Essays · Movies

Should More Religious Films Openly Challenge Religious Beliefs?

The first trailer for ‘Come Sunday’ promises a film about, but not exclusively for, religion. Shouldn’t that become the norm?
Come Sunday Chiwetel Ejiofor
By  · Published on March 22nd, 2018

The first trailer for ‘Come Sunday’ promises a film about, but not exclusively for, religion. Shouldn’t that become the norm?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if there’s any silver lining to this waking political nightmare that gave rise to white nationalism and normalized xenophobia and greed, it’s that filmmakers have been given a generation’s worth of stories to tell. We already see films that deal with representation and discrimination in ways we haven’t seen before – cinematic acts of defiance with budgets big and small – but one area ripe for discovery is that of the evangelical Christian. Countless articles have been written about the speed with which mainstream religious leaders have abandoned the actual content of the Bible in favor of messages of austerity and exclusion; it won’t be long before filmmakers begin playing with the conventions of modern religion in unexpected ways.

So I’m more than a little curious about Come Sunday, the new film by director Joshua Marston that explores the fall-from-grace of a renowned evangelical Carlton Pearson. Based on the This American Life profile of Pearson, Come Sunday shows what happens when a right-wing rising star – a protege of Oral Roberts and fire-and-brimstone preacher – finds himself straying from the pack in one very important way: Pearson comes to believe that there is no such as hell in the afterlife. With Lakeith Stanfield and Chiwetel Ejiofor headlining the film – not to mention positive reviews from this year’s Sundance Film Festival – Come Sunday has a chance to be a particularly elusive type of film: a religious movie accessible to non-religious audiences.

By now, we’ve learned to take faith-based films sorta for granted. While few films can match the box office largesse of Mel Gibson‘s The Passion of the Christ, faith-based films have sorta become the horror films of the religious. Their grosses are often solid, they feature a small group of celebrities best-known to fans of the genre, and they lure new investors and studios into their wake with their low production costs. Last week’s I Can Only Imagine, for example, has already grossed $21 million on a $7 million budget, and Paul, Apostle of Christ is projected to make $7.5 million in its opening weekend, already a two million improvement on its production budget. Faith-based films also sit uniquely at the intersection of entertainment and ‘education,’ with many studios openly courting community support of their products. From business standpoint, they’re a solid investment.

From a cultural standpoint, however? They’re a disaster. The issue with many faith-based films is that they exist to reinforce – not challenge – the belief system of its audience. Back in 2016, then-Christianity Today critic Alissa Wilkinson wrote about her struggles with faith-based films as a practicing Christian.  “Instead of exercising and challenging the imagination of their audience in ways that would make their audience better Christians,” Wilkinson wrote, “they shut down imagination and whisper sweet nothings into their ears instead.” Given that most organized religions purport to teach a message of kindness and charity towards the world at large, Wilkinson expressed extreme frustration with films that focus instead on the need “for your team to win, to prove you’re right.”

What makes this all-the-more frustrating is how many great films about faith we’ve seen in the past few years. Martin Scorsese‘s Silence, for example, vividly explores the lines between belief and doubt; the same could be said of John Michael McDonagh‘s Calvary, a film mired so deeply in Catholic guilt that it damn near trigged a panic attack on my first screening. Even narratives centered around cults – such as John Erick Dowdle‘s Waco miniseries or Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead‘s upcoming The Endless – explore what it means to live with a belief system that puts you at odds with the world around you. Because these titles offer mature content and go light on the moralistic endings, you’re unlikely to find them on your grandparents’ shelves.

That’s what intrigues me about a film like Come Sunday. I’ve written before about my appreciation of the negotiation concept of ZOPA (Zone of Possible Agreement), which suggests that people will only entertain an argument if it comes from some place of common ground. Arguments that exist outside this zone – such as someone trying to persuade a devout Christian that there is no god are doomed to failure; arguments that come from some element of common ground, however, do offer opportunities for communication. Maybe few evangelical Christians will seek out a film about a religious leader who loses his faith, but one whose belief system evolves and puts him at odds with the community around him? There’s an opportunity for Come Sunday to both intrigue and challenge religious audiences, and that automatically makes it a half-dozen steps better than a lot of its faith-based counterparts.

Look, for as much as right-wing Christians like to suggest that Hollywood has an anti-religious agenda, religious beliefs are often ignored entirely or breathlessly catered to in wide-release films. Given how influential organized religion has been on this point in America’s history, it seems we’re due for a new mode of storytelling that challenges rather than reinforces religious beliefs. And while the James Caviezel and Kirk Cameron movies of the world will always be the religious films that hog the conversations, I’d like to think that films like Come Sunday – films that at least try to engage viewers in a dialogue of skepticism and doubt – will increasingly become the norm in the years to come.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)