HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – The second century theologian Tertullian believed the things of God could have little communion with the pop culture and philosophy of his day.
“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Tertullian famously wrote, using “Jerusalem” as a symbol for all things holy and “Athens” as a symbol for the cultural and philosophical center of the Mediterranean world.
And for the last 30 years or more, a similar “wall of separation” has existed between Christianity and America’s cultural capital – Hollywood – as the movie industry became increasingly hostile to the faith, and many Christians viewed Hollywood as a den of debauchery and purveyor of the same.
But a concentrated effort of Christians inside the movie industry is beginning to break down the division, showing Hollywood, at least, that this “wall of separation” may have been too hastily built.
Breakout hits like “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004 (which remains in the top 25 grossing films in American box office history), the Oscar-winning “The Blind Side” in 2009 and the television megahit “The Bible” from 2013 have certainly helped by demonstrating faith-centered films and programming can draw significant audiences. And later this year, Bible-inspired stories will become major, wide releases with “Son of God” and “Noah.”
Meanwhile, the growing Christian film industry, which was once isolated to the Bible Belt – far from the wealth of talent and financing that Hollywood has to offer – has slowly emerged from the backwaters of low-budget obscurity and begun to work with Hollywood, instead of against it, to begin producing films of uncharacteristic quality.
The faith-filled film “Grace Unplugged,” for example, just walked away from the 22nd Annual Movieguide Awards with three trophies, including the coveted Epiphany Prize for “the best, most inspiring movie and television program of the previous year.”
As WND’s film critic attested, “Grace Unplugged” represents “a major step forward in Christian filmmaking,” in part, because it teamed with Hollywood talent to bring its Christian message to the screen.
At the Movieguide Awards, A.J. Michalka, the award-winning actress, singer and star of “Grace Unplugged,” told WND Hollywood is recognizing movie audiences have a real hunger for the inspiring, faith-affirming films that the industry has too long eschewed.
“It’s definitely making a mark – films like ‘Fireproof’ and everything Kirk Cameron has put out, ‘Grace Unplugged,’” Michalka said. “People like the work of ['Grace Unplugged' Producer and Director] Russ Rice and Brad Silverman, who are making really great, quality films that have an amazing message.
“Whether they know it or not, audiences are yearning for something that is deeper than just entertainment in that moment and then leaving the theater and not really feeling anything when they leave,” she continued. “I think people yearn for something that is going to teach them and help them grow in life – not just entertainment, but something that makes them think afterward, maybe start up a conversation that they might not have had. And that’s what movies like ‘Grace Unplugged’ are doing.”
“What you’re seeing is a lot of crossovers,” agreed Drew Waters, a face better known in Hollywood after his role as Wade Aikmen on TV’s “Friday Night Lights.” “‘The Blind Side’ was big in helping to make that happen because it was a mainstream film, and then the right marketing plan linked it to Christianity, which was like, ‘Oh, look: Hollywood screwed up! They made a Christian movie and they don’t even know it.’
“But the reality of it was the redemptive message of the story was always there,” Waters continued. “Whether you’re a believer or a nonbeliever, you still came out of that movie feeling something different.”
Television star Corbin Bernsen (of “L.A. Law” and “Psych” fame) also showed up at the Movieguide Awards ceremony, which every year honors the best faith, freedom and family-friendly films, and told WND the event represents a real common ground between Hollywood and Christianity that can be used for good.
“I don’t think it’s just about Christian films and films of religion; I think it’s an award ceremony that celebrates the experience of making films that are trying to make a cultural difference,” Bernsen said. “I simply hope that I can be a part of a community that says, ‘There is a flipside of humanity that we don’t see every day. There’s pain and sorrow and suffering, and there’s wrong and there’s darkness, but at the same time there is light and there is hope and there is love and there is compassion.’”
Perhaps no better example of the newfound cooperation between Christianity and Hollywood can be found than the production company Argentum Entertainment, which was born when “the ‘Fireproof’ lady” came into contact with “the ‘Friday Night Lights’ guy.”
Erin Bethea played Kirk Cameron’s wife in the explicitly Christian film “Fireproof.” Drew Waters is best known for his roles on TV’s “Friday Night Lights” and “Breaking Bad.” But after the two were cast together in the soon-to-be released “The Redemption of Henry Myers,” Waters told WND how their new partnership at Argentum Entertainment was formed.
“The Redemption of Henry Myers” started as more of a typical Hollywood release, Waters told WND, but then the distribution company for the film decided to market it toward Christians and it became, in Waters’ words, very “in your face” with its message of faith.
“We met with the director,” Waters continued, “and I said, ‘I think you’ve got the wrong guy. I’m not a preacher. I don’t feel comfortable with that. Let’s make a movie that people can relate to and want to watch and allow the redemptive message to come through.’ He said, ‘I’m so glad you said that,’ and Erin said, ‘I’m so tired of making those movies too. Let’s make these movies instead.’
“And so that’s what we’re up to at Argentum Entertainment,” Waters said. “We’re not out to straight-up preach to people, because, I mean, I’m still learning. I’m a sinner. But we want to let people of any denomination or religion sit in a theater and feel comfortable watching the movie, but open up the thought process and allow conversations to open up next to each other as they’re walking out of the theater. Maybe that then leads to sharing a coffee over it, and then that leads to … who knows?”
Yet not all is rosy in the relationship
This new cooperation between Christianity and Hollywood, however, is still going through its growing pains.
Christian audiences, for example, are not likely to be happy when “Noah” is released later this year. WND has obtained a copy of the script beforehand, and the differences between Hollywood’s account of the ancient ark-maker and the Bible’s account are going to be significant.
And as WND reported, several Hollywood and pop culture stars went ballistic when a song sung by Joni Eareckson Tada from the limited release, Christian film “Alone Yet Not Alone”was nominated for an Academy Award this year.
The story blew up even more when the Academy later revoked the Oscar nomination.
The double controversy raised the hackles of both Christianity and Hollywood, two cultural forces that are more accustomed to fighting one another than cooperating. An Oscar-winning Hollywood producer even blasted the Academy for exhibiting what “many will see … as faith-based bigotry, pure and simple.”
Yet Eareckson Tada told WND she’s seen the hand of God work within the controversy, and like the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis, what could have been meant for evil may really be turned to good.
“The song was never meant to win awards, but to communicate a message of God’s faithfulness and love,” Eareckson Tada told WND at the Movieguide Awards. “And now because of the decision, more people have heard about ‘Alone Yet Not Alone’ than may have heard otherwise, so the message is reaching out to more and more people.”
Listen to Eareckson Tada perform the song “Alone Yet Not Alone” below: