2014: Unbelievable Christian Film’s Weird, Successful, and Horrifying Year

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

Admittedly, I’ve struggled between applauding these films for their commercial breakthroughs and putting them down as many film critics are wont to do. In a way, I have to admire these films and the audiences who keep returning to them. Like with Son of God, it’s clear to see why God’s Not Dead made $60 million on a $2 million budget: the end credits list the dozens of true cases in which college students sparred with faculty over their faith. Perhaps it resonated with young people eager to defend their faith but lack the know-how. Let’s face it: it’s difficult to defend your beliefs once you enter the real world. In a culture where Seth MacFarlane is attacking religion via network television every Sunday, it’s refreshing to see a faith-affirming contemporary film achieve mainstream success. Sure, the world it portrays features no kissing, sex, vulgarity, or impulsive violence, but people have a right to escape reality. They’re no different than most other filmgoers.

Sony’s evangelical Heaven Is For Real (dir. Randall Wallace; from the studio that brought the surprise hits Courageous and Fireproof) wasn’t as intensely polarizing as God’s Not Dead; the reaction seemed an even mix. It benefits from better-etched characters than in God’s Not Dead (Complex human beings! With real doubts and sexual urges!), a lightly funny screenplay (even though the lead child says things too creepily articulate for a five year old), and has an admirable faith in its potentially-exaggerated story. Based upon Pastor Todd Burpo’s 2010 best-selling story, Heaven tells the pastor’s (Greg Kinnear) spiritual journey after his four-year-old son Colton sees Heaven in a near-death experience (he also sees his family members, present and past, including his still-born baby sister). Just as in God’s Not Dead, these “true-story” accounts can only be taken on a case-by-case basis, but in the end, it’s all asserted as “you just gotta believe” corniness that tends to rub critics the wrong way. And justifiably so: the film inhabits the same insular bubble that God’s Not Dead lives in, with faulty attempts at realism that only exist in the ideals of its believers. And yet, once again, that urge to believe in the impossible is infectious enough to earn over $100 million, no doubt helped by a wider release than its peers. Keith Phipps put it best: “[If] the story a 4-year-old pieces together bit by bit over the course of months can’t be believed, what can?”

Of course, not every Christian film can be as lucky. There are still plenty of faith films that have yet to make their money back or even break the internet with positive feedback. That’s what Kirk Cameron tried to do in his attempt to prove the critics were wrong about his latest stoned-on-life musings showcase, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (dir. Darren Doane). Much like last year’s Unstoppable, Saving Christmas is a 90-minute long vanity plate (with only 45 minutes of substantial material) in which the handsome, sweater-loving, hot chocolate-sipping “bro” glad-hands his way through a garland of validations for secular Christmas traditions: Christmas trees (the garden of Eden had life-giving trees!), the nativity scene (the swaddling clothes is the same as the funeral cloth!), and assorted other “Pagan” trinkets. These patronizing life lessons come in the form of him telling how much his Grinchy brother-in-law Christian (played by Doane) is simply wrong for disliking the commercial aspects of Christmas. He even manages to assume that poo-pooers find “suggestive” imagery in candy canes, which, I gotta hand it to him, I never saw coming.

Vulgarity, Abusiveness, and Low Receipts: Welcome to The Arthouse

Still from Jesse Moss’s “The Overnighters”

So what about more serious-minded arthouse releases? The Irish film Calvary (dir. John Michael McDonagh) and its German cousin Tore tzant (Nothing Bad Can Happen; dir. Katrin Gebbe) strip away the glossy ideals of many faith-based films, adding back the vulgarity and abusiveness that many true believers actually endure. In the former, a greying priest struggles to keep his Irish community together as the threat of murder hangs over his head. In the latter, a young Christian punk, sensing hypocrisy and alienation from his commune, falls into the trap of an abusive patriarch, whose family seems equally helpless against his brutishness. Both films end in the death of their faith-tested protagonists. The struggles with keeping the faith aren’t spelled out, which provides more realism and lack of compromise, and ultimately less mainstream appeal than a Pure Flix offering. In many ways, the films often feels like a subtle critique of the genre itself: it portrays passionate, oppressive faith as alien, almost laughable behavior to non-churchgoers; the patronizing and manipulation happens between the characters rather than toward the audience. It’s actually one of two faith-themed films released this year by Drafthouse Films, an extension of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema that prides itself on releasing “provocative, visionary and artfully unusual films new and old from around the world.”

The Overnighters (dir. Jesse Moss), the other Drafthouse release, is the lonely documentary in the bunch. It’s also the most celebrated. It even has a premise that suggests a Christian-produced film: congenial Lutheran pastor attempts to house the homeless influx of oil workers in his small town North Dakota church, facing disfavor from his parish and the stripping of his title. Although not quite as grisly as its fictional brethren, the harsh reality of The Overnighters provides a lesson Christian audiences go to the cinema to escape: sometimes faith is not enough to guarantee survival.

But as high as their critical reception gets, their receipts remain staggeringly low, a fate most limited releases suffer. Calvary remains the highest grossing of the bunch with $3.5 million. The Overnighters is a distant second by $84,000, a portion of which is directed toward housing charities. Nothing Bad couldn’t even crack five grand.

A Personal Note

Still from Katrin Gebbe’s “Nothing Bad Can Happen”

There’s one portion I haven’t addressed. It’s actually at the very beginning, just above my byline. The reason I use “weird” in this piece’s subtitle is multi-faceted: first, the phenomena of the fledgling Christian film industry’s success in spite of its low critical regard, the kind usually found at the crossroads; second, the content itself (I haven’t even begun to describe the asinine The Identical, which must be experienced rather than read about); third, the odd timing in which both Christian-produced and non-Christian-produced stories appeared in steady succession; and fourth (and perhaps weirdest of all), the employment of the most evil form of mind trickery.

This is something that Catholic teaching has inflicted on me before. You see, I spent 13 years in Catholic school, from kindergarten at St. Thomas to graduation from St. Joseph’s High School. Then and now, I’m insecure, lanky, and introverted. The kind whose vocation is, occasionally, film criticism. So when I read the Wayward email during the process of writing this feature, High School Max (that’s my real name) came back. He wrote and rewrote different drafts. He cowered from poking fun. He caved. He carefully made sure to oblige the more knowledgeable Christian film producers. Then I realized something: there wasn’t anything wrong with my approach. I only allowed there to be a problem because my insecurities had been preyed on. I allowed myself to be manipulated into guilt, the way the church often does with its stories. I tried to play devil’s advocate when giving these films justice. I was allowing my craft to be degraded by somebody else’s claim.

From October 2013 until August 2014, I was trapped in a writer’s ennui. With no real outlet or motivation for writing, I made sure to not take my precious opportunity to write for TMT for granted. So even though I feel a pang of guilt for often snarkily criticizing a film when I worry about it wasting not just my own time, but also that of the other critics who have to pay attention to it, I feel like I owe something to them. At best, criticism is for other critics to read, to be inspired by. We’re just so passionate we hate to see our time wasted, and we hate to see audiences be pandered to rather than challenged, even if patronizing content is ultimately what some audiences want. If so, great. We all gotta get pleasure some way in the short time on this godforsaken rock.

Therefore, I’d like to end this feature with a skill I’ve retained after all these years of schooling:

Dear Christian Film Industry,

I’d like to thank you for giving me the chance to see your way. Through the miracle of technology, an impressive feat of man’s tenacity and intelligently designed gifts, you’ve been able to show me a vast variety of your own works of art. I am thankful that the good Lord, a powerful force that I still have faith in, the force that I often turn to in my darkest moments, has granted your abilities to move strangers from around the world to a higher degree of emotion. You’ve made people laugh. You’ve made people cry. You’ve given hope in the weighed-down hearts of your audience. Most people have done worse things in order to achieve that. Of course, you’ve also cornered an even more destructive tool: the power of manipulating guilt and regret in the hearts of your enemies. I’m sure you thought you had good intentions, but as your great spokesman Ned Flanders once said, “My family and I can’t live in good intentions.” So nice try, best of luck with your efforts, and may God have mercy on your soul, forever and ever. Amen.


We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

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