God, Hollywood, and the Christian Culture War

This past weekend two films were released that were based on stories of faith: Noah and God’s Not Dead.  In the past two days, I have seen both of them (yeah, I go to the cinema a lot–I don’t have cable).

Over the past few weeks I have been deluged (no Noah pun intended) with others’ opinions about both movies–some negative, some positive.

Due to those pre-release “controversies” and my own ideological leanings, I went into both movies with preconceived notions. Those of you who know me personally, or those who have been reading me for a while, know that I’m a bit of a bleeding heart liberal.  I haven’t always been–God’s been working on me for years and gently nudging me into a deeper relationship that has changed my relationship with the world around me.  But these days I’m clearly standing to the left of the moderate fence.

I’ve been looking forward to Noah for months because it combines two of my favorite things:  theological thinking and high-quality cinema.  But then came the almost constant emails and Facebook warnings abut the pending movie:  it was too heavy on environmentalism, it was too liberal, it took too much artistic licensce, and despite the fact that “Creator” has always been one of the many names people of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianinty, and Islam) use for God, the notion that the characters always called God Creator and not God was somehow almost pagan.

God’s Not Dead is NOT something I’ve been looking forward to, but knew I would go to see simply so that I could be informed when the conversations began. Why was I not enthused about it?  Two reasons:  First, the plot is lifted from chain emails that were popular a while back (for two examples click here and here).  Pretty much, if something that ends with “share if you love God” makes you think it would make a good movie plot, you should think again.  Secondly, I am often disapointed with independent Christian films due to bad acting and bad screenwriting.  Remember, I’m a movie buff–so a pooly written and executed script is going to really annoy me.

And the emails came–the ones that indicated I pretty much had to see the film just because it was made by fellow Christians.  And the ones warning me it was too anti-intellectual and problematic in it’s portrayal of racial and religious stereotypes as well as the film’s propensity for dividing everyone into two the two broad categories of believers and humanistic, atheistic, liberals.

With all that has been written about both movies, I don’t really feel I have anything else to add to the argument.  Noah got a lot of stuff wrong–and it got a lot of stuff right.  God’s Not Dead missed the point on a lot of things, but also hit the nail on the head in other things.

When I left the theater after the God’s Not Dead viewing, I realized that the major problem with how Christians are responding to these two movies is in the fact that they are missing prime opportunities to engage the world around us in deeper dialogue about what we believe.  By rejecting a movie based solely on the fact that it doesn’t line up perfectly with our ideological loyalities, we’ve essentially stopped the conversation in its tracks.

So what are we missing out  on if we miss the boat on these movies? Well, let’s start with Noah.

Noah is a blockbuster.  It was designed to be.  And people like me have been asking for it for a long time.  Why can’t there be major Hollywood versions of biblical stories.  The Old Testament especially is comprised of the stuff of Hollywood:  betrayal, war, bloodshed, deciet, illicit sexual affairs, catastrophes, unexplained phenomena.  Its a gold mine!  Why are all the blockbusters old, outdated, and no longer relevant technologically (I’m thinking of the old “bathrobe” films of C.C. DeMille)?

Noah was Hollywood’s answer to our requests–The biblical flood story has been given the full Hollywood treatment.  Think Noah meets the fantasitical world of The Hobbit and the stunning visuals of Avatar.  As a result, the crowds are flooding in.  There are a fair amount of believers.  But mostly, it’s the target Hollywood audience-the people who flock to see action movies and great special effects are filling the seats.

And you know what–they are asking questions:  Who are the Watchers?   Were there really giants in the Bible?  (Genesis 6:1-4 refers to the giants, or Nehphilim, or Watchers–whichever term you prefer).  Did Cain’s decendents really found an industrial civilization?  (Cain’s decendents are credited with several trades that gave birth to founding a city–Genesis 4.)  Was Tubal-Cain a real person?  (Yup… a blacksmith to boot.  The film had that right–Genesis 4:22).

Those are just a few that will allow us to introduce people to the scriptural account–to the story itself.

Then there are the questions being raised around the moral and theological issues of the film:  Did God intend to destroy human life?  Was Noah right, are we predisposed to evil?  Was Naameh right?  Is there good in us all?  Why was the Creator so silent?  Did only the wicked die in the flood, or did the good perish too?

Those are just a few of the questions that will give us a chance to really engage people with our faith.  There are no easy answers to those questions–no black-and-white scripture verse that we can quote to answer the question flat out.  Nope.  Those are issues that have given rise to debate and questions and conversation for generations and will for generations to come, and we’ve got a major icebreaker at our disposal so that we can broah the subject–if we’ll just use it.

Of course, the movie also challenges us, as believers, to be prepared.  I went home and re-read the flood story so that I could be ready for the questions.  We will need to wrestle with the questions on our own and in our churches so that we can help others wrestle with them when they unexpectedly find themselves wondering about it after a movie.

Noah throws open the doors of our faith and invites everyone to step inside and take a good look around.  Are we going to be there when they stop by?   Or are we going to be sulking in a corner because the story wasn’t told the way we would have told it?

Next, let’s look at God’s Not Dead.

This movie is also drawing the crowds–this time the crowds are largely conservative and evangelical Christians who are hungry for a movie that affirms their faith… and there’s nothing wrong with that.  I often go to movies that I know will be terrible just because they scratch an itch (I saw Riddick because of the aliens depite the knowledge of how horrible the first two films in the series were.) Sometimes we just need something that satisfies us–and this movie does just that for the evangelical set.

The right-leaning theology of the film has sent the liberal and progessive Christian communities scurrying as far away as possible–but we’re making a mistake if we do that.

Sure–there’s some unnecessary bullying of academics.  Sure, I was disheartened when my area of undergraduate studies was villified as being godless and elitist.  But there were some aspects of the film that lend heavily to the progressive/liberal Christian view points.

Josh Wheaton, the main character, sets up his argument for God by using the Big Bang Theory.  For someone like me, who raised by a science teacher and who has always beleived science that science and The Bible go hand-in-hand, I was thrilled to see that the Big Bang Theory was being used as both science and faith.  For me, it is both things.

Although an early shot of the film jabbed at evolution beleivers when one of the film’s non-believers hopped in a car with bumper stickers about humanism and evolution–Josh Wheaton uses evolution and the comparative blink-of-eye in which it has happened in the scientific version of creation to uphold the Biblical account.

That’s right, conservative Christians, who are more likely to reject the big bang theory or evolution, are flocking to a movie that makes a case for accepting those things and not rejecting them as anti-God.

The thing I disliked most about the film–the way it tied everything up in a neat little package and resolved all the pressing issues of belief and non-belief–is actually the thing that will raise questions and that will open the door for deeper convesation.

Faith is not easily defined or labeled.  It isn’t easily resolved.  It is often complicated, messy, and incomplete.  Too often, the person angry with God who dies in a sudden accident will die still angry at God.  There isn’t necessarily a deathbed conversion.  What do we do with that?  What if Dr. Raddison hadn’t converted before he breathed his last?  What if Amy had refused to accept prayer with the Newsboys offered it because she was hurt and angry and uncertain about what she wanted or needed in her life at that moment?  What if the recently dumped Christian boy with a Cinderella Complex had not met the recent Muslim-turned-Christian who had just been disowned by her family and fallen in love at first sight?  What if getting disowned meant she really did lose everything?

The movie summed it all up with a happy ending for all involved, even for the one who died–but we know in real life it doesn’t happen that way.  But it’s not good moving making logic to leave things unresolved, and even worse for the crowd looking for faith affirmation to be left with empty holes.  In real life, though–when the lack of resolution happens and the holes seem too deep, we, as beleivers will need to be there to deal with it.

Okay, actually I lied–the neat little package the movie ended with wasn’t what I disliked the most.  It was actually how the movie ended with the call for everyone in the theater to whip our their cell phone and send a mass text to everyone in their contact list.  It’s the equivalent of those Facebook posts that end with “like=I love God; ignore=I love the devil”.

But even that gives us the opportunity to talk a little more about what evangelism really is–why text messages don’t matter but relationships do.

You see–if we reject either movie just because aspects of it rub us the wrong way, we have already silenced the conversation by refusing to listen.  But if we are willing to listen, we might just find something worthile in the message.  We may not agree with it in its totality, but we will find a common ground if we look for it.

Noah will give us the chance to share an understanding of our faith with those who don’t currently share it–God’s Not Dead will give us the chance to share our understaning of faith with each other.  How could we pass up either opportunity?

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