God at the Box Office
By Michael LeaserFaith-based films have been experiencing something of a renaissance in theatres this year. First there was Son of God (February 28), Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s re-cut of the Jesus story from last year’s Bible television mini-series. Then came God’s Not Dead (March 21), starring Kevin Sorbo as an atheist philosophy professor who challenges one of his students to prove the existence of God. Next was atheist Darren Aronofsky’s big-budget Noah (March 28), starring Russell Crowe, Anthony Hopkins, an exact replica of Noah’s ark, and some questionable extra-Biblical material. Finally, Randall Wallace’s adaptation of the best-selling book Heaven Is for Real (April 16), starring Greg Kinnear and Thomas Hayden Church, explores the true story of a four-year-old boy who claims to have visited heaven during a near-death experience.Two Bible-based films, two contemporary setting Christian films. Two films designed to connect with a broader audience, two films that were not.According to Box Office Mojo, as of May 13, Noah leads all four films with a box office of $99,918,877. Heaven Is for Real has accumulated $76,186,067 in less than a month, passing Son of God, which is winding down its theatrical run with a box office of $59,668,343 and God’s Not Dead, which has earned $57,799,311.God’s Not Dead works well enough as a shot of confidence to young Christians trying to navigate secular college campuses. Its ability to show Christians how to engage atheists effectively, though, is somewhat mixed, especially since we learn that Kevin Sorbo’s philosophy professor is not a strict atheist, but rather someone who is angry with God. As a story that could engage and then convince atheists that God is not dead, then, it is sadly lacking, particularly when several ineffective sub-plots dilute its message. One offers up alternately cheesy and preachy dialogue between a pastor and his missionary friend, and the other is a ham-fisted depiction of a young Muslim girl who has converted to Christianity, a story line that drops several bombshells without bothering to pick up the pieces. Far more effective in reaching a broader audience as well as expressing something thoughtful and meaningful to Christians is Heaven Is for Real. Randall Wallace establishes Greg Kinnear’s Pastor Burpo as relatable and authentic, a man who will sing a worship song with his family in the car and then break out into “We will rock you!” at the request of his four-year-old son. Wallace allows Pastor Burpo to question whether his son Colton actually went to heaven and thus affords a skeptical audience the opportunity to entertain the question with him. Burpo’s dilemma also opens up the question for believers, whether they are willing to accept a child’s depiction of an encounter with heaven, even if it does not fit their comfortable, preconceived, arms-length relationship with their faith. Strong performances by Kinnear and an A-list stable of character actors, along with first-rate production values from a crew headed by Wallace (Braveheart, We Were Soldiers), aid the story’s effectiveness. Christians and non-Christians alike are familiar with Jesus of Nazareth and his claim to divinity. While the Mark Burnett and Roma Downey produced Son of God does a serviceable job of dramatizing the major events in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, its average production values, mixed performances, and pedestrian telling of the greatest story ever told pale in comparison to Mel Gibson’s near-masterpiece The Passion of the Christ, which earned $462 million at the domestic box office in 2014 dollars, more than seven times the take of Son of God. Conversely, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah combines visually arresting cinematography, a compelling story, and emotionally affecting performances by a stellar group of actors to produce a film that resonated with a strong cross-section of Christians and non-Christians alike. Aronofsky certainly added a substantial amount of extra-Biblical material to his film, but any filmmaker attempting to produce a two-hour film based on a Biblical text in which Noah doesn’t say a word and virtually no characterization is offered for his family and other contemporaries would have to do the same. More importantly, Aronofsky’s film affords Christians a valuable opportunity to engage with secular moviegoers who would never darken the doors of a theater screening a typical Christian film, but who went to see the film because Aronofsky directed it or because it starred Russell Crowe or Emily Watson, As a faith-based film with first-rate production values, Noah thus serves as a vehicle for serious discussion of Biblical themes with non-Christians, a cultural product that is still all-too-rare in the media marketplace.