Paul Prather

Paul Prather: What I find appealing and unappealing about films with Christian themes

There's no question I'm out of sync with many of my fellow Christians on a variety of issues. They zig, whereas I zag.

This isn't because I intend to be a contrarian. But I am, I fear, contrary anyway.

Nowhere is this dissonance more jarring than in my tastes regarding what are commonly called "faith-based films."

I've written about this before, and unwittingly kicked over hornets' nests. But here goes again.

A few weeks ago, my former sister-in-law and current church deacon, Genean, invited me to accompany her and her husband to see War Room, the latest hit movie made by and largely for Christians.

Genean and I have been movie-going buddies for more years than I care to calculate, from back when she was a child — and she's now a 40-something mother.

Fortunately, I already had other plans that night. I had no desire to see War Room. From what I'd heard, it's the standard Christian product, what conservative columnist Michael Gerson, commenting on a similar film, called "an extended exercise in evangelical wish fulfillment."

Which is to say — in my admittedly unfair characterization, since I haven't seen this particular movie (although I've seen scads of others) — I imagine it's marked by heavy-handed plotting, cardboard dialogue and a deus ex machina ending, in which God shows up throwing lightning bolts to save the day.

Genean, the dear Lord bless her, loves such films.

I can barely sit through one without barfing into my popcorn carton. She knows that, but she's intent on converting me, as it were.

Not long after bailing on Genean from War Room, I read in the online version of The Atlantic about another new film made by Christians, called Captive.

It's based on a true story: In 2005, alleged rapist Brian Nichols shot his way out of an Atlanta courthouse, killed four people, then held a drug-addicted single mother, Ashley Smith, hostage overnight in her apartment.

During their hours together, Smith read to Nichols from Rick Warren's spiritual best-seller, The Purpose Driven Life. Ultimately, Nichols released Smith unharmed and surrendered to police. Smith reformed and kicked her addiction.

I remember when this played out live in the news media.

Of course, the bare-bones plot of Captive sounds as if it would make standard fodder for yet another ham-fisted wish-fulfillment film. Except The Atlantic said it didn't turn out that way; journalist Emma Green described the movie as "compelling."

It stars Golden Globe-nominated actor David Oyelowo, a practicing Christian, and Emmy-nominated Kate Mara. Mimi Rogers has a supporting role.

The screenwriter, Brian Bird, also a Christian, told Green that he set out to make "a real movie," something better than the genuflecting religious flick.

"I don't think evangelistic filmmaking is either good evangelism or good filmmaking," Bird said. "I think it's pretty bad propaganda most of the time."

Bird was preaching my sermon.

So I invited Genean out to see Captive.

Exactly as promised, it was terrific — a tightly plotted thriller worthy of any large screen in any mainstream cineplex.

You could, if you cared, pick up the Christian touches. There was no swearing, no nudity or sex. The violence was less graphic than what we're accustomed to. Mara, as Smith, the captive, did read to Oyelowo from The Purpose Driven Life. But the readings didn't dominate the plot; they were fairly oblique.

Green, the journalist, discerned the spiritual influence in another place.

"There's one scene at the end," she wrote, "when David Oyelowo's character is emerging, hands up, from the apartment where he had taken Kate Mara's character hostage. He locks eyes with her from across a police line, and in that moment, there's unmistakable ambivalence. She recognizes that he has committed heinous acts, but he's also human; she sees that he's a sinner, just as she has been. This is the fundamental tension at the heart of Christianity, and of many religions: Humans are flawed, but there is also a possibility of redemption. It's ... telling that this moment was captured in body language, rather than in a preachy script. This is the fundamental difference between Captive and most faith-based films: It's steeped in Christian themes, instead of being about Christianity."

Yes. And that's why I liked it. It was subtle. For that reason, it was convincing.

After the credits, Genean and I emerged, blinking, into the lobby. I said, "What did you think?"

"It was good," she said. I was a little surprised she enjoyed it.

We discussed Captive a few days later. Her explanation made sense.

War Room and its ilk are designed mainly to encourage churchgoers, she suggested. Such feel-good films give Christians something to cheer about.

Captive, she said, has a different purpose: it's for secular audiences, intended to offer them spiritual food for thought.

"I liked them both," she said. "They're just two different kinds of movies."

Which probably means she has broader tastes than I do.

But here's another, drearier observation. The theater in which Genean and I saw Captive was nearly empty.

In its first weekend, in late August, War Room grossed $11.3 million and in its first month took in $56 million, says the website Box Office Mojo.

Captive grossed $1.4 million in its opening weekend, about one-eighth as much at War Room. It hasn't been out long enough to have a month's receipts.

Obviously, Christians don't flock to movies such as Captive. Apparently, secularists aren't all that interested, either.

As usual, mine is a minority view. I'm never going to win this battle for quality Christian arts, but I vow to keep on pleading.