First 12-year-old boy: Who do you think will win?
Second 12-year-old boy: It’s called Independence Day, this is the Fourth of July weekend, and it’s got Americans fighting aliens. Who the hell do you think is going to win?
–overheard by yr. Captain in a Canadian movie theater in 1996
I’ve been doing reviews of Christian movies for a while now. And unsurprisingly, I have been uniformly unimpressed because Christian media is uniformly awful. But to hear Christians themselves talk about “their” movies, these are all masterpieces. Epics. Perhaps marginally flawed here and there, but essentially wonderful. Everyone else is left to wonder if they’re even seeing the same movies these Christians are praising.
I’m not surprised at all to see this lopsided reception. Christian-targeted movies follow a very particular pattern, one that I’ll show you today, and when they garner polarized reviews, that happens for a reason.
The latest-and-greatest Christian flop is Ben-Hur, a remake of the wildly successful 1959 epic. Of course, that 1959 movie is itself is a remake of an earlier silent movie, which was a film adaptation of a novel written smack in the middle of the Third Great Awakening–which was a time of great importance for fundagelicalism as a whole. And I’m not even counting all the other adaptations that people have made of the book. As Christian pedigrees in literature go, Ben-Hur is as royal as it gets.
The two folks most responsible for this new movie are themselves big names in fundagelical entertainment. Roma Downey is famous for being on the Christian-beloved (but theologically-iffy) TV series Touched By an Angel, but lately she’s been producing fundagelical movies like Son of God, The Bible, and The Bible Continues (not to be confused with the awesome YouTube channel The Bible Reloaded). Her husband, Mark Burnett, is a longtime producer who’s been heading into fundagelical territory these past few years with his wife.
They keep their exact beliefs on the down-low, going to surprising lengths to keep their affiliations quiet, but Ms. Downey is probably Catholic so Mr. Burnett is probably along much the same lines. If so, they aren’t alone at all in right-wing Christian media circles. Indeed, the two Catholic pals who wrote the screenplay for God’s Not Dead readily admit that “Catholics do not fund films,” so they write scripts for fundagelical movies instead. And in the same way, Ms. Downey and her husband are as close to royalty as it gets in fundagelical circles despite their questionable loyalties.
And right now, they’re more eager than ever to hear that pandering. Yet another survey has come out this week indicating that Americans are ditching Christianity in ever-greater numbers, and this long-overdue cultural tide shows no signs whatsoever of turning.
You’ll notice that controllers’ desire for external validation from society grows as their actual influence over the general population wanes. If they cannot rule in reality, then they content themselves with ruling in their fantasies. If they cannot have genuine cooperation, then they somehow make peace with forced compliance.
But this pandering, successful as it is with Christians aching to see a world where their dreams come true, backfires dramatically outside of that ever-shrinking bubble.
The Fundagelical Machine.
Specific stuff starts happening when a film’s creators declare their intention to pander to fundagelicals.
First, of course, they must make sure the movie sufficiently fits in with a fundagelical worldview.
In the movie’s world, those who fit in with fundagelical doctrines (be they fundagelical Christians in America or Jews in the ancient world) face great persecution, that higher education is somehow hostile to religion in general, that women are miserable with newfangled egalitarian relationships and secretly long for big strong handsome husbands who’ll take charge of their marriages, and that without fundagelicals’ civilizing influence the world would totally fall apart.
Second, the movie must reinforce Christian supernatural claims.
Prayer must work, miracles must really happen, people must really change through their faith in Jesus, Heaven must be presented as a real place where people go after they die, and the Bible must at all times look more like a history book than a compiled narrative recounting ancient mythology.
Third, the movie must include Christian catchphrases, music, ideas, and celebrities that are near and dear to fundagelicals–even if they’re repellent or unintelligible to non-fundagelicals.
A movie can accomplish this goal by including fauxbilly Duck Dynasty reality-television celebrities in its cast, parroting “religious liberty” arguments, centering major parts of its plot around Christian bands that non-Christians won’t ever have heard of, and using dogwhistle terms like “Darwinism.” If it can include some popular apologetics phrases like “not having enough faith to be an atheist” or abiogenesis arguments, even better! This stuff will completely alienate non-Christians, but that’s kinda the point.
Fourth and most importantly, the movie must “send a message,” meaning it must preach and proselytize.
Telling a good story in an entertaining way becomes a secondary goal behind preaching a message at the audience. The movie itself becomes a vehicle for a sermon–and fundagelicals don’t see a problem here. When you hear a fundagelical say that a movie “makes you think,” what that fundagelical means is that he or she thinks the movie preached very vehemently.
In short, a properly fundagelical movie gives fundagelicals what Independence Day gave wildly nationalistic Americans: a reason to feel extra-good about being part of their group.
Notice, please, that competent storytelling, acting, plotting, effects, cinematography, and all that other stuff does not appear on Christians’ list of requirements for a great movie.
If those other, extraneous elements are present, then sure, that’s lovely. That’s great, that’s nice, that’s fine. But they’re not necessary at all. One gets the impression that a movie could look like a high-school student endeavor in every way and still be considered for an Oscar. They almost don’t care what that other stuff is like. It’s like all those objective qualities get 1 point each for a total of, say, 10, but “the message” gets +100000000 points–so an objectively shitty movie in every single direction that bears the correct “message” still comes out with a PLUS ELEVENTY BILLION score–while an objectively brilliant movie that did not bear the correct “message” is often, as far as a fundagelical is concerned, utter and complete crap that is not worth watching.
All of these factors combine to produce a movie that right-wing Christians will adore, but which non-right-wing-Christians (and non-Christians) will find confusing, boring, or even repulsive. I’ve never yet seen a movie that was so poorly-made, mean-spirited against non-Christians, genuinely nasty in its treatment of people, and narratively incoherent that it made fundagelicals disown it. About the only way that a Christian movie can fail is by not drilling down hard enough on the message–which, indeed, was the fate suffered by The Identical. It was too Christian for non-Christian audiences, but not fundagelical enough for the Christian ones.
It’s little wonder that Christian movies tend to garner such incredibly polarized reviews. How could it come out any other way, really?
When you read a positive review or comment about a fundagelical-targeted movie, you know right off the bat that the person expressing that opinion is a fundagelical. You also know that the people expressing negative opinions about it probably are not fundagelicals. There is a reason why you’d almost always be correct in making either assumption.
The only reason anybody would ever like one of these movies is if they were actually its target audience. But the mere fact that fundagelicals were its target audience would all but doom it to inadequacy.
Fundagelicals are their very own creature when it comes to being a target audience. They identify so strongly with their movies’ “message,” which again is the sum total of their cultural beliefs, talking points, and battles, that pushback against these movies is taken as a personal attack upon themselves.
Further, fundagelicals–more than any other type of Christian, arguably–see themselves as salespeople who are selling their religious beliefs and tribal membership to others. This sales task is seen as a 24/7 endeavor that never ends. Their targeted movies are part of that sales pitch. I’ve often seen Christians discuss using these movies as an element of evangelism–and many of the people involved in these movies talk openly about their hopes that non-Christians will convert after seeing these works. The apologetics site Christian Answers even hilariously claims that “millions of souls have been won for eternity through Christian films and videos,” which is millions more conversions than I’d ever have guessed.
Thanks to their marketing, many fundagelical Christians deeply and genuinely (but mistakenly!) believe that these materials are, as the pastor dudebro with the cool hair said in God’s Not Dead, “the only meaningful exposure to God and Jesus” that non-believers will ever encounter in their entire lives. He’s referring there to Josh and his upcoming debate-sorta with Professor Radisson, but the movie clearly intends its audience members to extend that thinking into their own lives.
So someone who criticizes these works is someone who is stepping on a sales attempt–and that’s someone that toxic Christians feel they must silence at all costs.
That’s why fundagelicals often accuse critics of having some ulterior and dark purpose. Someone can’t just not like their stupid movies. Someone especially can’t have a good reason to dislike their stupid movies. There’s always some terribly shady and nefarious reason for that dislike. The critic “hates Jesus,” or hates Christians for their freedom, or feels guilty for sinning, or is a member of a group with a sinister agenda of some kind. The criticism is always treated as a self-serving lie masking the critic’s real feelings about the movie–which are ostensibly great admiration and divinely-inspired guilt. Really imaginative Christians might even devise elaborate conspiracy theories explaining why the movies that pander to them are so universally disliked by non-fundagelical audiences.
They don’t have the faintest idea what to do with Christian film critics who also hate the dreck their hucksters churn out on the regular. Six months ago, one of those critics, Alissa Wilkinson, after giving a list of her bona fides as a true-blue and fervent Christian, asserts, “Jesus is all right; the screenwriters [of Christian movies], not so much.” She goes on to lament that she simply doesn’t see herself in Christian-targeted movies–and cringes at their usual depiction of non-believers. These movies aren’t just dreck; they are, she says, “anti-Christian.”
All fundagelicals can do is lump these dissenting Christians in with the other non-believers and try to silence them along with us.
A Twist in the Plot?
Ben-Hur is absolutely tanking in reviews–at least, in those reviews that were written by non-fundagelicals. Rolling Stone called it “a disaster.” As I scan Rotten Tomatoes, I see other reviewers calling it “soulless and empty,” “amateurish,” and “terrible.”
But Christianity Today gave it the green light because of the movie’s overall message. Seriously. The reviewer even flat-out compared it to the year’s superhero movies, lauding this uneven mess because of a few throwaway lines about “mercy and sacrifice.” Because the reviewer thought that the overall message of the movie was valuable, all the qualities that other reviewers hated about the movie–its shit-tastic editing, bad acting, and preachiness, which are all qualities she concedes exist in the movie–fade into the background like a soft wah-wah-wah, as the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher did in those long-ago cartoons.
Would you like to know who that reviewer was who liked the season’s big Christian-movie flop?
Do you want to know who decided that because this movie at least had something vaguely Christian-ish about itself, that it was automatically a better choice as a diversion than, say, a superhero movie?
Wanna know who told possibly hundreds of thousands of fundagelicals that Ben-Hur could have done with even more preaching and moralizing?
Yes, the same Christian who wrote six months ago for Thrillist about how embarrassing and mortifying Christian movies were to her as a more sensible and compassionate Christian. She joins her almost-exclusively-Christian compatriots on Rotten Tomatoes giving the movie a “fresh” rating.
Sometimes life starts looking a lot like a movie twist, doesn’t it?
Please join me this weekend on a stroll through Echo Grove for a rousing game of “Real or Not-Real.”