Jesus and Hollywood: How Sherwood Pictures Has Caused the Rise of the Christian Movie Franchise

Albany, Georgia is the official Christian Hollywood of the Southeast.

It used to be unthinkable that a truly Christian movie could make it to the big screen.  So it was even more ridiculous to think about a Christian movie making tens of millions in profit: Fireproof was made on a budget of $500,000 and had a gross revenue of $33,456,317. But now, thanks to Sherwood Pictures of the megachurch Sherwood Baptist Church of Albany, Georgia, we might as well expect a new Christian movie to hit theaters every couple of years.

On September 30, 2011, the creators of Fireproof (and Facing the Giants) will be unleashing their newest movie, Courageous. Sorry, Kirk Cameron isn’t in this one. The plot line revolves around four policemen who must learn to apply the same courage they use everyday on the work force in the delicate yet crucial situations that a parent must encounter when raising a child.  I remember when Kirk Cameron’s first Christian movie came out in 2000, Left Behind: The Movie. People from my church promoted it saying, “Come on people, we need to send a message to Hollywood that these are the kinds of movies that people want to see and will pay to see.”  And now, over a decade later, our culture is at a curious enough and open-minded enough point to actually support Christian cinema.

Granted, it’s safe to say that many of us who went to the theatre to see Fireproof had realistic expectations that the acting would be on an amateur level.  And with the exceptions of Kirk Cameron and Erin Bethea (who played his wife), our expectations were met.  Even so, I admit that the message of Fireproof really got to me, despite the “hey, you go to this church… want to be in a movie?” type of casting process.  So I say if a Christian movie can make $33 million dollars despite a desperately small budget, despite using actors with basically no experience, and despite being filmed and directed by a volunteer based production company which is simply a ministry of a church, I’d say I can’t really knock it.

I might even say it’s a bit of a phenomenon.  Sure, Sherwood Pictures could eventually release a real stinker of a movie and therefore end their winning streak; maybe even one so bad that people would stop going to the theatre to see their newest efforts.  But considering that critics outside the church didn’t give Fireproof generally positive reviews for the most part, it’s almost as if we’re all learning that the secular critics’ reviews are simply irrelevant when Christians can make a movie which not only draws in unchurched ticket buyers, but also one that when on to become the greatest grossing independent film of 2008.

Lesson learned thanks to Sherwood Pictures: Enough people will trade top-notch production and professional acting for a movie that to them, even if in their own religious sub-culture, has a new message and is simply relevant.

Firefighters are to marriage problems as policemen are to parenthood.  First Fireproof, now Courageous; what will be the next big idea in Christian entertainment?  I have a few ideas…

Sherwood Pictures should try taking their talents to the small screen:

Christ’s Anatomy

What part of the body are you?

“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” – 1 Corinthians 12: 27

In this powerful new medical drama, Kirk Cameron stars as “Dr. McBeamy”, the strongest light at Albany Baptist Medical Center.  Watch as he mentors the interns in The Way of the Master while still finding time to actually care for his patients.  Also stars his real life wife Chelsea Noble as his wife on the show, so that he can actually kiss her onscreen, unlike his onscreen wife Erin Bethea at the end of Fireproof.

Devoted Preachers’ Wives

You think being happily married to a pastor of a Baptist Church isn’t full of drama?  Think again.

“Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord shall be praised.” – Proverbs 31: 30

From warding off church gossip to making sure her preacher husband’s pinstripe suit and tassel-topped loafers are ready for the pulpit, Candace Cameron Bure (the real life sister of Kirk Cameron) plays Eve Appleton, a faithful mother and wife who finds comfort in the Christian fellowship of her close circle of friends, all who also happen to be preachers’ wives and amazing supermoms.

The Bridegroom

Will you accept this W.W.J.D. bracelet?

“But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold! The bridgeroom is coming!  Come out to meet him!’ -Matthew 25: 6

What happens when 25 single and virtuous Christian young women are put in a church with one single and virtuous Christian young man?  Eventually marriage; between one man and one woman.  They’re all looking for love, and surprisingly all for the right reasons! Watch as Ben Wilder, the Bridegroom, takes his contestants on mission trips to exotic destinations like Guatemala and Honduras in a 15 passenger bus (the budget would not allow for helicopters) to find out who shows the best example of the Christian faith, eventually winning his heart.  All to the background soundtrack of Point of Grace.  She who wins the bridegroom’s heart will earn the final W.W.W.J bracelet and a worthy husband.

Jesus and Hollywood: What’s the Difference between Acting and Actually Doing, Especially as a Christian? (Pondering Profanity, Sexuality, and Violence)

 

 

Seems like a strange pair, but we born-again Christians love our movies and TV just as much as everyone else.  But where do we draw the line?

One of my favorite TV shows during 4th and 5th grade was surprisingly The Dick Van Dyke Show as it was featured in syndication on Nick at Nite.  It was while watching that show (I was around 9 or 10) that it occurred to me, “Dick Van Dyke is kissing Mary Tyler Moore, but in real life, they may both be married to someone else who has to watch them kiss another person.”  To me, that would just be too weird… and wrong.  As much I fantasize about being an actor in a flash-sideways version of my life in some alternate path I could have chosen for myself a decade ago, I have to acknowledge that as a born-again Christian, there would be an exhaustive list of limitations for me as a legitimate actor.  (Granted, Kirk Cameron got around the “have to kiss another woman” dilemma when he used his own wife as a stand-in at the end of the movie Fireproof.)

That’s not to say that there aren’t born-again Christians who act in mainstream media.  For example, there’s the often-mistaken-as-a-Jew-but-actually-just-Welsh-American actor Zachary Levi, who is the protagonist of the hit show Chuck.  He has been outspoken about his relationship with Jesus Christ.  Click here to see what he said in one of his interviews with Relevant magazine.  I am fascinated by his Hollywood success and his commitment to his faith.  I would love to ask him about this very topic today; specifically this question, “As a Christian, what won’t you do in a role?”  (Zachary Levi, if you’re reading this, feel free to comment and help me out.  Thanks.)

Where does a Christian draw the line when it comes to acting?  I would say kissing another person on stage is harmless except when either or both of them is married.  And what about “love scenes” (scenes that involve sexual activity, with or without nudity)? What about profanity? Are there any words you just shouldn’t say?  Personally, I could easily curse on camera before I could say, “oh my God”; because to use God’s name in vain is breaking one of the Ten Commandments, while cursing is simply a fading taboo of shifting rules set by the expectations of culture.  To me, there are plenty far more destructive ways that words can be used that go against the Kingdom of God, like gossip, malicious sarcasm, and belittling.

Here’s where it gets really tricky.  If you think it’s wrong to curse in a role or play a character who has premarital sex, how is that so different from playing a character who is a murderer?  At least by playing a killer, you’re truly just pretending to play a character who is obviously in the wrong.  But by being filmed semi-nude under covers in a bed, you’re sending a subconscious message that sex between two consenting adults doesn’t necessarily have any spiritual concerns attached to it.

So in theory, in 1983, as a born-again Christian, if given the opportunity to have Al Pacino’s lead role in Scarface, would I, should I, could I?  For it’s time, the movie Scarface contained more profanity than any other film in history.  It was originally rated NC-17 for its violent content.  But in the end, (sorry if you haven’t seen the movie but you’ve had 28 years to see it so I feel okay about giving away the ending) all of Scarface’s sins find him out.  It’s obvious that his life of violent crime led to his own demise and in the end, it wasn’t worth it. Does that mean that this movie teaches its viewers not to waste their lives in a mob, getting  involved with violence and cocaine?  In theory, yes.  In theory, it has positive, redeeming value because in the end, crime doesn’t pay.

That’s something I’ve observed about Christian culture.  It seems most Christians are okay with a character doing obviously un-Christian things if in the end they repent: Unlike the character of Stacy Hamilton, played by Jewish actress Jennifer Jason Leigh in the 1982 movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High, who decides to have an abortion and seemingly goes on to live a completely normal life, never regretting her decision.  I contrast that to the song “Red Ragtop” by Tim McGraw, whether the 20 year-old protagonist gets his 18 year-old girlfriend pregnant and together they decide to have an abortion.

However, by the end of the song, though it’s not explicitly stated, the melancholy mood and subtle lyrics of the song itself convey the message “we can’t undo what we’ve done or beat ourselves up over it, but we do regret and it’s definitely a sad thing that happened”.  Rightly assuming that Country music fans are mostly Christians (simple demographics), they helped the song rise to the #2 position on the Country charts.

Entertain this thought: Ask yourself privately, as a Christian, whether or not you would play the role of a character in a play, musical, TV show, or movie who would do any of the following things:

-use minor profanity

-use stronger profanity including racial or gender slurs, up to the “f-word”

-use God’s name in vain, whether it’s by saying “oh my God” or “G.D.”

-play a character who has premarital sex and never encounters any real negative consequences

-play a gay character who never actually kisses another actor

-play a gay character who does kiss another person of the same gender

-play a heterosexual character who jokingly kisses a person of the same gender on the lips, which happens quite often on Saturday Night Live

-play a serial killer and rapist, though no explicit violence is ever shown on screen and who never curses or participates in any pre-material sexual relationship

-play a serial killer and rapist, though no explicit violence is ever shown on screen and but does participate in some premarital sex and who does some cursing

-play a serial killer and rapist, though no explicit violence is ever shown on screen and but does participate in some premarital sex and who does some cursing, but at the end accepts Jesus Christ as their Savior and from that point on lives a life in accordance to the teachings of Jesus

How is it any more wrong to play a homosexual actor than it is to play heterosexual actor who has premarital sex?  Though both situations are perceived much differently by the general population, when it comes to my understanding of the Bible’s teaching of righteousness, I don’t see how one is any different or worse than the other.  The way I understand it, Jesus died for all sin.  Sin is sin is sin.  No matter what kind it is, it separates us from God and causes every single one of us to need His grace.

Where do you draw the line as a Christian actor? Obviously to be involved in straight-up porno-graphy is out of the question for any sincere Christian.  But there are so many millionths of the scale to get to that extreme.  On the much slighter end of the scale is a man with his shirt off showing off his six-pack while he rides a horse bareback.  Further down the scale is that same man passionately kissing a woman while in a hot tub, both in their swimsuits.  Next is the same man and woman acting out a love scene in bed and though they are actually naked, they aren’t acting having sex underneath the blankets which strategically cover up certain parts of their bodies.

I remind myself that outside the culture of conservative Christianity, in reality the rest of the world behaves its own way regardless of our censorship.  To imagine a real life group of people who in their everyday lives never cursed or had premarital sex (outside of the conservative Christian world) is to me, simply unbelievable.  Taking away the elements of entertainment that are unChristian-like either makes the TV show or movie either A) unrealistic or B) a Christian movie like Facing the Giants.

I also remind myself that the Bible itself is full of violence, premarital sex, rape, and murder. There is homosexuality.  There are concubines.  There are instances were people cursed (like when Peter denied Christ).  The King James Version of the Bible even contains the words “piss” and “ass”.  If the entire Bible were made into an epic movie, could born-again Christians play every role?

But some point, acting is no longer simply just acting.  It’s doing.  So here’s my final thought about all this.  In some technical, annoying way, are we as conservative, born-again Christians actually hypocrites for being spectators of popular entertainment?

Imagine this: Instead of the majority of the cast of Friends and Seinfeld being Jewish, instead they were all born-again Christians.  Because of their faith-based convictions, none of them were willing to use any profanity or be involved in any situations that involved premarital sex.  I know how beloved these two sitcoms are among the majority of Christians I know.  But imagine a world where Ross Geller saying “We were on a break!” meant nothing to us.

Two Questions for You about This Today:

A) As much as we Christians love our sitcoms and movies, would they truly exist if we didn’t support them with our viewership because we ourselves wouldn’t be willing to play those roles the same way?

B) Where would you personally draw the line in regards to what you would or would not do for an acting role, hypothetically speaking, if you were an actor?

I sincerely would love to hear feedback from you, the invisible reader, on either or both of these proposed questions, by leaving a comment below.  You don’t have to leave your name; you can easily remain anonymous if you wish.

If you’re not a conservative, born-again Christian, still free to answer as well… and please know how aware I am that the content of this entire post probably seems a bit… out there.  For all I know, you may find it either laughable or offensive that we believe premarital sex is wrong or that kissing someone’s spouse is both weird and taboo.  But what good is a religion that has no backbone or reasonable standards, despite how counter-culture those limitations may be? Thanks for reading despite the culture shock of it.

Falling Downward in a God-Nudged Leap of Faith (Like Wile E. Coyote)

I’m still in it and eagerly looking to land.

When a person leaps from one ledge to another, there is that moment when they soar up into the air, then for a moment they are airborne but not yet falling back down to land.  That has been my leap of faith so far.  Now, I am in the descension of my God-nudged leap of faith.  In the most previous installment, Airborne from a God-Nudged Leap of Faith , I explained that my current inspiration for documenting this series is that my wife and I (along with our infant son) packed up our financially stable life in Nashville and moved to my hometown in Alabama.  Yes, it would either take a fool, or a guy who truly believed it was his calling from God, to do a crazy thing like that.

When I say I am falling, I don’t mean that I am losing faith in God’s providence, nor do I say it to signal that I am in a crisis mode in my life.  Obviously, being in this situation is very stressful, wearing, trying, and intense.  I have begun to question whether this seemingly absurd move was truly what God wanted us to do, or whether it was simply my own artistic attempt to live a simpler life.  Here’s what I know: Either way, at this point, it couldn’t be more clear that only God is in control of this.  And there’s obviously no one else I’d rather be in control. Whether or not I “should have” or “shouldn’t have” made this extreme decision in my life, God is still faithful and I am eager to bring attention to that.

At this exact minute, I’ve just had a visual pop into my head.  This whole time I’ve been picturing this leap of faith as me jumping across to another ledge of the same height.  But I don’t think that’s what this is.  Now I’m starting to see that I am actually jumping to a lower ledge, which requires even more faith and more strength than I realized.  It makes it much more difficult to even see where I am even supposed to land.

I have been wondering in these last couple of weeks how much spiritual warfare is involved in this story.  A few weeks ago, the job that I prayed that God would create a job for me here (since it evidently didn’t exist already in this small town) which would utilize my five years of marketing and sales experience along with my writing abilities.  And it happened.  Three weeks ago a local company called me ready for the interview, the position would start immediately, and I virtually had no competition.  And then, “Mr. Budget” flew in from the corporate office and made it clear that position would be postponed (for who knows how long…). I was told I had everything they were looking for and they were all excited to get me, but randomly, I lost out.  Not cancelled, at least.  But still, annoyingly, postponed.

In the likeness of the on/off switch as seen on the finale episode of Lost, I wonder if right now, there honestly is nothing I can do but wait- because the switch is off. Is it spiritual warfare on just simply bad timing?  God is well aware, He is constantly prayed to about the situation, and again, still in control and faithful.  It’s hard to feel completely overwhelmed and helpless when, ultimately, I have this strange, still, quiet peace about it all.  This is currently taped on the fridge door at my house:

“Teach me good judgement and discernment, for I rely on your commands.” -Psalm 119: 66

Airborne from a God-Nudged Leap of Faith (Like a Fish Out of Water)

I’m in it right now.

In my third favorite movie of all time (#1 depending on which day you ask me) Garden State, there is a scene where Sam (played by Natalie Portman) is helping Andrew (played by Zach Braff) sort out bottled up childhood issues which have caused him to live off of a cocktail of anti-depressants since he was a child: “My mom always says that, when she can see I’m, like, working something out in my head. She’s like, ‘You’re in it right now’ and I’m looking at you telling this story, and you’re definitely in it.”  So what is it that I am working out in my head right now?  What is it than I am in?

In the middle of the summer of 2010 (about six months ago), I wrote Taking a God-Nudged Leap of Faith, explaining that in order to mature in the Christian faith, there are points in our lives where we have no option but to either trust that God is faithful and will provide.  During and after that process, we are left with the option of either publicly praising God or keeping it to ourselves.  I also said that I believe it is these times in life that as opposed to just leaving us as fools hanging high and dry, God would rather be glorified by providing us what it takes to get through the problem, not around or over it.  And now, as I am in it, airborne from one of these major God-nudged leaps of faith, I stand by my word and perspective.

On December 4th, 2010 (nearly two months ago), my wife and I moved from Nashville with our then newborn son, where we had good solid jobs because we believed we were supposed to move to my hometown where we would be surrounded by family and a slower pace, which we knew for us, would improve our quality of life.  We didn’t move with expectations of immediately finding a job.  And it’s a good thing we have low (and yet realistic) expectations, because so far, we have made zero income for well over a month now.  Granted, we saved a “nest egg” for the big move, but each week that passes obviously reminds us of the fact that at some point very soon, we will need to be able to make an income again.

But while it was important to have the proper expectations in our move regarding the level of difficulty in finding the right job, it’s also important for us to have the proper expectations of what God will do for our family of three, granted that we pray in all faith that God will provide a job so that we can provide for our family. At first, I would pray that God would provide the right job for me.  But then I got more creative and started praying that God would create the right job- because I believe if that’s what it takes, that’s what He can and will do for us.  It’s also important for me to keep in mind  that my particular situation is not at all unique to me: Surely all of us have ancestors than ended up here in America either by force, by fleeing, or by taking a leap of faith in hopes of a better life.

Really, my situation is completely unoriginal.  I am far from the first to pray to God about this, which to me is so much more of a reason to have faith in His faithfulness.  One of my most favorite verses in the Bible regarding faith is Hebrews 11:1 which says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  That nugget of truth is ironic and a bit of a paradox.  If I truly am assured in what I hoped for and I’m convicted of what I don’t see, my faith is no longer simply faith.  Instead, it’s simply knowing.  And that’s the kind of faith I’m choosing to adopt here.

Right now I am airborne- neither falling or flying.  Just waiting to land this jump. I may be “in it” now, but I know that soon, in God’s time, this moment will simply be a memorable point of reference in my life.

Things God has taught me to pray for because of being in this situation:

1) I pray that God will provide so that I can provide for my family.  I am completely recognizing that the only way I can support my family is if God supports me.

2) I pray God that will allow me to find favor with the right people.  I am completely recognizing that it’s not up to me or any other person; it’s in God’s hands alone.

3) I pray that God will create a path for me.  I am completely recognizing that maybe the way through this doesn’t already exist, but God is easily capable of speaking a path into existence.

4) I pray that when God does provide, that He will also provide multiple and creative ways that I can glorify Him for His faithfulness.