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What Happens When Christian Movies Go Mainstream?

Faith-based hits like God's Not Dead and I Can Only Imagine aren't the surprise they used to be. But how will an industry fueled by a sense of neglect handle mainstream acceptance?

Posted on May 8, 2019, at 1:56 p.m. ET

Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News

On March 27, Jon Erwin took the stage at Proclaim 19, this year’s National Religious Broadcasters convention in Anaheim, California, with the confidence of someone sure his moment had arrived. He had plenty of reason to believe it. Erwin, a square-jawed thirtysomething, and his brother Andrew, the self-described introvert of the pair, had directed the biggest independent movie of the past year. Not Wes Anderson, not Alfonso Cuarón, not Spike Lee — Andrew and Jon Erwin, sons of a former Alabama state senator, ESPN camera operators turned filmmakers whose stated goal is “to recapture the imagination of a generation with the Gospel.”

“We're here to dream, and we're here to share with you a bit of what God's doing in the entertainment business," Jon Erwin told the standing-room-only crowd. "God is on the move in the entertainment business in a way that I can't fully explain or understand, but I'm here to share it with you today.”

In 2018, the rest of the specialty box office dwelled in the long shadow of I Can Only Imagine, the Erwins' fourth feature — an earnest, soft-filter biopic about Christian musician Bart Millard, who had a crossover hit with the eponymous song in the early aughts. But, unless you were in the movie’s target demographic, it's possible that this is the first you're hearing of it. I Can Only Imagine came from what has largely existed as a miniature parallel Christian showbiz universe with its own big-name filmmakers, its own festivals, its own recurring stars (like Kirk Cameron, Sarah Drew, and Kevin Sorbo). It's a universe in which endings are uplifting, brushes with death offer glimpses of the divine, and sex happens way offscreen, between a man and a woman, in the context of marriage. Like most faith-based releases, I Can Only Imagine wasn't screened for press or broadly marketed, but reached its intended audience primarily via a grassroots campaign targeting churches and ministries, Christian radio, and Christian press.

And for this film, that audience came out to the tune of $83.5 million — only $1.6 million short of what this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner Green Book made in the United States. And Green Book had an awards campaign and the combined celebrity wattage of Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. The lead of I Can Only Imagine is a Broadway actor named J. Michael Finley in his first, and so far only, screen role.

Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images; Roadside Attractions / Courtesy Everett Collection

Jon and Andrew Erwin at CinemaCon 2019; the movie poster for I Can Only Imagine.

This wasn't the first time a Christian movie has seemingly come out of nowhere to top the indie charts. It happened in 2008 with the Cameron vehicle Fireproof, and in 2014 with Pure Flix's God's Not Dead, each hit generating the same bemused surprise from mainstream entertainment media. But this time around, the Erwins didn’t just reassert the ticket-buying power of the faith-based audience — they turned the head of a Hollywood studio willing to bet on their ability to pull in crowds with movies made on a modest budget. And after striking a multiyear deal with Lionsgate, the Erwins and their producing partners created their own production company, Kingdom Studios, with the aim of putting out two movies a year.

The NRB event was Kingdom's public debut, with multiple cameras streaming to what Jon Erwin described as a potential audience of over 50 million aggregate fans (the actual Facebook Live stats hovered in the range of 2,000 viewers, though the video's since racked up over 180,000 views). The convention bills itself as one of the country’s largest Christian media events, with speakers who ranged from Dallas Mavericks chaplain Tony Evans to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. The Erwins might not be household names in the wider world, but at the Anaheim Convention Center over those four days in March, they were superstars.

“We want to create experiences that maybe you don't have to be a Christian to watch — but boy, do you want to be one when you leave.”

The initial Kingdom slate stretched from I Still Believe, another Christian musician biopic that will star Riverdale’s KJ Apa, to the first installment of a planned biblical drama trilogy about the apostles that producer Kevin Downes promised would do “what Marvel did with their cinematic universe." But the overall pitch was more sweeping — one for the future of faith-based cinema as not just movies made by Christians for Christians, but as a tool for proselytizing.

“We want to create experiences that maybe you don't have to be a Christian to watch — but boy, do you want to be one when you leave,” Jon Erwin said. “We're going to tell stories that strategically draw people to the Gospel, to the thing that can change their life. We're not ashamed of that at all — we're not going to water it down.”

2019 feels poised to be a pivotal year for the faith-based industry — and not just because of the expansionist plans of the Erwins, whose Kingdom Studios rollout won't start until 2020. Breakthrough, which opened in theaters on April 17, is a faith-based movie from Disney (courtesy of the Fox merger) that managed to net $14.6 million over an unusually slow holiday weekend. A drama starring Chrissy Metz of This Is Us as a mother whose teenage son makes a miraculous recovery after falling through lake ice, Breakthrough the latest from producer DeVon Franklin, a preacher and former film executive who literally wrote a book on being a Christian in Hollywood. He's become a kind of studio ambassador for faith-based projects, ushering in a string of hits with bigger stars like Greg Kinnear (Heaven Is for Real) and Jennifer Garner (Miracles From Heaven) that are heavy on the tears and light on the cultural division.

Allen Fraser / 20th Century Fox / Everett Collection; Allen Fraser / Sony Pictures / Everett Collection

Left: Chrissy Metz in Breakthrough (2019). Right: Greg Kinnear in Heaven Is for Real (2014).

“The faith-based audience is much bigger and much more diverse than Hollywood understands," Franklin told the Hollywood Reporter in 2017. “And the faith-based audience is the same audience that's going to see all of your big tentpole films and all your animated movies. There isn't a clear understanding of this audience. That's where I've had my success: bridging that gap.”

The complication is that that gap has been integral to the identity and the successes of the modern faith-based film industry. It's an industry that has counted on viewers coming out to support titles that Hollywood wouldn't deign to touch, sometimes rallying audiences by capitalizing on a sense of persecution or neglect. As Alex Kendrick, one half of faith-based film's other big sibling directing team, said about his work: “People act like preaching to the choir is a bad thing, but we would say the choir needs it." Feeling ignored by the entertainment industry has helped faith-based film thrive, which raises the question of what it signals for the future when Disney puts a Christian-centric movie starring a primetime darling in multiplexes.

At a time when celebs are attending gospel-inflected Sunday services hosted by the biggest social media stars in the world, and when the likes of Justin Bieber and Chris Pratt talk up their involvement with hip, Instagram-friendly churches (many of which espouse eyebrow-raisingly exclusionary doctrine alongside pricey footwear), it's gotten harder to make the case that Hollywood is hostile toward Christianity. Or at least, it's gotten harder to claim that what's being argued over here is really faith, rather than conservative Christian values, which are at least as much cultural and political as they are religious. This work owes at least part of its existence to the belief that the secular left controls culture, and requires a counterbalance. So how does faith-based film, which grew by catering to Christian audiences who feel underrepresented, grapple with mainstream acceptance? And if the industry really does have ambitions of reaching secular audiences, will it be able to let go of its grudge against them?

Newmarket Releasing / Courtesy Everett Collection

Mel Gibson directs Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ (2004).

Christian cinema stretches all the way back to silent movies like The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1905) and on through Golden Age of Hollywood epics like Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments in 1956 (starring Charlton Heston) and William Wyler's Ben-Hur in 1959 (also starring Charlton Heston). But by the ’90s and early aughts, faith-based films existed largely as low-budget, direct-to-video affairs that weren't expected to perform in theaters. The 2014 remake of Left Behind may have starred (the not vocally religious, but very hirable) Nicolas Cage and gotten a wide release, but the first adaptation of the book series, in 2000, came out on VHS first and concluded with a message from its star Kirk Cameron urging viewers to go see it again in theaters, as a way of “sending a wake-up call to Hollywood.”

In 1999, a religious thriller called The Omega Code, produced by televangelist Paul Crouch, became a minor hit with the help of pastors urging their congregations to buy tickets. Then The Passion of the Christ arrived in 2004 as a polarizing, bolt-from-the-blue phenomenon, an altogether unlikely blockbuster. Mel Gibson's film was a graphically violent, arguably anti-Semitic, feverishly vivid vision — the death of Christ as a horror story. No one knew what to expect from it, which made its enormous, unanticipated success — it made $371 million in the US and $241 million more internationally — all the more striking. And to some, all the more proof of how much hunger there was for these movies.

Pure Flix, the largest independent faith-based studio and distributor, was founded the year after, in 2005. The company's CEO, Michael Scott, told me that while The Passion of the Christ was obviously “a special film at the right time that had a huge star involved in it,” Pure Flix found their own kind of success. “You didn't see the big theatrical numbers, but you saw a huge appetite for the DVDs. Even on no-name films with no actors in them, and production values that weren't, maybe, that great — we were selling hundreds of thousands of DVDs back in those days. It spoke to the audience looking for something that wasn't out there, and they would take whatever they could get.”

Gregg Deguire / WireImage; Sony Pictures / Everett Collection

DeVon Franklin at the premiere of Shazam! in 2019; Karen Abercrombie and Priscilla C. Shirer in War Room (2015).

“Faith-based” is a broad-sounding label applied to a slate of films whose appeal is very specific. If it's not already abundantly clear, the term doesn't get applied to work centered on religions other than Christianity, or to anything that's, say, explicitly Mormon. The movies tend to skew nondenominational in their content, but have been primarily aimed at conservative Catholics and evangelicals. The industry isn't entirely white — DeVon Franklin's a major player, and speaker-turned-actor Priscilla Shirer was the lead of the 2015 hit War Room and a star of the upcoming Overcomer. But the reason a filmmaker like Tyler Perry, who built his career with the support of churchgoing audiences, isn't generally included under the faith-based umbrella seems to come down to his work being deemed both too crude and too black.

Faith-based films provide the service of being safe for their audience: scrupulously clean and family-friendly in their content, unchallenging in their storytelling, and feel-good in their arcs. Their quality seems largely incidental to many of the people who seek them out, and critical derision may only make audiences embrace them more; just look at the gap between the critical average (17%) and the audience score (76%) on the Rotten Tomatoes page for God's Not Dead. What matters is that they confirm the beliefs and the worldview of their viewership. As faith-based marketer Kris Fuhr put it in a study done by the Southern Baptist Convention–owned LifeWay Research, “When you have a movie where the title is almost a doctrinal statement — the audience will come out. People want their faith to be affirmed.”

Sony Pictures / Samuel Goldwyn Films; Pure Flix Entertainment / Everett Collection

Risen (2016); Fireproof (2008); God's Not Dead (2014).

Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson, who's formerly of Christianity Today and one of the few mainstream film journalists who covers faith-based work, has written about the way faith-based movies tend to fall into three groups — the inspirational, the biblical, and the political. Of the three, the biblical is the most self-explanatory, with recent releases including Mark Burnett and Roma Downey's Son of God (2014), 2016's Risen (starring Joseph Fiennes), and last year's Paul, Apostle of Christ, starring The Passion of the Christ's Jim Caviezel. Other films, like 1998's animated The Prince of Egypt, or Noah (from Darren Aronofsky) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (from Ridley Scott) in 2014, weren't labeled faith-based, but were also marketed to those audiences, with mixed results.

The inspirational films include stories about repairing marriages (Fireproof and War Room), sports (Facing the Giants, Greater, Woodlawn), miraculous recoveries (a DeVon Franklin specialty, courtesy of Heaven Is for Real, Miracles From Heaven, and Breakthrough), and redemptive reckonings between fathers and their children (Courageous, I Can Only Imagine). What they have in common, beyond being indicative of the more mainstream-friendly direction in which faith-based film is almost certainly going to continue to move, is that they're driven by emotional relationships, both with others and with God. The sweet surfaces of these inspirational films don't always match their interiors; 2015's War Room lays out an emotionally abusive husband/wife relationship, and then suggests the couple’s problems are best addressed by prayer. ("They were really looking for something to take issue with and write a story about," screenwriter Stephen Kendrick told Patheos when asked about criticism that this could get someone killed.)

But it's the political films that have been the most illustrative of the cultural polarization at the heart of faith-based film, because they're most likely to evoke the perceived discrimination so many white evangelicals believe they're being subjected to. God's Not Dead stars Kevin Sorbo as an atheist philosophy professor who kicks off the semester by demanding all of his students write "God is dead" on a piece of paper. When the film’s evangelical student hero (Shane Harper) refuses, the professor insists that they debate the existence of God in front of the class. The arrogant academic doesn't just end up getting humiliated; he then gets hit by a car, a development that's spun into a happy ending by his deathbed commitment to Christ.

The Top 5 Faith-Based Films Of The Past Decade, By US Ticket Sales:

Heaven Is for Real
(2014): $91.4 Million

Greg Kinnear plays Nebraska pastor Todd Burpo, whose 4-year-old son, Colton, claims to have seen heaven during an emergency surgery.

I Can Only Imagine
(2018): $83.5 Million

J. Michael Finley is MercyMe frontman Bart Millard, who pursues a Christian-music career but doesn't find his voice until he reconciles with his troubled dad (Dennis Quaid).

War Room
(2015): $67.8 Million

Following the advice of the elderly Miss Clara (Karen Abercrombie), Elizabeth Jordan (Priscilla Shirer) fixes her marriage with the power of prayer.

Miracles From Heaven
(2016): $61.7 Million

Christy Beam (Jennifer Garner) witnesses her 10-year-old daughter emerge from an accident not just miraculously uninjured but also cured of a chronic stomach ailment.

God's Not Dead
(2014): $60.8 Million

Kevin Sorbo stars as an atheist philosophy professor who demands that an evangelical undergrad (Shane Harper) debate him about the existence of God.

TriStar Pictures / FaithStep Films / Affirm Films / Columbia Pictures / Pure Flix Entertainment

When God's Not Dead made over $9 million its opening weekend, on its way to an eventual $60.8 million domestically, headlines framed the box office success, as usual, as a shocker. But it really shouldn't have been a surprise — God's Not Dead is precisely calibrated to evoke both cable news talking points about college campuses as intolerant fortresses of liberalism, and a particular school of urban legends about the humiliation of nonbelieving professors, variations of which have been circulated in email forwards and turned up in a Chick tract. For the kind of viewer who believes that, for instance, there really is a war on Christmas, God's Not Dead serves as a blunt force fantasy of score-settling beneath a veneer of religious conviction. The movie’s shrill, one-dimensional villains all get a comeuppance (like the lefty blogger who gets diagnosed with cancer, after which her businessman boyfriend breaks up with her), before eventually being permitted to crawl, repentant, into the light of God's love. And in that sense, the film feels as key to the faith-based industry as The Passion of the Christ.

The faith-based film industry has long been nurtured by feelings of division that are not unrelated to the overarching ones currently shaping the country. On one hand, there's the desire to treat Hollywood as incompatible with, or flat-out conspiring against, conservative Christians. “I think it’s really about an immoral or amoral agenda to promote lifestyles, relativism, compromise and shades of gray with no black and white,” pastor and faith-based film producer Michael Catt told the evangelical Decision magazine in 2014.

At the Kingdom Studios launch event, actor Madeline Carroll, who had a supporting role in I Can Only Imagine, came on to speak about the struggles she'd experienced before meeting the Erwins. She welled up as she talked about turning down roles because they required nudity, and about leaving a major television show (it was Scandal, though she didn't mention it by name) in 2014. "It was so embarrassing, but I had to do it, because I knew that it wasn't of God," she told the crowd.

On the other hand, there's the feeling that Hollywood has been dismissive of religion, pushing it offscreen or treating it as stigmatized content that recognizable talent has tended to steer clear of, and leaving audiences who want to see depictions of faith to seek out homegrown alternatives. In 2015, producer Mark Joseph, who's done marketing for hits like The Passion of the Christ and Son of God, and for flops like Letters to God and Unconditional, published a frustrated column in the Hollywood Reporter decrying the "faith-based film" label.

"The alleged popularity of faith-based films is more accurately understood as the reaction of frustrated Americans who support these movies as a way to push back against faith-ignorant entertainment," he wrote. "If half of all Americans go to church, why are so few TV and film characters seen in church or allowed to have normal religious practices portrayed as their other activities are?"

That said, as Erik Lokkesmoe, who owns the distribution and marketing company Aspiration Entertainment, points out, "There are movies that have deeply affected people, spiritually, that are not wrapped in the faith-based label." Aspiration has handled faith-based outreach for titles like last year's Mr. Rogers documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, Paul Schrader's First Reformed, and this year's feminist-inflected biblical drama Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix. Movies like these may deal with religion, but they don't fit into the same box as something like War Room, which was made with feedback from and the endorsement of a group of pastors — and are much less likely to be taken up as conservative causes.

"The reason there's a faith-based category is that it's marketing,” Lokkesmoe said. “If you say it's faith-based, you've signaled to an audience that it's for them."

Mike Pont / Getty Images for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Stephen and Alex Kendrick attend a press event for War Room in New York City, 2015.

Signaling to Christian audiences that your films are made for them, rather than catering to mainstream taste or Hollywood executives, has been the basis of the careers of faith-based superstars like War Room filmmakers Alex and Stephen Kendrick. The brothers' story is the stuff of a faith-based fairy tale and a studio accountant's dream, if not a publicist's — “I would propose that the God of Hollywood is political correctness, and they are going to line up with whatever the politically correct view of the day is,” Alex Kendrick told the Hollywood Reporter in 2015. (The Kendricks, the Erwins, and DeVon Franklin all declined interview requests for this story.)

The Kendricks were pastors at the Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, when they made Flywheel for next to nothing in 2003, helped by hundreds of volunteers from their congregation. That's also how they made their 2006 follow-up sports drama Facing the Giants, a movie that cost $100,000 to produce and made $10.2 million, and Fireproof, which ended up netting $33.5 million. Now the Kendricks are making movies with Sony's faith-based arm Affirm — like War Room (which made $68 million).

Those same feelings of division also powered the recent anti-abortion drama Unplanned to a successful opening in April, though the film keeps the details of subject Abby Johnson's actual religious life vague and largely in the background. (Maybe her journey from being raised Baptist to converting to Catholicism was seen as potentially alienating to the conservative Protestants that make up a significant part of the audience for these movies — there are all sorts of ways to be divided.) Polarization, and the desire to vote for visibility with your dollars, can be powerful motivating forces. A sponsored email sent out on behalf of Unplanned from Dove.org, a movie guide dedicated to reviewing titles “based on Christian values,” urged people to donate money to buy tickets to help people see the film, a campaign not unlike the #BlackPantherChallenge.

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But overtly political Christian films don’t always do well. 2014's Persecuted didn't catch on, possibly because even the viewers most inclined to insist that their faith is under attack felt embarrassed by its outlandish premise. In the film, a popular evangelical preacher, played by James Remar, has to go on the run after he refuses to support a religious equality bill and is subsequently framed for rape and murder by shadowy government forces.

God's Not Dead went on to spawn a moderately successful 2016 sequel starring Melissa Joan Hart as a high school teacher who's brought up on trial for violating the separation of church and state after she answers a question about scripture in class. But a third installment, God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness, fizzled commercially when it opened two weeks after I Can Only Imagine in March 2018, suggesting that audiences are as capable of getting burned out on material that plays on religious paranoia as anything else.

It's telling that the Erwins, who are so intensely calculating about their aspirations (Jon Erwin has described international success as a “global Trojan horse for the Gospel”) started their film careers with an anti-abortion drama of their own — 2011's October Baby, about an undergrad who learns that she was born after an unsuccessful abortion attempt, and goes on a road trip to track down and confront her birth mother — but have headed into less acrimonious territory as they're attempted to go wider with their work.

“I think the greater and larger Christian audience is tired of this divisiveness, and this us versus them stuff. I think they want content that actually unifies and inspires,” Jon Erwin told Jezebel last June.

“You're always looking for a film that will resonate across all the quadrants.”

And everyone, including the executives at Pure Flix, wants a crossover hit. “You're always looking for a film that will resonate across all the quadrants,” Michael Scott said. “I wouldn't be surprised, whether it's one of our or somebody else's, if we see some film that could cross that $100 million level. I think that could be very significant.”

Like Netflix, the Scottsdale, Arizona–based Pure Flix has gotten into the streaming business, with a customer base nearing 400,000 subscribers. Scott estimates that only half of the site’s offerings, original and licensed, are faith-based — the other half ranges from Sinbad stand-up to a talking dog comedy. Pure Flix has produced or distributed everything from a 2016 documentary on Hillsong to a sequel to Angelina Jolie's 2014 World War II drama Unbroken, made with a completely different cast and crew. In 2016, when Paramount wanted to offload its derided Christian drama Same Kind of Different as Me — starring Renée Zellweger and Greg Kinnear as a wealthy Fort Worth, Texas, couple who take in a man who is homeless, played by Djimon Hounsou — Pure Flix picked it up and released it in 1,300 theaters.

Scott isn't a purist when it comes to the cast and crew of movies Pure Flix produces. “Jesus didn’t just walk amongst Christians. He walked around everybody,” he said. “We can definitely be a light to everybody out there, whether they’re of faith or not.” That said, the company’s willingness to take on incendiary material — for instance, handling distribution for the last two documentaries from far-right commentator and conspiracy theorist Dinesh D'Souza — continues to set Pure Flix apart from the big distributors.

“If there's a message that we believe in, such as Unplanned, we're going to get behind it. We're not going to shy away from those things,” Scott said. And controversy can help offset lower marketing resources by generating attention and mobilizing audiences: “Pastors and ministry are not in the business of promoting film — they are in the business of promoting messages. When a film aligns with something they're preaching or teaching, that's great energy and they get behind it,” Scott added. The campaign on behalf of Unplanned followed some classic showbiz PR playbooks. When the movie received an R rating, there were multiple stories about the MPAA trying to suppress the film down on Fox News — a variation on a favored Harvey Weinstein technique.

Atlas Distribution / Everett Collection

Kevin Sorbo in Let There Be Light (2017).

Studios may be investing in softer fare, but the polarizing faith-based film is unlikely to go away entirely — the promotional benefits of making a movie into an event are just too good. You can see that reflected in the business model of Fathom Events, which specializes in premium one-off screenings of everything from opera to anime. Fathom has become such a significant faith-based player that the company established a network of churches that could host screenings in areas without easy theater access. Its past and upcoming releases constitute a kind of Wild West of offerings that don't fit into the three main faith-based boxes.

Live broadcasts of faith-centric events hosted by Kirk Cameron have been among Fathom’s most successful screenings; “We love to call him our little Fathom ambassador,” director of programming Katie Sawyer-Stachler explained. Back in October, the company released a Liberty University–produced drama called The Trump Prophecy, about a firefighter who claims God told him that Donald Trump would become president.

But Fathom will also be screening Brian Ivie's documentary Emanuel, about the victims and survivors of the Charleston church shooting, on June 17 and 19, timed to the fourth anniversary of the attack. The film, executive produced by Viola Davis and Stephen Curry (also an EP on Breakthrough), is more interested in the grace of the families who chose to offer forgiveness in the face of horror than in simplistic uplift. Those, too, are themes of faith — but they may not offer as easy a marketing hook as controversy.

Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News

There is certainly some validity to the idea that Hollywood is uncomfortable with Christian-themed material. Jennifer Lee, who wrote the screenplay for the 2018 film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, talked to Uproxx about removing Madeleine L'Engle's overt Christian references. “In a good way, I think there are a lot of elements of what she wrote that we have progressed as a society and we can move onto the other elements,” she said.

The third Chronicles of Narnia adaptation in 2010 — released by Fox, while the first two, in 2005 and 2008, were from Disney — was deliberately marketed to churchgoing audiences at the same time that star Liam Neeson was saying to the press that “Aslan symbolizes a Christlike figure, but he also symbolizes for me Mohammed, Buddha, and all the great spiritual leaders and prophets over the centuries.” If there were practical commercial considerations involved in these studio releases glossing over the religious aspects of their respective source material, you can also sense in these statements an ixnay-on-the-esus-Jay jumpiness, a fear that a personal expression of an artist's faith will still be seen as an attempt to foist that faith onto the audience.

So you can understand, to some extent, why a lot of faith-based entertainment seems driven by an itch to convince a world of doubters and downplayers. There's a recurring motif in a particular swath of faith-based films in which an atheist who has a grudge against Christianity ends up an eventual convert. That's what happens to the professor played by Kevin Sorbo in God's Not Dead, and the character he played in Let There Be Light, a feature he also directed in 2017 — a Richard Dawkins–esque author who comes around after a near-death experience. The Case for Christ (2017) is significantly less cartoonish in depicting a former investigative journalist trying to debunk the resurrection in order to win back his born-again wife, only to become a believer himself. In God's Club (2015), actor Lorenzo Lamas is a hostile nonbeliever trying to shut down an after-school Bible study club started by Stephen Baldwin, only to ultimately experience a change of heart after his son stops taking his antidepressants and goes missing.

It's a motif that speaks to the desire to evangelize, but there's a darker streak there — the desire to defeat these characters, to come out on top of foes who are, in these films, often wildly antagonistic toward innocent Christians who've enraged them simply by existing. Steven Greydanus, writing about the first God's Not Dead, noted that the film “flatters Christian viewers with the triumphalist message that we are the heroes, that our enemies are bankrupt and miserable, that we will be rewarded and they punished.”

Is the aim of these films to fill in gaps in representation, or to tell people what they want to hear? 

The faith being presented here is defined by opposition — a vision of the world in which religious people are presented as incapable of existing alongside the secular. Left out of the conversation, when treating depictions of faith as all-or-nothing, is the whole swath of the US population that identifies as Christian but that doesn't feel the need for siloed-out media just for them. Erik Lokkesmoe describes his specialty in the outreach he does with Aspiration Entertainment as the “so-called beer-drinking Christians,” an audience he estimates at 15 million people. They are, in his words, not looking to have their beliefs confirmed, but “expecting to be challenged and to be given space to contemplate and create that conversation.”

Which really gets at the crux of what's facing the faith-based market as it heads into the future, and attempts to expand its reach beyond its existing scope: Is the aim of these films to fill in gaps in representation, or to tell people what they want to hear? If one of the ultimate hopes of the faith-based film industry really is to reach other audiences, its filmmakers may have to stop tapping those outsize feelings of persecution, especially given the way they can be used to diminish and dismiss the experiences of the genuinely marginalized.

In 2016, New York Times critics Margaret Lyons and James Poniewozik published a fascinating conversation about God on the small screen, digging into some recent television depictions of religion, from the casual Catholicism of Jane the Virgin to the full-throated Jewishness of Transparent to the OWN megachurch melodrama Greenleaf. In the piece, Poniewozik notes that “we’re still waiting for the much-theorized-about Muslim equivalent of The Cosby Show,” something Katie Couric suggested back in 2010.

Well, the first season of comic Ramy Youssef's autobiographical comedy series Ramy just premiered on Hulu, and while it's edgier than that (now-tarnished) landmark sitcom, the show is being praised for telling a millennial coming-of-age story through the lens of an Egyptian American Muslim experience. As Sopan Deb noted, “It’s a simple formula, but after decades of Muslims being depicted onscreen as terrorists and villains or otherwise pushed to the side, it’s practically revolutionary.”

The significance of seeing normalized, complicated Muslim American characters in a TV show after such a long history of negative portrayals shouldn't be understated. It speaks to the power of putting everyday experiences with faith onscreen. At the same time, the milestone that the show represents also underscores how unfair any comparison to a Christian experience in a majority Christian-identifying nation is, no matter how burdened by persecution some white evangelicals claim to feel.

When I spoke to Brian Ivie, the director of the upcoming Charleston church shooting documentary Emanuel, he said, “I have had the honor and privilege of walking through a story where nine people were killed while they were expressing their faith. So I have less patience for those who feel victimized by someone being mean to them on Twitter about their faith.” It’s a good reminder that when you're only focused on preaching to the choir, it can be hard to hear anyone outside of it. ●



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