Cleaning up the devil's playground
Hollywood and Christianity have become strange bedfellows, and now, the genre is coming to Canada
A few years ago, while promoting the release of his faith-based film The Christmas Candle, former Pennsylvania senator and ex-presidential hopeful Rick Santorum made an appeal to Christians. "This is a tough business," Santorum said of the film industry, "and the devil, for a long, long time, has had these screens for his playground. And he isn't going to give it up easily."
Santorum's plea spoke to a longstanding evangelical view of the film industry. In his essential 1959 pulp history of Hollywood's golden age, Hollywood Babylon, filmmaker Kenneth Anger develops an image of the classic showbiz as a Boschian garden of perverse, earthly delights. In the 1979 thriller Hardcore, a devout Calvinist father (George C. Scott) trawls the teeming underbelly of Los Angeles for his wayward daughter. In 2001's Mulholland Dr., a plucky Canadian jitterbug dancer (Naomi Watts) loses her soul in La-La Land. It is a place of false idols graven on celluloid. Hollywood is the devil's playground.
Yet, in the past decade or so, at least since the financial success of Mel Gibson's 2004 bloody biblical epic The Passion of the Christ, this attitude has changed. Films targeted at – and indeed, conceived and produced deliberately for – Christian audiences do big business at the box office. See: 2006's The Nativity Story ($37.6-million), 2014's God's Not Dead ($60.7-million), 2014's Heaven Is for Real ($91.4-million), 2015's War Room ($67.8-million) or, from earlier this year, The Shack ($56.7-million).
It's one thing for the film business, driven as it is by the Almighty Dollar, to get into the business of religion. But it's quite another for religion to hitch itself to mainstream movies. Increasingly, it seems as if Hollywood isn't so much the devil's playground as it is a large, conspicuous, particularly useful pulpit for peddling religious pedagogy. And it's a movement that's making its way to Canada.
A news release for Adams Testament, an independent Canadian Christian film that made its debut in Toronto just after Easter, puts it is this way: "Faith-based films have always had a small but strong niche in the North American market. In Canada, select filmmakers are redefining the genre and producing an edgy and revolutionize [sic] form of faith-based films that appeals to a broader audience while maintaining traditional messages."
Adams Testament is about a tormented man (Adam, played by former Degrassi star Luke Bilyk) struggling with his faith – or lack thereof. On the side of the angels is Adam's father (Philip Moran, who also produced the film) and an old priest (veteran Canadian character actor Art Hindle), who attempt to lure Adam out of his life of aimless decadence and bring him back to "The Word." To drive the message home, the film shows Adam gigging in a rock club called Purgatory.
Making fun of Adams Testament feels a bit mean – like teasing a Mormon door-knocker about his cropped Oxford shirt, or cracking wise about the Pope's hat. But it's also productive. For the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, religion was most interesting as a form of anthropological projection, with any given theology revealing the values of its respective culture. Likewise, the new Christian blockbusters (and their aspiringly gritty offshoots, such as Adams Testament) can be viewed usefully as revelations of modern religious belief. The sheer ludicrousness of the pitch for Adams Testament – i.e., "Here's a movie about a hard rocker with a motorcycle and a tattoo facing off against a tap-dancing devil and a choir of archangels in the dark alleys of modern-day Toronto" – speaks to the desperation of Christian churches to win black sheep back to the flock circa 2017.
These films enter into a strange feedback loop. They offer stories about faith being tested for those who don't want their faith tested. Like those spinning Tibetan prayer wheels that pray on behalf of the believer, these movies offer salvation by proxy, all while reconfirming the viewer's religious world view.
Ad campaigns for Heaven Is for Real preached that it was "based on the incredible true story," adapted as it is from the 2010 bestselling book of the same name. Beyond being disingenuous – like claiming that Jurassic Park is a true story because it, too, was based on a book that factually exists – it speaks to the general thrust of contemporary Christian cinema. Audiences don't want parables or metaphors or cheap symbolism: They want the Truth. And the Truth is their truth.
Even the highly watchable 2014 Christian drama God's Not Dead, in which the existence of God is put on trial in a liberal college philosophy class, deliberately proscribes the option of there not being God. The primary antagonist is an atheist professor, played with cartoony relish by Kevin Sorbo, who climactically confesses that he turned his back on religion, blaming God for his mother's death. It's not a matter of God not existing, it's a matter of Sorbo's prof. simply hating Him. (The professor converts to Christianity on his deathbed, after being conveniently run over by a car in the film's last scenes.)
Such determinist plotting and broad caricatures speak to another pleasure in contemporary evangelical movies: They're funny. Maybe not "ha-ha" funny. But certainly improbably, sometimes jaw-droppingly, so-bad-their-good funny. They're a whole new subgenre of cinematic camp. To a certain viewer so predisposed, contemporary Christian cinema offers abounding pleasures: stiff performances, heavy-handed message-mongering and absurd (if true) names like "Colton Burpo."
Take the 2008 Kirk Cameron vehicle Fireproof, about a fire chief struggling with his failing marriage. It's a movie that features, just 60 seconds in, a young girl asking if she can marry her own "daddy." It's also one in which Cameron beats a personal computer with an aluminum baseball bat in order to fight back against the temptation of online porn. He then sets about making up with his wife. Never mind that he doesn't even seem to like her. Or that the filmmakers go out of their way to depict her as a shrew and a bit of a Jezebel. It's the institution of marriage that's holy. As Cameron's ashamedly divorced co-worker tells him, "Marriage is a sacred institution, provided by God."
Where Adams Testament is more primally Manichaean in its theology, depicting a timeless struggle of angels and devils vying for control of wayward souls, the Christian blockbusters that find wider audiences tend to reinforce the role of religious institutions. There are scenes of people praying and singing in pews, and of scripture quoted verbatim. In one of Heaven Is for Real's sequences, the waddling toddler Colton Burpo enters the Kingdom of Heaven by passing through the heavy doors of a radiantly shimmering chapel.
It can seem silly, but it offers yet another revelation: In order to have a pure, totally unmediated relationship with Christ, the film says, we must first pass through the institution of the church itself. Or maybe the glassy revolving doors of the local cineplex will suffice.