Since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood studios have been aware of the powerful potential of Christians and other people of faith at the box office. The marketing plan for that movie included advance screenings for pastors, a DVD with multiple scenes sent to thousands of churches, block sales of tickets to churches, coordinated small group Bible studies and more. And…it worked. The marketing campaign largely overcame the R-rating and other concerns and drew millions of evangelicals to the box office.
Since that time, the floodgates have opened and every movie with a faith theme (The Nativity Story, Amazing Grace, Facing the Giants, etc.) or that is meant to be family-friendly (Because of Winn-Dixie, Waterproof, etc.) has been intentionally marketed to churches. All the same Passion-tested techniques have been used.
But the marketing campaign for Evan Almighty has ratcheted things up several notches. Evan is built on a familiar Biblical story. The sort-of sequel to 2003’s Bruce Almighty, the movie sort-of tells the story of Noah and the ark as if it happened today, with God (again played by Morgan Freeman) tapping a freshman congressman named Evan Baxter (Steve Carrell of The Office and Little Miss Sunshine) to build the boat and gather the animals two by two. It is rated PG, with less obviously objectionable content than its Jim Carrey starring predecessor. As a matter of fact, most reviewers have noted that the movie could easily be rated G—no sex, nudity, cursing or drugs. And there is a nice message about being kind to others, and a life-changing interaction between an ordinary human and the divine. Just the sort of family-friendly movies that good church-going folk keep saying they want Hollywood to provide.
Seems like a slam dunk. But still the Evan promotion has been aggressively pursued among evangelicals. At the Ichthus music festival last week, the movie was a major sponsor: semi-truck sized banner next to the main stage, announcements using the movie’s name at every break introducing the next performers and more. At a sports camp for children in out-of-the-way Campellsville, KY, campers received hats and T-shirts with the movie logo. An unprecedented wrap-around ad on Christianity Today magazine mimicked the magazine cover itself, and Evan banners floated above every page on their web site for weeks.
Clearly, the attempt has been to tap the imagination (and pocketbooks) of evangelicals. And the best way to do that is to make this movie seem like a normal part of the evangelical life—Evan Almighty is right next to Chris Tomlin at Ichtus, next to summer camp T-shirts, and next to the latest back-page column by Philip Yancey in CT. Apparently, few access gates closed.
So, the question begs to be asked. Why? From the marketer’s perspective, the answer is obvious: money, and lots of it. If enough Christians go to see a relatively inoffensive, somewhat moral, cutesy movie with their kids on Saturday afternoon, they might recoup some of their $170 million investment.
But why have evangelicals been seen to be such a prime marketing target for this movie? Honestly, the movie is not terribly faithful to the Biblical story. (A worldwide flood as judgment on sin that wipes out all of mankind does not make for a light-hearted comedy). God dresses in easy-going tropical style and when he speaks it is…well, merely droll. People of faith are taken seriously, but the larger implications of following a God who is both just and kind are not addressed.
Why do they think we want that kind of movie? Dick Staub, author of The Culturally Savvy Christian, observes,
“Hollywood is seeking advice and doing research to discover just what movies will work with that audience. What they are finding in today’s Christians is not an appetite for the culturally rich literary and artistic Christian heritage of Bach, Dostoevsky and Rembrandt…they’re finding that today’s Christians will generally accept something slightly more robust than Veggie Tales, but way less demanding than “A Man for All Seasons.” I’m afraid what we’re learning is that Hollywood has decided that what evangelicals want is simple, light-hearted, inoffensive family-friendly fare. Granted…that is better than a lot of what Hollywood produces, but it certainly does not deliver deeper meaning like CS Lewis did in Chronicles of Narnia or JRR Tolkien did in Lord of the RINGS.In short they will deliver Hollywood-lite for consumers weaned on Christianity-lite and view it as a win-win. Hollywood makes money, Christians are inoffensively entertained and everybody will say of “Evan Almighty,” “It was cute.”
I think he’s got a point. It’s not that Christians have to become high-brow cultural snobs who only listen to classical music and watch sub-titled art films. But we simply must become more discerning. We must not run to embrace something just because it has biblical allusions, seems “safe” or has no marks on our list of “bad things Christians should avoid”. Neither should we automatically avoid something just because it does or doesn’t have those same things. The beauty of redemption and possibilities of gospel transformation are often seen best against a gritty, painful backdrop, like a diamond on black velvet.
If our goal is to have an impact on our culture, it’s important to know a few things:
First, those of us who are evangelical Christian must know when we are being played-like with the Evan Almighty marketing campaign-and not walk blindly as pawns of another’s agenda.
Second, we must learn to think deeply and biblically about everything in our culture – including movies—and not just take the words of critics with their stars or cultural watchdogs (even the conservative ones) who have their own agendas. It’s the result of taking seriously our own responsibility for “taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:5)
Third, we must expect more from creatives who want the support of evangelicals. For too long, we have “settled” for the embarrassing mimicry of the Hollywood blockbuster (see anything with Left Behind in the title). Staub says, “So the Culturally Savvy Christian, though knowing full well Hollywood is exploiting them and laughing all the way to the bank, can enjoy the humor of “Evan Almighty,” will see it as preferable to the gratuitous violence of a typical Quentin Tarantino film, but will realize that humans made in God’s image can do better and that our entertainment culture will only be richer when it is made by thoughtful creatives for whom God is of central importance.” (emphasis mine)
Evan Almighty will probably be seen by a lot of Christians—and that’s really O.K. It will also be forgotten in six months. But the ongoing conversation about the shape, direction and values of our culture will continue. It’s important that Christians find a way –with our money at the box office, our attitudes and our dialogue—to be a part of that conversation, not just a marketing target.