Faith on film connects with the audience on both emotional and intellectual levels. Indeed, the most powerful expression of visual arts today is that of the cinema. Why? Because moving pictures evoke illusions of reality more convincingly than any other artistic form. True, it is a medium more often used as a voyeuristic tool than one meant to feed us spiritually. There are, however, movies that lift the spirit of man to a devotional level. I have chosen 10 films that contain religious metaphor designed to help us confirm and explore our spiritual nature. Click on linked names to read a full review if available.
Keep in mind that while motion pictures can be catalysts for raising provocative questions, to find true answers, more time must be given to reading God’s Word than to viewing man’s movies.
COURAGEOUS is the fourth release of Sherwood Pictures, the moviemaking ministry of Sherwood Church in Albany, Georgia. Courageous joins Facing the Giants and Flywheel in touching lives through heartfelt stories of faith and hope. The story concerns Christian cops wanting to be better fathers. There’s drama, comedy, action and even a bit of suspense, plus it sends the message of the need for good fathering – and teaches how to achieve this honorable goal. (PG-13)
OCTOBER BABY is a powerful parable about healing, one that tenderly reveals the psychological aftermath created by abortion. It doesn’t preach, nor does it accuse, it merely makes a valid point that should be considered. Maybe the most effective aspect of the production is how gently Christian philosophy is intertwined within the narrative, spotlighting the need for forgiveness and faith. (PG-13)
A GREATER YES has a low budget, a few clunky performances, and not the best of technical aspects (the recording of dialogue for the outdoor sequences seems like it was dubbed in someone’s basement), but soon these inadequacies are dwarfed by the filmmaker’s storytelling abilities and Anne Underwood’s perceptive performance as a high school student devout in her Christian faith – even after she hears the tragic news that she has cancer.
What truly holds us to the story is the treatment of its theme – God’s ways are not our own. What seems logical to us is not always the manifesto for God’s will. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says to His Father, “Thy will be done.” That should indicate that a “yes” to our most desired requests may not always be our Creator’s answer. That said, we can always be assured that He has a larger good, a greater yes in store.
The film reminds us of the need for faith. And like we’re taught in that perennial Christmas classic “It’s A Wonderful Life,” each life affects many others. The things we say and do out of faith can impact others. The film is a good reminder that trusting God in the darkest moments is pleasing to Him and ultimately best for us.
FAITH LIKE POTATOES tells the story of Angus Buchan, a South African farmer who suffers a series of seemingly insurmountable losses. Through an unlikely friendship with his Zulu farmhand and God making Himself known through miraculous events, Angus discovers that the key to healing and learning to accept others lies in his unwavering belief in Jesus Christ. (PG)
HAVE A LITTLE FAITH is based on the latest best-selling book by Mitch Albom (Tuesdays with Morrie). Henry Covington was a Detroit preacher who overcame a life mired in drugs and crime. Mitch Albom, portrayed in the movie by Bradley Whitford (The West Wing), met the reverend-in-recovery when he wrote newspaper columns about homeless people and homeless shelters. Covington’s I Am My Brother’s Keeper Church provided food and a place -- on the church floor -- where homeless people could sleep.
The other central character in Albom’s book and movie is New Jersey Rabbi Albert Lewis, played by Academy Award winner Martin Landau (Ed Wood). “The Reb,” as Albom calls him, asks Albom – who had briefly attended the rabbi’s synagogue as a child -- to write his eulogy.
On the surface, these two larger-than-life characters – the charismatic African-American preacher and the feisty, funny rabbi – could hardly be more different. But they each in their own way profoundly affect the writer. It’s a story about life’s purpose – losing belief and finding it again. The producers tackle the subjects of faith and God and caring for your fellow man, giving viewers an involving, spiritually rewarding made-for-TV film (now on DVD).
THE NATIVITY STORY was a blessed film event. Screenwriter and Christian Mike Rich (The Rookie, Radio) began writing a script concerning the faith journey of Mary and Joseph. Rich’s agent, Marty Bowen, became increasingly drawn to the project. New Line Cinema’s production executive Cale Boyter was open to the idea of a story that hadn’t received major studio attention in over forty years. And Bowen’s producer friend Wyck Godfrey was compelled to leave a comfortable position at Davis Entertainment in order to make The Nativity Story a reality. Like the Magi and the shepherds, each was being guided toward a life-changing event.
Though missing some of the grandeur we would love to have seen when the angels proclaimed the birth of the baby Jesus, the film’s team successfully fleshed out Mary and Joseph, making them real people and clarifying their love and devotion to God and to one another. It’s a love story in so many ways.
AMISH GRACE is a true story taken from the aftermath of the 2006 schoolhouse shooting in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Kimberly Williams-Paisley (According to Jim, Father of the Bride) stars as Ida Graber, an Amish woman dealing with the tragic loss of her daughter when a crazed outsider who swore vengeance on God after his own baby girl died kills several school children.
The objective of the film isn’t to promote this religious sect, but, rather, to give a penetrating examination of the concepts of true forgiveness and healing faith. One of the greatest mysteries of the Christian walk is this ability to forgive those who wrong us. I have come to the conclusion, after dealing with this inability in my own life, that we are unable to truly forgive on our own. It takes a healing, which can only come from the great physician Himself.
Because this is an account of such horrific proportions, and because of Kimberly Williams-Paisley's nuanced performance, we are forced to examine the concept of forgiveness. The film is haunting.
LUTHER: Joseph Fiennes gives a compelling performance playing Martin Luther in this fascinating, well-mounted enactment of the 16th century Christian reformer. The filmmakers have interwoven a clear presentation of the Gospel in this suspense-filled epic, and while it is a movie, therefore subject to dramatizing and maybe even occasionally elongating of the facts, Luther reminds viewers of the importance of the Reformation – it took sole interpretation away from one religious figurehead and put the written Word into the hands of the people. (PG-13)
THE GOSPEL: A semi-autobiographical film about the transformative power of faith and forgiveness, The Gospel is a contemporary drama packed with the soaring, soulful sounds of gospel music. Set in the impassioned world of the African-American church, The Gospel tells the story of David Taylor (Boris Kodjoe), a dynamic young R&B star torn between his successful new life and the one he used to know.
THE CASE FOR FAITH: Journalist Lee Strobel investigates two of the most searing objections to Christianity, accusations which have become barriers to faith and are confronted by believers and skeptics alike: Why is Jesus the only way to God? And how could a loving God exist if there is evil and suffering in the world?
The DVD from Lionsgate features a host of extras, including “Dealing with Doubt” and “The Least of These: The Christian’s Response to Evil and Suffering” featurettes.
Scenes of Faith from Classic Films…
Imagery in movies can be so powerful. Here are a few examples that not only moved me emotionally, but gave me insights into the nature of myself, others, and God.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame: In Charles Laughton's 1939 version, as well as the Disney animated musical years later, Esmeralda, a lowly gypsy girl, enters a cathedral to pray. She is surrounded by finely dressed, haughty aristocracy, each praying for their individual desires. We are taken aback, enlightened, and perhaps convicted by this girl's selfless entreaties. She exemplifies Christ's instruction to pray for others. Hers is a noble entreaty, one that undoubtedly caught the attention of the Addressee.
Places in the Heart: A literate script presents a determined widow (Sally Field) bent on saving her farm during the 1930s Depression. It contains perhaps the greatest film visual this buff has ever seen. A repentant adulterer is finally forgiven when his wife, moved by the pastor's sermon (taken from 1 Corinthians 13), takes her husband's hand during the service, signifying the restoring of a relationship through Christ's love.
The Robe has a Roman centurion, Richard Burton, haunted by his participation in the execution of Christ. One significant scene has the Roman giving a donkey to a Hebrew boy. It is probably the finest gift, if not the only one the child has ever received; yet, the next day the child bestows the donkey to another peasant boy. This visual signifies, “It is better to give than to receive,” and startles the soldier into an awareness that there is something to this new religion.
Inn of the Sixth Happiness: Ingrid Bergman stars in this fact-based story of a missionary who leads a group of children on a perilous journey in pre-WW2 China. The film contains one of the most touching portraits of a conversion this reviewer has seen in the movies, as we witness change in a man's life due to this courageous woman's spiritual devotion. The sequence reminds the Christian viewer that our lifestyle can affect others, perhaps significantly.
A Man Called Peter: A sensitive performance by Richard Todd highlights this account of Peter Marshall, a Scotsman who became a U.S. Senate chaplain. Tinged with a bit of schmaltzy Hollywood biography, the film comes alive with the recitation of actual sermons given by this devout man of God. You will be inspired by the presentation of these sermons and astonished at how well they relate to the times in which we live.
The Scarlet and the Black: This is the true story of a priest (Gregory Peck) who harbored allied POW escapees and the Nazi official (Christopher Plummer) who tries to catch him. The film is a bit long (155 min.) but the message contained at the end of the picture should not be missed. The last visual in the film signals Christ's compassion and the reason we must love our enemies.
Cat People (the 1942 version): One scene stands out as the hero holds up a cross and tells the menacing foe to “leave us alone in the name of God.” Slowly, the possessed leopard retreats. True, it would have been more rewarding for us Christians if he would have said, “In the name of Jesus,” but certainly the cross represented the Savior’s power over demonic forces.
Les Miserables (the 1935 version with Fredric March and Charles Laughton): Early on, a scene features a priest confronting French police with their prisoner, a thief who has stolen expensive dinnerware, the only finery the Monseigneur possesses. Rather than accusing the man of robbery, the clergyman announces the thief was given the utensils. Furthermore, the priest scolds him for not taking the silver candlesticks, which he then gives to the bewildered convict. The expression on the convict’s face is stirring. Due to the man of faith's compassion, the film’s protagonist turns his life around, serving God and man, including his long-time enemy.
Great Lines From Hollywood…
“Words are what men live by – words they say and mean” -- John Wayne in The Commancheros.
I love good dialogue in movies. Dialogue that’s witty, perceptive or thought-provoking. And sometimes even Hollywood writes words that resonate spiritually.
BEN HUR: "And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand." The newly converted Ben Hur.
THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL: "I wonder why the Lord's not with us every day. Sure would be nice if He was. Well, maybe, then we wouldn't appreciate it so much on those days when He is with us, or maybe He's with us always, and we just don't know it." Widow Cary Watts (Geraldine Page).
BABETTE’S FEAST: "In Paradise you will be the great artist God meant you to be. Ah, how you will delight the angels!" A dinner guest acknowledging the abilities of an obscure chef.
TENDER MERCIES: “Every night, when I say my prayers, and I thank the Lord for his blessings and his tender mercies to me, you and Sonny head the list.” Tess Harper to her son and new husband.
CHARIOTS OF FIRE: "I believe that God made me for a purpose. For China. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure." Ian Charleson as Eric Liddell, an Olympic runner who went on to become a missionary.