It’s impossible to grow up a US resident unaware of Our Lord

It's impossible to grow up a US resident unaware of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, but every path to knowing (of) Him is different. My parents were essentially secular Jews and hardly anyone I knew growing up had even token religion, so all I had in my head for a while were a stupefyingly long childhood viewing of Ben-Hur and hazy images of church services — I attended two for various reasons before puberty, but those didn't leave a mark aside from my momentary bafflement at communion.

What did get my attention was the arrival to Austin non-cable TV of the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). Founded in 1973 by Paul and Jan Crouch, TBN was initially a runner-up to Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) — birthplace of The 700 Club, a vile program still on the air in which the stubbornly deathless Robertson says something offensive every single day, not just when journalists are watching and report on it. But CBN wasn't on our non-cable airwaves — TBN would have to do, and I quickly developed a deep relish for this kind of masochistic viewing. The ongoing influence of Ralph Reed's Moral Majority, which conflated a religiously inclined base audience with a conservative economic agenda and politics frequently trending in a conspiratorial direction, chimed directly with growing up with a conspiracy-inclined father in a Texas city teeming with similarly libertarian-inflected opinions.

Paul and the late Jan were husband and wife televangelists, the former noted for her impressively bulbous pink hair. Praise The Lord sat within the station's otherwise lively schedule and saw the pair sitting and droning on; I was much more interested in the shameless Benny Hinn, specialist in "Miracle Crusades" — stadium-size revival meetings, in which the afflicted are healed and fall backwards dramatically when he lays hands on. (Predictably, Hinn has been investigated by the US Senate for financial improprieties.) If you have a relish for tasteless kitsch designed to relieve guileless viewers of their money, it's peak viewing.

I discovered TBN around the time they were hawking The Omega Code, an opening foray into theatrically-distributed filmmaking (produced by son Matthew, now TBN's president). This 1999 release did not perform well, but contains two important elements of Christian filmmaking past and present. One was a story revolving around the globalist-agenda-peddling doings of an Antichrist figure. This is the theme that powered the A Thief in the Night series (begun in 1973, completed a decade later), four evangelical Christian films merging the strands of post-apocalypse survivalist fantasy, anti-world government paranoia in a conspiratorial vein and endless citations of Biblical verse.

The lineage from that high watermark (in terms of exposure and lasting influence – 300 million viewers served!) to The Omega Code was nothing if not aspirational; The Omega Code came out as the series of novels called Left Behind, covering similarly grim doings after the Rapture, were blowing up. The other important element was the assumption that star power, albeit of a B-list kind, would help such films cross over, but audiences didn't take the bait of Caspar Van Dien and Michael York.

I didn't see The Omega Code; my interest in this kind of cinema would remain unslaked until 2004's The Passion of the Christ. Mel Gibson's gory global hit ($600+ million!) is often credited as kicking off the recent wave of Christian filmmaking represented by the unlikely successes of God's Not Dead (2014), War Room (2015) et al., but that doesn't seem quite right. Passion has an extremely unpleasant aesthetic that's more slasher than contemplation (there are shock scares to torment Judas amidst the extreme emphasis on mortification) – but, like they say, at least it's an aesthetic, coming from a specific director, as opposed to the antiseptically incompetent passes at the merely functional of the contemporary Christian wave.

Passion is also decidedly non-child-friendly, with overtones of torture porn. It sits at odds with the mentality of culturally conservative Christianity, which demands only the blandest of onscreen transgressions. Movie "guides" for concerned parents reviewing the content of their children's potential viewing (like the literally-named Movie Guide, brainchild of the awful Dr. Ted Baehr) flag the deployment of the mildest of profanity ("darn," "hell") as cause for concern. The success of Gibson's movie had too much muscular impact to repudiate, but it certainly couldn't serve as the model for future Christian filmmaking.

I played a small, retrospectively regrettable part in Passion's success. The film was released in my senior year of high school, year six of my Latin studies. Going was class is boring and Passion was in Latin and Aramaic; it seemed theoretically plausible to arrange a class trip to the cinema to see it. This was an appealingly ridiculous idea: I enjoyed the image of a yellow school bus ferrying us to the multiplex in a clear misuse of taxpayer dollars and potentially dicey blurring of the state/religion line. My instinct was mostly mischievous, but our teacher agreed. In the end, a small fleet of parental cars ferried us to the theatre, and we got to skip the second half of the school day.

That was my last direct encounter with Christian cinema until three years ago, when I watched that year’s God’s Not Dead for kicks. A breakout hit, it’s commonly described as the Crash of faith films, uniting five terrible storylines together into one ghastly synthetic whole tackling the evils of teaching evolution, bullying atheist professors in higher education, the importance of wifely submission to one’s husband and other pressing issues. I graduated from college in 2008, the year the wave of Christian films leading to that surprise hit kicked off with the Kendrick brothers' Fireproof. Following 2003’s Flywheel (in which a dishonest car salesman embraces God and increases his sales) and 2008’s Facing Giants (a high school football team wins the big game after prayer), Fireproof lets God rescue a marriage threatened by former sitcom star/noted evangelical Kirk Cameron’s addiction to pornography.

Like Dinesh D'Souza's 2016: Obama's America (the highest-grossing nonfiction film of 2012), a critically reviled surprise success (the #1 independent film of its year). Alex and Stephen Kendrick had streamlined their production method over two previous features, cannily relying upon volunteer labor (doing its evangelical duty) from Albany, Georgia's Sherwood Baptist Church to keep budgets low. Fireproof is best known for its climactic sequence, in which a repentant husband Cameron demonstrates his recommitment to his marriage by destroying his computer with a baseball bat to stave off the temptation of pornography once and for all. Such a heady conflation of Christian morality with a not-so-implicit political agenda is typical of the post-Fireproof wave of Christian films, as jawdroppingly regressive in their policy suggestions as they are shocking in their exceptionally poor craft.

Starting a very erratic career

Starting a very erratic career as a freelance film writer around the time of Fireproof’s release involved writing many capsule reviews of the most marginal titles released each week in NYC, a common hazing/rite-of-passage for aspirant film writers — no Christian films in the bracket, but a paid excuse to see Dinesh D'Souza's 2016: Obama's America, which isn't that far off. D'Souza's infamous first "documentary" is a paranoid stew of insinuations about Obama's Communist indoctrination as a child and subsequent desire to turn the US into a third-world country in order to level the playing field, the nefarious consequences of immersion "postcolonial studies." Ostensibly secular, the agenda of 2016 isn't that different from a film like God's Not Dead, painting a worldview in which the viewer (implicitly white, Christian and conservative) is threatened by a future in which nebulous elites try to enslave them. 2016 is absolutely fascinating and there was no way I could have justified to myself paying to see it on my own dime, thereby contributing to the enrichment of a toxic huckster for bitterly ironic kicks. That I could get reimbursed for my ticket made me realize I could professionalize my pathology, which somehow made it OK to give money to such a sordid cause.

My longtime interest in extremely conservative politics ineradicably fused with Christian filmmaking's ascent. In retrospect, it seems less coincidental than grimly full-circle that TBN quite recently hosted Donald Trump as an interviewee on a new interview program hosted by former Arkansas governor/presidential candidate/Fox News host Mike Huckabee — the base has proven to be in part the same. I spent the Obama years immersing myself in the website now unified and codified as Breitbart, initially a series of blogs with the names Big Hollywood, Big Government etc. It was the late Andrew Breitbart's frequently repeated dictum that "politics is downstream from culture." Big Hollywood was launched under the editorial guidance of John Nolte, plucked from his blog Dirty Harry's Place, in which he sang raptures over the political righteousness of the Death Wish films and brought a similarly bellicose tone to his new place of employment.

Breitbart is now an internationally deplored phenomenon, but when it launched the target audience was mostly cranks and a few gawking ghouls like me. I'd read it for hours and send the most outrageous excerpts to friends; my gchat archives must compose one of the most comprehensive libraries of Breitbart commenters over the last ten years. (From a 2012 post on a Texas father who beat a child molester to death: “I would have helped the father, then buried the douchebag in a pile of manure where he belonged. There is a 100% NO recidivism rate when the perp is dead.”) The contributor roster was not distinguished: in early years, insane and incoherent essays from former Saturday Night Live cast member Victoria Jackson and great character actor/New World Order conspiracy theorist Michael Moriarty were staples, these contributors later culled for a more putatively professional roster.

The thesis animating nearly all articles was that Hollywood was a group of evil liberals aiming to jam their godless agenda down your children's throats, turning them into "metrosexuals" who think global warming is real. There weren't many cultural objects to actively support, a major anomaly being David Zucker's $20 million bomb An American Carol, the only mass-released attempt at mainstreaming comedy built around Fox News talking points. Chris Farley's brother Kevin plays a Michael Moore lookalike who gets taken through his paces by the three ghosts of past/present/future, including Patton and George Washington. A cameo from Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly was a presumable selling point; the enterprise did not prosper.

I saw An American Carol "for work," though really for myself; professionalizing was just an excuse. I did not manage to see any of the new wave of Christian films up to God's Not Dead, though Breitbart kept me keenly aware of them. The site needed some kind of counter-Hollywood product to get behind, and Christian films were a natural. Fireproof star Kirk Cameron could rail against declining cultural values in interviews, God's Not Dead star Kevin Sorbo could rant against the Hollywood "blacklist" of out and proud Christian conservatives (presumed to be one and the same; libertarians lurking the comment boards to troll Christians illustrate the schism ever-lurking under this uneasy coalition). It seemingly never occurs to Sorbo or anyone leveraging the same complaint that the notably outspoken Jon Voight has not been hurting for work, that their grievance is a cover for being past their sell-by date. Maybe it's this way of framing resentment that viewers can relate to: they feel inexplicably and unjustly marginalised, and watching performers who feel the same way onscreen and off stokes grievances.

It's this conservative politics fuelled by extreme resentment that made me feel right at home when I finally got around to God's Not Dead, which finds a fresh outrage every two minutes. It certainly wasn't the faith element, which takes a backseat to an earnestly scare-mongering narrative about how white Christians in the US are constantly being pilloried for their beliefs, which include the need to vigorously "stand up to" the teaching of evolution. Come time for the inevitable God's Not Dead 2, I had a small posse of fellow critics who'd all volunteered to write about it for their respective publications. Our pathological interest comes from different backgrounds (the crew includes one person raised in an evangelical church and another a secular Jew with a nervy interest in keeping an eye on the conservatives), yet the effect was the same: we could get paid to indulge this most unsavory fixation. I still wonder about the couple we met after the screening outside the auditorium; they'd paid $16+ dollars just for kicks, and highly recommended an anti-evolution movie that's apparently particularly riotous. The only difference between them and me is that they made no excuse for being there; I'm not sure I have any high ground here.

I've been systematically reviewing most of the major Christian releases for the next three years, and the bloom is off the rose. Breitbart got a lot less funny when it stopped being a camping ground for the safely marginal and became a major news story, which made me feel complicit — which I am, because I clicked. After the presidential election, a few people told me I'd prepared them for President Trump in a way by exposing them to this, but it's meagre consolation. The Christian films are less funny too: increasingly professional, often with slightly higher budgets and more plausible performers (Greg Kinnear rather than Kevin Sorbo), if equally torpid in craft. There is yet God's Not Dead 3 to come; after that, I may call it a day.

Vadim Rizov is the managing editor of Filmmaker Magazine. His work has been published in Sight & Sound, The Village Voice and Reverse Shot, among others, and derided on Breitbart.

Art by Jason Ngai