“A young girl suffering from a rare digestive disorder finds herself miraculously cured after surviving a terrible accident.” That’s the synopsis provided by the gang behind Miracles From Heaven, a faith-based drama starring Jennifer Garner that premiered to packed houses last month. But that miraculous cure? It doesn’t rear its head until the film’s final act. Up until then, Miracles From Heaven is an earnest, occasionally affecting ode to a mother’s exhausting struggle caring for a daughter that’s withering away before her eyes. By film’s end, it’s little more than a paean to Christian faith, with characters debating the question of whether God’s responsible for the girl’s recovery. (He is.) Before this, God was simply a supporting character, one aspect of this family’s life rather than its raison d’être. This shift in tone and focus is so jarring that, despite it being a true story, the film almost feels disrespectful to Garner’s character, who’s spent the movie bending over backward to care for her daughter only to, in the end, give all the credit to God.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? Historically, Christian narratives exist for one purpose: to give glory to God. That’s what it commands in 1 Corinthians 10:31, after all. Everything else—compelling characters, spectacle, humor—exists to serve that purpose. It’s here that Christian filmmakers cannot waver. So even in faith-based fare that hopes to inspire secular audiences, they’ll assert their beliefs with an ironclad sense of conviction. In Miracles From Heaven, for example, the miraculously cured Anna details her twee and kaleidoscopic vision of heaven before asserting that “not everyone’s gonna believe, but they’ll get there when they get there.” In the world of this film, Anna’s vision isn’t a comforting fiction, but a tangible truth that we’ll all accept eventually. Smug, right? But that, too, is the point. Matthew 18:3 says that “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The world of these films is the evangelicals’ world. Its logic is theirs.
All this goes to say that this new wave of faith-based filmmaking—led by labels like Sony’s Affirm Films, production houses like Pure Flix Entertainment, and church-funded filmmakers like Alex Kendrick—knows exactly what it is. And, unlike the chintzy, genre-obsessed fare of the ’90s and early ’00s—bargain-bin cheapies starring Judd Nelson, Corbin Bernsen, and Mr. T—audiences are coming out in droves. There’s the obvious juggernauts: In 2014, God’s Not Dead made $62 million worldwide on a $2 million budget, while the Greg Kinnear-starring Heaven Is For Real scored an astronomical $101 million on a $12 million budget. And just last year, Kendrick’s War Room, a faith-based drama marketed toward non-white audiences, surpassed its $3 million budget countless times, raking in a total of more than $67 million.
There have been failures, too. Celebrity-led epics like Noah and Exodus: Gods And Kings tried to bridge the gap between secular and evangelical audiences by infusing Bible stories with action set pieces, but alienated both crowds in the process. Devout audiences, especially, saw them as impostors that diluted the word of God in favor of glitz and spectacle. They weren’t Christian enough. Because, more than a good story, evangelical audiences want to see their values reflected and reinforced on screen. They want their films to tell them they’re right. They want what is, for all intents and purposes, propaganda.
Miracles From Heaven and Heaven Is For Real, for example, aren’t content to be moving stories about parents using faith as a way to cope with their children’s illness. Rather, the emphasis is placed on validating the children’s respective visions of Christ and the reality that a Christian heaven exists. God’s Not Dead anchors its myriad storylines on a college student who tries to convince his philosophy class that God exists; his arguments are apparently so persuasive that they sway his staunchly atheist professor to give his life to Christ when on the verge of death. The common thread coursing through the new wave of successful faith-based cinema is that they’re less concerned with exploring faith’s power in the life of the individual than they are in asserting Christianity as an inarguable truth and the solitary path to salvation.
A similar lack of nuance can be found in their politics, which often paint evangelicals as crusading martyrs. 2012’s October Baby, for example, argues against abortion in the most tone deaf way possible, while Daniel Lusko’s 2014 film Persecuted pushes the martyr trope to its extreme by having the U.S. government frame an evangelist for rape and murder after he publicly opposes anti-Christian legislation. That Christians are an oppressed culture in modern society is fertile ground for evangelical filmmakers—this idea forms the spine of God’s Not Dead, as well as Kirk Cameron films like Saving Christmas and Unstoppable. This week, God’s Not Dead 2 will tell the story of a Christian teacher who’s taken to court for quoting the Bible in her classroom. The movie could be a layered exploration of faith and the academic system. But if the trailer’s any indication, it just looks like more “us against them” proselytizing. “We’re going to prove, once and for all, that God is dead,” declares a sneering Ray Wise.
All of this is, like any piece of propaganda, as troubling as it is alienating. As much as Christian producers and filmmakers speak of their films as a form of evangelism, their movies more often than not operate on a path of logic that’s completely foreign to non-believers. In films like Miracles From Heaven, Catching Faith, and War Room, the characters presented as the most level-headed are the ones who tell characters to pray and “have faith.” War Room, in particular, builds an entire philosophy around the idea of being a “prayer warrior,” something that, as The A.V. Club’s Vadim Rizov noted in his review, is both “oddly specific and totally vague about [its] larger theology… presuming (correctly) that the target audience is already familiar with it.” Just as limiting as this coded language is the moral strongholds of these films, which rarely allow their characters any kind of relatable transgressions. In War Room and Left Behind, sinful characters don’t cheat on their spouse, they merely consider it. Kirk Cameron’s protagonist in Kendrick’s Fireproof apparently has a crippling porn addiction, but the movie’s idea of porn is nothing more than an innocuous pop-up ad. In Catching Faith, a teenager getting drunk is spoken of in hushed, mournful tones. This is filmmaking as ministry, not outreach.
So, the question arises: is this approach the only way for evangelical filmmakers to give glory to God? Faith has long been a subject for secular filmmakers as well, but there’s a distinction that says faith-based films give that glory while films about faith are another thing entirely. And while there’s certainly gaps in terms of style and content—nobody would group Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Fireproof together—but drawing such a distinction ignores how films that embrace the ambiguities and inconsistencies of faith can also exemplify what’s beautiful and relatable about Christianity. Doubting Christ, after all, is its own kind of worship, as it involves an investigation beyond the trappings of church and into what’s at the core of scripture. Doubt is key to 1997’s The Apostle, Robert Duvall’s self-funded 1997 film about a disgraced Pentecostal preacher who finds redemption by bringing spiritual revival to a small Louisiana town, as are cruelty, rage, and sin—it’s the storm of those elements that help Duvall’s preacher reconcile himself with the Christ of his youth.
There’s also beauty to be found in the environments and daily routines of the faithful. Many faith-based films plant their Christians in upper crust, monochromatic churches packed with amiable, wisecracking preachers (see: John Carroll Lynch in Miracles From Heaven) and ultra-polished worship bands. A film like Carlos Reygadas’ 2007 film Silent Light offers an altogether different perspective—in its quiet, meditative view of a Mexican Mennonite colony, the film chronicles the faith’s particular rituals as it lingers on rustic homes and the area’s pastoral magnificence. Reygadas not only filmed in an actual Mennonite colony, but also cast the film with non-professional Mennonite performers, so there’s a lived-in quality to the film that never emphasizes the characters’ faith over their humanity. There’s really very little talk of faith or morality in the film, but it’s still easy to believe in heaven when you’re seeing the sky through Reygadas’ lens.
Faith is interwoven even more gracefully into the work of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, the Belgian directing team behind festival favorites like The Kid With A Bike and Two Days, One Night. Though their films are unconcerned with Christianity itself, the Dardennes build their stories on a foundation of spiritual serendipity where moral concepts of grace and kindness work to bring together disparate souls. To the Dardennes, there’s a mystery to kindness—like God, it rests on such a pillar of purity and innocence that it becomes easy to mistrust. Kindness is also a running theme in Miracles From Heaven—there’s a montage recounting the selfless and gracious actions of the strangers they met along the way—but, in the end, that kindness is simply folded into the film’s message of forgiveness and salvation. Because, to most Christians, God is forgiveness. To the Dardennes, however, God is kindness.
But Christian filmmakers don’t have the freedom of the Dardennes, Reygadas, or Duvall. They operate on different rules; Philippians 4:8 urges Christians to focus their minds on what’s noble and pure and praiseworthy, and the answer to how that applies to film is a murky one. If they insert a scene of a sexual nature, will they be violating Matthew 5:28 by inviting temptation or immorality into the viewer? If a film plays loose with scripture, will the film be accused of diluting the message? If there’s a moment of violence, will the film be suitable for showings in small church groups? Because if not, there goes a good chunk of the profits. And in the end, it’s absolutely about money. Many of these films are produced through ministries, with the profits coming right back into the church’s operating costs. A cinematic failure could spell doom for your ministry. These are the issues Christian filmmakers have to consider.
And it helps explain why Miracles From Heaven pivots the way it does in the end. Subtlety and ambiguity, hallmarks of great cinema, aren’t likely to satiate a modern evangelical audience that wants to shout its faith from the rooftops. In the end, the modern faith-based film must adopt a macro view and didacticism that assures viewers of Christ’s validity. It’s no surprise that the most critically acclaimed faith-based films—Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ and, to a lesser extent, this year’s post-crucifixion mystery Risen—are the ones that center around Christ’s journey. By doing so, assurance is woven directly into the fabric of the narrative, eliminating the need for tedious onscreen sermons.
Further hindering the journey towards more resonant faith-based films is that the industry itself is hinged on much more than the movies. Fireproof, for example, was released in tandem with The Love Dare, the self-help book that helps Kirk Cameron’s character save his marriage in the movie. And last year’s War Room has a cornucopia of accompanying resources, including books, Bible studies, and “campaign kits.” Just as Joel Schumacher was told to make Batman and Robin “toyetic,” faith-based filmmakers have to consider how their films will lend themselves to the business of ministry. The lines between film and church continue to blur, and not in a way that’s likely to result in better films or more encompassing narratives.
“Hollywood is missing this moment to reconnect with the American people because they don’t speak the language,” Glenn Beck said of this rise in the popularity of Christian cinema. “Some of it is out of spite—they might not like people of faith.” That seems to be the narrative among many evangelicals, but both Hollywood and the indie film scene are routinely putting out movies that explore faith issues from an empathetic standpoint—look at last month’s imperfect but intriguing The Confirmation, for example. But it’s almost as if those movies don’t count for evangelical audiences, as they don’t fall under the umbrella of what’s now considered faith-based cinema.
Film-wise, it feels like it’s the evangelical community that’s distancing itself from secular audiences. God’s Not Dead had a taunting quality to it—one of its secular characters dies, the other is diagnosed with cancer—and the forthcoming God’s Not Dead 2 exudes the same kind of know-it-all hysteria that Cameron’s Saving Christmas did a couple years ago. Attitudes like that will only draw derision from the other side, and it most certainly has. A movie like Miracles From Heaven is a different story, however. Early on, it’s promising in its ability to tell an encompassing story, but by the time Anna condescendingly declares non-believers will “get there when they get there,” there’s the sense that the film is carving a separation in its audience, splitting them up between believers and non-believers. Great cinema’s always been about bringing audiences together, but the current landscape of faith-based film only seems to tearing them apart.