandments” as well as other epic remakes of “Ben-Hur”  in 1959, “King of Kings” in 1961, and “The Greatest Story Ever Told” in 1965.

The 1970’s brought more modestly budgeted and focused films which included “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 1973, NBC’s “Jesus of Nazareth” in 1977 and “Jesus” in 1979, not to mention Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian.” The 1980’s were best known for “non-traditional” presentations of Christ, in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” 1988, and “Jesus of Montreal,” 1989.

ThePassionThe most financially successful explicitly faith oriented film was Mel Gibson’s $600 Billion “The Passion of Christ” in 2004. Enhancements in videotape, cameras and editing have lowered the cost and technical thresholds required to produce and make films. Though still a significant undertaking, filmmaking is no longer limited to major film studios. Small production companies, churches and other organizations are now able to produce and make and market feature length films on their own, such as Sherwood Baptist Church’s  2006 film “Facing the Giants,” 2008 “Fireproof,” and 2011 “Courageous.”

Faith and film was a theme this April at the 2014 Dallas International Film Festival.  Several of the films selected for the festival were faith oriented, including the world premiere of “Heaven is For Real.” In addition there was a “Faith in Film” panel discussion with filmmakers and distributors.  The theme of the discussion was how the industry is meeting current, and increasing future demand for faith oriented films. After an initial recognition of two target audiences, believers who are active in the faith community and non-believers or those not active, the conversation focused exclusively on the realities of making and distributing films for those actively practicing their faith. As discussed by the panel, the secret to making such films is gathering endorsements from faith groups and mega church / celebrity pastors and leaders before and during production.

While faith oriented films may be about faith, they are not made on faith.  Even with lower financial thresholds, if a project does not have the endorsement of significant faith leaders or groups, and their commitment to support the film by encouraging members to attend, buying out theaters, or showing the film in their churches, there is little likelihood the project will receive production or distribution financing.  To garner such support usually requires the filmmakers to include faith leaders or groups in the scripting and production process.  In short, filmmakers increasingly have to submit and change scripts to meet the satisfaction of those whose endorsement they are chasing. Actor/Director Chris Dowling spoke of his frustration as he has found that in making such films, he often does not end up making the film he “intended to make.”

Despite EchoLight Studio President, Jeff Sheets’s repeated references to “the Church” as if it were homogeneous in beliefs and practices, Leslie Ferrell, a producer working on a history of the Holy Land TV series expressed her frustration in dealing with the faith community and its spectrum of nuanced beliefs.  Strong differences in faith emphases and practices have caused her to begin meeting with faith leaders or organizations individually due to the conflict she experiences when she meets with groups together.  Such divergence and intransigence within the faith community virtually eliminates the likelihood of the production and distribution of films that reflect the broad theological spectrum that truly is the Church.  Instead, only films with sufficiently narrow theological and ministry scope can win the support of influential pastors and faith organizations and make it to the screen.

What the panel was not able to address, even asked, was how to make films that present issues of life and faith in ways that will attract and engage those outside the faith community. While most filmmakers and communities supporting faith oriented films believe their projects will be effective tools for evangelism, the truth for most outside the faith is that once a film is labeled a “faith film” it is crossed off lists of films they will consider.  Such films are often viewed by those outside the faith as “preachy”, speaking at them rather than with them, are unrealistic in the presentation of the challenges of life in a broken world, and or present idealistic depictions of individual transformation.

Unlike Christ who chose to minister to the marginalized by spending time associating with those whose lives and ways were seen as unacceptable by the established faith leaders and institution of his time, many organizations seeking to use film as a medium for evangelism are unwilling to use it in ways that will truly speak to, and thus be effective for, those living in the world but outside the Church. For these filmmakers and supporters “faith films” have become synonymous with, and limited to, family friendly films. Such groups are therefore unwilling to present realistic presentations of the world’s brokenness and the transformation achieved through grace in ways that reflect the reality for many of those outside of faith.

While films that inspire and speak to the place and needs of those living within the faith are important tools in discipling, there is a void of films that enter into the world, and effectively speak to those who, for whatever reason, are outside the faith yet are broken and in need of the transformative grace of the Gospel of Christ.

Kenny Dickson, UMR Movie Reviewer

Kenny Dickson

Sr. Pastor Christ United Methodist Church Farmers Branch Texas, UMR Movie Reviewer Kenny Dickson received his M.Div. from Duke Divinity School as well as a BFA in film history from Southern Methodist University.

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