(Image copyright Lightworkers Media & Hearst Entertainment)
We Christians are quick to criticize the movies coming out of Hollywood, and most of the time rightly so. But how quick are we to vocally support and buy tickets for movies that edify and enlighten us? There's one opening this weekend: "Son of God." During this special broadcast, John Stonestreet and Eric Metaxas welcome its co-producer and co-star, Roma Downey.
Some commentators are already referring to 2014 as the "year of the Bible." On the heels of the smashing success of the History Channel's "Bible" miniseries, a crop of Bible-themed films will be hitting theaters: The upcoming "Noah" epic starring big name actors like Russell Crowe ("Gladiator," "Robin Hood," "Les Misérables") and Emma Watson (the "Harry Potter" series), and the forthcoming remake of the Exodus story starring Christian Bale as Moses, show that for the first time in decades, Hollywood is taking seriously the value and marketability of religious films. Whether many of these movies will honor their Scriptural source material remains to be seen, but with this weekend's release of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey's "Son of God," a re-cut of the "Bible" series featuring additional footage, the motion picture industry will surely be watching to see whether Christians hit the theaters.
But as Eric Metaxas pointed out recently on BreakPoint, it's easy for the Church to entertain false expectations for a movie event like this. Ten years ago when Mel Gibson released his "The Passion of the Christ," Christians packed cinemas in record numbers, making it one of the most successful box office hits of all time. But this success at selling tickets didn't translate to evangelistic success, as many pastors and commentators predicted it would. If "Son of God" yields a similar outcome, what should we think? Is it even a good idea to produce Bible-themed films if few people convert as a result?
"It's a great idea," replies Eric Metaxas, "for the simple reason that, culturally speaking, we need to know these stories. It's like having never heard of Shakespeare or Hamlet. It's ridiculous. You can't be culturally literate in the United States of America if you don't know the Bible. So on that simple level, telling these great stories—we think of them as history, we think of them as sacred Scripture—but unless we get these things out there in the cultural mainstream, the Bible and those who believe are all going to be marginalized."
"The Passion of the Christ" didn't spark a nationwide revival, and in all likelihood, neither will "Son of God." But what both films can do, says Eric, is deepen and give artistic expression to the faith of those who already believe. Eric speaks for many when he admits that before watching "Passion," he didn't have a full appreciation for what Christ endured on the cross.
"I've taken what He did so lightly," he says. "It's Bonhoeffer's classic case of 'cheap grace.' I need to look at it, I need to see it. It's like the great painters of old who used to paint the crucifixion."
But what if the film doesn't even result in greater Biblical literacy? What if, as with "Passion," Christians make up the main audience?
"So what?" asks Eric. "What happens if Christian families go to see a great film? Is that a bad thing?...Hollywood has long sneered at or ignored people who want to see family values, people who want to see stuff with biblical content."
This film, he believes, could signal a resurgence in a genre which brought us such beloved and artistically excellent pictures as "Ben Hur," "The Ten Commandments," and "The Robe."
In fact, says Eric, the moment we set out to produce films for the sake of converting people is the moment we fail to do justice to God's grand story and the talents He's given filmmakers.
Roma Downey in the role of Mary
"The problem with the Church getting involved with the motion picture business is that we often produce Christian propaganda. We're not really making art, we're making something that is just a vehicle to get a message across. It doesn't matter what the message is, that's bad art. Art has to be more complex than that, it has to be richer. I think we evangelicals often feel that if there isn't an altar call at the end it was a bad film! We've got to get out of that mindset and understand that God's timing is not our timing."
Eric and John go on to discuss an exciting new project related to Eric's bestselling "Bohoeffer" biography, and a forthcoming television role that may offer BreakPoint listeners a chance to see Christian artistry and humor appealing to a larger audience.
During the second half of this week's broadcast, John welcomes Roma Downey, co-Producer of the "Son of God" movie. Roma, along with her husband, Mark Burnett, launched the "Bible" miniseries as a labor of love and faith.
"It's not often in one's career," she says, "that you get to do what you love to do combined with what you believe, and to get to do it with the person you love."
What she says started "as a whisper" quickly grew into an idea that would become one of the most successful television events of all time. But "The Bible" had its detractors, right from the beginning.
"When we decided to bring the "Bible" series to television," she confesses, "I think many people in our industry thought we had lost our minds...[They said] no one wants to watch the Bible on television."
But after more than 100 million people tuned in, it became clear just how wrong the skeptics were. "It's been so encouraging to know that the audience was there, and they would show up and they were hungry for this."
Still, Downey and her husband didn't originally set out to adapt portions of their "Bible" miniseries to the big screen. But as filming for the series wrapped up in Morocco, Downey says she broached the subject with Burnett.
"We decided there and then that we'd shoot additional footage, and that we'd take the time to edit together this beautiful film...about the life of Jesus. Jesus hasn't been on the big screen for ten years. So we were able to tell His story from His humble birth, our Christmas story, through to His ministry and his mission, to His miracles—we brought miracles to the big screen using an Oscar-winning team. Then of course it takes us through His death, His Resurrection, His Ascension and of course it ends with the Great Commission."
Downey herself had the honor of portraying Mary, the mother of Jesus—something she says was like no role she'd ever played.
"It was profoundly moving for me. It was a privilege for me as a believer for so many years to play the angel on 'Touched by an Angel,' and bringing a message of God's love every week...But stepping in to play the mother of our Savior—you know, I've loved Jesus my whole life, but I'd never fully considered what it must have been like to be His mom, particularly [during] the scenes at the foot of the cross. What must she have been thinking? What must she have been feeling? You know, I'm a mother myself, so all I could do was bring a mother's heart to it."
But the central goal of "Son of God," Downey says, was to help audiences become more familiar with the title Character, our Savior, Himself.
"One of the things we felt was important to bring to our film...was the humanity of the story. We wanted people to feel like they really got the opportunity to know Jesus. And not just to know Him but to love him—to invest in his life, so that by the time He's arrested, tried a crucified, you're really involved. You really care about Him. You really cherish Him. And you're really heartbroken about what happened to Him."
As part of the movie's promotion, Lightworkers Media has partnered with pastors and other Christian leaders to produce resources for study and starting conversations. "This movie was made as a gift to the Church," says Downey. And she hopes Christians who see the movie will take advantage of the website prepared to help audiences make the most of this work of art. You can find out more at www.ShareSonofGod.com.
"We're so glad," says Downey, "we've been able to use the platform that we have to shine a light on our faith and bring that story to the big screen."
"BreakPoint This Week" is hosted by John Stonestreet, co-host of the BreakPoint daily radio commentary as well as The Point.
To listen to previous episodes of "BreakPoint This Week," click here. To find a broadcast partner near you, click here.