By Ted Baehr, with Sarah Jane Murray, Tyler Walton, and Tom Snyder
The Bible is a fabulous library of histories, prophecies, biographies, parables, reflections, instructions, wisdom, and many other genre and fields of story, study and communication, both transcendent and immanent. The whole Bible and its various parts have shaped almost every aspect of culture and civilization, including movies.
In fact, a good movie story is a journey toward God. It reminds us of the Master Storyteller. A good story is a holy thing.
As the Master Storyteller, Jesus Christ knew the power of stories to teach, influence, and inspire when He spoke to His disciples in parables, such as the parables of the Good Samaritan, the prodigal son, and the rich man and Lazarus. Parables are short fictitious stories illustrating a moral principle or a religious doctrine.
Books and movies are like parables in that they, too, can illustrate moral principles and religious doctrines, including beliefs about God and Jesus Christ that enhance and influence the reception of the Bible.
Of course, Jesus Christ told parables that taught moral principles and religious doctrines that are Good, True, and Beautiful. Therefore, stories that influence the reception of the Bible should teach the Good, the True, and the Beautiful and shouldn’t contradict the things that the Bible teaches, including the moral principles given to Moses by God in God’s Law and the moral principles given by Jesus and His disciples in the New Testament documents.
It’s good to note what Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:7, “Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.” Notice here that this biblical passage doesn’t say to reject all stories or all traditional folktales, only those which are godless, completely false, or evil.
Stories matter deeply, and movies are the premiere method of storytelling of the 20th and 21st Centuries. They connect us to our personal history and to the history of all time and culture. Human beings are meaning seekers and meaning makers. We strive to connect ourselves to our experiences and the experiences of others. We are addicted to those “aha!” moments in our lives when we see meaning, purpose, and significance.
Different kinds of movie storytelling satisfy different needs. For example, a comedy evokes a different response from us than a tragedy. A hard news story on page one affects us differently than a human interest story in the magazine section or a celebrity profile next to the movie or television listings. While different kinds of movie stories satisfy different needs, many movie stories share common themes, settings, character types, situations, and other recurrent archetypal patterns. They may even possess a timeless universal quality.
However, every movie story has a worldview, a way of viewing reality, truth, the universe, the human condition, and the supernatural world. Looking carefully at a movie story, we can examine the motifs, meanings, values, and principles that it suggests. For example, a movie story can have a redemptive Christian worldview that shows people their need for salvation through a personal faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or it can have a secular humanist worldview that explicitly or implicitly attacks faith and values. By examining a movie story’s worldview, we can determine the cultural ideals and the moral, philosophical, social, psychological, spiritual, and aesthetic messages the story conveys, as well as determine the emotions it evokes.
The word fantasy has a problematic definition that seems overbroad. Stated simply, fantasy is a work that takes place in an implausible, unreal world filled with implausible, bizarre, grotesque, and/or extremely imaginary creatures and situations. That doesn’t mean, of course, that given the imaginary world in which the fantasy occurs, there are no realistic characters, settings, and situation within a fantasy. Thus, Lord of the Rings includes descriptions and images of horses very similar to the horses we know in real life. Also, Harry Potter books and movies contain discussions and images of books that are much like the books we know in real life, except that the books sometimes have fantastic, implausible, “magical” powers.
Some have wrongly rejected the fantasy genre because works in that genre occur in implausible worlds with implausible creatures and situations that can’t be true except in one’s imagination. It is the worldview, however, including the philosophy, theology, and morality, within the work, that makes the work false, heretical, or evil. Furthermore, there are varying degrees of falsehood, heresy, and evil, and, as we said earlier, many works can also combine elements from different worldviews. Even the first two Harry Potter books and movies include a brief mention of Christmas, although neither of these occult movies contains any explicit, positive references to Jesus Christ or His birth. Of course, the Lord of the Rings books and movies don’t contain any explicit, positive references to Christianity either, but there are many implied positive references to the Christian worldview of the original author, J. R. R. Tolkien, in both the books and the movies, including symbolic references to the Holy Spirit.
Some people are under the mistaken impression that, to call something a hero myth means that the story is completely false or untrue. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the personal lives of many historical figures can be compared to the basic structure of the hero myth. For example, Abraham Lincoln is a mythic hero to many people. As a young man, Lincoln left his rural background to pursue his political career and became President of the United States, where he faced a heartbreaking Civil War that tested his courage, stamina, and strength. As such, his story provides many lessons for those of us in real life, just as the fictional story of Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings has provided many lessons for many different people of many different walks of life and many different worldviews.
To call a story mythic is not to call the story a total lie. Thus, according to Tom Snyder, in his book Myth Conceptions (Baker Books, 1995) and other writings, a myth is “any real or fictional story, recurring theme, or character type that appeals to the consciousness of a people by embodying major cultural ideals and/or by giving expression to deep, commonly felt, and/or transcendent emotions and/or rational or irrational ideas.” The story of the hero is one such myth, and it can occur in either fiction or non-fiction. Sometimes, it even occurs in science fact, such as the story of Galileo, whose ideas were challenged and, for a time defeated, by the leaders in the scientific community of his day.
Of course, as our opening discussion implied, the greatest Hero Myth or Hero Story is the Story of Jesus Christ, who died for our sins, but rose from the dead by an Act of God, and who offers us a deeper, more personal relationship with God. This relationship, empowered by communion and fellowship with the Holy Spirit, leads us into all truth, and eventually will lead us into Eternal Life with the One True God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Thus, the greatest story of them all, the Tale of the Christ and His Church, is the greatest, truest myth because in it God offers us a majestic, profound, personal, sacred encounter with the transcendent, holy, infinite, almighty, and deeply mysterious, but infinitely loving, Divine Being who created us. Tolkien recognized this in his work, not only The Lord of the Rings but also in his other writings, such as The Silmarillion, the mythic back-story to The Lord of the Rings. All true art may indeed have a redemptive quality, as author Raymond Chandler and others have noted, but the most redemptive works of art are those that skillfully allude, either implicitly or explicitly, to the Greatest Story Ever Told.
Fantasy film is a genre in which fantastical elements (implausible worlds, imaginary creatures, supernatural events) lead to the audience’s perceiving an “ontological rupture,” or break between their perception of reality and the world of the movie. Science fiction and horror are closely related. In science fiction, unrealistic details may be explained by the technological advances inherent to the world of the movie (e.g., Star Trek’s “Beam me up, Scottie!”); in contrast, the breach of fantasy is ensured by supernatural and magical elements, like spells, broomsticks, and wands (in Harry Potter), portals (the wardrobe or the painting in Chronicles of Narnia), or a ring of power (Lord of the Rings). Talking animals, sorcery, super powers, ghosts – even angels – all contribute to a movie being categorized as fantastical (we are using this term here somewhat differently than Tzevetan Todorov does in his classic text The Fantastic). Most fantasy movies privilege a happy ending and provide messages of redemption and solace in contrast to the perceived failings of an imperfect world.
Fantasy movies are the legacy of fantasy literature, traced back to early epics and allegorical tales, like Beowulf (7-8th century) or Dante’s Divine Comedy (around 1310), both of which influenced later fantasy greats, including George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien. Moreover, the Romantics and Victorians, reacting to the Enlightenment’s cult of reason, prized the supernatural and the imagination, leading to the revival of Arthurian legends (that influenced T. H. White and, later, Disney’s Sword in the Stone) or John Boorman’s Excalibur) as well as other important fantasy works like Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol, first adapted for film in 1938.
The creation of magazines devoted to fantasy fiction, beginning with Der Orchideengarten (1919-21), was a contributing factor to the success of the genre. Many modern fantasy writers (e.g., Ray Bradbury, H. P. Lovecraft) launched their careers through such publications. From its origins, the modern fantasy has been a popular genre aimed at the general public and the stories lend themselves well to adaptation into film.
Early silent fantasy movies maintain a close connection to literature, including Georges Méliès’s Voyage dans la Lune (1902), inspired by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. In Germany, directors like Robert Wiene, Fritz Lang, and F. W. Murneau set the stage for darker fantasies associated with German Expressionism, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Metropolis (1927), Siegfried (1924), and Nosferatu (1922). A classic fairytale inspired Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937). Meanwhile, The Wizard of Oz (1939) went on to inspire Gregory Maguire’s 1995 bestseller Wicked and the acclaimed musical that opened in 2003. Other prominent examples include Alice in Wonderland (1951 and 2010, based on Lewis Carrol’s 1865 book), and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971, based on Roald Dahl’s 1964 bestseller and followed up by the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005). Full of Christian elements and a prime example of biblical reception because of themes explored in the books, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (made into an animated movie in 1978 to which the second part was never made, but followed by acclaimed director Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation in 2001, 2002, and 2003), is now considered to be one of the most influential fantasy movies of all time, grossing more than $2.9 billion and averaging $970.57 million per movie. (In contrast to this, the eight “Harry Potter” movies grossed $7.7 billion, but averaged $963.28 million.) Meanwhile, the release of the second and third parts of Tolkien’s Hobbit, also directed by Jackson, is eagerly awaited in 2013 and 2014 (the first Hobbit earned more than $1 billion, and counting).
Biblical (and, even, explicitly Christian) themes abound in the fantasy genre, as both the “Lord of the Rings” and the “Harry Potter” movies attest. The “Lord of the Rings” movies especially are rife with allegorical references to Heaven, redemption, the kingdom of heaven on earth, a refutation of paganism and evil, and commendation of honor, duty, decency, and loyalty, all of which Tolkien intentionally incorporated into his trilogy. As conversations with his friend C. S. Lewis attest, Tolkien sought to exalt the Christian life and the call to greatness through faith. Lewis himself, newly Christian, attempted a similar feat in his Chronicles of Narnia series, also adapted for television (CBS, 1980; BBC, 1988-90) and the big screen (2005, 2008, 2010). In contrast, in the “Harry Potter” movies, man (rather than a transcendental God) is the final arbiter of what is good and bad. This, too, can be attributed to the content of Rowling’s books, which do nonetheless include some transcendent themes like friendship and sacrifice. Indeed, as a whole, fantasy movies tend to encourage an exploration of moral issues central to the “real” world of the audience and the victory of good over evil.
Contemporary fantasy movies such as The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe based on C. S. Lewis’ famous children’s book or Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy based on Tolkien’s great book trilogy clearly reveal biblical truths and even the essence of the Gospel itself and so influence the reception of the Bible.
When I was President of the organization that produced during my tenure the animated television version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for CBS Television in 1979 and 1980 that had 37 million viewers and won an Emmy Award, many people wrote me to say that they had come to Jesus Christ as a result of the program.
Although Lewis didn’t intend to give a “one to one” correlation to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a compelling allegory that leads the reader to a deeper understanding of the Good News of the Gospel. Through it, Lewis brings to life the critical verse in Scripture: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16 (NKJV)).
In the book, the lion Aslan, son of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea, gives His life to pay the death penalty for a human boy, Edmund, who became a traitor to his family and to all that was good in Narnia. Edmund is to be put to death for betraying his family by joining the company of the evil White Witch in order to gorge himself on Turkish Delight.
Aslan rescues Edmund by dying in Edmund’s place. Edmund is set free, and Aslan is resurrected! Transformed by the love that Aslan showed him, Edmund joins the company of Aslan for the good of Narnia.
C.S. Lewis’ book is inspired by a true story. 2000 years ago, Jesus sacrificed His life to pay the penalty of humanity’s betrayal of God. He is the Son of the true God. We all, like Edmund, have betrayed God by rebelling against Him. We all, like Edmund, deserve a death penalty for our betrayal. But Jesus, through His sacrifice, rescued us by dying in our place. If we trust in Him, we are set free, transformed by His love to join God’s company for the good of our World.
“The Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin (Galatians 3:22).” Sin is the condition of man and setting our will above God’s. A listen to the morning news shows with clarity just how destructive sin is. Daily people add to the brokenness in our world by choosing, like Edmund, to do what feels right to them. However, sin isn’t only a problem for characters in novels and people in the newspapers, it is a problem for all of us, you included. “All have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God (Romans 3:23).” Stop and think over your day: whose desires were the most important in the decisions you made? If the answer is not God, you have a problem with sin. The good news, however, is that God has made a way for you to be set free from the bondage to sin and death.
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis dramatizes the war between good and evil. Aslan won his battle through the sacrifice of his own life, and, by doing, so He was resurrected. Just so, Jesus Christ won the battle when He gave His life to save us and was resurrected. The real battle rages inside each of us, and we are victorious only when we accept the sacrifice Jesus paid to redeem us. Once saved, we become like Edmund, transformed by the God’s love to join His family for the good of our World.
The Bible speaks of how much God loves us and wants us to be transformed: “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8).” He loves each of us in spite of our betrayal of Him as sinners. In fact, God’s love is powerful enough to redeem us from our death penalty.
It is in one of Lewis’ last letters (5 March 1961) to an older child, Anne, that Lewis most fully explains his intentions for the Chronicles of Narnia. Anne seems to have written Lewis about a scene from Chapter XVI, ‘The Healing of Harms,’ in The Silver Chair. Aslan, Eustace, and Jill are in Aslan’s Country and they have just witnessed the restoration of the dead King Caspian to full life and youthful vigor. Jill can’t understand what she has just seen, so Aslan explains that Caspian had died and so had he.
As C. S. Lewis wrote:
“What Aslan meant when he said he had died is, in one sense plain enough. Read the earlier book in this series called The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and you will find the full story of how he was killed by the White Witch and came to life again. When you have read that, I think you will probably see that there is a deeper meaning behind it. The whole Narnian story is about Christ. That is to say, I asked myself, ‘Supposing that there really was a world like Narnia and supposing it had (like our world) gone wrong and supposing Christ wanted to go into that world and save it (as He did ours), what might have happened?’ The stories are my answers. Since Narnia is a world of Talking Beasts, I thought He would become a Talking Beast there, as He became a man here. I pictured Him becoming a lion there because (a) the lion is supposed to be the king of beasts; (b) Christ is called ‘The Lion of Judah’ in the Bible; (c) I’d been having strange dreams about lions when I began writing the work. The whole series works out like this.
“The Magician’s Nephew tells the Creation and how evil entered Narnia.
“The Lion etc. the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
“Prince Caspian restoration of the true religion after corruption.
“The Horse and His Boy the calling and conversion of a heathen.
“The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader the spiritual life (especially in Reepicheep).
“The Silver Chair the continuing war with the powers of darkness.
“The Last Battle the coming of the Antichrist (the Ape), the end of the world and the Last Judgment.”
The source for this letter is Narnia Beckons and Walter Hooper, ed. “Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare,” in Selected Literary Essays, (London, 1969), p. 426.
Fantasy movies have explicitly and implicitly intended to help the audience open to the reception of the Bible since the earliest days of moviemaking. This brief chronological survey of the major movies and television programs featuring Jesus is important.
The earliest representations of Jesus on film were straightforward primitive movies (they called them “recordings” in those early days) of various live “passion plays.” (A passion play is a dramatic presentation of the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus Christ.) These passion plays were some of the longest movies made at the time they were made. They were so successful that they eventually convinced the nickelodeon operators that there was an audience not just for shorts, but also for longer, feature length movies. Thus, in part, the modern movie was birthed out of the overwhelming success of the passion plays!
In 1897, two American theatrical producers, Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger, filmed a passion play in Horitz, Bohemia. In 1898, R.G. Hollaman and A.G. Eaves photographed a passion play on the roof of a New York skyscraper. The length of the movie was 2,100 feet or 20 minutes. A narrator took the place of captions. Also in that year, the Oberammergau Passion Play was photographed by a Mr. Hurd, an American representative of the first major French filmmakers, the Lumiere brothers, and a French passion play was filmed for the Musee Eden.
The Augustinian Fathers set up the “Bonne Cinema” in Paris to produce good movies. They used churches as a normal place for projecting films until Pope Pius X decreed at the end of 1912 that “even religious films were not to be projected in churches, in order that the sacred character of the buildings should be safeguarded.” Therefore, showings of the filmed passion plays were banned in the churches (starting with the cathedrals in Paris).
Consequently, movie producers sought other, more humanistic subject matter rather than the life of Jesus Christ. Thus, although the questions which the church authorities raised about the passion plays had some validity, though in hindsight it would have been better if they had worked with the filmmakers rather than expelling them from the churches.
Of course, when reflecting on how Hollywood movies and even television programs have presented Jesus Christ, it is important to keep in mind that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote gospels, not scripts. Their narratives about Jesus Christ inspire and teach through images created by words. The filmmakers who have tackled this sensitive subject have attempted to portray, represent or interpret Jesus through non-verbal images. Regrettably, more often than not, the most important aspect of Jesus Christ’s life, which is His resurrection, has been ignored, though a few movies have presented His resurrection accurately and with reverence.
Each filmmaker has visualized Jesus differently. Some have stuck close to the story of a particular gospel; others have stuck close to the theme of the gospel; and, some have used the figure of Jesus to tell their own personal stories, while others have used gospel stories as a pretext for presenting popular ideologies. Some filmmakers have made movies about Jesus because they wanted to make money. Regrettably, some have done so because they wanted to mock or defame Him, while others have a passion to tell the real story of His life.
Jesus can be portrayed not only as an indigenous Jew, but also in the abstract. Not only that, but there are Christ figures as well as Jesus figures. A Jesus figure is any representation of Jesus himself. Such a figure can be realistic or stylized. A Christ figure, however, is a character who portrays or symbolizes an important aspect of Christ’s nature or His life and ministry.
When the representation of a Jesus figure is realistic, then it is Jesus as He was thought to be. To do so means looking at Jesus from the perspective of His time, not from our perspective. Many critics contend that Franco Zeffirelli has come the closest (so far) to portraying a realistic Jesus in the television special, Jesus Of Nazareth.
Most film representations of Jesus figures, however, tend to rely on well-known visual portraits of Jesus from the European Renaissance. These portraits often soften Jesus (though Passolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew leans heavily on Renaissance church paintings and yet presents an earthy, real Jesus). These stylized representations present Jesus in non-historical settings, just as Italian Medieval and Renaissance art presented Jesus in Italian settings. They also can tend toward fantasy, as in Jesus Christ, Superstar, where Jesus sings, and Godspell, which portrays Christ as part of a singing troupe of street clowns and mimes.
In contrast to Jesus figures, Christ figures are often either redeemers or saviors. The redeemer figure represents Jesus taking on human burdens and sinfulness in suffering and even death. John Coffey in The Green Mile is both a ‘holy fool’ and a Christ figure who bears the sins of others to his own death. The savior figure portrays Jesus Christ’s saving mission, sometimes even to triumph and a symbolic or an actual resurrection. Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan is a Christ figure who is willing to lay down his life to save someone whom he doesn’t even know and may not like.
Other Christ figures are:
The martyr figure whose suffering and death witnesses to values and convictions.
A Job-like figure where the innocent suffers and is persecuted.
A popular savior such as the legendary knights or contemporary pop-heroes.
- A clown figure who highlights the fact that God’s folly is wiser than human wisdom.
- The reconciler figure who brings enemies together.
- The offbeat figure such as the Watership Down rabbits and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
Movies may also portray Jesus Christ Himself as teacher, wonder worker, all-powerful Creator, monk, human, or Risen Lord.
All of this is acceptable if the Christology is orthodox (which merely means right doctrine). An orthodox Christology requires at least:
- A real ontology (which means that reality is real, not just a great thought or something else)
- A real epistemology (which means that a person can really know that reality is real)
- A real soteriology (which means that Jesus really saved us)
- A real resurrection
- A real divinity (Jesus Christ is “very God of very God,” which is how the Council of Nicea resolved the Homoousian conflict that Jesus was of the same essence, or substance, as God the Father, and so there is only one God)
- A real incarnational theology (Jesus Christ was “fully God and fully Man,” which resolves the Gnostic and Arian heresies that Jesus was only one or the other)
- A real history (Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection were actual events in history; thus, they are more than historical, but not less than historical)
- A real morality (Jesus died once for the sins of all)
- A real victory (Jesus Christ’s death was not a defeat but a triumph)
Finally, different kinds of movies that focus on Jesus Christ or other religious themes, including non-Christian ones, also embrace the following types: passion plays; spectacles; epics; experimental or avant-garde movies; drama; supernatural movies; apocalyptic movies; picaresque movies; and, clerical movies.
In 1916, Hollywood veteran Thomas Ince cast George Fisher in the role of Jesus Christ in the epic fantasy Civilization. Ince employed allegory in this tale of the supernatural to show that all war is evil. In this allegory produced by Triangle Productions, Jesus is depicted as wandering in a place called “borderland,” an area located between earth and eternity. When Count Ferdinand dies, he meets Jesus in borderland. Jesus announces that he will return to earth in the form of Count Ferdinand to preach peace. The Moving Picture World’s review of June 17, 1916: “What we see is by no means clear, though it is weird and picturesque.”
Using an obvious Christ figure, the 1940 movie Strange Cargo is an unusual and well-acted fantasy redemption drama with strong performances by all the actors. The plot follows a group of convicts from their prison break to their deaths or final “escapes.” The Christ figure serves as the collective conscience with whom each has to deal or deny. The story tells about prisoners from Devil’s Island who come back from a day of work and find an extra man, Cambreau, played by Ian Hunter, in their midst, who seems to have supernatural knowledge of the other convict’s lives and seeks to develop their better natures. As a cynical unbeliever, Gable hurls the stranger into the sea during a famous quarrel. The stranger clutches a wooden plank assuming a crucifixion-like posture. Gable realizes who the stranger is and is converted to belief in God. The stranger disappears. Strange Cargo was directed by Frank Borzage for Pathé Exchange, Inc. and stars Clark Gable.
John Ford’s 1947 movie The Fugitive was an adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory about a revolutionary priest in Central America. An allegorical attempt to reflect the story of Jesus Christ with an American Outlaw as the Good Thief and a native informer as Judas.
In this RKO production, Henry Fonda plays a priest who is running away from soldiers during Mexico’s violent anti-clerical period and want anyone linked to Christianity dead. The Fugitive finds shelter with a faithful Indian Woman, who gives the priest directions to Puerto Grande, where he can board a ship and sail to freedom in America. On his journey, he meets a man who says he will protect him. In reality, he is the Police Informer.
The Fugitive is one of the high points of black-and-white cinematography. With exceptionally good editing and music, this movie confirmed that Ford was also an “artistic” filmmaker.
In 1973, two fanciful musicals presented the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ, Superstar presents a Jesus figure, using the musical idiom of the 1960s. It is interesting to note that it now appears very “dated.”
The movie is adapted from the musical by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber that employed imaginative lyrics and contemporary sounds. Although it is theologically controversial, Jesus Christ, Superstar has a wonderful score. Director Norman Jewison’s movie adaptation for Universal Pictures had echoes of the stage version, but was more reverent and even hinted at the resurrection that the play assiduously left in doubt, up to the viewer or listener.
Ted Neely played Jesus Christ in this modern re-telling of the gospel story that sets Christianity on edge by partially turning the villains of the story into the heroes. Used by God to accomplish His purpose, Judas is presented as noble and knowledgeable, though angry. Pontius Pilate is a troubled man who has premonitions of the truth about Jesus and his own role in his death.
Godspell is a 1960’s rock opera re-telling of the story of Jesus in a New York setting. Directed by David Greene for Columbia Pictures, Godspell lost out at the box office to the overshadowing Jesus Christ, Superstar. Also based on a prior, successful theatrical musical, Godspell does not have the song recognition that Jesus Christ, Superstar does. Furthermore, the New York City setting provides a colorful and distracting backdrop to the movie’s symbolic style. Even so, its cinematography is stunning.
Godspell uses a Jesus clown figure to summarize the life and death of Christ according to the Gospel of Matthew. The characters in Godspell are colorful, humorous and human. Regrettably, the movie reflects the brief ascendance of the humanization of Jesus promoted by the German school of higher criticism and avoids the divinity of Christ and His resurrection.
The fantasy genre of movie storytelling took a quantum leap with George Lucas’ Star Wars in 1977. Star Wars had overt biblical themes and motifs. The second movie, The Empire Strikes Back, even shows the hero, Luke Skywalker, hanging upside down from a cross-like structure as he uses “the Force” to call to his friends to help save him.
In 1982, the fantasy science fiction movie ET had overt intentional Christology elements, including the alien who is willing to die to save others.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989 revolved around the search for the Holy Grail and contained clear biblical references.
The number of fantasy movies influenced by the Bible and tending to increase the reception of the Bible are increasing dramatically.
In the 2007 movie I Am Legend starring Will Smith, the hero’s blood is what saves humanity from being overrun by zombie vampires. That same year, in Spider-Man 3, Spider-Man is shown repenting at the foot of a cross atop a church steeple before the bells of the church ring out and he sheds the evil alien personality known as
The 2009 animated fantasy the Secret of Kells was a dramatic argument for the necessity of preserving the Bible.
The 2010 movie Book of Eli is an overt science fiction story about a hero who saves the Bible from extinction after an apocalyptic crisis.
The year 2013 showed a significant improvement in the numbers of top movies with Christian references and allusions, including such top movies as The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Man of Steel, Iron Man 3, Frozen, Fast & Furious 6, Gravity, Oz the Greta and Powerful, The Croods, 42, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. For example, Superman goes to church to confess in Man of Steel. Love and self-sacrifice become the spiritual weapons wielded against socialist tyranny in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Bilbo the Hobbit goes on a journey in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug to help drive out the evil Dragon who had seized the kingdom of the dwarves. And, The Croods take a leap of faith to follow the Light. In 2014, more than 15 faith-based movies are scheduled to be released in major movie theaters.
When we started MOVIEGUIDE® (www.movieguide.org) in 1985, the major studios in Hollywood released few movies with any positive Christian content – less than 1%! By the time we started the Annual MOVIEGUIDE® Faith & Values Awards Gala and Report to the Entertainment Industry in 1992 and 1993, however, there were 27 such movies, or about 10.38% of the market share. And, 22 years later, in 2013, 179, or about 65.57%, of the movies released by the film industry contained at least some positive Christian content!
Also, when we started in 1985, only about 6% of the major movies were aimed at families; in the past several years, movies marketed to families have increased to 30% or more of the top movies released in your local movie theaters. Furthermore, since 1996, the number of R-rated movies in the Top 25 movies at the box office has decreased from 9 to 12 each year to only three or four. In fact, in 2013, none of the Top 10 movies were R rated.
Finally, since we started in 1985, there were only one or two movies being made with strong, explicit Christian content or values, but, now, there are well over 60 such movies each year.
The former chairman of a major Hollywood studio told us he attributed these positive shifts directly to MOVIEGUIDE®’s influence as well as the Christian Film & Television Commission®’s box office analysis and Annual Report to the Entertainment Industry. Another studio head said we were responsible in part for the positive heroic Christian missionary who carries the Bible and explains redemption in the 2011 movie PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES.
Now, most movie studios have a Christian film division, and several studios are doing major movies with strong Christian content. And, now, all of the major studios, not just Disney, are doing movies for young children and families.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that the studios are not doing bad movies anymore, but it does mean there are fewer and fewer bad movies, and an increasing number of good ones.
Below are charts showing the increase in the Christian numbers since we began producing the Annual Faith & Values Awards Gala and Report to the Entertainment Industry in 1992.
As the accompanying charts on the number of movies with positive Christian and moral content since 1991 demonstrates, the number of movies with at least some moral content has more than tripled since 1991, a percentage increase of 308%, and the number of movies with at least some Christian content has increased more than five times, a percentage increase of 532% since 1991! We attribute that second great advancement in Christian content not only to the Awards Gala and Report to the Entertainment Industry, but also to the awarding of the $100,000 Epiphany Prize for Most Inspiring Movie of the Year, which rewards the best movie that resulted in “a great increase in man’s love or understanding of God.”
Two other charts calculate the rate of increase over five and ten years.
|Year||Number of Movies with
Positive Moral/Biblical Content
|Number of Movies with
Positive Christian/Redemptive Content
|1991||68 out of 260 movies
|27 out of 260 movies
|2013||228 out of 273 movies
A 219% Percentage Increase
|179 out of 273 movies
A 532% Percentage Increase
|Year||Number of Movies with
Positive Moral/Biblical Content
|Number of Movies with
Positive Christian/Redemptive Content
|2004||198 out of 282 movies
|128 out of 282 movies
|2013||228 out of 273 movies
A 24.6% Percentage Increase
|179 out of 273 movies
A 44.5% Percentage Increase
|Year||Number of Movies with
Positive Moral/Biblical Content
|Number of Movies with
Positive Christian/Redemptive Content
|2009||215 out of 277 movies
|151out of 277 movies
|2013||228 out of 273 movies
A 7.6% Percentage Increase
|179 out of 273 movies
A 20.3% Percentage Increase
The increase of fantasy movies based on the Bible and biblical stories, parables, histories, metaphors, archetypes, values, themes, and elements is multiplying dramatically. Clearly, the Bible is influencing the art and craft of filmmaking. And, viewers are responding positively. Whether this is increasing the reception of the Bible among the viewers of these movies would take a serious and massive research project. Even so, the reception of the Bible in fantasy movies is demonstrative and encouraging.
- Please note for reviews of the movies mentioned, please go to https://www.movieguide.org.
- Baehr, T. How To Succeed in Hollywood (Without Losing Your Soul). WND Books, 2011.
- Baehr, T., and Pat Boone. The Culture-Wise Family. Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2007.
- Baehr, T., and James Baehr. Narnia Beckons. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.
- Baehr, Ted and Tom Snyder. Frodo & Harry: Understanding Visual Media and Its Impact on Our Lives. Camarillo, CA: Media-Wise Publishing, 2008.
- Fowkes, Katherine A. The Fantasy Film. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2010.
- Walters, James. Fantasy Film: A Critical Introduction. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2011.
- Wood, Ralph. The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of Kingdom in Middle Earth. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.