Holy grail: how Hollywood can get religious movies right

Why We Wrote This

Easter is a natural time to roll out movies meant to uplift and inspire. But finding the right balance of depth and realism often eludes filmmakers. Where is there room for improvement in faith on film? 

Allen Fraser/20th Century Fox
(From l. to r.) Josh Lucas, Chrissy Metz, and Marcel Ruiz star in ‘Breakthrough,’ a new movie based on the true story of a mother who saves her hospitalized son’s life through prayer. Early reviews suggest ‘Breakthrough’ falls into a familiar trap for faith-based films.

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More Christian movies are being produced today than in Cecil B. DeMille’s heyday. They range from multiplex hits such as “God’s Not Dead” and “War Room” to multitudinous direct-to-video flicks that make Hallmark TV movies look high-budget by comparison. Even Mel Gibson’s blockbuster, “The Passion of the Christ,” reportedly has a sequel on the way.

But as with new Easter-release “Breakthrough” – a film based on the true story of a mother who saves her hospitalized son’s life through prayer – the stories and theology in Hollywood fare are often too shallow or too literal. Movie critics and theologians wonder why that has to be and suggest that filmmakers instead be less preachy and obvious with their messages.

Ultimately, humans tend to learn best via narrative, says Abby Olcese, who writes for Christian publications such as Sojourners and Relevant. The Bible is full of rich stories about what mankind’s relationship to God looks like, she notes. Film has the capacity to operate in the same way. “What Christian movies should aspire to,” she says, “is telling a legitimately good story and letting the content speak for itself.”

As a Christian, Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson was initially intrigued by “Breakthrough,” a new movie timed to coincide with Easter and based on the true story of a mother who saves her hospitalized son’s life through prayer. 

Despite the likable cast, led by Chrissy Metz of TV’s “This is Us,” Mrs. Wilkinson ultimately found “Breakthrough” generic. “It’s very much one of those films that’s like ‘Do you believe in miracles?’” She points out that rather than diving deeper into theological questions, as when one character asks why her ill husband wasn’t similarly saved, the movie simply leaves them hanging.

Today more Christian movies are being produced than in Cecil B. DeMille’s heyday. They range from multiplex hits such as “God’s Not Dead” and “War Room” to multitudinous direct-to-video flicks that make Hallmark TV movies look high-budget by comparison. Even Mel Gibson’s blockbuster, “The Passion of the Christ,” reportedly has a sequel on the way. But as with “Breakthrough,” the stories and theology are often too shallow or too literal, leaving those who are following this fare asking why. Movie critics and theologians suggest that filmmakers instead be less preachy and obvious and that they start by taking a page from the Good Book. 

“Popular art created by Christians or for Christians really seems to have taken a turn for the worse. And it parallels, I think, a superficiality in churches,” says Jared C. Wilson, director of the Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist Church near Kansas City, Missouri. “They’ve been discipled according to just more of a sentimental kind of Christianity rather than a more mature or fully orbed biblical Christianity.”

Swap sermons for ideas

Fewer Americans are going to church, according to the Pew Research Center. But 80% still believe in some higher power or spiritual force, and many are still watching movies. To reach those who prefer recliner seats to church pews, Mr. Wilson says spiritually inclined moviemakers first need to learn the classic storyteller’s dictum: show, don’t tell. That includes an economy of language. Unless you happen to have Morgan Freeman delivering an Aaron Sorkin soliloquy to a John Williams soundtrack, it’s best to avoid sermonizing on-screen. 

A far more effective approach, he adds, is to allow characters’ actions to convey ideas. In other words, let Christianity inform the story rather than starting out with a message agenda.

William Romanowski, author of “Cinematic Faith,” points to “Tender Mercies” as an example. In that 1983 film, Robert Duvall plays a country music artist who has a conversion experience early in the story. “He starts making decisions in a different kind of way, living a different way. And it changes the way that he loves someone,” says Mr. Romanowski, a professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Those are the films I think that are more engaging in terms of making God real in the world that we live in.”

That complexity of character – found in the Bible itself – is what more filmmakers should focus on, say critics and theologians. David, for example, went from heroic Goliath-slayer to, at one point before he repented, an adulterous and murderous king (perhaps the original “Breaking Bad”). Audiences relate to messy, complex characters whose stories may defy easy resolution. Paul Schrader’s 2018 movie “First Reformed,” about a priest experiencing a spiritual crisis, exemplifies that approach, says Mrs. Wilkinson.

“I was talking to an artist yesterday who was saying what we’re looking for is to make art that reflects you back to you – not so you can see yourself, but so you can see yourself differently and decide if that’s what you want to be,” says Mrs. Wilkinson. “People experience it, and then they are pushed into reasking big questions like what is the meaning of life, what are we doing here, how do we love our neighbor, and what happens after we die.”

Christian storytellers can learn a lot from those Hollywood artists who are able to challenge their audiences, says Andrew Barber, who writes film reviews for Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition. As an example, Mr. Barber cites Martin Scorsese’s 2016 movie “Silence,” in which two 17th-century Jesuit missionaries find their faith tested in Japan.

“It asks ‘What does a Christian who fails look like?’” says Mr. Barber, who has a master of divinity degree from Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. “I think it has a very strong heretical line at the end. But it is incredibly earnest and at moments very devotional. I found it very powerful and asking really interesting questions. But I think it’s a movie that would be be a great conversation starter for a lot of Christians.” 

The Gibson effect

Mr. Barber says many Christians still haven’t forgiven Mr. Scorsese for his 1988 movie “The Last Temptation of Christ.” That movie generated both controversy and some thoughtful discussion by positing that Jesus was briefly tempted to escape crucifixion and instead live out a life that included marrying Mary Magdalene. Ultimately, it flopped at the box office. 

That hasn’t stopped Hollywood from rebooting, reimagining, and recasting Jesus of Nazareth even more times than Spider-Man. Credit Mr. Gibson. Scores of movies have tried to replicate the $612 million global success of “The Passion of the Christ.” The reported sequel is said to feature Jim Caviezel reprising the role of Jesus after his resurrection.

Joaquin Phoenix is the latest actor to don the crown of thorns. He costars in “Mary Magdalene,” released in the United States last weekend, which retells the Passion narrative from the perspective of the titular female apostle, played by actress Rooney Mara.

In her Vox review of the film, Mrs. Wilkinson praised its quietly subversive feminist angle, but she felt that its dreamy, ethereal style undercut its realism. Fantastical depictions also dogged Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” which featured a giant, six-armed rock monster that looked like it had wandered in from a Thor movie.

If Hollywood wants to make better biblical movies, it needs a more inspired view of the scriptures, nuanced but not so narrowly focused, says Abby Olcese, who writes for Christian publications such as Sojourners and Relevant. “They think that all Christians believe that the Bible is 100% right all the time,” says Mrs. Olcese. “The reality is that there’s a lot more division within the church as to how much of it is divinely inspired but written by man.”

Ultimately, though, humans tend to learn best via narrative, she says, and the Bible is full of rich stories about what mankind’s relationship to God looks like. Film has the capacity to operate in the same way.

“What Christian movies should aspire to is telling a legitimately good story and letting the content speak for itself.”

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