In early 2004, something extraordinary happened to Evangelicalism. One of Hollywood’s biggest stars was set to release a film, backed by major studio distribution, that would tell the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. And this star needed the Church’s help.
Mel Gibson, a Roman Catholic, brought advance screenings of “The Passion of the Christ” to the largest publishers, para-church organizations, and megachurches in the U.S. He told people his film was going to bring hope to post-9/11 America. Its unflinching portrayal of Christ’s suffering would cause widespread revival.
No entertainment giant had ever courted Evangelicalism in this way. The Church responded with approval and excitement.
The ‘Passion’ of the Church
The massive financial success of Gibson’s passion play owes much to sold-out theaters filled with busloads of churchgoers who bought their tickets in blocks. Millions flocked to see James Caviezel imaginatively tortured for two hours. Rivers of fake blood flowed as “Passion” depicted Jesus’ suffering in ways 100 times more graphic than even the Gospels explain. It didn’t matter that every word of dialogue was spoken in the original biblical languages, or that numerous scenes contained extra-scriptural and traditional material. The Evangelical church could not get enough of Gibson’s magnum opus.
And then we waited for the revival. But it never came.
Not even a monumental home-video release later that year could bring the sort of spiritual awakening the film, or its creators and promoters, promised. The related books and Bible studies didn’t help.
In the ensuing years, the Church has embraced countless other celluloid-wrapped silver bullets. A cottage industry has sprung up around faith-based films, with ancillary products and services that strategically, and with “Kingdom purpose,” deliver teaching and guidance based on the content of supposedly Christian movies.
Should a congregation so desire, it could purchase six or more weeks’ worth of sermon outlines, Bible study materials, discipleship aids, videos, and other media to move its members and attenders toward the outcome each new film promises.
According to the same cycle on which Hollywood plans and markets each of its offerings, the Church has grown accustomed to watching with anticipation for the next heart-stirring trailer for the next movie that will promise the next wave of new converts and rededicated Christians spilling into its places of worship, even as it slides the most recently unfinished movie-based Bible study guide onto the shelf next to all the others.
The promises of faith-based films have been weighed and found wanting. The Church, its appetite now accustomed to event-based programming, needs something more.
Congregations have launched their own filmmaking organizations. But that wasn’t enough.
Major motion picture studios have begun “faith-based” production groups. That didn’t seem to cut it either.
Large Christian publishing and media entities have partnered with these organizations to extend their reach, increase their output, and turn their messages’ volume up louder. Still no third Great Awakening.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to usher in movie-motivated revivals. There has been little to no return on the investment.
While some of these films have been very good, none of them have capitalized on a nationwide cultural phenomenon. Until now.
This is it. This is the one that truly WILL deliver the kind of hope and change the Hollywood-Evangelical partnership needs. That’s because it centers on something even non-Christians can get behind.
The race toward unity
October 16 was the release date of “Woodlawn,” a film starring “Lord of the Rings” and “Rudy” favorite Sean Astin and longtime Hollywood actor John Voight. The movie depicts a view of true-life events centering on a Birmingham, Alabama football star in the early 1970s, juxtaposed with a modern gridiron story focusing on racial unity and reconciliation with a Christian revivalist underpinning.
That Woodlawn debuts in 2015 is prescient, at least, given our nation’s recent rash of racially-charged incidents spread widely through social media and made fodder for the 2016 presidential election cycle. Its story may very well inspire many to take a serious look inward at their racial biases and cause them to make positive life changes. If true unity and reconciliation do transpire across racial and socio-economic lines because people see “Woodlawn,” all the better.
What Woodlawn will not do, however – as no other motion picture can do apart from a clear and pure gospel proclamation of God’s law, sin’s wages, and Christ’s redemptive work in death and resurrection – is convert any person to Christianity. It will not save a single soul. That’s because only the Word of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, has the power to save lost persons from the eternal torment of separation from God.
That has not stopped the film’s producers from claiming the transforming power of advance screenings at schools, colleges, and churches. Hundreds of attendees have apparently “come forward” during invitations after seeing Woodlawn, “making decisions” to “stand up for Christ,” or for racial unity, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Or some mixture of them.
It has certainly not discouraged such media outlets as the Huffington Post and Sports Illustrated to laud the movie’s positive message, “regardless of your religious conviction.”
And it has not swayed Mormon talk-show host and author Glenn Beck from endorsing Woodlawn, even suggesting it may be “the answer” to the burning questions we have about how to solve the racism problem in America once and for all. Watch this Beck-produced video for yourself and see just how much emotional energy he has invested in the movie.
Note that Beck exclaimed students have been “standing up for Christ, for love and unity” because they have watched Woodlawn together. This is a fascinating statement, one that demands a few questions: “What kind of love? Unity based on what? Which Christ?”
Hands together, eyes closed
One incredible thing about the gospel is the way it can erase long-held biases and hatred. True salvation causes enemies to become friends and strangers to become siblings. It places hands together in unity that once clenched apart in violence. That is a beautiful thing, one that only God can do.
But sometimes, when we join hands with another person with good intent across an aisle or a pew, and we close our eyes in solemn prayer, in the rush of excitement over “what God is doing” we fail to see with whom we are uniting.
It doesn’t matter what his website says, or that he spoke to the (compulsorily) massed student body at Liberty University. It doesn’t matter that the profile picture on his Facebook page says #IAMACHRISTIAN, or that he uses many of the same biblical terms as any typical Evangelical.
Glenn Beck is not a Christian. He is a Mormon. He believes in a different gospel, a different god, and a different christ. His warm and comfortable blend of good-old American values, straight political talk, and Jesus-ese is leading untold numbers of undiscerning Evangelicals toward a doctrinal precipice.
Beck’s endorsement of Woodlawn is not a blessing. It is at once a laughingstock of biblical proportions and a searing rebuke of Evangelicalism at large. It is a vivid picture of just how wide we are now willing to cast the net (or is it the hook?) of faith-based marketing in order to drag our neighbors into our worship centers to consume the products we have carefully prepared for them.
Do we now no longer care about the life-or-death doctrinal divide between Mormonism and Christianity, so long as we achieve the sort of “spiritual transformations” and “decisions” that justify the existence of the parachurch industry we have created, the engine that funds the next round of media that will attract the next wave of customers?
What happens when Woodlawn fails to deliver on its promises? With whom will we partner then? How much larger is this tent going to get, before the supports snap under its unmanageable weight and the canvas entraps and suffocates the life right out of Evangelicalism? Where then will be the source of reconciliation and unity? What will fill the void we have left?
In his stirring video, Glenn Beck asks a number of “what if” questions. What if what happened at Woodlawn decades ago could happen again, only this time a thousand times over? What if schools and teams and churches across America stormed theaters together, and stood up for “Christ,” for love and for unity?
I have a few “what if” questions of my own.
What if the Evangelical church at-large in America woke up from its entertainment-induced stupor and asked itself: “Have we been made merchandise?”
What if the average Christian in America recoiled in horror at the thought of partnering “for Christ” with a person whose false religion is blaspheming the name of the one true God and His Son while warmly welcoming his followers down the wide road to destruction?
What if we repented of placing our hope in anything other than the Word of God about the Son of God brought by the Spirit of God to cause the transformation people really need?
What if we all got off this merry-go-round together, waited a few minutes for the dizziness to wear off, and went back to work at loving God and neighbor because He loved us first?
What if we believers could just go watch a good movie together with some non-Christian friends, hang out over coffee afterward, and strike up some interesting conversations that might lead to opportunities to speak the gospel of Jesus Christ?
What if we created the ultimate faith-based film? And no one came?