Every week I check the local listings at my neighborhood theaters to see what’s on that I haven’t heard of. Every week, there’s a few movies that catch my attention – a Bollywood hit, rerun of a classic, or I might perk up an ear for a movie like Sleight, which stayed under the radar – mostly for budgetary reasons. But the titles that I frequently find myself scratching my head over are ones like The Resurrection of Gavin Stone or October Baby. I think: Where the hell did these movies come from? Am I out of the loop? Stay woke, dammit! But upon some quick research, I realize that all these movies fall under the same umbrella, namely, the faith-based drama. Over the past decade or so, there has been an emergence of these types of movies, which one should really think of as Christian cinema. Those titles might elude the general public, but at some point in your moviegoing experience, you’ve surely encountered one. Be it Gods Not Dead, Blue Like Jazz, I’m in Love with a Church Girl, or all the heavy-handed shit that Kirk Cameron haphazardly concocts, there are a lot of these movies (including a sequel, maybe two to Gods Not Dead). It seems like every year there are two or three of these movies and frankly, they’re all terrible. Not because of the core content involved in making the films, but because of how and why these films are made.
Let me first state that this has nothing to do with religious films or religious cinema in general. Oddly enough, I think films like Grown Ups might be able to, at least stylistically, gel with this group of films as well. This is a critique of lazy, generic, and overwrought works. That’s because how these films are made is… well, poorly. Let us look at our first case study: the 2013 film, I’m In Love With A Church Girl. In the film, Jeff “Ja Rule” Atkins plays a drug dealer named Miles Montego, who is turned good once the beautiful Adrienne Bailon wins his heart and corrects his moral compass. Quickly he realizes the error of his ways and realizes that he will have to reform his lifestyle to be worthy of a woman as beautiful and as good natured as her. The solution? Going to the California equivalent of “Lakewood Church“. Right out of the gate, this film looks fake. The lighting is bright and blown out, the story is half-assed, and the characters and their dialogue are unbelievable. Ja Rule is our protagonist, which is fine. Miles Montego is a guy perfectly susceptible to the influence of the morally righteous crowd. He learns that the value of the money he earns from his drugs is nothing compared to the value of community. But Ja Rule? Let’s just say that after deceiving people into buying ridiculous tickets to a fantasy music festival on an exotic island that turned out to pretty much a Lord of the Flies situation with a bunch of bougie, booze-fueled, festival kids scavenging for food and avoiding anarchy, he’s not really thinking about the best interest of the group. But neither Miles Montego and all those festival-crazy kids weren’t really interested in the soul of the institution they were attending. They were sucked in by the lifestyle! These films are made because they can sell a concept and it doesn’t require much in the way of substance. It’s the idea that this thing which is being offered will be fulfilling in some way. In the end, both the film and the festival ended up being vacuous, plasticky ripoff facsimiles of what people were led to believe. Because people weren’t going for the music or the film, they were going for the effect. Critics noticed this. One critic from Christianity Today noted that the message might have undercut the characters reliability. He writes, “If you try too hard to convey the message(s), you risk pummeling the relatable part of your art out of the production.” But it didn’t matter what any community thought. It made two million dollars, which is probably more than enough to made a solid return. Not to mention, that was the cost in making God’s Not Dead (2014) and that film made back about thirty times it’s budget.
The problem is these films are easy to sell no matter how terrible they are because they know how to pander. I’m in Love With a Church Girl had the audacity to list “God” as an executive producer. I mean, if God endorses a film and I’m a true believer, how am I not going to go see this movie? These films prey on the Christian moviegoing base like the sweater industry plays on college professors. It’s the same way that Joel Osteen manages to top the bestsellers list so frequently, simply by managing to make it a part of the syllabus. If you’re in the know, you’ve read this book or seen this film, basically allocating funds to the proper locations. It’s ease to do this when preaching to the choir! The actual content doesn’t need much substance. They’re able to make lots of material and without much effort, mind you. It feels predatory. It’s like when John Oliver did his experiment with televangelist groups. It’s just not right. It’s all about the effect it has on people, and not really about the substance. It’s a way of turning religion into entertainment. It’s the transfer of a spiritual entity into a commercial one. I had a friend who went and saw God’s Not Dead and proceeded to text ten of his friends God’s Not Dead afterwards. I mean, c’mon(!), a text chain? What is this? 2007? Even their marketing techniques fail to retain any subtlety.
Which leads us to our second case study: the 2014 film called Christian Mingle, directed by Corbin Bernsen (yes, the very same Corbin Bernsen from LA Law or Psych depending on the generation). The films finds itself between the intersecting axes of “unsubtle” and “heavily commercial”. Before we dive into the plot, let’s look at the title. Really? Naming a film after a dating website? I mean, no colon followed by witty subtitle? Just Christian Mingle. You wonder, “but does it have anything to do with the actual website?” Absolutely. The website is pretty much the catalyst behind the entire film. Talk about product placement. The story follows a woman named Gwyneth Hayden (couldn’t sound more white if her name was Regina George), who apparently has the dream life, except she’s single (*cue expected eye roll*). She’s tried dating a lot, but nothing seems to be working out for her! She’s a “thirty-something” and she’s apparently on the precipice of having her ovaries shrivel like dried fruit. What could she be doing wrong? She OBVIOUSLY hasn’t tried dating websites. No, scratch that! She needs THE only dating website she’ll EVER need: Christian Mingle! Wow. It only took one commercial to convince her of that. I suppose better that she saw that before a commercial for a late night sex hotline. Or SeniorMatch. Or GrindR. Or Black People Meet. She doesn’t fit into these categories either, but perhaps they’re saving room for sequels. The list of these specialized dating sites are endless, and the fact that this commercial arbitrarily directs the plot is a bit stupefying. Suddenly she plunges right into buying all the preparatory literature: the Bible, Christianity for Dummies, etc. She’s almost the desperate personality type that would be indoctrinated into joining ISIS, all for the sake of a husband. So she shows up on the date and quickly gets to know her beau and his gang of beautiful Tommy Hilfiger-model friends. See? Look how beautiful all these good people are! From there, the story really plateaus until her man finds out that surprise, she really isn’t Christian. He leaves her, but the religion has stuck and through her due diligence and commitment, they end up together in the end.
The film is a standard rom-com and to be honest, it’s a lot better than the multitudes of rom-coms out there today. It’s really the greatest movie about the website christianmingle.com that has ever been made. But in terms of intrinsic cinematic value, it is a detriment. It’s a film that says everything every other romantic comedy says: follow your heart and be true to yourself if you want to find love, adding nothing new to the discourse in that regard. But what it does add is that you can find happiness through Christian Mingle. It does for Christian Mingle what Mac and Me did for McDonalds. It’s full of wooden acting, cardboard dialogue, plastic characters, and writing that might as well have been compiled from discarded Katherine Heigl projects. Part of this laziness lends itself to the story structure. I’ll run you through a bit of this formulaic plot they’ve run about a hundred times before. Protagonist is some outsider (I’m in Love With A Church Girl, Blue Like Jazz) who is really lost in life, maybe they’re on the wrong path or maybe they’re looking for love. Then along comes a person/group/generally kind presence who seems to good to be true at first and then, WHAM! they’re religious. Protagonist has apprehensions about associating with said figure/s until some spiritual moment intervenes and voila, they’ve come to realize the error of their ways and have reformed their ways. This is the typical story structure of a lot of these films, which isn’t different from most generically bad movies.
Not all of these films have as innocent an agenda. Some films are made specifically to profit off of the divisive and increasingly tenuous nature between religious conservatism and secular culture. These films often frame the protagonist as a defender of faith having to battle against the increasingly secular society (think God’s Not Dead or Heaven is for Real). This agitprop style approach generally doesn’t help their cause. These films distill a complex and beautiful thing like religion into an anecdotal, self-aggrandizing commercial work. They end up feeling more like propaganda than prose and it works. Films like these draw a line in the sand and basically say, “Either you’re with us, or against us”. It’s a limiting perspective on a broad and complex issue.
Take a film like Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas for instance. The film itself was apparently so dull you’d rather count the ceiling panels in the theater. It still sits at a whopping 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. That means that even the religiously-inclined reviewers, scarce as they may be, thought the film was weak. But it made it’s money back and then some. Why? Well first, it was cheap to produce – this one only ran about half a million dollars and made back two and a half. But mostly, and this is a big factor overall, it was at the center of controversy. When you name a film Saving Christmas amidst an already tense Christmas season, you’re essentially taking the first charge in the “war on Christmas” and trying to rally the army to your side. The film garnered the attention of several news outlets, fueling the anger on both sides of the War on Christmas. People were already getting hot-headed about Starbucks product design changes, you really thought they wouldn’t jump at the chance to pick another fight with a Kirk Cameron movie? You had endorsements from various religious outlets, including the lesser-known Christian movie database. All this fervor became an easy income generator, propelling the film to relative success, thanks to Cameron’s constituents. Which is exactly the problem. These films, bad as they may be, are used to play to audience’s emotion, targeting a personal and vulnerable area, for complete commercial gain. And they might be excusable if they weren’t as campy and formulaic as they, but at this point they know: they don’t have to try.
No film is born terrible. Sure these films are heavy handed in their message, but It’s not like I have anything against propaganda films. I mean, the entire Marvel Universe is just a melting pot of fanservice. It’s not the spiritual aspect of the films that affect them either. As a man of faith, I think movies like Chariots of Fire, The Mission, Passion of the Christ, and Silence do more for the Christian cause than any of these films for one simple reason: they offer perspective. In a world where perspectives are narrow and causes abundant, cinema struggles to add any nuance into it’s craft. It’s why Michael Moore and Dinesh D’Souza are so predictable: They play to their audience without taking any risks. It eliminates alternative perspectives and the burden of discovering those nuances then falls on the viewer and currently, people can’t afford that kind of broadness of opinion. It’s the haughtiness that I really struggle with. That sort of self-righteous, half-assed way of applauding oneself for being right. It invites no nuance and no perspective whatsoever. When it comes to making a really good film, those two elements are key. Instead, what we’re given are flat characters, unrealistic scenarios, dialogue so lazy, you feel like you’re watching a Fast and the Furious movie sans any of the exciting bits. And yet these films will continue to be made, because they’re now involved in a much bigger narrative.
Films are struggling to find substance these days, and according to experts, it doesn’t look like there’s any light on the end of the horizon. But the last thing we need is to fall into this trap of enabling cinema that doesn’t really have to try. Attention spans are getting shorter, people are engaging less, the world seems to be more polarized than ever. We need films and other cultural outlets that will save this problem. We don’t need artificial looking Ja Rule projects that serve as ego stimulators telling “us” we’re better than “them”. We definitely don’t need more half-assed films that have the same effect. It doesn’t serve to challenge, move, or inspire us. And how can it? These films are made with horrible lighting, recycled plots, and an expectation that you go if you support their cause. And they must be doing well, as they continue to generate income for the production of many more films to come. But the audience drives the cultural trends of the cinema. If they aren’t satisfied, things will change. They’re already showing a distaste in other cinematic blunders. So perhaps, as a collective, we can work to raise our expectations in cinema together. No matter what your beliefs, let’s all have faith in the future of cinema.