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NNY religious leaders, churchgoers pleased with bounty of religious-themed movies

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Movie audiences looking for spiritual themes have been blessed recently.

USA Today reported last month that “Not since ‘The Ten Commandments’ and ‘Ben-Hur’ more than a half-century ago has the film industry bankrolled religious-themed pictures as it has this year.”

All of the movies, new and old, share something in common: They tell a good story, and spreading the word of God regardless of the form is good, according to local religious leaders.

“It reveals a hunger in our society — a hunger for something beyond the natural,” said the Rev. Michael C. Bartholomew, pastor of Faith Fellowship Church in Watertown. “It’s a hunger for God and a hunger to know who the Lord is.”

The Rev. Frederick G. Garry, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Watertown, said he knows many people who are fans of the 10-hour televised docu-drama “The Bible,” released in March 2013. The History channel series, now wildly popular on DVD, Blu-ray and online streaming, explores the sacred text’s most significant episodes, including the Exodus, Noah’s journey in the ark and the life of Jesus.

“People suggested they really enjoyed that one because so much of the Old Testament doesn’t read like a novel does,” the Rev. Mr. Garry said. “I think there’s a lot of people out there where faith has become very concept-based and they don’t have a narrative.”

In February, “Son of God,” a big-screen version of “The Bible,” culled from footage from the series, was released with strong box office results. The series and film are produced by Mark Burnett, the producer of TV hits “The Voice” and “Survivor,” and his wife, Roma Downey, best known for her long run starring on the drama series “Touched by an Angel.”

The movie “God’s Not Dead,” a low-budget Christian film that was released March 21, has surprised analysts with its popularity. The film is about a college freshman and devout Christian who finds his faith challenged on his first day of philosophy class by a dogmatic professor who begins class by informing students that they will need to disavow, in writing, the existence of God or face a failing grade.

Christopher K. Hopper, an associate pastor at New Life Christian Church in Watertown, said “God’s Not Dead” is entertainment that brings together skeptics and believers alike. And, he says, there’s a reason for that.

“We, as people, love stories,” he said. “Technology has changed how we write, capture and share them, but the premise is the same: ‘I have something fantastic to tell you. Believe it or not.’”

Gods, kings and heaven

The religious-themed movie trend continued Wednesday when “Heaven is for Real,” based on the nonfiction best-seller by Todd Burpo and writer Lynn Vincent, was released by Sony Pictures Classics. It’s about Mr. Burpo’s then-4-year-old son, who claims to have visited heaven during a near-eath experience. “Colton recounts the details of his amazing journey with childlike innocence and speaks matter-of-factly about things that happened before his birth ... things he couldn’t possibly know,” according to a description from Sony Pictures Classics. “Todd and his family are then challenged to examine the meaning from this remarkable event.”

On the film’s promotional website, viewers have an option of creating an Internet meme. Those who visit the site — http://wdt.me/5cXZBL — can choose an image from the film, write their own caption and create the meme that can be shared with friends on social media, in an effort for filmmakers to get more publicity.

In December, 20th Century Fox will release “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” directed by Ridley Scott and starring Christian Bale. The film is an account of Moses’s hand in leading the Israelite slaves out of Egypt.

“Mary, Mother of Christ,” the prequel to the 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ” is scheduled to be released by Lionsgate Films next April. A descripton on the Internet Movie Database calls it a “youth-based bio pic” that’s “focused on a part of Mary, Joseph and Jesus’s life that has not been shown on the big screen before.”

NBC has approved the 12-hour miniseries “A.D.” as a follow-up to the miniseries “The Bible.” It’s scheduled to air next spring.

“You might think the story is over at the crucifixion, but as most of the world knows, that was only the beginning,” Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment said in a news release in December after the “A.D.” project was announced.

‘artistic license’

Some of the Bible-based films have been met with criticism. “Noah,” starring Russell Crowe, was released in theaters March 28. The movie has been the subject of controversy, with some religious groups claiming the story has been inaccurately portrayed. That prompted Paramount Pictures to add a disclaimer to its marketing material saying “artistic license has been taken” in telling the story.

Mr. Hopper said that as a Christian pastor, he’s irritated to hear so many Christians ridiculing the director and co-writer of “Noah,” Darren Aronofsky, for taking so much artistic liberty with the story.

“Yet how can we rightfully expect people who don’t adhere to our value set to properly portray things we esteem?” Mr. Hopper said. “We might believe cheeseburgers are the best food on the planet, but that doesn’t mean we throw a tantrum when we find out someone made a cheeseburger out of soy instead of beef.”

He said it should be celebrated that the producers tried to reflect a Biblical story in a movie and “appreciate it with a filter on.”

“Attitudes like those displayed on social media by some Christians are presumptuous at best,” said Mr. Hopper, “and do little to further reflect the Christian message of Jesus’s love for the world.”

There aren’t many drawbacks if the films spread the word of the Bible, said the Rev. Mr. Bartholomew.

“I think this is a bit of an exciting time,” he said. “I understand that every movie is not biblically accurate and are a little far-fetched. They take some artistic license. But they are movies. They aren’t a Bible seminar.”

The Rev. Mr. Garry compared the plethora of Bible-based movies to regular trips he hosts to Israel.

“When you go to those places, it really comes alive,” he said. “I think some of these movies are probably trying to tap into that desire the people have to have the stories come alive.”

And for better or for worse, watching a movie is less taxing for many people than reading scripture. The Rev. Mr. Garry said society is losing “the capacity of attention.”

“The Bible is not read like a quick description,” he said. “It’s something you ponder.”

The Rev. Mr. Bartholomew said in these days of declining church attendance, the movies could be a spark “for people coming to know the Lord and coming back to him.”

“That’s a very healthy thing, and I’m grateful for that,” he said.

revered capitalism

The bottom line, Mr. Hopper said, is that movie studios want to make money.

“This is a great revenue stream to engage,” he said.

Indeed, the Rev. Mr. Bartholomew said the audience for Bible-based movies may have been underestimated.

“There may be more true believers in America than people realize,” he said. “I think that sometimes Christianity gets a bad rap. Some of our media cover Christianity in a very negative way.”

“I see it as a great conversation starter, as do lots of other Christian leaders who are seeing incredible side effects,” Mr. Hopper said.

For example, he cited an April 2 tweet from Craig Groeschel, lead pastor of LifeChurch.tv., which hosts one of the largest weekly online gatherings of Christians in the world. LifeChurch.tv is a multisite church which brodcasts from its main campus in Oklahoma to 18 physical congregations infive states. Their broadcasts are also available online.

Since the release of “Noah,” the church’s Bible app has seen a surge in one particular story:

“People opening the Noah story in Genesis 6 increased 300 percent,” Mr. Groeschel’s tweet read.


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