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God’s Not Dead (He’s Playing Now in Movie Theaters)

How are these Christian movies (‘Noah,’ ‘Heaven Is for Real,’ ‘Son of God,’ and ‘God’s Not Dead’) doing well? And why now?

From the jump, this wasn’t a normal Easter Sunday.

I wasn’t at home in Atlanta. I overslept and didn’t make it to a church. I didn’t even have a clean suit to wear to give the impression that I was taking a post-church afternoon stroll.

Feeling out of sorts on a day that’s usually filled with friends and family and rituals and food and colors sorbet, it seemed as good a time as any to go see Noah. Not as a plea, not saying, “Hey, God, you see me, down here at Noah — you see this, right?” I went so I could live a topical life. You know, like watching A Charlie Brown Christmas in the days leading up to December 25. Or watching The Jacksons: An American Dream on Thanksgiving. It just felt right.

But also because of the hard-to-ignore reality that a handful of Christian films were beginning to put up atypical numbers at the box office. Yes, there was Noah (biblical: yes; Christian: debatable), but there were others. Three others, to be exact, exerting their will on the secular mainstream film industry.

Total 2014 Domestic Gross (All Charts Supplied by Box Office Mojo, 4/21/14)

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Atop the religious film food chain in 2014 is Noah. And that should not come as a surprise, considering its status as a $125 million epic starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, and Anthony Hopkins. But the familiar tale of Noah’s ark (never forget its remix, 2012) remarkably takes more cues from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers battle scenes than your average religious text reenactment.

Then there’s the other three. Son of God, released in late February, is a condensed version of the 2013 History Channel miniseries The Bible, which tells the story of Jesus. God’s Not Dead, released a month ago, is about a philosophy teacher (Kevin Sorbo) who goes out of his way to convince his students that — yes — God is dead and/or not real and/or you’re stupid if you believe in God. And then there’s Heaven Is for Real, released last week and starring Greg Kinnear as a preacher, husband, and father of a 4-year-old boy who claims to have seen heaven after a near-death experience.

Each represents a different archetype of Christian filmmaking. Your period piece (Son of God), your missionary agenda (God’s Not Dead), and your heartstrings-tugging family film (Heaven Is for Real). These are micro-categories, but they all have a clear message: promoting Christianity. And despite their differences, these are types of movies that many assume are (1) not very good, and (2) not very successful.

The extent to which the latter has been false in 2014 is startling. Because these aren’t just Christian films that are doing well in 2014. They’re shattering the commercial expectations of the entire genre.

Opening Weekend Gross, Films Classified as “Christian” and Defined as “Movies Produced by Christians That Promote or Embody Their Religions,” Since 1980

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A few things to consider to make these figures even more staggering: These three films are already in the top seven of all such films going back to 1980. In less than two months. The only titles ahead of them are the worldwide phenomenon that was 2004’s The Passion of the Christ and three Narnia films that were never subtle in reminding viewers that C.S. Lewis’s lion is a Jesus lion.

So that’s Mel Gibson’s Passion, three films based on one of the most celebrated book series of all time, and then three from 2014.

Total Domestic Gross, Films Classified as “Christian” and Defined as “Movies Produced by Christians That Promote or Embody Their Religions,” Since 1980

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By this time next week, Heaven Is for Real will most likely move past The Nativity StoryCourageous, and Fireproof, cementing the three films as all-time Christian successes within a genre mired in mainstream failure. But it’s even bigger than Christian films. It’s also the way each is holding its own among the current crop of nonreligious films — and in many cases, outperforming their more secular peers.

The $12 million Heaven Is for Real placed third in this past weekend’s domestic gross, outpacing the $100 million Johnny Depp vehicle Transcendence by $10 million. God’s Not Dead, in its fifth week of release, remains in the top 10, one of only two current films to stick a month after its release (Divergent is the other). And Son of God, while falling out of the top 20 in its eighth week, finds itself a hair away from $60 million in domestic gross, more than the likes of highly publicized films such as RoboCop, Jack Ryan: Shadow RecruitAbout Last NightThat Awkward Moment, and Pompeii. 

But that’s not the entire story. Because there’s the less-glamorous, more uncomfortable side of the story. The how and the why. How are these movies doing well? And why now? It’s near impossible to dive into these questions with a number set, a brief synopsis, a cast list, or even a handful of trailers. Beginning to scratch that surface involves actually seeing these films. Seeing all of them. On the same day. You know, on Easter Sunday.

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A lie that I wanted to tell was that none of the films had any real effect on my relationship with religion and films of the cloth. But each did. And in very different ways. And, for what it’s worth, each produced a set of reactions that felt highly out of place, so much so that this social experiment I’d put myself in repeatedly felt regrettable.

god-movies

First, there was …

Noah

Going in, I knew it was written, directed, and produced by Darren Aronofsky. And I knew him to not be a Christian man, which had me excited for Noah. Because I wasn’t there for religion. And I didn’t care about “historical accuracy” or whatever that even means when discussing a flood myth. I just wanted to be entertained. Because, crude or not, my favorite guilty pleasure genre is “disaster” and, despite the serious scriptural background, Noah fit the bill. And I was entertained. But the climax of the film is what put me in an unexpected headspace. Because through Aronofsky’s telling, Noah decides to go against God to save his newborn grandchildren, the rest of his family, and ultimately the human species.

When this happened — when he didn’t stab his twin granddaughters — I was pumped. I really didn’t want to carry that with me all day. I was so relieved that Noah didn’t listen to God. Because, in my head, there was some very clear communication error going on between God and Noah. And we were only moments away from that error really ruining everything.

Having cavalier, anti-listening-to-God thoughts felt rude. Because I try to make a point of not dissing God. My gut told me that I was fine, but I understood why so many Christians denounced Aronofsky and Noah. Because it forces you to make an uncomfortable choice. I was perfectly capable of making that choice. Many won’t be.

Seeing Noah first wasn’t strategic, but it turned out to be perfect. It was the skeptical calm before the sanctified storm. And it would be my last true chance to get an outsider’s perspective for the next 10 hours.

Next …

Heaven Is for Real

Greg Kinnear

It was impossible to ignore the change in the demographics. At Noah, the theater’s seats were filled with some of everyone. It was a typical blockbuster crowd — it easily could have been a screening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In Heaven Is for Real, however, I was surrounded by families. Nuclear families everywhere. The theater was packed.

There were moments early in Heaven when I’d forgotten that this was an extremely Christian film. Occasionally that would be due to Greg Kinnear expertly channeling Friday Night Lights’ Coach Taylor as Heartland Dad and Husband of the Year. Or the family doing atypical Christian film things, like eating and not talking about Jesus. Or going for a drive and not talking about Jesus. Or a husband and wife whispering sexual advances to one another, again while not talking about Jesus.

That was a nice surprise, not having to saddle the movie with a religious handicap for quality simply because there was some early talk of Jesus and God and the Bible. It felt great to treat this movie just like any other movie. And by “any other movie,” that meant being able to celebrate it, laugh at it, and make fun of it. I wasn’t expecting to feel that way at any point on Sunday. I could acknowledge how awesome the main kid is while also noting how he creeped me out at times. (Later, I texted a friend to say that he weirdly had the same bone structure as Kate Upton.) I could note that watching Kinnear stress over connecting the religious dots was like Community’s Danny Pudi losing his mind over the question “Nicolas Cage: good or bad?” And having these thoughts felt OK.

As the movie pushed on, however, these thoughts diminished. Because the point of it all began to emerge. The emotional family film gave way to the questions of Christianity and heaven and God. Situations were wedged in to make the viewer think about his or her own Christian faith. So, yes, the film went there. And I knew it would. From the first note, the movie was impressive, letting Kinnear be a husband and father first and preacher second. But there was a moment when he turned into a bad husband and essentially pimped out his 4-year-old son to find godly answers. And I wasn’t sure if this was frowned upon hard enough in the film. There was conflict, especially marital, but the prospect of finding out the truth about heaven seemed to trump his 4-year-old getting the necessary sleep.

So that’s where I fell off the Heaven Is for Real train. But the idea that for a period it felt like a movie featuring Christianity, not simply a Christian movie, made it seem laudable. An achievement, even. And that helped explain why it did so well at the box office. Because if you want a family film and heavy-handed Christian film, this is your The Godfather Part II. 

That film ended, which officially meant it was time to go see …

Son of God

In Forest Hills, Queens.

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I knew one hard-to-comprehend statistic. 500,000. That was the number of advanced ticket sales purchased for Son of God. Half a million. To see a film about a story that everyone knows. Amazing, but it made sense considering where the masses were coming from: churches and religious groups. Megapreachers like T.D. Jakes (also a producer of Heaven Is for Real) and Rick Warren (friend of the film’s producer, Mark Burnett of The Voice, Survivor, The Sing-Off, The Apprentice, and Shark Tank fame) distributed tickets to their congregations. And churches across the country followed suit. Son of God made $31 million in its first week. But according to Burnett, a big first week wasn’t the ultimate goal.

This movie is going to be seen by a billion people over the next three or four years, so a big opening would be great, but this is very much a long-term proposition.

As I entered the small Queens theater, there were families still in Easter garb. The mood was more educational than entertaining. The overblown theatrics of Noah were nowhere to be found, nor was the family plot of Heaven Is for Real. This was simply the backbone of an entire religion, presented seriously over two hours.

But something happened while I was watching Son of God. Perhaps it was the early stages of fatigue, like that fourth hour of church service when you’re hungry and know football just kicked off. But I still had some lingering feelings from the last film, one that wanted to treat this film like I treated other films. I knew that was wrong, but I couldn’t shake something that I now know can be true: A Christian film doesn’t have to lack quality. I didn’t want to apply that religious film handicap anymore. It’s not that I wanted to strip it of its importance. But if something bad happens, I want to call it bad. And if something amusing happens, I want to laugh. Even if it is in a film about the life, death, and life of Jesus Christ.

Like when Jesus walks on water, fully clothed, and then climbs into Peter’s boat and asks him to go fishing. Let me assure you, watching that will put a smile on your face. It’s just such a rare move. Or when Jesus gets his follower count up and starts walking into towns like a rock star. You’ve never seen someone stroll into a town and get greeted by love and haters alike quite like Jesus. Or when Jesus flipped that table. Or the degree to which the story of Jesus is super gossipy. There’s just so much “I heard that … ” and “Well, he said … ” and “Guess what I saw … ” between the Jews and the Romans.

Or the moments when Jesus and his disciples just hang out. Chilling. After a lifetime around organized religion, you’re not supposed to let your mind wander when dealing with Jesus. I know this. And you’re definitely not supposed to think things like “Woodstock ’69.” But that’s what the film presented, and for about two seconds, all I could think about was the “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” Coca-Cola commercial.

I knew no one else was thinking this. And then I felt like a horrible person. Because I think I went too far. I never should have thought about that part in the Drake song when he raps, “When I walk through these halls, man, this beat should be playin'” with regard to Jesus walking into town. But I did.

And I couldn’t even blame the filmmakers for portraying Jesus with the confidence of a comedian hitting the stage for his highly anticipated HBO stand-up special. I was the one who had those thoughts. So I sat and watched the rest of the film without interruption. And the movie got very sad. And I got very sad with it. Because this wasn’t entertainment.

When Jesus rose, I wasn’t overcome with joy. I was still thinking about the lengthy crucifixion scene. And what a snitch Judas was.

Then it ended and I left for the only showing of the fourth and final film on Sunday, in Staten Island.

God’s Not Dead

With the first three films, I’d considered my own faith while looking at religion casually. I tried to view each movie under the same microscope, unbiased and inquisitive. The one thing I hadn’t done so far was openly mock.

Well, God’s Not Dead showed up at the perfect time.

I was never on an ark. I’ve never been a preacher or father of a kid who almost died and then saw heaven. And I certainly was not around for the human embodiment of the Messiah. But I did go to college. For four years. And because of that, I am allowed to scoff at the entire premise of God’s Not Dead. Here it is, the backbone of the film, the relationship between a professor and his class:

1. A professor makes his students sign a form that reads “God is dead.”

2. One student won’t sign it, because he’s a Christian.

3. The professor makes the student come before the class and prove that God is real.

4. The professor repeatedly threatens a student in front of the class.

5. At one point, the professor openly says, “I can’t wait to fail you,” on the grounds of believing in God.

6. In another encounter, the professor confronts a student in the hallway, attempting to intimidate him.

And he doesn’t get fired. In fact, he has dinner parties with his fellow teachers and discusses the happenings over wine. And they all laugh. 

So yes, this movie is absurd. It creates a fantasy world in the name of Christianity winning in the end. It positions a David vs. Goliath scenario with the kid who believes in God and the professor who denounces that belief. After losing to the student in the eyes of the student body, the professor has a revelation, gets hit by a car, and decides to give his life to Jesus as he lies in the street, probably dying.

So God’s Not Dead isn’t holding back. Not for a second.

This is a film in which two Duck Dynasty cast members appear simply because they’re famous Christians.

This is a film in which, if you’re not a believer in Jesus, you will kick your kid out of the house for listening to the Bible on her iPod Nano.

This is a film in which antagonizers of Christianity are strategically given a platform to speak, just so they can be shut down. The entire film is like an instruction manual on how to live when rumspringa’d out of the Christian world and into the den of sin that is college.

This is a film set up like Crash that culminates in everyone meeting at the same Christian pop rock concert.

It’s the cinematic embodiment of a Christian pep rally. It’s like a corporate retreat in which you leave after three days with the company’s philosophy, motto, and brand tattooed on your brain.

God’s Not Dead is horrible. Because it goes out of its way to be not horrible. And, unlike the other films in its 2014 religious cohort, it falls into that troublesome section of Christian films (see: Perry, Tyler) that seems written for “simple people.” Which I find rude. And upsetting.

But if anything proves the strength of this moment, it’s that God’s Not Dead is thriving. Each of the other three films has a clear reason for its success: Noah because it’s not really a pro-God film; Heaven Is for Real because it strikes the rare balance between family film and Christian film; and Son of God because it’s become as much a pilgrimage as a moviegoing experience. God’s Not Dead is a throwback to the long history of unsuccessful Christian films that dwell in the land of telling Christians exactly what Christians want to hear and getting Christians excited about being Christians. But it came along at the perfect time. So give it credit for that, and nothing else.