Between Son of God, Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings, and the upcoming film Mary, the Bible has been all over Hollywood lately. These stories have everything: love, betrayal, sacrifice, intrigue, war, mistaken identities, and depictions of what it means to be a human in a world torn by strife. It’s no wonder that the bible remains an inspiration to storytellers generation after generation, adding new layers of social commentary to fit our own times. When we look at the variety of movies that have come out this year alone it is also clear that these are stories that lend themselves to a storyteller’s interpretation and imagination.
On the other end of religiously themed entertainment spectrum, God’s Not Dead, Heaven is for Real, and now Left Behind have all packaged narratives of particular and specific theology for public audiences. These stories are not quite as open to interpretation.
Religion is very “in” right now, and we have the ticket stubs to prove it. Perhaps this recent abundance of biblical and religious entertainment reflects current religious culture in the United States. Millennials are fleeing the pews and claiming no religious affiliation or to be “spiritual but not religious”, constructing and uncovering new ways of interpreting and making sense of their beliefs and values. Meanwhile, Christian leaders are eager to make these stories and lessons palatable and attractive once more. The increased vocal and public presence of atheists, humanists, and agnostics and an increased emphasis on religious freedom versus religious privilege have brought conversations about belief into public spotlight.
When religious movies fail to reflect the needs and expressions of their intended audience, they only serve to further distance the ideas behind them. The original Left Behind film trilogy, based on the book series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, was made for an audience of a particular brand of Evangelical Christian by other Evangelical Christians, and attempted to provide good ol’ fashioned pre-millennial entertainment. Despite its neutral public reception, the original trilogy continues to sell today, and the book series has yet to be topped as a Christian best seller for adults and teens alike.
Why the remake? Screenwriter and producer Paul Lalonde claims
“We wanted to revisit this world, updating the execution for current audiences while honoring the spirit of what had been done before successfully… The big challenge in writing was walking the tightrope; we wanted to stay true to the Bible, to explain the Rapture, to explain what had happened to those people who vanished. But at the same time we knew we needed to make an exciting movie for both Christians and non-Christians. We had to make the prophecy come alive without turning our film into a church basement movie.”
In attempting to draw in larger and more diverse audiences, the creative team decided to “focus on the story, not the message, allowing the message to be organic within the story. The challenge for most Christian films is that they’re all about the message.”
Having been blessed/cursed to see it twice before its theatrical release I can assure you that the message is alive and well in the remake, while story and character weakly hobble along. I’m not sure what I was hoping for, but I found a barely updated script ignoring the same social and theological issues of the original (as well as huge portions of the world’s population and religions), insisting that [Christian] Right makes right. The whole film leads up to a condescending “told ya so” moment. Left Behind is nostalgic for a time when Evangelical privilege wasn’t questioned quite so often, when teens and young adults stayed in Church, and when atheists kept quiet. The difference between the original and the remake is that this film ends right after the rapture, letting the realization of the characters’ unexplained spiritual shortcomings really sink in as the credits roll. Well, that and Nicolas Cage and Chad Michael Murray are in the remake.
The idea of the Rapture is not without its attraction as a story. We know this from the many television series and films that have used it as a plot foundation (such as The Leftovers). These stories aren’t interesting to us because individuals were taken suddenly, but because they express specific elements of human experience and religious doubt. Unfortunately, in movies like Left Behind, these are exactly the conversations that we never see characters having. All we see is regret. To be fair, that is how I felt after a second viewing.
Moving beyond the questionable theology of the Rapture, the idea itself speaks to the fact that everyone experiences loss. Whether it happens suddenly or slowly, the loss of a loved one is disorienting and frightening. We may not anticipate the Rapture, but the loss of someone dear is disruptive, and can make us feel lost in a world we no longer recognize. We are asked to consider our own mortality, overcome doubts about our relationships, and be inspired to live better for tomorrow. We may feel like we’re never ready for that loss and that there is no way to fully prepare – we can only take advantage of the time we have now. Left Behind fails because its very framework implies that most of us are stuck without any movement forward.
We need more stories that show how people thrive in the grey areas between questions and answers. We need ways to help ourselves and others cope and live with loss and failure and doubt. When can learn to live with uncertainty and become comfortable in the search for answers and purpose and meaning rather than only finding peace with the answers. We can grow up and into our best selves.
We are not are not the same culture we were fifteen years ago. We don’t need to be Left Behind. We need a new way to speak about the human and religious experiences that leave so many feeling abandoned.
Image from the Left Behind Production Packet on Media Spot.