What Hollywood Can Teach the Church About Trusting its Source Material Part 1: The End of the Movie Star

What Hollywood Can Teach the Church About Trusting its Source Material.

Part 1: The Death of the Movie Star, Birth of the Franchise, and Jesus

In the mid-2000’s the film industry underwent a massive shift in strategy that I think the church would be wise to mimic. The rise of franchises, cinematic universes, and sequel/prequel mania has caused film studios to put less stock in the prestige of its stars and more into the content they are producing. This is not to say the content is better than it used to be, only that it is different. Film Studios are now relying on established, pre-existing source material to carry their films into box office success, not movie stars. Over the next two blogs, I want to ask the question: What if the church followed suit? What if the church decided to trust it’s pre-existing “source material” (scripture, tradition, experience … you know, the whole story of Jesus) and put that front and center, rather than continuing this catastrophic streak we have of platforming celebrity pastors? Or, more to the point, what has it cost the church to trust platforming celebrity pastors instead of trusting our “source material”?

But first, a little film history.

Up until about 2008 you could reasonably predict a movies financial success based off of the star-power represented on screen. In the 1990’s you weren’t rushing to the theaters to catch the latest superhero movie (for the most part). Most of us wanted to see our favorite celebrity’s playing different characters and navigating various stories. Before we crowded theaters to hear Vin Diesel growl about family and fast cars, we wanted to see George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Brad Pitt pull off a relatively low-stakes casino heist. Before Star Wars was more poisonous for the internet than politics, we wanted to see Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan fall in love (for a third time). It didn’t really matter where the property stemmed from, what mattered was who was starring in it. You weren’t watching cinematic universes, you were watching Sandra Bullock movies. You weren’t watching another Transformers sequel or prequel, you were watching Jackie Chan perform death-defying stunts.

But then something happened. In 1999 the first X-Men movie was released, and it contained very few recognizable actors. It’s easy to forget now, but before the first X-Men movie Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry were not household names. Sure, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen had a few notable roles before this film, but their presence was hardly an indicator that a film would hit box-office gold. And the film was a massive success. Fast-forward to 2008, and the two biggest movies that year starred actors who were by no means on the A-list.

Before his four Oscar nominations (and one win), Christian Bale was relatively unknown when he dawned the iconic bat-ears in Christopher Nolan’s 2005 hit Batman Begins. Before this, his most notable role was as the lunatic serial-killer Patrick Bateman in American PsychoBatman Begins was a hit, and saved the Batman independent property for all of us (the previous batman film was Batman and Robin, with a horrific Clooney performance and …  nipples on the bat-suit). But while Batman Begins was a massive hit, it was nothing compared to The Dark Knight (the greatest superhero movie of all time) in 2008. That same year saw another actor lead a super-hero blockbuster, one who was even further away from the A-list than Bale.

 We are talking about, of course, one Robert Downey Jr.

Let’s take a journey back to the year 2001, where Robert Downey Jr. had just been arrested for the fifth or six time in three years for hard drug charges. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, RDJ was on track to become the biggest star of his generation, and while that would eventually happen, it would come most unexpectedly. After years in prison and in treatment, being fired from countless projects, and being black-listed, Iron Man director Jon Favreau campaigned hard to cast Downey as everyone’s favorite genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist. The studio wanted a more bankable star like Tom Cruise, but Favreau insisted on Downey. The studio caved, Downey was cast as Tony Stark, and Iron Man became the second highest grossing movie of 2008 (behind The Dark Knight, of course) while simultaneously ushering in a new era for blockbuster films.

Studio executives were paying attention to an interesting new trend. Not only did these superhero movies with non-A-list stars take first and second place for the 2008 box-office, but other movies that year with genuine star-power absolutely flopped. Do you remember the movies Body of Lies or Righteous Kill? Probably not. Because they tanked at the box-office and were ridiculed by critics. Body of Lies was an espionage thriller which was directed by one of the industries most revered directors, Ridley Scott, and was led by its two biggest stars at the time, Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. But for all the heavyweights present on set, they could not prevent Body of Lies from being a bland, by-the-numbers spy thriller. Righteous Kill was famously marketed as the first time in fifteen years screen legends Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro starred in a film together. Sure, they were both in The Godfather part 2 and Heat, but in the former they shared no scenes together and in the latter they only shared one. This was a whole movie full of them solving a slew of violent crimes. It was hyped up, it was going to be the next great crime-drama … but it was awful.

A new trend in Hollywood which approximately started with the first X-Men movie was well underway, and top studio execs were noticing. Movie stars were no longer reliable predictors of cinematic success. Movie stars were out, brands were in. When the time came for Marvel studios to cast the leads in their next two outings, they went with even further unknowns for Captain America and Thor. You didn’t have to pay them as much as Brad Pitt or Ben Affleck, and you could predict the Marvel brand would bring in the big bucks. Today, you might hear someone complain that they just don’t make original movies anymore, it’s all franchises, sequels, and cinematic universes. That isn’t true, there are plenty of original movies being made these days. The problem comes when those very people who lament the sacristy of originality are the same people who won’t go see an original flick. And because the majority of movie-goers will only take the time and money to see a movie if it appeals to their nostalgia or is tied in to a bigger universe, studios will not fund big-budget original projects. Nowadays, most original films are mid-to-low budget projects.

Movies are no longer reliant on the exceptional talent and charisma of a few heavy-weight celebrities to carry the film. If the studio trusts its source material and fan base, they can get away with casting Daisy Ridley’s, Tom Holland’s, and Gal Godot’s. All household names now, all absolutely unrecognizable before their leading roles in major franchises shot them into super-stardom. Now, there are of course exceptions, but not many. I was tempted to list Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson as an example of an actor who didn’t need pre-existing source material to be a massive box-office draw, but when you look at the last decade of his career his biggest hits are direct sequels (namely Fast and Furious and Jumanji,). Studios have learned that if they offer a product that is marginally true to the source material, if they give the fans what they are searching for, and if they slightly subvert or exceed expectations, people will flock to the theaters.  

Okay, so that was an incomprehensive survey of the last fifteen years of cinema. Now the question is … what does this have to do with the church? The church arguably has the greatest pre-existing source material of all time. There has been no book in the history of humanity that has sold more copies, been printed in more languages, exists on more bookshelves, and endured more criticism than the Bible. It holds the rare distinction of being censored in more countries than just about any other book, and of being the most read book in human history. In fact, since we’re talking the Bible and movies, there is a whole movie which came out in 2010 where the central conflict is the power this book has over civilizations. The Book of Eli stars Denzel Washington and was directed by the Hughes Brothers (one an atheist and the other a devout Christian). The story consists of Washington’s character, Eli, carrying the last known Bible on the earth and his mission to trek the dystopian futuristic landscape to bring it to the only printing-press left. The goal is to get this book into the hands of many. This futuristic sci-fi film depicts a vision of humanity that is brutal, violent, abusive, and primal. Eli is compelled by the certainty that this book in the hands of many can heal the wickedness in humanity. But the villain of the story, Carnegie (played by the great Gary Oldman), has been searching for a copy of the Bible his whole life. As a cruel tyrant over his old-west town, Carnegie knows this book, more than any other book, has the power to manipulate people into submission and reverence. As a student of history, Carnegie is aware of how the Bible can be used for coercion. Eli sees this as a book of liberation that belongs in everyone’s hand, Carnegie sees it as a book of oppression that belongs only in the hands of the oppressors.

Side bar: In the casting of Washington, a black male, as the one who sees scripture as a path to liberation, and Oldman, a white male, as the one who sees it as a path to control, you see an intentional comparison to slaves and masters during America’s demonic period of chattel slavery. White slavers would consistently prevent their slaves from having access to the scriptures, believing slaves were not worthy of the story of God, but also fearing how slaves might respond to books like Exodus, a whole story of God freeing slaves and calling the oppressed, not the oppressors, his people. Or books like a Philemon, where Paul instructs a slave owner to receive and love his slave like a brother. When slavers decided to grant their slaves access to scripture, they cut out any parts of the Bible that alluded to slaves being liberated or treated humanely. Slave masters new the best way to control their slaves was to twist and distort the words of scripture, or to keep it from them all together.

Back to the broader point, you also see the writing/directing brothers, both black men, projecting their own hopes and fears about scripture onto Eli and Carnegie in the movie. With the devout brother seeing the Bible as a means of liberation, and the atheist brother seeing it only as a tool used to oppress and enslave their people. 

The Bible is a meaty, controversial, liberating, and, in the hands of the wrong person or wrong system, potentially tyrannical book.

As a devout Christian myself, I am convinced the Bible, best understood in its original context and historical setting, is the most liberating, humanizing, restorative, healing, beautiful, profound, ethically sound, and existentially satisfying series of writings ever compiled. Nothing rivals it. Especially when you view Christ as the great crescendo of scripture.

Even if you are inclined to believe that Jesus was nothing more than a masterful teacher, no teacher in history has better collectively validated and informed humanity’s vision of the good life than Jesus. As the late Rachel Held Evans wrote in her own book about the Bible, Inspired,

I am a Christian because the story of Jesus is the story I’m willing to risk being wrong about.

You are going to be hard-pressed to find a Christian who disagrees with me about scripture and Christ. So, this begs the question, why is it so difficult to find (or be) a church that seems to genuinely desire to embody the beautiful truths of these stories? 

The church today is tasked with overcoming a lot of hurtles and stumbling blocks if she is to thrive. But, two of those hurtles are The Evangelical Industrial Complex, and a culture which enables and demands “celebrity pastors.” These ideas will be further explained in the next blog.

For now, let us consider that many Christian leaders don’t trust our source material to carry the beauty of the church forward. We trust our leadership strategy, and the talent and charisma of our preachers. And time after time this has proven toxic for both the church and her leaders. Hollywood has learned a profitable and important lesson over the last fifteen years: celebrity driven films don’t make money like they used to, so trust your source material, and fans will flock to cinemas and give you their money. Churches are not in the business of maximizing profit and earning the big bucks, at least, they really shouldn’t be; but, churches have a source material that goes far deeper, wider, and higher than any comic book or fictional novel could hope to dream: this mysterious, world changing, soul-nourishing, holy liberator named Jesus.

What would happen if we cooled it on our celebrity pastors, high-production style services, and gimmicky tactics, and we followed Hollywood’s example: don’t look to people to lead you, look to the source material.