Evangelization at the Movies

Here is that post I was teasing last night.  It actually works out a lot better to write this tonight.  Father talked about evangelization at Mass tonight, and now I’m watching the Oscars.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the intersection of these topics, mostly because I have a theology degree and work in a movie theater.

Oh yes… and because we’re currently showing Son of God in my theater.

Confession time: I really dislike the weekends when we’re showing “religious” films.  Is that bad?  Should I be happy that we have a movie about Jesus showing in one or two of our twenty auditoriums?  Does my disgruntled attitude betray a lack of priority (maybe) or a lack of charity (probably)?

As a creative person, I love the idea of using art to evangelize, and I do consider movies to be art.  I think we need to reach people using the languages they speak, and film is such a common language these days.

I am perhaps disappointed in the quality of most of the current offerings, and I am suspicious of the motives of most people involved.  This video review by the critic “MovieBob” Chipman sums up my feelings rather accurately and amusingly (note: this video carries a language & attitude warning.  If you don’t want to watch, the key phrases to note are “bad, boring and laughable,” “blatant, cynical cash grab,” and “just read the book”.).  Church groups buy out entire showtimes for Son of God and similar offerings, but they don’t necessarily fill the seats.  That’s more money for everybody up the supply chain.  

The majority of the customers who attend the show are polite, kind, cheerful people, but there are some who act as though a Christian has never walked through the doors of the theater before.  Some of these people, it seems, are attempting to inflict God upon me, as though He is a weapon.  One such customer pointed out to me that the soft drink cups advertising the next big release should, instead, have Jesus on them.  I did not reply with what I was thinking.  I am all for making God more visible, but I can think of better ways to treat my Savior than slapping His face on a disposable pop container.

When it comes to evangelization, these efforts seem to be failing.  They target an audience who is already so in love with God that they are willing to pay weekend theater prices to watch a bland film they have probably already watched on television.  They aren’t reaching anyone who hasn’t already heard the message.

Why, instead, don’t we spend our money and our creative energy on truly imaginative efforts?  Let’s tell stories that are deep and beautiful and charged with the grandeur of God.  Let’s be true and honest and heart-breakingly open and reflective of grace.  Let’s not just spout out, again and again, the verses we all have memorized, but let’s find surprising moments of sacrament and faith.  Let’s be like Darlene Love belting out a hymn in Oscar acceptance speeches.  Let’s be like Sr. Helena Burns pointing out authentic love in movies.  Let’s challenge our own preconceptions and sneak that message out to the audience that least expects it.

The movie theater is definitely a place for evangelization, but it doesn’t happen because you buy a ticket.  It happens when I’ve been smiling at customers for six hours straight and am so tired, but one man says to me, “I can tell you care about people.  Keep loving!” and I am inspired.  It happens when a lady asks an employee to exchange her ticket for a different movie, because she walks out of any show that takes the Lord’s name in vain three times, and that employee himself starts making the effort to choose different words.  It happens when employees start talking among themselves behind the stand about where they worship and how they pray.

Evangelization happens when people make an authentic connection and notice that God is in their midst.  Whatever facilitates that connection is necessarily a good thing.  I just think there are better ways to do this than we currently have up on the big screen.