Hollywood has rediscovered religion,” wrote Tatiana Siegel for The Hollywood Reporter in their latest magazine. And, she appears to be right. This spring brings a new wave of Christian films from the blockbuster Risen, which tells the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the perspective of a Roman soldier played by Ralph Fiennes, to Miracles From Heaven, which stars Jennifer Garner and Queen Latifah, who witness a the miraculous healing of Garner’s sick daughter. The trend of religious films is not entirely new. In fact, since The Passion of the Christ’s release in 2004 made it the highest grossing Christian film ever released with a whopping $612 million, industry magazines have consistently predicted a Renaissance of Christian films, to no avail. What makes this year different?
The last several years have brought an unprecedented rise of political polarization that suggests this should not be the year that Christians embrace “liberal” Hollywood. The Washington Post reported that political parties are more polarized today than they were in the decades after the civil war. Critics have suggested that this divide is in part due to the rise of partisan news sources like Fox News and MSNBC: viewers with strong opinions tune in to channels that reinforces their existing beliefs, which polarizes the country as a whole.
In turn, films targeted directly to Christians could be seen as part of this trend. But in the past, despite this rise in partisan entertainment, Christian films have been marked by their low budgets and underwhelming ratings. Every few years, studios have tried to release a tentpole Christian film — a film with a huge budget and major stars that’s meant to finance the studio as a whole— but these efforts have largely failed. Noah, released in 2014, was one such picture. Though the film cost $125 million to make, and starred big names like Russell Crowe and Emma Watson, it underperformed, grossing only $101 million in the domestic box office. Critics suggested that this failure was in part due to the film’s inability to attract a new Christian audience, in addition to traditional moviegoers. Religious viewers thought Noah director Ridley Scott took too many liberties with the original story. Faith Driven Consumer, a service that rates films based on their Christian-friendliness, said that 98 percent of their viewers were “not satisfied with a biblically themed movie — designed to appeal to you — which replaces the Bible’s core message with one created by Hollywood.” These major pictures have been seen as inauthentic at best, and as heresy at worst — in essence, it’s difficult for largely secular Hollywood to make a religious movie that appeals to a Christian audience.
The survey from Faith Driven Consumers suggests that Christian audiences are largely skeptical of Hollywood’s take on Christianity. In 2015 before the release of Risen, God Vine, a Christian website, reported, “Hollywood Doesn’t Want You To See This New Movie About Jesus!” According to God Vine, given the studio’s lack of marketing for the film, it seemed like “it may be up to us Christians to help spread the word.” Furthermore, this kind of distrust is not limited to bigger budget films. Young Messiah, released this year, is a smaller budget film that explores Jesus’ childhood. In a review, Michael Foust writing for The Christian Post asked, “What should the Christian attitude be toward movies and TV shows that are based (partially or entirely) on biblical fiction?” The response was overwhelming negative. One commenter wrote, “The ‘hidden years’ of the life of the child Jesus remain hidden because that is the will of God the Father and thus any effort to create something out of those years is to tamper with the holy word of God himself, constitutes blasphemy, and is a serious sin.” Obviously, these comments are not representative of all Christian beliefs and its problematic to paint Christians as a uniform audience, but these types of views exemplify a sense of distrust of Hollywood’s attempts to adapt Christian stories for the screen.
What sets this year apart is that many of the films that are being released come directly from Christian filmmakers. Miracles From Heaven was produced by the same team that developed the successful, low budget film God is Not Dead, along with its sequel coming out this year. The major producers are DeVon Franklin, a well-known preacher, and T.D. Jakes, the bishop of a megachurch that serves 30,000 members, along with the more traditional Joe Roth, former chairman of 20th Century Fox and Disney. This year marks one of the first where successful religious films, though released by major studios, are made in collaboration with the Christian community. Notably, The Passion of the Christ was made by devout Catholic Mel Gibson, showing that some precedent may exist for this phenomenon.
Yet, the year’s more overtly proselytizing films like this year’s Miracles From Heaven do not seem to have widespread appeal. Reviewer Barry Hertz wrote, the film “contains such an insulting message — essentially, everything will be fine as long as you pray, pray hard and pray specifically to Jesus Christ — and is delivered in such a forced manner that it undermines any semblance of cinematic art or entertainment. This is not a film, at least as most filmmakers and audiences imagine the form.”
Although this new wave of Christian films could be painted as the product of increased polarization, it also has the potential to reinforce it. While Miracles from Heaven addresses an individual family’s relationship to religion, other films have distinctly political messages. God is Not Dead 2, made by the same production team and set to be released this year, tells the story of a high school teacher who answers a question about Jesus in class which leads to a high profile court case that features real-life political organizations like the ACLU. And the cast and crew seem to strongly support the message the movie tells. David A.R. White, who produced the film and acts in it, said, “It’s an interesting thing, because, if it wasn’t real, why do they get so offended by it? I don’t think it would annoy people if it wasn’t true.”
The threat of Christian persecution has been reinforced by Christian news rhetoric, notably Fox News’ coverage of the “War on Christmas,” in which retailers, among other things, replace Christmas imagery with Holiday imagery. Presidential candidate Donald Trump has echoed this line of thought in an attempt to court evangelical voters: at a campaign rally, Trump told supporters, “Christianity is under siege. Every year it gets weaker and weaker and weaker.” The perspective is distinctly political, rather than religious, and the film has the power to convince viewers that Christian persecution is a real problem — without offering any real world examples, since the film is ostensibly a fictionalized narrative.
Hemant Mehta, the blogger behind The Friendly Atheist, has criticized the film for reinforcing the idea that Christians are being persecuted, saying, “The crux of the film revolves around a student’s question about whether non-violence is sort of like what Jesus said. The teacher says yes, and then quotes a Bible verse. In real life, even atheist groups wouldn’t blink over this…But for those who live in the ‘Christian persecution bubble,’ even mentioning the Bible will get them in trouble.”
The film, then, appeals to a niche audience — those who believe that the country is growing increasingly hostile to Christians — and marks the dangerous underside of an increase in Christian films. In the world of Donald Trump and Fox News, Christian Hollywood could become a new force of polarization.
However, this year’s films also suggest that increased polarization is not the only possible outcome of the growth in Christian films. Risen has been considered a box office success, appealing to religious and non-religious moviegoers. It sticks more fully to traditional religious ideas, in contrast to films like Noah and Exodus, while still telling a religious story from a new perspective. Notably, the film avoids potentially polarizing political implications with its setting in the pre-modern day. Risen suggests that it may be possible to unite the country’s audiences, but ultimately, until the Christian film industry develops further it’s impossible to say how the trend will evolve.