Films with faith at their core were so numerous in 2014 that cultural commentators dubbed it Hollywood's "year of the Bible." In fact, more biblical blockbusters were released in the last 12 months than in the previous 12 years combined. And because religious audiences continue to buy tickets for these films, we can expect to see more and more spirituality and sacred scripture on the silver screen.
This year, Lionsgate is expected to finally release Mary, a prequel to Mel Gibson's smash hit Passion of the Christ. Warner Brothers is reportedly luring Brad Pitt to a starring role in a film about Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus. And Will Smith will star in The Redemption of Cain, a retelling of the biblical Cain and Abel story with a vampire twist.
The odd pairing of faith and film is the ultimate irony. The entertainment industry is famously liberal and secular. And yet, it is investing millions to promote Christianity on a scale that a televangelist could only dream about.
Faith-based entertainment does indeed appear to be driving interest in the Bible. Following the release of History Channel's wildly popular mini-series The Bible, a Barna Group study found that 18 percent of adults nationwide reported an increase in Bible engagement. Among those who experienced an increase, 25 percent said that viewing the mini-series or religious media conversations had an influence.
Or consider YouVersion's Bible App for smartphones, which has experienced large increases in traffic following various faith films' releases. After Noah opened, the app experienced a 300 percent increase in views of the Noah narrative in Genesis 6 (765,079 opens globally). During the debut of Exodus, the app experienced increases in opens of the first 14 chapters of Exodus, which feature the story of Moses and the liberation of the Jews. Some chapters were up as much as 33 percent compared to the previous weekend. The app also saw increases in Bible engagement following the opening weekends of Son of God and Heaven is For Real.
Why the correlation between faith films and renewed interest in faith? Perhaps it's because films and faith are both driven by story. The center of the Christian faith is not a set of doctrines or logical arguments — though such things are important! — but rather a series of narratives that make up a single meta-story. Over the centuries, the retelling of these tales has propelled the faith forward.
As one of the preeminent Christian thinkers of the 20th century, Richard Niebuhr, once wrote, "The preaching of the early church was not an argument for the existence of God nor an admonition to follow the dictates of some common human conscience.... It was primarily a simple recital of the great events connected with the historical appearance of Jesus Christ and a confession of what had happened to the community of disciples."
Christianity survives and spreads by the recital of its central stories. And Hollywood — with a podium bigger and a microphone louder than perhaps any others in the world — is now retelling and spreading these narratives. This very naturally — even if unintentionally — increases engagement with the Bible itself.
But in addition to what these films tell, we must consider how they are used.
As studios promote their films to religious audiences, marketing firms specializing in this arena have popped up. These firms often sell bulk tickets to churches and ministries, who in turn use the films as opportunities to evangelize non-Christians who may not agree to attend a religious service but might show up for a free movie. Religious marketing firms often produce movie-themed sermon outlines and graphics for churches in hopes of generating interest in the film while boosting church attendance.
Let's be clear: Movie studios are not consciously trying to evangelize moviegoers or promote religious practice. Often — in the cases of Exodus director Ridley Scott and Noah director Darren Aronofsky — they don't even believe the stories they're telling. Instead, Hollywood's greatest driving factor is — to borrow a word from Christianity — mammon. And religion in America can be a lucrative business. Cumulatively, 2014's faith films raked in hundreds of millions in domestic ticket sales. Hollywood is concerned about the almighty dollar, not Almighty God.
But the motivation for these endeavors matters little. Films are more than mere moneymakers; they are also cultural touchstones with the power to shape our collective consciousness. Movies can stoke society's passions, provoking us to ask questions we previously overlooked. They can elevate discourse and help define the meaning of who we are and what we do. Hollywood's choice to probe religious matters at the movie theater is not culturally neutral, regardless of Hollywood's intent.
For now, the arrangement seems to be satisfying both groups. Christians are benefiting from the amplification of their most cherished stories and increased interest in their sacred scriptures. Meanwhile, Hollywood is making a mint off audiences who are willing to pay to see spiritual stories on the big screen.
The question, as time passes, will be whether such a partnership compromises the core values of both parties, or is a match made in heaven.