Why I Cover Faith-Based Films

Originally posted October 24, 2014

thesongAnyone who follows the box office knows that faith-based films have become a hot topic lately. The success of movies like God’s Not Dead, Heaven Is For Real, and other, similar films has made Hollywood sit up and take notice. There are lots more of them on the way. I’ve been covering faith-based films for a while now, and I plan to cover them much more extensively in the future. This will not happen at the expense of anything else on The Aisle Seat or on my Twitter and Facebook feeds. It will simply be in addition to what’s already there.

For this reason, I wanted to offer an explanation for why this is happening. It’s a funny thing. Whenever I tweet about a faith-based movie – whether it’s assessing the movie’s quality, talking about its box office, or anything else – I end up losing a couple of Twitter followers. I’ve had professional colleagues tell me that I shouldn’t bother reviewing faith-based films because they’re “filmed sermons,” “propaganda,” and “not real movies.” I’ve had makers of faith-based films tell me that critics “don’t get” their product and might as well just ignore them. And yet, I persist. Clearly, this is because I want to shove my religion down other people’s throats, right? Wrong.

A little bit about me: I was raised a Catholic and continue to practice that religion. I attend Mass weekly, and I’m tickled that I can see the steeple of my church from my front yard. I am not, however, the most by-the-book Catholic you’ll ever meet. I don’t go to confession, I have anger toward my religion for its shameful, decades-long cover-up of child sexual abuse, and I’m far more liberal in my political views than the Vatican would probably be comfortable with. (Gay people want to get married? Fine by me!) Catholicism is part of Christianity, and yes, I absolutely consider myself a Christian. Not an Evangelical one, but a Christian nonetheless. It’s not something I generally talk about, simply because I prefer to let my actions reflect my beliefs. My faith is what makes me try every day to be a good husband to my wife and a good father to my son. It’s what motivates me to engage in things that help the poor and mentally ill in my community, which I do regularly. It’s what makes me work really hard to use whatever writing skills I have to my fullest ability. But I have no intention of doing anything to force my beliefs on anyone else, and they have little to do with my interest in covering faith-based films.

The true origin goes all the way back to 1999. I was traveling in the southern part of our wonderful country and seeing a lot of movies in the process. Almost every theater I came across down there was showing a film called The Omega Code. I’d never heard of it, which, being a film critic whose job entails keeping up on new movies, struck me as odd. A quick internet search revealed that The Omega Code was a Christian-themed movie. Makes sense, I thought. I’m in the Bible Belt! To the shock of everyone, myself included, the picture debuted in the box office top ten for the weekend. It was amazing that a film playing to such a specialized audience could have such success, especially given that it had clearly received no sort of mainstream promotion or publicity. I was intrigued.

In 2000, I decided to investigate. I interviewed people from Cloud Ten Pictures, a company dedicated to making Christian films. It was there I learned of the goal among Christian filmmakers to hire A-list stars and have their movies play in multiplexes right alongside the standard Hollywood fare. The idea of a new movement in cinema excited me. In the intervening years, I could see slow, steady progress being made on this front. I occasionally covered one of the movies. Some were pretty good. (Like Dandelion Dust is an example of an excellent faith-based film.) Others were, well, filmed sermons. This past year, though, faith-based films blew up, achieving heretofore unprecedented financial success, and there were more of them. Aside from Heaven Is For Real and God’s Not Dead, we’ve also had Son of God, Moms’ Night Out, The Identical, The Song, Believe Me, and Left Behind sharing screen space alongside superhero movies, horror flicks, and raunchy comedies.

And this is why I choose to extensively cover faith-based films. They’re no longer playing just in church basements. They’re at a theater near you. Your friends, family members, and coworkers are going to see them. Maybe you are too. For that reason, they deserve to be covered and reviewed, just like any other movies. I’m going to review them, and tweet about them, and provide as much information/perspective on them as I can. The fact is that most critics ignore these movies (although that is starting to change somewhat). Some do view them as “propaganda” and “not real movies.” I don’t. I view them as a product designed to satisfy an audience. People who want to be scared go to see horror movies. People who want to laugh go to comedies. People who want an uplifting Christian message – and don’t want profanity, sex, and violence – go to faith-based films. They are a legitimate force in the current box office scene, and they deserved to be discussed with as much seriousness of purpose as a Marvel movie or an awards-bait drama. Hollywood, noticing the often intense support of faith-based films, is getting in on the action, producing expensive Biblical epics like Noah and the upcoming Exodus: Gods and Kings. We can’t ignore the impact of faith-based films on the overall cinematic landscape.

The truth is that no genre should be dismissed entirely, including this one. Yes, some of the movies put far more emphasis on delivering the message than on creating a good story or interesting characters. Some of them think they can get lazy, so long as there’s a sermon or a miracle at the end. I’m pretty hard on faith-based films for this reason. I want them to be better, to be good quality films, to go beyond what’s easy and shoot for something more ambitious. The only way to make that happen is to be part of the conversation.

Any time there’s a new “trend” in cinema, it’s exciting. We need new voices and new points of view. Faith-based films, love them or hate them, are part of that. So you’ll see and hear me discussing them a lot more going forward. Again, it won’t be at the expense of anything else, it’ll just be an expansion. Some of you will have no interest in hearing about these movies. I understand, and won’t be offended if you skip reading those reviews or tweets. But I hope you won’t. I hope you will keep reading and follow me as I explore how this emerging genre grows, changes, and adapts. These are real movies, and I’ll be covering them and how they impact cinema. Because that’s what film critics/reporters do.