by Matt Sheedy
This past weekend I caught the newly released Pure Flix Entertainment feature Do You Believe? at my local cinema, which marks the third “Christian drama film” to grace the big screen in the last year or so—the fourth if you count Son of God, produced by Lightworkers Media.
What I find most interesting in all of these films is not their “religious” content per se, but in looking at the ways in which cultural norms, values, and preferences intertwine with biblical narratives in order to gain legitimacy for particular group identities, while at the same time appealing to outsiders in the interest of winning converts (to either a group or a particular theological interpretation) and cashing in at the box office.
Whereas Darren Aronofsky’s Noah was a conscious effort to re-imagine a biblical narrative in the director’s own image, which he likened to a Midrash on environmental stewardship and the balance between justice and mercy, 2014’s other biblical epic, Exodus: God’s and Kings, presented a less partisan narrative, and was critiqued not so much for its biblical interpretation, but for its use of white actors to portray non-Europeans.
Films like God’s Not Dead, Heaven Is for Real, and Do You Believe? are clearly of a different genus—e.g., they are set in the present-day, are generically evangelical, and are backed by various insiders (actors, directors, production companies, church groups, etc.) whose habitus tends to reflect the cultural sensibilities of conservative (white, American) Christians. In this sense, these films are made by and for insiders, with the aim of creating palatable narratives for the purpose of proselytization; in modeling arguments that can be used against various outsiders (e.g., as with those against the atheist philosophy professor in God’s Not Dead); and in reinforcing the idea that certain groups and institutions—e.g., academia, the “liberal” media, unions, humanists organizations, “secular” law, etc.—are not on their side.
Riding on the coattails of the surprising box office success of God’s Not Dead, which grossed over 60 million domestically in the US, Do You Believe? has been marketed as a follow-up of sorts, and was co-written by the same writers, Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon. As Pure Flix producer David A.R. White put it in a recent interview:
“‘God’s Not Dead’ resonated with audiences because it explored and validated the existence of God,” … “‘Do You Believe?’ takes Christianity to another level…the Cross.”
Opening with a quote from James 2:17, which states, “Faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself,” this other “level” that White alludes to sets the tone for a pan-Evangelical narrative about faith through good works, especially charity and forgiveness in the face of “sin,” as means towards personal salvation.
The film weaves together 12 different story lines, which, as commentators have pointed out, mimics the Oscar-winning film Crash, in an attempt highlight a certain providence at work in the lives of different and disparate people. Spurred by pastor Matthew’s “revelation” to pass out small crosses to his parishioners as a symbolic gesture of the need for a more active ministry, the characters are divided between the saved and the unsaved, where the former must step up their game and the latter must come around to Jesus, which is the only thing that can save them. Among the saved include the pastor and his wife, who have been unable to conceive a child; an elderly couple who lost their only daughter to a drunk driver; a former convict-turned parishioner who is dying of cancer; and a couple embroiled in a court case over their livelihood after Bobby, who is a first responder, places the cross he was given by pastor Matthew in the hands of a dying man while on the job. Among the unsaved include a mother and daughter who have been made homeless; a pregnant teen living on the streets who has refused to abort her unborn child; a (Latino) war vet suffering from PTSD; a suicidal young women estranged from her father; an atheist lawyer and her doctor husband; and a pair of (black) brothers who come into conflict with one other after one them attempts to leave the life of crime after finding Jesus.
Although the film is, as one critic put it, “more professionally produced and acted than the indiegelical norm” and has tapped into the appeal of hiring well-known Hollywood actors turned (evangelical) Christians, with performances by Mira Sorvino, Cybill Shepherd, and Sean Astin, it does not appear to have the legs of its predecessor, having only grossed a little over 7 million to date. While there are likely numerous reasons for this, I suspect that part of what made God’s Not Dead so successful at the box office was that it presented a narrative centered on the defeat of one of conservative (evangelical) Christianity’s strongest cultural adversaries—so-called “secular liberals.” The multi-story form of Do You Believe? is thin by comparison, as none of the sub-plots are well-developed, relying instead on half-baked providential encounters and a series of miracles to mark the film’s end.
Since offering up a stylistic and thematic critique would be like shooting Jesus fish in barrel, I leave it to others.
On the question of race and atheism:
This is the kind of movie in which white characters get deathbed miracles, while most of the people of color get to die to teach white people life lessons. The good Christian white people, that is; the non-believers are, to a person, supercilious smug jerks, including a doctor (Sean Astin) and his lawyer girlfriend (Amanda Logan White).
On the film’s ideological framing:
“Do You Believe?” instead spews its venom upon trade unions, the medical establishment and the American legal system — all variously depicted as secular strongholds hostile to anyone who dares to reveal him/herself as a true believer. … [It] is agitprop plain and simple, less interested in varieties of religious experience than in proffering the old televangelical/tent-revival assurances that faith will not just save your soul but also cure cancer, PTSD and whatever else ails you.
Surely the first critic is correct: the film uses non-white bodies more as props and cautionary examples, whose inclusion is subordinate to the centrality of white characters and white culture. Likewise, atheists (as opposed to those who do not identify as such, though are not yet saved) are depicted as smug in the face of believers and ultimately angry at God. (e.g., in the case of Sean Astin’s character, Dr. Farell, he is frustrated that God gets the credit for his medical work)
The second critic, Variety’s Scott Foundas, puts his finger on three of the four main institutional adversaries depicted in the film, (the other being the American Humanist Association) classifying it as televangelism, where miracles and a simplistic theology stand in place of his own preference for addressing the “varieties of religious experience.” While it is not hard to sympathize with Foundas’s preference here, this argument is not all that different in kind from other theologies of a more liberal variety. For example, as Sr. Rose Pacatte writes for the National Catholic Reporter:
As I have said before, Sunday-school movies that preach good messages are fine, but they are illustrations of faith. They tell you what to do. I am interested in films that tell stories about the rest of the week for the rest of the audience, films that artistically engage my humanity, spirit and imagination, films that trust me to make my own meaning and not have it imposed, however nicely wrapped and tied up with a bow and accessorized by a cross.
What the culture needs are great stories about humanity told in compelling ways because, to paraphrase the Second Vatican Council, what is truly human is truly of the Gospel and what is truly of the Gospel is truly human.
What interests me about this film as a scholar of religions is not its believability, logical consistency, or cultural politics per se, but rather in what it reflects (and aims to reflect) about certain contemporary Christian identities. Here we might ask, for example:
* How might it be classified in relation to other “indiegelical” films?
* What might it suggest for the public modelling of (white) American evangelical Christian sensibilities?
* What is the function of non-white bodies in such films?
* Why do “Christian drama films” appear to be getting more mainstream attention in recent years?
* Is the apparent surge in popularity of such films dependent upon the ferocity with which they take on certain adversaries (e.g., abortion, evolution, homosexuality, God in schools and in the workplace, etc.) and thus stake out a firm line in the so-called “culture wars”? In other words, what’s marketing got to do with it?
* How do they shape the use and understanding of particular biblical narratives and thus come to influence, reaffirm, or even constitute certain Christian identities?
Matt Sheedy recently defended his PhD in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.