Christians at the Movies

by Rev. Heath Trampe

“We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to Him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.’” (2 Peter 1:16-17)

The church has always had a tenuous relationship with Hollywood, and for good reason.  When “tinseltown” portrays the church, angels/demons/heaven/hell, or simply Christians, they tend to pull no punches.  Christians are often made to look like hypocrites, the church is often made to look like a corrupt earthly institution, and our sacred beliefs are often made to look like cleverly invented stories.  This being the case, church leaders are always wary when a new group of “religious-themed” movies debut at the box office.  Will we be treated to another Passion of the Christ, or will we have to suffer through the likes of Dan Browne’s fiction-turned-conspiracy-theory The DaVinci Code?

2014 has introduced us to Russell Crowe as Noah, Kevin Sorbo as a militantly atheistic philosophy professor (God’s Not Dead), and Greg Kinnear as a Midwestern pastor with a son who wants everyone to know that Heaven is for Real.  While I haven’t yet watched Noah, I have seen God’s Not Dead, and I’ve read Heaven is for Real.  In the spirit of pastoral guidance, I’ll give you my impression of each with some suggestions for how we can faithfully live as Christians in the world without being part of the world (John 15:19).

Rock monsters in Genesis?  As previously mentioned, I haven’t seen the movie Noah.  I have, however, heard from many frustrated Christians that most of the movie simply isn’t taken from the Biblical narrative.  This isn’t totally surprising, since the account of Noah is relatively brief.  Take one part non-Christian-director and one part two-hours-to-fill and you can do the math.  The result will be a movie that hopefully includes the content of Scripture, but will obviously contain much more besides.  I wouldn’t recommend this movie for anyone who wants to learn about the Biblical Noah, and I would caution against promoting it as any kind of Christian film.*

God’s Not Dead was much better than I expected.  I entered the theater with trepidation, but left feeling as if I had seen something of value.  Beyond the uplifting message, this movie manages to bring to light some of the arguments that Christians encounter in the real world.  In an effort to avoid spoilers, I won’t give away any plot details.  Suffice it to say that I will be showing this film to the HSYG when it comes out on DVD!  We tell the youth that they will encounter antagonists in the real world – perhaps especially during college – and this movie does a good job of showing how that might come to pass.  As with all creative works, there are flaws.  Atheists are painted in a villainous light, and some of the characters – even the Christian characters – are a bit two-dimensional.  That said, I’d recommend taking your family or a group from church to enjoy this very moving film!

What can be said about Heaven is for Real that hasn’t already been discussed?  The book has become an international bestseller, selling over six million copies to date with a blockbuster movie earning nearly $30 million in its first five days!  Heaven is for Real is the heartfelt story of Todd Burpo, a Wesleyan pastor from Nebraska, and his family.  The book especially focuses on Todd’s son Colton, who experiences something like heaven in a near death experience.  For my thoughts on this cultural phenomenon, please join Pastor Steve, Seminarian Brandon Koble, and me for STEPS each Wednesday evening from April 23-May 28 as we unpack the Bible’s teaching concerning heaven and hell, pop culture’s perception of all things religious, and how Christians can prepare for the life to come.  We’ll be glad to see you there!**

With all of the media being consumed every day by Christians and non-Christians alike, what should be our response?  I could suggest turning off the television and avoiding the theater, but that’s not a realistic suggestion, and perhaps not even the most Biblical.  Rather, like the men of Issachar (1 Chronicles 12:32), I recommend viewing your favorite television programs and movies through the lens of Scripture.  For parents, this might mean taking your kids to various movies with the intention of afterwards discussing any themes of good and evil, as well as the various portrayals of faith, humanity, etc.  For youth, this might mean encouraging your fellow youth to go as a group so that you can discuss the film after.  Our youth group recently viewed God’s Not Dead as a group, and benefitted from the experience!  

This might also mean laughing together at the jokes of CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, but afterward explaining why the actions of some of the characters don’t reflect our beliefs and values as Christians redeemed by Christ.  In all of this, we use our best judgment as members of this culture – if the content isn’t age appropriate, don’t let the kids watch it.  If the content is generally gross, perhaps it’s best left unwatched.  If in doubt, the pastors are always available for advice.  I have recommended more than a few movies to members of St. Peter’s, and I’ve steered several folks clear of movies that I felt were best left alone.  In all of this, we use our best judgment and remain mindful of our witness to the world.  So who’s buying the popcorn?

*For a more detailed analysis, see Lutheran Pastor Ted Giese’s review.

**If you can’t wait to hear what the LCMS thinks, or if you simply can’t make the STEPS class, a good review of the film can be found here.