Timed to coincide with the start of Lent on Wednesday, Son of God opened Thursday night in Des Moines and on 3,254 theater screens across the country. There were only a handful of people at the suburban theater where I took in the 10 p.m. show, but beginning this weekend and over the next several weeks the film is expected to attract sizable numbers of movie goers particularly from church groups.
In the movie business, how a film does at the box office on its opening weekend can set the stage for how many more theaters pick up the film, how long the film stays in theaters and, ultimately, how much money the film makes.
For movie producers and their investors, how much money a film makes can influence their ability to produce and distribute new films, and this film is expected to gross between $15 and $25 million. By comparison, Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ grossed $370 million domestically and $622 million worldwide from its 2004 release.
While making money is an important business goal, this film—financed by LightWorkers Media and Hearst Entertainment and Syndication and distributed by Twentieth Century Fox—is also about sharing faith. The moviemakers behind Son of God are television producer Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Apprentice, The Voice, Shark Tank, The Sing Off and People’s Choice Awards) and his wife, actress Roma Downey (A Woman Named Jackie, Touched by an Angel). Burnett and Downey are devout Christians who hope their film is a tool of evangelization.
The feature-length movie was created from film originally shot for the 10-hour miniseries The Bible which was produced last year by the couple for The History Channel. Son of God is a passion play that looks more like a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie than an epic cinematic tour de force on the scale of a Cecile B. deMille movie. Shot on location in Morocco, the scenery is beautiful, and the sets and costuming seem realistic to the first century. The acting isn’t great. It’s a little clunky. The actor who plays Jesus is handsome and hunky, but he is too European. His hair is too light and his teeth are too, too white. They almost fluoresce. For crying out loud, Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jewish man. I seriously don’t think he looked like Fabian or used Crest Whitestrips.
Those complaints aside, it’s still a good movie. It won’t win any Academy Awards, but it is a movie to take the family to, or to see with a church youth group or with friends from a bible study. This is a movie about a greater story.
Son of God is one of several faith-based films set for release over the next few months. God is Not Dead opens March 21, Noah staring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson and Anthony Hopkins, opens March 28, and Heaven is for Real, based on the book by the same name, opens April 16, the day before Maundy Thursday.
Hollywood is catching on that there is a sizable audience for faith-based films which appeal to a Christian audience. In November, Rick Santorum, winner of the 2012 Iowa Republican Caucus and now CEO of EchoLight Studio, brought The Christmas Candle to Iowa for a screening before its nation-wide release. Calling culture “upstream from politics” Santorum told a crowd of more than 200 at the screening that culture influences politics and that people of faith need to use the tools of popular media to reverse the secular messages that dominate the entertainment industry.
While Son of God sticks closely to the biblical narrative of Jesus’ ministry and his passion (no spoiler alert necessary here), the film does an excellent job of highlighting the tension between the political and the religious world in Jesus’ day. The religious leaders attempted to keep the political peace with their Roman occupiers while at the same time being faithful and open to God. They failed.
The people who were weary of the occupying political leaders clamored for Jesus to step forward and claim an earthly, political kingship. That didn’t happen.
Today’s political and judicial leaders are faced with challenges unthinkable just a generation ago, such as the balance between civil rights and civil liberties, particularly religious liberty issues within our pluralistic and largely secular society.
The Little Sisters of the Poor are challenging the federal government over the HHS mandate that their health insurance provide access to birth control. Christians who are wedding cake bakers, photographers and florists are facing legal and economic penalties if they refuse to provide services at wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples. Lawmakers, governors and judges are grappling over where our Constitution and our state and national laws begin and end. All the while many of our religious leaders stand silently on the sidelines afraid of speaking up for either fear of offending someone or of revealing their stance on controversial issues.
Evangelical and orthodox Christians have made up a sizable block of the Republican Party over the years. They have tried to hold the feet of the GOP and its politicians to the fire on First Principles and core values, particularly the sanctity of life and the importance of the traditional family unit. That fight has grown increasingly more difficult when secular and libertarian forces both within as well as outside the party push against the values that are so near and dear to the hearts of the conservative Christian voter.
Sitting in the darkened theater and watching Christ’s story unfold, literally larger than life, and watching as the various factions pushed and pulled over matters of faith and politics provides a great opportunity to ponder deeply Christ’s message about the kingdom of God and how it is to be lived within the reality of the body politic.
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