Paul Prather

Paul Prather: Why do so many Christians fall for propaganda films?

Joshua Leonard and Vera Farmiga star in Higher Ground, a film about born-again Christianity that challenges viewers.
Joshua Leonard and Vera Farmiga star in Higher Ground, a film about born-again Christianity that challenges viewers.

I've spent 30 years as a minister thinking there's probably something seriously wrong with me, Christian-wise.

I consider myself a Pentecostal and an evangelical. Still, a good deal of the time I feel as if my fellow born-again travelers on the road toward New Jerusalem are speaking a different language than I speak.

And I'm not referring to the gift of tongues.

I wonder, "Am I the one who doesn't get it, or is it everyone else?"

For instance, this past Sunday morning before our church service began, I mentioned to my sister-in-law Genean that on Saturday night my wife and I had watched the best film about born-again Christians I've seen in 15 years, since Robert Duvall's classic, The Apostle.

(My third favorite also features Robert Duvall, 1983's Tender Mercies.)

We'd rented Higher Ground on DVD. Released in theaters last year, it was directed by and stars Vera Farmiga (George Clooney's co-star in Up in the Air). By the time the final credits rolled, Liz and I were bawling.

"This film is the voice of God," I gushed to Genean that next morning. "It's nothing like those awful Christian propaganda films that make you want to puke. Like — what was it called? — Fireproof. Ugh!"

"I loved Fireproof," Genean said.

I didn't know where to go from there. End of conversation.

Genean loved Fireproof. And I love Genean. She's one of my very favorite people in the world, a good-hearted, gentle soul, a dedicated Christian, a great mother and wife, a gospel singer who has served our congregation faithfully. I'd throw myself in front of a train for her.

But when I heard she liked Fireproof, I nearly lost my breakfast.

I shouldn't have been surprised. Hordes of Christians liked that movie. Fireproof, made for an estimated $500,000, was released in 2008 as one of a series of movies by Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. It went on to gross $33.4 million.

I'm sure nearly all its box-office take came from evangelicals' wallets. Whole congregations went to see it together.

It was designed to win souls to the Lord and inspire the faithful. It's about a small-town firefighter (Kirk Cameron) who gets saved and restores his troubled marriage.

It's one of those "God is good all the time" kinds of stories that relentlessly preach to the choir. It's squeaky clean and redemptive, and I never doubted from the opening scenes how it would end. Cameron's character would find faith, learn new platitudes and discover that Jesus had set everything right, all within 90 minutes or so.

That's fine, I suppose — it's just a movie — but it bears little resemblance to Christianity or the world as I've experienced either of them. It's purely Christian escapism.

Actually, a plot summary of Higher Ground wouldn't sound so different. It's about the spiritual highs and the soul-struggles of an evangelical woman.

Its glory lies in how well, and honestly, her story is told.

As a teenager, Corinne gets pregnant by her high school sweetheart, an aspiring rock musician. They marry. They later become Christians after God apparently protects their toddler during a bus accident.

The script follows them through the ensuing years. Jesus, their church and the Bible form the core of their marriage and daily lives.

But over time, their relationship stagnates.

Corinne's best friend, Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), also a Christian, is stricken with a brain tumor and left severely disabled. Instead of healing her, God goes silent.

Corinne begins to question everything.

It's difficult to explain exactly why this movie touched me so.

For one thing the writing and acting — the religious jargon, the incessant moralizing, the terrific congregational singing, the episodes of sheer delight in the spirit, the prayers answered and unanswered, the husband's rage and bewilderment as Corinne gradually distances herself from him and God — are dead-on perfect.

Corinne's Christianity is glorious and depressing and smothering and hypocritical and holy and comforting, all at the same time. She and her fellow churchgoers are three-dimensionally human; they worship and lust and cuss and pray and backbite and separate and then get back together or don't.

When the movie ends, God hasn't magically reappeared to heal Annika, bless Corinne's marriage, answer everyone's theological questions or be good all the time.

You almost might say that Corinne's doubt has become a central piece of her faith. She's trying to believe. She sees the value of believing.

Yet she's honest enough to say, in effect, "This isn't how it was supposed to be. I don't know for sure what's true and what isn't. I'm holding on as best I can."

This is Christianity as it's been lived in the trenches for 2,000 years.

Higher Ground, which opened in limited release nationally in August but never came to Central Kentucky theaters, grossed slightly more than $800,000, about 2.4 percent as much as Fireproof's $33.4 million.

We born-again types often grouse that Hollywood never portrays our faith accurately.

I'd argue that we don't want our faith presented accurately.

What most of us apparently prefer is Christian fantasy, Christian escapism, Christianity Lite. We want all our problems wrapped up neatly in the third act, in five easy steps, in a few snappy catchphrases we can print later on bumper stickers.

Unfortunately, real Christianity, like real life of all kinds, is a great deal messier and more frustrating. It's also more genuine and more rewarding.

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