Editor's note: This feature originally appeared in the June issue of Townhall Magazine.
Hollywood Christians. Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Yet, despite the barrage of R-rated films, materialistic behavior, and hook up culture that seem to dominate Los Angeles, Bible-believing actors and producers do exist. And they’re working every day to incorporate faith-based principles into those notorious production studios.
Christians have a right to be skeptical, though. In his book “Primetime Propaganda,” author Ben Shapiro exposes Hollywood’s history of kicking God out of programming to push its own progressive agenda.
One producer, CBS’s Jeff Sagansky, admitted to him that God was not “hip” enough to attract viewers—especially the 18- 49 crowd. And Susan Harris, creator of the 1980s hit “Soap,” revealed that she regarded the Religious Right as “idiots talking” and a group “she could never speak to.”
Yet, despite Tinseltown’s decades-long adversity to spirituality, Christian actors and producers insist the profound reach of Hollywood can and is being used as a force for good. The popularity of the History Channel’s “The Bible” miniseries and new biblical films such as “Heaven is for Real” are just a few examples. So, while Hollywood may not exactly be the first place one goes to find God, the following inside sources make the case that the walk of fame can be an ideal path for Christian evangelism.
SEEKING RIGHTEOUS ROLES
Most people know him as the cute, curly-haired teen from the popular ’80s sitcom, “Growing Pains,” a show that centered on a well-to-do family living in Long Island, New York. Today, Kirk Cameron’s still got the black, curly locks he sported as Mike Seaver, but, in the roles he chooses now, he takes his cues from God.
“People are skeptical when they hear celebs are finding Christ,” Cameron tells Townhall.
At the tender age of 18, however, and at the height of his “Growing Pains” success, Cameron joined a friend who asked him to attend church.
“It intrigued me, I started asking, ‘where do we come from?’”
That trip to church, he explains, saved his life—he became a God-fearing thespian.
“Like a friend told me, ‘you didn’t find Christ—you were the lost one and He found you.’”
As his relationship with Christ grew stronger, however, Cameron’s camaraderie with some of his fellow actors quickly fell apart.
“In Hollywood, it’s a different kind of punishment and silence. I was compared to first century Christians—a lot of whom were sent to prison. People started asking, ‘hey wait a minute, there’s someone you’re following?’”
Nevertheless, the actor’s pursuits started changing as a result of his salvation. For instance, he started rejecting roles and avoiding situations that could jeopardize his marriage to fellow “Growing Pains” co-star Chelsea Noble. The filming of his 2008 film “Fireproof” tested that rule. In one dramatic scene in the movie, Cameron had to embrace his leading lady, young actress Erin Bethea.
“In “Fireproof,” there’s a scene of reconciliation with a big kiss. I’m not gonna kiss other women.”
So, he and the producers came up with a solution. They dressed Noble as Bethea and shot the scene in silhouette. The audience couldn’t tell the difference.
Bethea fully supported her co-star’s decision.
“I think it ended up being a great point,” she tells Townhall. “Not only does the movie fictionally honor marriage with this story of Caleb and Katherine but also that the filmmakers and the stars of the film honored Kirk’s marriage by having Chelsea step in for that scene.”
For Cameron, he doesn’t consider it a uniquely difficult challenge to remain a monogamous actor.
“It’s just like resisting every other temptation. It’s like refusing to steal, refusing to have an affair at work. There are things that are more important. ... Your convictions are more important than the script.”
Many may wonder how he maintains his faith in Hollywood, but Cameron has a different perspective: “With faith shining so bright, how does Hollywood hang on to darkness?”
Like her co-star, Bethea avoids roles that would place her in compromising situations.
“I think I’ve been able to establish a reputation already. I’m the girl who won’t do that, so don’t even ask. I’ve been really protected that way, which is wonderful. I’ve always said, not up until this point I pray, God willing, that never in my career would I participate in a film that would alienate the audience and the life that I come from. ... Just making sure that I’m not an embarrassment to the gifts that God’s given me.”
SPREADING THE GOOD WORD
Bethea can rest assured she hasn’t kindled God’s wrath with the roles she’s chosen. After the success of “Fireproof,” the actress starred in “This is Our Time,” an inspirational film centered on a group of young adults facing the challenge of moving on after college. She explains what attracted her to the script.
“If you look at successful Christian films in the marketplace, other than ones like “Passion of the Christ” that are broader, they’re really targeted to people who are married and have kids. “Our Time” is targeted to that early-20s somebody who just graduated college and ask, ‘now what?’ It is a time in your life that you’re so lost. ... The message of the film is, ‘God’s not trying to get you to figure out what you’re supposed to do, He just wants you to know who you’re supposed to be.’”
It is positive, faith-based messages like these her fans are noticing and appreciating.
“People just constantly are so encouraged by the films that I choose to do and the fact that I live in Los Angeles and I can still do these films out of Hollywood, which is great. There’s so much more of a Christian value here than people even realize. So many people who want to make good quality, faith- based films and I hope they continue to get to. ... I mean, isn’t that the whole point? To expand the Gospel and to spread that message?”
A MESSAGE AMERICANS ARE EAGER TO HEAR
Bethea admits that Hollywood is indeed home to some inappropriate material, but she says that is more a reproduction of America at large.
“Everyone believes that Hollywood is the thing that influences the culture, but really Hollywood is just a reflection of the culture. ... So, I think it can be a force used for good, but I really do think a lot of it’s up to the culture to determine that. It’s not decisions that are made by producers here in Hollywood, it’s decisions made by the consumers.”
Fortunately, it seems consumers are choosing faith over filth
more and more each day, and even fighting back against anti- Christian bias.
In 2013, Cameron produced a faith-based film that soon lived up to its name. Trailers for “Unstoppable” asked the question, “Where is God in the midst of tragedy and suffering?” Defining this as “abusive and unsafe” content, Facebook began blocking links to the film’s official website and teasers.
Yes, with the countless other films glorifying sex and drugs, it was Cameron’s film about searching for God’s presence in our lives that Facebook deemed offensive.
But, Cameron didn’t sit and pout. The actor posted a plea on Facebook asking his fans to help him make the social media site reverse course. His supporters responded overwhelmingly and Facebook eventually succumbed and unblocked his material.
The film, which is now out on DVD, went on to become the “Unlikely King of the Box Office,” making $2 million in just one night, according to Yahoo! Movies. This isn’t an isolated incident. Audiences are running to theaters and breaking records as they support new faith-based films.
Cameron fully believes that, despite the obstacles that inevitably follow any Christian in Hollywood, the bright lights and red carpets can still be an ideal outlet for evangelism. “Hollywood has its arms reaching into every living room, but the truth is those same channels are now being used to pump truth to the rest of the world.”
CHRISTIANS BEHIND THE CAMERA
Screenwriter Randall Wallace made his mark in Hollywood by writing the brilliant screenplay for “Braveheart.” His work on the film even earned him an Oscar nomination. An even more meaningful role he fulfilled, however, was one for which he couldn’t receive gold-plated recognition.
In 2011, Wallace gave the keynote address for the annual National Prayer Breakfast. In front of a full audience that included President Obama, the screenwriter shared stories of struggle and triumph on his journey to Hollywood and how his faith shaped and guided him in the nation’s entertainment hub.
In one of his most intriguing anecdotes, Wallace recalled the instance in which he found himself sitting next to First Lady Rossalynn Carter in a Baptist Church in Georgia.
“As I was thumbing through the hymn book, Mrs. Carter touched my arm and handed me her Bible opened to the right passage. And I realized in that moment that Mrs. Carter had logically assumed that since I was a Hollywood director, I didn’t know the difference between a hymn book and a Bible.”
Like Mrs. Carter, many conclude Hollywood is blind when it comes to Christianity. In many cases, they’re right. Most of the interviews Shapiro conducted with TV executives revealed that they were more concerned with promoting their progressive agendas than winning the network ratings battle.
But, Wallace is an exception to Tinseltown’s secular agenda.
He says people call him a rarity: “A filmmaker who might speak freely about prayer.” During a period in his life in which he suffered severe writer’s block, Wallace shared how he got down on his knees and asked God for guidance and inspiration.
Boy did He answer.
Wallace’s humble submission allowed him to clear his head and come up with the now iconic word, ‘Braveheart.’ The rest is Hollywood history. “Braveheart” went on to earn 10 Oscar nominations, claiming five of the coveted awards.
Wallace’s commitment to righteous living didn’t end the night he prayed for guidance, however. He has continued to use his unique role in Hollywood to produce godly material.
“There are no bars to being a Christian in Hollywood. It’s not what Hollywood is about. ... I think it’s more that people of faith in those areas can participate in shaping and living a life and shaping other lives of faith and love.”
Wallace fully embraced the opportunity to put his faith on display with his newest project, “Heaven is for Real.” When this paperback-turned-film first hit bookstores, it quickly became a bestseller. Todd Burpo, the pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska, touched readers with a frightening account of his son’s burst appendix, emergency surgery, presumed death, and miraculous return from heaven. The incredible true story had an intriguing plot, profound script, and inspirational characters perfect for the silver screen. All it needed was a director.
“Everyone involved thought you needed to appreciate the story to tell it—you’d have to have empathy,” Wallace explains.
Wallace was on a short list of Bible-believing screenwriters who could feel that empathy. He embraced the responsibility to create a film adaptation to the book, starring Greg Kinnear as the awestruck father. Thanks to Wallace, this inspirational story is now brought to life in theaters across the country.
Sometimes, Christians can be disciples behind TV screens, too. Megan Alexander, a correspondent for one of the hottest entertainment programs on television, “Inside Edition,” is a media figure who is promoting a culture of faith in subtle, yet powerful ways.
Alexander, who says she found God in the seventh grade, may not play Christian characters on the big screen or write faith-based movie scripts, but she makes sure her religious convictions are apparent in the way she conducts herself on and off the camera.
“I think my number one job is to be a good journalist and to do good work first. I’m here to perform my job and do my job to the best of my ability. And that’s really where my faith is gonna come out, how I conduct myself, how I treat others.”
This principled, Jesus-loving journalist says she also takes opportunities to share her testimony with anyone who will listen and pledges to live by these tenets: “Preach the gospel, use words if necessary. Just be known for good work. Let my actions speak for themselves. And treat other people how I want to be treated.”
But, like any committed disciple of Christ, Alexander’s evangelism doesn’t end in the office. When she’s not reporting the latest Hollywood headlines, this Christian anchor is spearheading a project called Enlighten Film Club.
“It’s a way for me to bring folks together and to highlight quality films that are coming out. There’s a lot of really neat faith-based production companies that are putting out really great film and content, and it’s a way for me to help them get more exposure.”
Alexander is living proof that, regardless of one’s work environment, he or she can still find opportunities to evangelize. Surely, Christians can feel comforted knowing they have Bible-believing warriors sharing the good news in all corners of Hollywood.
2014—RETURN OF RELIGION?
If Shapiro’s “Primetime Propaganda” outlines the history of Hollywood turning its back on God, 2014 may signal Tinseltown’s religious U-turn. Here are just a few of the Bible- related films to hit theaters this year, some of which were noted above: “Son of God,” “Noah,” “God’s Not Dead,” and “Heaven is For Real.”
“Son of God” is the feature film version of producer Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s “The Bible” miniseries. The latter brought the Good Book to life in a 10-part series covering everything from Genesis to Revelation. The ratings success of this project alone suggested that viewers were eager for more Christian options in their TV guides. “The Bible” averaged 11.4 million viewers during its five-week run in 2013 and became the top-selling miniseries DVD of all time, according to The Christian Post. “Son of God” also garnered an impressive audience, pulling in $26 million at the box office in its opening weekend.
After “The Bible” and “Son of God,” came breakout hits such as “God’s Not Dead,” a low-budget film about a student who challenges his atheist teacher’s lack of faith, which kept pace with more mainstream movies such as “Divergent” and “Muppets Most Wanted.” At just 780 locations, the Christian film earned almost $9 million.
While films with biblical themes have become more of a presence in Hollywood, critics suggest producers are creating them with secular or political agendas. Shapiro is one of those skeptics.
“I think writers and producers, in a move driven by sheer terror of falling profits, have been forced to realize that biblical material still has broad appeal. Nonetheless, Hollywood has attempted to pervert biblical narratives repeatedly, and will undoubtedly continue to do so.”
Shapiro may be on to something. Director Darren Aronofsky, a self-professed atheist, bragged to The Telegraph that his film “Noah” was the “least biblical film ever made.” He seemed to have accomplished his goal, leaving the word “God” out of the entire film and making Russell Crowe’s Noah more concerned about the environment than human morality.
But, even if creators are airing these productions with ulterior motives, surely this kind of mainstream exposure is a positive thing for Christians trying to make a mark in Hollywood? Even if it’s the wrong one, at least they’re given a voice at all?
Regardless of how it’s interpreted or received, Scripture has returned to our screens. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus is making a Hollywood comeback. •