Gods at the Movies


 When we go to the movies we can experience good surprises (“I loved that twist ending!”) or bad ones (“I can’t believe there was so much profanity!”). But recently I encountered surprises of a different kind when I screened Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters for The Official Plugged In Podcast.

And one of them happened before the movie.

First, the film itself. I fully expected Sea of Monsters to resort to the same randy sexual content that torpedoed chapter one, The Lightning Thief. But there wasn’t any! So kudos to 20th Century Fox. Mysticism and polytheism notwithstanding, the studio and filmmakers deserve credit for scuttling the hook-up humor in this Harry Potter-esque sequel about adolescent demigods battling mythological beasts.

That was the pleasant surprise. A more unsettling one occurred during the previews. One of those trailers pitched the upcoming family film Grace Unplugged, the story of a music minister’s daughter (AJ Michalka) who chases big-time success, only to discover that stardom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Well, as soon as the audience realized this was a faith-based film more interested in celebrating the girl’s redemption than her initial rebellion, ripples of contempt rolled through the crowd. You could hear it. Dismissive laughter. Snarky comments. A man who was seated several rows behind me snorted, “Oh, it’s just some Jesus movie.”

My heart hurt in a strange way. It felt as if I’d absorbed several blows at once. At one level, it stung because I love the Lord and consider Him worthy of great reverence. These people were belittling our Creator and Savior. And Jesus is such a significant part of my life that I couldn’t help but take those murmured barbs personally as well.

I immediately thought of John 15:18-19. That’s where Jesus tells His disciples, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” That made me feel a little better. It reminded me that God isn’t surprised or wounded when lost people disrespect Him. And I shouldn’t be shocked, either. They don’t know any better. OK, shake it off. On with the show… But it wasn’t that easy. Part of my initial ache remained, because I felt a burden for those people. There they sat, each having paid to be entertained by Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, a fantasy about gods, prophecy, self-sacrifice and resurrection. Yet they ridiculed a movie promoting the God of Scripture, who fulfilled prophecy when His only Son laid down His life as our sacrifice before rising again (no golden fleece required). It pained me to think that members of this audience, obviously hungry for a supernatural thrill ride, were rejecting the real adventure.

Only God knows their hearts, though the disdain for something Christian was palpable. What do you think? Was it contempt for the Lord? Perhaps people today are put off by the church after years of Hollywood stereotypes depicting us as gullible fools or self-righteous bigots? Could it be that, between mouthfuls of popcorn, they simply resented a “preachy” film invading their entertainment sanctuary? Anything’s possible. Or maybe they just don’t like surprises.

Who wrote this?

Senior Editor for PLUGGEDIN.COM. In addition to hosting the weekly "Official Plugged In Podcast," Bob also writes reviews, articles and Movie Nights discussion guides, and manages areas of this website. He has served at Focus on the Family for more than 20 years. Since 1995, Bob has penned "High Voltage," a monthly column that answers children's entertainment questions in Clubhouse magazine. He has co-authored several books, including Chart Watch, Movie Nights, Movie Nights for Teens and, most recently, The One Year Father-Daughter Devotions. Bob is also co-host of "The Official Adventures in Odyssey Podcast."

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Scott Jamison More than 1 year ago

--Now that I've seen the trailer for Grace Unplugged, some thoughts on the trailer itself and what kind of movie it's trying to sell.

We learn that Grace's father is "a rock star who got saved"; judging by the relative ages, about the time Grace was born.  Like many converts, he's even more fervent than most people brought up in the faith.  If part of his conversion process was feeling the responsibility of new fatherhood, that might account for some overprotectiveness.  And I'm betting that this is one of those churches that is really big on obeying the father/husband, heavy on the "Honor thy father and mother" but skipping right over "Parents do not provoke your children."

And for most of her life, Grace's father has nurtured her musical gift, but also confined it to working with himself inside the church setting.  Now Grace has grown enough musically to want to innovate and put her own stamp on her music, even write her own tunes.  Rather than allow Grace to grow her skill and independence in a relatively safe environment (solo acts of her own work at church, local gigs in safe places), her father wants her to stick to being his backup vocalist and second guitar.  Because that way he can protect her.

If he's like other overprotective parents I've known, he's even already picked her college for her, one where he can keep an eye on her and she won't be exposed to any outside ideas.  And from the way she acts, Grace has been a well-behaved kid who largely does what she's told.  But now she wants to have her own music and try new things.  So Dad is kind of blindsided by her new-found independence.  He likely means "the song is arranged this way for a reason, and the actual performance is no time to be fiddling with it" but what Grace hears is "you are not allowed to have opinions.  Your musical gift is only valid as it relates to me.  It, and you, are my property."

So the music industry guy pops by for a visit, and maybe Dad isn't so thrilled to see him.  But he obviously knows something about music, so Grace sends him an audition, hoping to get a little validation she's not getting at home.   In-universe, she's obviously got some talent, and maybe he's still a bit ticked at her father for cutting off his meal ticket eighteen years ago.  Anyhow, suddenly Grace is off to Hollywood and instant stardom.  Anyone who's followed professional sports knows what a toxic combination instant fame and riches are with a naive, sheltered young person.  This small act of rebellion has had large consequences!

Of course, this being the kind of movie it is, Grace isn't going to do anything too horrible, and the worst isn't going to happen to her.   Even her music (from what we hear) is the most innocuous of light pop and probably faith-tinted.   (I am pretty sure we won't get to hear more than two bars of any of her father's old music either.)  

The music industry guy probably isn't evil as such, but he's much less concerned with what's good for Faith than what's good for selling downloads and merchandise.  So he sets her up on a "showmance" with TV Guy.  Faith is sheltered and probably only got abstinence-based sex ed, so doesn't quite cotton on at first that she and TV Guy have very different ideas of what's acceptable behavior in this sort of relationship.

She learns what TV Guy expects, and has an emotional breakdown due to that and the stress of the bigtime touring/recording lifestyle.  Music industry guy is unsympathetic; he's not her father, after all.  And the stage is set for a reconciliation between father and daughter.

And then there's that "against God" bit, which I suspect is where most of the audience became dubious.  "Wait, when did this become about her relationship with God?  Must be a Jesus movie."  It just seems crammed in and it would feel really icky if the point of the movie was "absolute obedience to your father regardless of how wrong he's being is the only Godly way to behave."

Dustin Anon More than 1 year ago

--We all know that Greek gods are myth. As an atheist I think that all of the others are too. I wasn't offended at the preview, rather I found it comical that it ran before Percy Jackson. (I haven't seen Percy, but I youtubed Grace Unplugged preview for this)  

On one hand we have a fictional movie whose purpose is to entertain using Greek mythology, loosely anyway.  On the other hand we have a movie preview that, at least from my perspective, shows how "important" it is to give your life to god. One movie knows it is farce based on myth, the other seems to try to convert/convince the audience to believe their god is real.

I don't have any particular objection to evangelism, go ahead if you feel you are supposed to.  However, don't be surprised when a growing number of people scoff at the notion.  I completely understand that many people of faith take some form of personal offense when their god is rejected by another. After all, it's only natural to think that what you believe is true and that everyone should value it the same as you do.  

So in the end, worry not about what others are believing and focus on yourself. We're all doing the best we can with the time we have.  Squabbles over faith are pointless and usually fruitless. If you have faith, in this case specifically faith in Christ, celebrate a new movie coming out (and the fact that the quality does seem to be getting better)!  

Siera Weber More than 1 year ago

--I don't deny that several people have made some excellent points here. I too, am not terribly interested in regular Christian movies because they are generally not well done. Exceptions would be Adventures in Odyssey, the newer Veggie Tales--since I am uncomfortable with the way the older Veggie Tale videos twisted the Bible stories. It confused some kiddies who didn't have a lot of Bible knowledge beforehand--, the Story Keepers series, and pretty much most of those movies made for kids. I enjoyed many of those and will still sit down to watch some. As far as movies for older audiences go, however, Christian movies can be bland and lack the artistic punch secular movies have. I will say, however, that Christian movies are getting better, and I hope that they continue to be experimented with and improved.

Rebecca Greer More than 1 year ago

--Once again, I think you fail to see all sides of this issue, similar to your recent blog post about why Hollywood is less likely to portray America in a "positive" light. Yes, the people making snarky comments could be harboring contempt toward the Lord and the church due to the Hollywood stereotypes. But maybe some of them had a negative experience with the church, or were hurt by a well meaning Christian who practiced judgment instead of love. Maybe some of them are put off by the church because of the way Christian leaders and politicians act, showing a seeming disregard toward anyone who is different. Maybe they are tired of the hypocrisy, lack of love, and lack of creativity they see in the church. Or maybe they are just tired of bland faith based movies like Syd pointed out (I am a Christian but I don't generally like Christian movies.) I guess I'm just trying to say that events like this are usually a lot more complex than you at Plugged In make them out to be.

syd collings More than 1 year ago

--Let's be frank: "faith based" movies suck.

Even with successes, Christians are on the outside looking in. You can have the huge budget, skilled and experienced technical crew and a firmly executed marketing plan, but if you film a pedantic script with summer-stock-reject actors, your better-looking product is simply lipstick on a pig. Throw in Christian film’s inherently agenda-driven plots and dialogue and you have lipstick on a preachy pig.

Rather than developing organically, the average Christian film is more pushy and sanctimonious than the global-warming agenda movies. Violence is almost non-existent, salty language never happens, unmarried people never struggle with lust and evil is never very bad, because showing various forms of sin is not allowed. By movie’s end, everyone is converted with no residual issues. Life is reduced to an after-school special with prayer thrown in for good measure.

For me, that is precisely why many non-believers dismiss "faith based" movies.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

--Actually, I know a number of adults who would tell you they are Christians and who would have probably made a lot of the same snarky comments you heard.  Not to discount the effects of abysmal "Christian" movies, but more than anything it seems to me that both within and without the Church people assume cynicism is the height of wisdom these days, and so approach everything they see "with a big grain of salt."  Yes, a lot of companies and people are trying to sell something, and discernment is a must, but the current sneering "I'm too smart to fall for THAT" cynicism doesn't leave much room for learning anything from anyone, including God.  There should be no "committed cynics" in Churches, but my experience tells me there is little difference between Joe American and Jane Christian in this regard.  Generational differences, yes, but within an age group, the overall attitudes tend to be pretty uniform.

Delaney Little More than 1 year ago

--Well, they do have a point, most Christian films are horribly corny. In fact, the only good one i have seen is The Passion of The Christ. Maybe if we started making Christian films with good plots we wouldn't have a problem drawing unbelievers in.

Scott Jamison More than 1 year ago

--It seems sadly likely to me that the people making those comments had been burned by "Jesus movies" that tend to use sincerity and preachiness as a substitute for good writing, acting and cinematography.  You know the ones.  And there's a bit of confirmation bias--if it's a good movie that isn't preachy, they won't think of it as a "Jesus movie", but if it is a bad movie which is more about the IMPORTANT MESSAGE, they will.

Joanna Wilson More than 1 year ago

--*cough* I'm going to be "that person" and point out that a comment made in the podcast was wrong -- Harry Potter *does* have an afterlife – it's not well defined, but it's woven through all the books, and really comes into the foreground in the last one. (Course, the movies pretty much wipe that aspect from the story.... along with the whole "the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death" story thread.)