Kirk Cameron is many things: Actor, activist, spokesman of a certain brand of Evangelical thought, provocateur
You can add one more to the list: Thoroughly charming..
When we speak by phone, he completely disarms me by sincerely complimenting an article I wrote. Not that I was armed, exactly. I laid down my weapons in the culture wars years ago. For many, this metaphor means no longer fighting the evils of Hollywood and speaking out against those who do. For me, it means taking everyone as they come, conservative Evangelical as well as progressive.
Throughout the following conversation, Cameron is funny, kind, passionate, careful to avoid a combative stance, and yes, interesting.
He would be a great person to have a beer with, that is, if he drinks beer. I didn’t think to ask.
After the success of Christian subculture films Left Behind and Fireproof, which he starred in but were produced by Cloud Ten Pictures and Sherwood Pictures respectively, Cameron has his own production company CAMFAM films. Left Behind made a modest profit but Fireproof emerged as a raging success, grossing more than $30 million on a reported budget of $500,000.
By staging one night only event runs in theaters and grass roots marketing campaigns, his documentaries Monumental and Unstoppable have eked out profits as well.
There’s clearly a market for inexpensively produced conservative Christian films that speak to the faithful, and perhaps they’re more lucrative on DVD and streaming than in theaters. At least, that’s what Cameron and his distribution partners are hoping.
Which brings us to Saving Christmas, Cameron’s film opening in theaters today for a two week run. I have not had time to watch the film, so I can’t review, but Cameron describes it:
“It’s really a story about my [movie] sister who’s throwing the best Christmas party ever, great big tree, presents under the tree, and her husband is sulking in the driveway because he thinks everything inside his house is not what God would want us to do on Christmas. He’s got all the reasons why: Consumerism, the Christmas tree is pagan, and Decemeber 25 is not the real date of Jesus’s birth.
I go out to driveway and get in the car, start talking to him about Santa, Christmas trees, the nativity. So he can lead his family in all the joy.”
Throughout our talk, Cameron emphasized joy in celebrating faith: “Why are Christians so joyless sometimes? It’s actually sad, it’s interesting how Christians will sort of pride themselves on saying hey don’t you know Christmas is a pagan holiday…We call this 2014 for the very reason that Christ was born and changed the world, he separated AD from BC and we should celebrate that with 100 percent joy. There is no reason why you and I should not have 14 foot tall Christmas tree and presents and caroling session with delicious food, because it is time to celebrate God becoming flesh.”
Christmas is not pagan, he explains in the movie, but has deep roots in Christian tradition.
I have three reactions to such a movie.
First, the film as described is not so much a story as a lecture with a story around it. People raised in church will recognize the format “You know, Larry, God wants us to….” Maybe Cameron is inherently a preacher in documentary form. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but there’s a world of difference between exploring faith through a presentation that’s meant to be a logical progression of arguments and through a story of characters, such as Calvary or The Tree of Life. The first hits the mind. The second embeds in the soul.
Secondly, the discussion is extremely narrow. I don’t mean narrow as a pejorative against conservative Evangelicals. I mean narrow in the sense that it’s not a conversation the general world is having. Cameron’s Monumental explored views of American identity and Unstoppable asked the question of why God allows suffering. Those questions are wide, universal, even if his conclusions are not shared by all. The debate over pagan influences in Christmas celebration is unique to Christianity, and unique to a small segment of Christianity. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it does smack of facing inward and not outward.
Finally, I appreciated, as Cameron spoke, that he referenced church history in stories of Saint Nicholas or the gnostic influence in this argument. Christmas is “the very celebration of God taking on material body,” he said after I asked about gnosticism, “And it’s right that a holiday should contain material things like fudge and presents because we live in a material world and God took on flesh to become one of us.”
One of the problems with megachurch, conservative Evangelicalism, especially the California brand in which I grew up and in which presumably Cameron worships, is that it has completely divorced itself from church history and thought. The Birkenstocks-on-the-beach brand of the faith has many beautiful aspects, the foremost being that nothing stands between the worshipper and a relationship with God. However, this very reliance on personal Bible study and revelation can lead to a collective faith that is an inch deep. Churches find themselves reinventing the wheel, torn in debates and concepts the church has been exploring for millennia. Any interjection of the wisdom of the ages into today’s Evangelical thought is welcome.
Cameron’s next project may address some of these issues. It’s a fantasy adventure film focused on a dragon, he says with fantastic special effects. “The kids go to fight the dragon and rescue their friend in sinkhole under earth,” Cameron said. But there’s more. The story is a message from the Bible, an allegory of faith. “The girl is the bride of Christ,” he explains.
Cameron wants to continue to make movies and dreams of big, nationwide openings. To do that, he will have to expand to appeal to a bigger audience. Faith, when presented in a way that grabs the heart, can be a blockbuster: Les Miserables, The Lord of the Rings, or of course The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are evidence of that. I am eager to see what develops.