How Christian cinema became a new frontier in the battle for America's soul
Centuries ago, Christianity and the arts sat hand-in-hand. One fed off the other, like Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick, or Adele and heartbreak. From Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling to Milton’s Paradise Lost, art has been used to express devotion and earn the patronage of wealthy priests and popes, who in turn commissioned masterpieces to please God, assert their power and keep the masses educated in the way of the Lord.
Since then, however, religion has had a much less vaunted position in the arts (if you don’t believe me, try playing some Christian rock at your next house party and witness the reaction). In a secular age, not only is it harder for artists to include religious themes without seeming preachy, but Jesus and co. are simply less likely to seep in. Art represents contemporary concerns, and now that being a God-fearing Bible-devourer isn’t the norm it once was, the average pop song is more likely refer to Nando’s than to scripture. Even when religion does feature, it’s usually used as a metaphor (for instance, 2Pac being crucified on the cover of his album The Don Killuminati), or as a point of uncertainty. Today’s artists grapple with God, rather than exalting him.
Overtly Christian art has, consequently, become much more niche. In particular, this has given rise to a peculiar sub-genre of devout, defiant Christian cinema. Unlike classic epics of the Ten Commandments and Samson & Delilah ilk, which innocuously traded off the inherent drama and bombast of the Bible, these films are more evangelical, even dogmatic, in nature. Those old films transferred tales from the Old Testament onto Hollywood soundstages at a time when Christianity was commonplace enough for audiences not to quibble over Charlton Heston and Hedy Lamarr’s woes being resolved by a flash of divine intervention. These films, by contrast, are made at a time where religious stories struggle to lay claim to the mainstream, and where much of America’s conservative Christian right is on the defensive.
A perfect expression of this defensiveness is God’s Not Dead 2, set for release this month. It depicts a high school history teacher who, after answering a question about Jesus, is reported by her students, fired by her superiors, and eventually sued by a civil rights group attempting to prove that Jesus never existed. Sounds wildly plausible, right? It’s about as plausible as its predecessor, in which an atheist philosophy professor forces students to sign a contract stating ‘God is Dead’, before being challenged to a debate by a plucky student determined to prove God’s existence.
I discovered God’s Not Dead recently, late at night on some obscure TV channel, and good lord it was terrible. Teeth-grindingly terrible. No matter which ideological or artistic angle I approached it from, it faltered. Setting aside for a moment the clunky performances and heavy-handed writing, its entire premise was ludicrous. It presents Christians as the 21st century equivalent of the Jews in the desert, a minority persecuted to the point of extinction by cartoon atheists determined to spread hatred against the Good Word. Even the phrasing of ‘God is Dead’ rings false, as though atheists had conspired to kill him off. A genuine atheist would probably say that God isn’t dead, but has simply never existed. Sure enough, the antagonistic professor turned out not to be a genuine atheist at all, but a bitter man who turned his back on God after some childhood trauma or another. The ‘happy ending’, in which he rediscovers God whilst dying in a car wreck surrounded by priests overjoyed at his approaching reunion with the almighty, makes for unsettling viewing.
It’s often said that after years of dominance, equality can feel like oppression. It’s a mentality expressed by men’s rights activists and organisers of ‘white pride’ rallies
The God’s Not Dead films are also notable in their efforts to scientifically and legally prove the existence of God. As for how those arguments hold up…well, let’s just say I went into God’s Not Dead a non-believer, and I came out the same way. They’re not alone, though. 2014’s A Matter of Faith depicts a man desperately trying to save his daughter from the intellectual grips of her evolution-espousing teacher. As far as the filmmakers are concerned, he succeeds, but for most viewers the film will be an embarrassing display of fundamentalist pseudo-science.
It would be easy to dismiss these films as ridiculous if they didn’t encapsulate very real, very potent grievances currently raging on the Christian right. We need look no further than the Republican Presidential debates to see the fear being provoked by a perceived loss of social hegemony. To Ted Cruz et al, any legal measure that deviates from the Bible – be it abortion, gun control or equal marriage – is an imposition on religious liberty. The separation of church and state would seem natural to most – after all, where’s the sense in teaching one set of religious beliefs as fact in schools, or using them as the basis for a law that applies to 318 million people of varying or no faith? To conservative American Christians, however it is tantamount to discrimination. As one character in God’s Not Dead 2 prophesises, “the pressure we feel today will be persecution tomorrow. We’re at war”.
It’s often said that after years of dominance, equality can feel like oppression. It’s a mentality expressed by men’s rights activists and organisers of ‘white pride’ rallies - the fear that granting rights to others inevitably means losing rights of your own. But while Christianity - like all religions - has been both the persecutor and the persecuted at various points in its history, modern American Christians are as free as anybody else to practice their beliefs. The only difference from decades past is that they can no longer expect those beliefs to be placed on a pedestal.
Clearly, artists should be free to express their beliefs in their work, and that includes religious beliefs. Less crusading (if not better made) films like Heaven is for Real, which tells of a young boy’s alleged visit to Heaven during a near-death experience, wisely focus on preaching to the converted. Christian viewers might gain a pleasant boost from them, but others are free to steer clear. When films like God’s Not Dead stretch further, though, stoking tensions between Christians and non-believers and advocating an archaic, Bible-dominated America, they pose a problem.
In 2016, we can’t live by the motto ‘it’s God’s way or the highway’. In 2016, believers, atheists and agnostics alike deserve something a little less divisive and a little more, well…enlightened.
About the author
Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.
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