Saturday, April 26, 2014

April 26, 2014, column:

Christian movies a good sign

By Mike Haynes
            Because I’m a church-attending, Bible-believing, Christ follower, I am confident that God’s not dead and that heaven is for real. I include Noah on my list of biblical heroes – but talking rock transformers, not so much.
            If you’ve kept up with recent movies, you know I just made reference to three – and overall, I take them as a positive sign for believers.
In 2002, I noted in this newspaper a slight sign of hope for the portrayal of people of faith in films and TV shows. Back then, I wrote that for decades, when God-fearing people had been included in stories, “they often were portrayed as lacking in education, IQ and/or morals.”
But episodes of “Judging Amy” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” had shown me that there must be Hollywood writers who understood religion beyond the stereotypes of judgmental Christians and pedophile priests. The programs presented church-going and temple-attending characters in thoughtful, respectful ways.
Then in 2004, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” demonstrated that huge audiences were to be had if the film industry would produce God-related material. Christian churches began to build on the legacy of evangelistic movies that the Billy Graham organization had started with such films as “Time to Run” (1972). In 2006, “Facing the Giants” began a trend, including 2008’s “Fireproof,” that still draws large audiences – but primarily composed of church groups.
While those movies effectively and sometimes movingly promote the Christian message, the
production values aren’t always topnotch, also a weakness of some of the Billy Graham productions. “The Hiding Place” (1975) was a notable exception, and now we have some films in theaters that also give us better scripts and first-rate acting.
“God’s Not Dead” features possibly Kevin Sorbo’s best acting job as an atheist professor challenged by a believing college freshman. The student, played by Shane Harper, lays out a cogent argument for belief in God, and from a Christian point of view, it’s a must-see movie for anyone contemplating that great life question.
The writers packed in too many individual stories, from a young Muslim woman to a skeptical journalist to a pastor who wants to work “in the trenches.” Maybe a couple of those life situations could have been saved for another movie. And the resolutions to their problems come a little too easily.
Despite the great value of “God’s Not Dead,” I’m afraid nonbelievers might consider it too heavy-handed in making all the “God things” happen too conveniently and the non-Christian characters too dark. It’s a little preachy, but yes, I was fired up at the end.
“Heaven Is For Real” is more understated, which I see as a plus. With the likable Greg Kinnear playing the pastor father of a real-life boy who had a near-death experience in heaven, the movie shows no
Lane Styles, from left, Kelly Reilly and Connor Corum act in a scene from "Heaven Is For Real." (AP)
signs of amateurism. Kinnear, Margo Martindale, Thomas Haden Church and Kelly Reilly give nuanced performances, and Connor Corum is good as 4-year-old Colton Burpo.
“Heaven Is For Real” could have been cheesy. It does show brief scenes of Colton with Jesus in heaven, but the story spends more time on his parents trying to figure out whether their boy really was with the angels than it does on exaggerated special effects. Characters at a church board meeting reveal fears that
the heaven story might make their church a laughingstock – a conversation I can see happening at any church (and apparently it did at the real Burpos’ in Nebraska).
The writers and director took what could have been a sensationalistic production and created a subtle, thought-provoking movie. It doesn’t force heaven down your throat but sure makes you think about it.
“Noah,” starring Russell Crowe, has a good lesson about dedication to God, but it also throws in too many modern issues as it makes Noah’s family vegetarian and focuses on environmentalism.
And the inclusion of a certain group of rocky creatures takes “Noah” out of the realm of serious discussion.
 The first column I wrote for this section in 1997 quoted author Philip Yancey about the need for Christian writers and artists to quit settling for good intentions and to strive for excellence. Yancey said the highest cultural achievements should include a strong dose of Judeo-Christian values as they did in the days of Michelangelo and Handel.
Recent entertainment shows a smidgen of promise. The more effectively we present the message, the more likely the world will listen.