2014 has been called the year of the Christian film. We’ve seen an adaptation of the beloved bestseller Heaven Is for Real; the surprise indie hit God’s Not Dead; Son of God, a feature film edited from the popular miniseries The Bible; the Christian family-friendly Moms’ Night Out; and the controversial biblical epic Noah. Not to mention the reboot of the Left Behind series starring Nicolas Cage and Ridley Scott‘s Exodus: Gods and Kings starring Christian Bale. Faith-based films are often derided by critics for literally “preaching to the choir” and failing to challenge widely-held beliefs, and films that do take liberty with these beliefs (like Noah) are just as often dismissed by believers.
If you’re looking for a thoughtful examination of people wrestling with their religious convictions, these three DVDs are a great place to start:
Elmer Gantry (1960), based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis, is one of the most important and controversial films about religion ever made. Burt Lancaster stars in the title role as a charismatic traveling salesman who convinces Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons), a kind and honest evangelist who ministers with a positive spirit, that he’s also a preacher and that he can increase the size of the flock with fire and brimstone sermons (which he does). Lancaster won an Oscar, as did screenwriter Richard Brooks and Shirley Jones for her supporting role as a prostitute who blackmails Gantry. But the struggle that Sister Sharon faces – her pride in the growth of the flock combined with her unease at the methods employed – is the most resonant piece of the film. There have been other very good films about the power of the preacher, including The Apostle and Leap of Faith, but Elmer Gantry is the best of the lot.
Higher Ground (2011) is a moving portrait of one woman’s struggle with faith. Vera Farmiga both directs and stars in the film, where she plays Corinne Walker, who strives mightily to believe – in God, in faith, in her church – with the same conviction as her husband, best friend, and close-knit community. I can’t think of another film that deals so deftly and so honestly with conflicted feelings about one’s relationship with faith. It doesn’t judge its characters, and it certainly doesn’t provide any easy answers, just like in real life.
If you’re looking for a true account of one person’s journey to find – and ultimately reject – faith, try Letting Go of God. This is a one-woman show stars comedienne Julia Sweeney, as she recounts how a visit by two young Mormon men – who she initially dismissed – caused her to reacquaint herself with her Catholicism and the Bible in particular. Sweeney, reading the Bible as an adult and not finding the inspiration she needs, feels she must let go of God and goes on an extraordinarily personal journey to find faith, to ultimately find that atheism is the answer. It’s funny, respectful and thoughtful, and sure to make you think about your own relationship with faith.