The Jesus genre of film is nothing new, but two new titles hopefully are not carving out a new niche in Christian movies: the persecution propaganda flick.
Daniel Lusko's big-budget, faith-based Persecuted stars Dexter's James Remar as a popular, principled evangelist whose enemies frame him for murder when he refuses to support proposed limitations on religious freedom. James Stockwell also co-stars, and Lusko gave small roles to Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson and former Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson.
Here's the trailer:
In a story about the film, which Lusko began showing at small screenings this month, Deseret News reported:
The motion picture, which opens May 9 on 600 movie screens across the country, including in Salt Lake City, is being heavily marketed to the Christian community. At its heart, Lusko said, is a question: How far are you willing to go to defend your beliefs? The writer/director said the issue of freedom of conscience versus the state's influence is central to the film’s message.
In case any readers might have found that unclear, that “freedom of conscience” refers to the freedom to fight against the Constitutional rights of gays, restrict access to abortion and reinstitute prayer in public schools. Lusko goes on to say, “There’s nothing wrong with the idea of a people who want all faiths to get along. But the moment a government starts forcing that, or the way a religion can act, you’re forcing conscience and the human heart. Man ought to have the right to choose, and the moment the government starts dictating the conscience of man, we need to look at what’s happening."
By “what's happening,” Lusko is referring to the supposed persecution of Christians in America, an idea embraced by many conservative Christians but dismissed as ridiculous by perhaps as many Christians.
The filmmaker said in an interview with Charisma News:
We have congressional interest, private sector interest and lots of media interest in this film. We as a nation are perilously close to losing freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and everyone we’ve shown the film to has remarked on how easily the plot of Persecuted could actually take place—or perhaps already has and was covered up.
Big-budget Persecuted is not be confused with small-budget Persecuted though, which failed to raise the $100,000 director Benjamin Bondar sought on kickstarter to complete his film. Bondar is reportedly downsizing his movie as a short and plans to submit it to Cannes. The synopsis reads, in part:
After several failed attempts to capture four Evangelists who have been effectively supporting Christianity throughout the Soviet Union, the Soviet government orders its best trained undercover KGB officer to infiltrate the Christian Church and stop the growing number of believers through whatever means possible.
Bondar says he based the story on his father's experiences living in Russia but makes no bones about Persecuted being an allegory about what he sees as an anti-Christian political climate in the US.
At least on Facebook...
As Right Wing Watch's Miranda Blue pointed out, Bondar responded to a Facebook commenter about his film, saying:
The unfortunate reality in the U.S. is that both socialist policies and atheist propaganda are actively trying to marginalize and demonize the practice of established religions such as Christianity. I feel that watching this movie with an open and attentive mind will help prove this point by providing a historical context with which to view current events happening in the U.S. right now.
Blue also wrote:
These two [Persecution] films are by no means the only ones coming out this year pushing the Christian persecution narrative. Liberty Counsel’s film 'Uncommon' will take on the supposed crisis of 'religious liberty in public school.'
The Merriam-Webster definition of "persecution" is "to treat (someone) cruelly or unfairly especially because of race or religious or political beliefs. To annoy with persistent or urgent approaches (as attacks, pleas, or importunities). Pester." So even the most hardcore proponents of the American Christian persecution complex admit that feeling “pestered” is not exactly on a par with being tortured and beheaded in North Korea for your Christian beliefs. But some of those who cling to the notion that they're a persecuted lot nevertheless piggyback on the sufferers of actual religious persecution internationally.
Many don't feel the need to piggyback on violent Christian persecution elsewhere in the world, however. In an editorial for the Los Angeles Times, Michael McGough pointed out that “Legalization of same-sex marriage does create complications for churches that oppose homosexuality. For example, they might find themselves denied participation in government social programs that treat same-sex and opposite-sex couples the same.
But that is hardly 'conflict on a massive scale.' No one is going to force the Roman Catholic Church or any denomination to perform same-sex religious marriages. Nor is it likely that the church will lose its tax-exempt status because it opposes gay marriage (or contraception or female priests, for that matter).”
In his blog TheBarkingAtheist, Daniel Moran gives his take on why Christians often feel persecuted:
“They think equality means persecution, because they’re so used to be the favoured class in America. They’re used to having a dominance over public life, politics, and culture in America. When that preferential treatment is slowly stripped away and replaced with equality, they are dragged kicking and screaming through the Courts, crying persecution.”
Researching what Christians are offering as examples of persecution, I found some incidents mired in deceit – such as the story of the 6-year-old girl in Oklahoma whose parents sent her to school with a prepared statement about the Christmas traditions in her family that of course prominently referenced Jesus. The teacher cut the little girl off and indignant cries of persecution arose. The propaganda spread was that the teacher told the girl to return to her seat and announced to the class that she wasn't allowed to recite Bible verses in class. Later the teacher and school administrators issued post-investigation statements that the kid wasn't ordered back to her seat and was cut off merely so the couple classmates after her would get their turns to speak.
One right-wing writer was upset that Girl Guides, Britain's version of the Girl Scouts, removed the “love for God” line out of the oath they recite, and others complained that the U.S. Army ordered that the Bible verses in Trijicom gun scopes be scratched out. “Obamacare” is another supposed attack on Christianity, what with its inclusion of contraception coverage.
In addition to another biggie – Christians' right to fight the legalization of gay marriage – the prohibition of prayer in schools is an oft-cited example of “persecution.”
Check out how a Christian youth organization is attempting to rally the troops to fight against the scourge of equality in public schools in “The Thaw.” Some of the propaganda video's more amusing assertions are that “Public school dating is an obligation” and you're ridiculed if you don't kiss people. “Bullying is common,” one kid intones. Others lament that in public schools, “Dirty jokes are told in the hallways” and “What we see in our 'sex education' classes is pornography.” “Why am I called names for believing in marriage the way God intended it?” the most enthusiastic kid asks, and another says, “Our country is under attack by those who don't believe in our God.”
Here are two of the most entertaining rebuttal videos: One comments, “Yes, harassment and bullying toward Christians is messed up. You know what else is messed up? Bullying gay kids to the point that they kill themselves. Just sayin.”
A video response by comedian Dusty, who tells the kids that they're merely unpaid fundraisers for their parents' cult, is also quite hilarious.
Dallas Baptist University student Ian Harber wrote an interesting story for Relevant Magazine about why the persecution complex appeals to a lot of Christians, and what might be more beneficial PR for the survival of the Church:
“We love seeing other Christian’s faithfulness and sacrifice. We love seeing the Gospel touch people’s lives in some of the least Christian-friendly places...Of course we’re not jealous of the persecution itself, but, in a way, we are jealous that they are getting to experience firsthand all of the action-packed Gospel-spreading we see throughout Acts and the rest of the New Testament. And, of course, we want that. What Christian wouldn’t want to see God move and touch the hearts of people around the world?
...Calling Christians in America 'persecuted' seems like a disservice to our fellow believers overseas who face jail—and far worse—for their relationship with God. Christians in America are occasionally ignored, slandered or even marginalized. But to call any of this 'persecution' stretches the definition violently.
We claim there is a war on Christmas when someone says “Happy Holidays.” We claim America hates Christians when our President tries to make peace with Muslims. We claim the government hates Christians when they pass legislation on drug legalization or gay marriage. We so desperately want the title of "persecuted" without having to actually suffer.”
After proposing that living more Christlike lives might do the Church more good than, if I can extrapolate, protesting at gay pride events, Harber writes, “We too should put aside our pride and have the humility to serve before we shout, to preach the Gospel before we protest the government, to create before we criticize and to love our neighbors before we victimize ourselves.”
One way to do that, a religious writer surprisingly suggests, is to look to the secular world. In his article for Catholiceducation.org, “Why Do Heathens Make the Best Christian Films?”, Thom Parham writes:
"If you want to send a message, try' Western Union,' said Frank Capra, a Christian who made hugely popular mainstream films. Film excels at metaphor — forging a connection between dissimilar objects or themes. It doesn't fare as well with text messaging. Show, don't tell, is the rule of cinema. Christians, however, can't seem to resist the prospect of using film as a high-tech flannel board. The result is more akin to propaganda than art, and propaganda has a nasty habit of hardening hearts.
...Christian filmmakers seem to dislike mystery. Rather than using Jesus's construct, 'The kingdom of God is like ...' their films often proclaim, 'The kingdom of God is.' Nothing is left to the imagination. Audiences are not allowed to make their own connections; they are told what to think.
In his book True Believers Don't Ask Why, John Fischer characterizes this attitude as: 'Jesus is the answer; therefore nothing can be left unanswered.' This approach, no matter how sincere, rings false to audiences and leaves them feeling manipulated. That's why movies like Left Behind, which try to convince audiences of the truth, instead leave them tittering. Anthony Breznican of the Associated Press described it as 'a weak proselytizing device masquerading as a movie.' The National Review's Rod Dreher called it the 'Gospel According to Ned Flanders.' As long as people of faith are more concerned with messages than metaphors, they are doomed to make bad films.”
Last Ounce of Courage, which received the prestigious and formerly nonexistent “Chuck Norris seal of approval” and concerns one man's brave journey to show his grandkids the power of Christianity by putting up a giant Christmas tree in his town, is one such laughable effort. Dozens of Christian movies are released each year. And although the heavy-handed and broad moralistic Tyler Perry joints make millions upon millions of dollars, they are financial Goliaths compared to Christian movies marketed to largely white audiences, which are usually meekly and swiftly shuttered off straight to DVD.
In four days, Son of God, another Jesus biopic, opens. Darren Aronofsky's Noah follows in March, but Christians are already complaining that the movie -- which stars Emma Watson, Russell Crowe and Anthony Hopkins -- is not Bible-y enough. In fact, as The Blaze reported:
Faith Driven Consumer turned to the Internet to ask Christian consumers the following question: 'As a Faith Driven Consumer, are you satisfied with a Biblically themed movie — designed to appeal to you — which replaces the Bible’s core message with one created by Hollywood?' Stone told TheBlaze that of the more than 5,000 Christians who answered the online survey, 98 percent answered 'no,' with many contacting Faith Driven Consumer to provide additional comments.
Paramount cited Nielsen's market research that 83 percent of survey respondents who self-identify as “very religious” said they were aware of the film and wanted to see it, however. So perhaps conservative Christians and nonChristians can come together – to see Noah if nothing else. And if the religious right chooses to denounce mainstream movies with high production values that address Bible-based themes, they won't have anyone but themselves to blame for their religion being linked to tripe such as Tribulation and Last Ounce of Courage. But I guess it depends on whether you want your movie to spread “the good word” to people who you think need to hear it, or you merely want to preach to the choir.