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Christian Movies: Religious Propaganda or Mainstream Entertainment?

Christian movies Left Behind Nicolas Cage widely panned box office bombChristian movies: Starring Nicolas Cage, the widely panned 2014 apocalyptic thriller 'Left Behind' was a box office bomb – unlike (relatively) recent popular 'faith movies' such as 'Heaven Is for Real,' 'Son of God' and 'War Room.'

A thought on the New Christian American Cinema: Tired of the blatant propaganda found in 'mainstream' Christian movies

Two films that might be called “Christian movies” opened last week, and I decided that I wouldn't watch them, write about them, or review them – at least directly. I'm not even going to mention their titles here because I don't promote propaganda films, and that's what this recent advent of Christian movies has become: propaganda.

After all, since nearly all American cinema is Christian cinema, the New Christian American Cinema is in fact pure propaganda – not cinema.

Worse yet, it bores me.

So, here's the thing about what we've come to call “Christian movies” – among them the Left Behind series, the God's Not Dead series (which has at least two more installments), and a dozen other recent wide releases – which I won't discuss in detail because they are nothing more than, effective or not, propaganda: they operate under the guise of mainstream entertainment when in fact they are Christian proselytism.

That in itself is ironic and here's why: American movies writ large are almost always Judeo-Christian movies.

God balances the books

God is such a given in American movies that a film that presents itself as a “Christian movie” can only be propaganda. Once again, that's because all American movies are Christian movies and always have been.

Okay, this is a bit of hyperbole, but not by much.

Think of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, where he burned that cross for the first time (the Klan apparently got the idea of cross burning from that evil movie, not the other way around)[1] – and the entire silent era, when the themes of the Ten Commandments were paramount (e.g., Cecil B. DeMille's Don't Change Your Husband, Why Change Your Wife? and Forbidden Fruit).

The cinema of the Depression and pre-World War II eras gave us, among others, 1938 Best Actor Oscar winner Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan in Boys Town. And Frank Capra, a good Catholic Italian kid who, following the armistice, would come up with his iconic It's a Wonderful Life, featuring an angel (Henry Travers) getting his wings – a thoroughly Christian movie.

John Ford's 1941 Best Picture Oscar winner How Green is Your Valley has another priest (Walter Pidgeon as Pastor Gruffydd) looming right in the middle of this Christian classic. In fact, this theme is found throughout the American cinema of the 1940s, even in the seemingly godless noir. Implied or inferred, it was God balancing the books at the end of most of those flicks.

Christian movies of years past: Charlton Heston starred as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 blockbuster 'The Ten Commandments.'

American Christian movies of the '50s and '60s: From 'The King of Kings' to 'All That Heaven Allows'

The 1950s made it obvious that the Christian God was what these Hollywood movies were actually about – e.g., Quo Vadis, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur. That includes even the Peyton Places and Douglas Sirk dramas, with their Christian consequences sometimes right in the title, as in Sirk's All That Heaven Allows. Seriously?

And yes, the 1960s were full of mainstream Christian movies, too. They ranged from Nicholas Ray's The King of Kings, with Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus, to Debbie Reynolds as the titular character in The Singing Nun. And those weren't atheists dancing around in all those Beach Blanket Bingo movies.

God may not have directly come up in many of these films, but that's because the biblical concept of God permeates the overwhelming majority of American movies – and it always has. A Christ-like figure can even be found at the center of Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, set in the century before Jesus' supposed birth.

Demon baby

Additionally, most American horror cinema depends on the understanding that the Judeo-Christian God is real.

Dracula, for instance, is only stayed by holy water and the cross. Rosemary's Baby – spoiler alert – is an actual demon baby, which to my mind always ruined the movie. But why wouldn't it be a real demon baby in a film directed by the part-Jewish, part-Catholic Roman Polanski, who, even if an avowed atheist, might be as afraid of going to hell as of going to an American prison?

So, the devil baby – admittedly, also found in Ira Levin's novel – was destined to be real, for Rosemary's Baby is a true believer's Christian movie, whether they admit it or not. We could also add The Exorcist, The Omen, and their sequels to the long list of Christian horror movies.

From 'End of Days' to 'The Godfather' franchise

Big studio action movies, from Arnold Schwarzenegger in End of Days to Keanu Reeves in Constantine, are implicitly Christian movies. Besides, when the devil or one of his minions is the antagonist, the film's protagonist inevitably becomes a Christian warrior, whether they know it or not.

Gangster movies, from James Cagney (e.g., Angels with Dirty Faces) to Francis Ford Coppola (e.g., The Godfather franchise), are Christian movies. Think about it…

'Christian television propaganda'

This is also true of American television. The Partridges and the Bradys went to church. From Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel to Joan of Arcadia and Lucifer, God has always been real on American TV – thus creating the notion of “Christian television propaganda” as well.

Ever watch Supernatural or Sleepy Hollow?  Angels and devils and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are central themes. These are Christian television series through and through.

Back in the mid-1960s, God could be found even in the Gidget series. The first and best-remembered Gidget movie starred bouncy blonde Sandra Dee[2]. But notice that for the TV show they cast the earthier brunette Sally Field. One reason for the change was that the character Gidget was based on novelist and show creator Frederick Kohner's daughter, Kathy.

Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman was a bouncy, dark-haired young lady. As it happens, Frederick and his brother, talent agent and Universal producer Paul Kohner, were Jewish, born in what's now the Czech Republic. So, Frederick's daughter was a lovely Jewish girl who looked a lot more like Sally Field than Sandra Dee.

In any case, the “real” Gidget was a Jew. I don't think Americans could have handled that, so Kohner turned the family into Gentiles. Don't matter, same God.

Christian movies The Case for Christ Mike Vogel and Erika Christensen box office disappointmentChristian movies: Featuring 'The Help' actor Mike Vogel and 'Parenthood' actress Erika Christensen, plus Oscar winner Faye Dunaway ('Network') and Oscar nominee Robert Forster ('Jackie Brown'), 'The Case for Christ' – about an atheist journalist who sets out to prove the inexistence of God after his wife becomes a Christian – has been a box office disappointment since its April 7 '17 North American debut.

'The Case for Christ' & 'God Knows Where I Am'

Now, I lied. I am going to mention the names of the two new additions to the ranks of Christian propaganda cinema that opened earlier this spring: they are Jon Gunn's The Case for Christ and Jeff and Todd Wider's little-seen documentary God Knows Where I Am, neither of which will be reviewed by me.

How these Christian movies fare as cinema is irrelevant, as they are propaganda for a cause I don't want to be propagandized about any more than I already am. Which is all the time.

As for the sinfulness of lying … I was raised Christian even though we were all Jewish – and I'm a lifelong atheist. So, I'll be fine.

Cross burning and 'The Birth of a Nation'

[1] Note from the Editor: A 1915 release, the epoch-making blockbuster The Birth of a Nation was based on Thomas Dixon Jr.'s 1905 novel The Clansman, which features a cross-burning incident.

The first reported cross burning in the United States took place in the area of Stone Mountain, Georgia, on Thanksgiving Eve, Nov. 25, 1915.

As The Clansman, The Birth of a Nation opened on Feb. 8, 1915, at Clune's Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles.

[2] Deborah Walley and Cindy Carol, both light-haired actresses, played Gidget in the two sequels to Sandra Dee's 1959 hit, respectively, Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) and Gidget Goes to Rome (1963).

 

Image of Nicolas Cage in the 2014 box office bomb Left Behind, part of the recent batch of American Christian movies: Freestyle Releasing.

Image of Charlton Heston as Moses in one of the seminal Judeo-Christian movies of the 1950s, The Ten Commandments: Paramount Pictures.

Image of Erika Christensen and Mike Vogel in one of 2017's Christian movies, The Case for Christ: Pure Flix Entertainment.

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6 Comments to Christian Movies: Religious Propaganda or Mainstream Entertainment?

  1. SteveK

    In light of the other comments, I can in a somewhat unbiased fashion say this editorial (propaganda!) was horrible. I wish the author had saved his vitriol, especially for movies this Christian doesn't even want to see (like The Ten Commandments — I'll read, them, thank you.). The movie “Unconditional” is actually quite good for its genre, and is partially based on a true story. “Easy A” beats up on evangelical Christians, but I have to admit they were “true” arrows. Expelled makes a case for judicious and clear thinking, and it wasn't until the theories of evolution balancing survival of the fittest and social strategies that holocausts could be theoretically avoided by the evolutionist. So keep thinking and watch the movies you want to!

  2. jaykayDX

    Hmmmm … so all these Christian themed films that are obviously intended for a Christian audience ONLY (which means in layman's terms that anyone who's NOT Christian will have ZERO interest in watching them) are somehow “propaganda” but all those Holocaust themed films that nobody has any interest in watching yet keeps on getting churned out by Hollywood as nauseum and zionist themed movies which depict all brown skinned peoples as terrorists is somehow OK?

  3. evgen_povt

    The American Association for the Advancement of Science issued a statement to say it was “especially disappointed to learn that the producers of an intelligent design propaganda movie called 'Expelled' are inappropriately pitting science against religion.”

  4. Julia

    I completely understand why you wouldn't see these movies… But can I argue that most every movie, or any piece of media has some level of “propaganda”. Even your piece here was propaganda *against* seeing these movies. We all have things.. messages we want to convey to the world. Also, to call most movies “Christian” is confusing Christianuty with broad religion or morality. Let's be honest, the basis of Christianity is that Jesus came to rescue humanity from eternal death. We should really be *more* upset at the people who believe that to be true and *don't* tell us about Jesus's sacrifice to rescue us… Right?

    Anyway.. I would be interested to hear your take on this movie, and/or the book for that matter, considering it's about an athiest and all.

  5. Brian Carpenter

    Don't let that bias against the Case for Christ hit you on the way out of the theater. Have nothing against Atheism or Atheists, but this was just as much a propaganda piece as you complain about with the films.

    Case for Christ is a film that tells the story of an Atheist that found that his own bias prevented him from seeing truth. It is a true story, not propaganda. Whether you believe God exists or not, Stroebel came to believe based on the evidence shown throughout the film.

    I did enjoy reading your article, but disagree with various points.

  6. Liberalismiscancer

    No these films are not propaganda. They are better than 99 percent of the letfwing garbage being produced today. Also this article comes across as Christianophobic and very intoerant and close minded.