Warner Brothers has been marketing "Man of Steel" to faith-based audiences, drawing parallels to Jesus. Are Christians becoming pawns in Hollywood's scheme to make a buck? - Image courtesy of Warner Brothers (http://bit.ly/16GuhHu)

Warner Brothers is marketing “Man of Steel” to faith-based audiences, drawing parallels to Jesus. Are Christians becoming pawns in Hollywood’s scheme to make a buck? – Image courtesy of Warner Brothers (http://bit.ly/16GuhHu)

A father figure from another world sends his only begotten son to Earth who, at 33 years old, must sacrifice himself to save the human race. Is this the narrative of Jesus and the Christian gospel? No. It’s the storyline from this week’s blockbuster, “Man of Steel.”

The Superman reboot is filled with messianic parallels—from the caped hero stretching out his arms as he falls to earth only to rise again to a scene where Clark Kent ponders whether to accept his destiny while he sits in a church in front of a stained-glass image of Jesus—and it turns out these similarities weren’t coincidental. Screenwriter David Goyer told the Los Angeles Times that he was thinking about the Bible when he wrote it, and Warner Brothers, the studio behind the film that grossed more than $125 million this weekend, hired faith-based public relations firm Grace Hill Media to make sure the Christian market didn’t miss the connections.

This is only the latest attempt by a major studio to target religious audiences, and the trend raises an important question: Is Hollywood manipulating Christians to turn a buck?

Grace Hill Media describes themselves as “the industry leader in church-based promotion” established “to reach an enormous and underserved population—religious America.” Their past projects are a motley crew of films including “National Treasure”, “Lord of the Rings”, “Ratatouille”, “Cinderella Man”, “Elf” and “Walk the Line”.

For “Man of Steel”, Grace Hill orchestrated a full-scale campaign that provided pastors with movie clips, sermon outlines, and a nine-page briefing titled, “Jesus: The Original Superhero” for download on a flashy Superman ministry resource site. They hired theologian and Pepperdine University professor Craig Detwiler to prepare the materials. He produced similar briefings for “The Blind Side” in 2009 and “The Book of Eli” in 2010.

Marketing firms like Grace Hill began popping up several years ago when Hollywood noticed the desire among religious Americans for content that aligned with their worldviews. Mel Gibson was able to rake in more than $370 million with “Passion of the Christ”, for example, and the “Chronicles of Narnia” trilogy pulled in more than $500 million. More recently, we might look to History Channel’s epic miniseries “The Bible”, which attracted more than 10 million viewers weekly.

“There’s been more openness to it in terms of understanding the need to serve an underserved audience out there, specifically the faith-based audience,” says Devon Franklin, Vice President of Production for Columbia Pictures, a division of Sony Entertainment. “Hollywood has been more willing to develop film projects to tap into that market.”

On the one hand, there is much to applaud in Hollywood’s effort to explore religious themes through film and television. Too much of it is merely mindless entertainment without any redemptive elements to speak of. The more art produced that expresses the good, true, and beautiful, the better.

And yet, the whole ordeal makes me a little uncomfortable because it represents another step forward in the commodification of Christianity. In a land of profit and greed, these trends illustrate once again that unchecked capitalism can leverage anything—even faith, even Jesus—to turn a buck. As one comic blogger said, the effort “comes off like a money grab.” It’s hard to disagree with him.

Let’s be clear that Warner Brothers isn’t trying to spread the Christian gospel; they are trying to make a profit. And, whether we like it or not, religion in America can be a lucrative business. In this case, generating profit means transforming pastors into marketers, hocking movie tickets from their pulpits. If the real test of morality is not just the nature of a behavior, but how that behavior shapes us as human beings, then this trend fails that test.

So let’s and rejoice at Hollywood’s efforts to produce art that resonates with religious moviegoers, but let’s also be as “wise as serpents” in how we partake. If Christians allow themselves to be manipulated by movie marketers, they may unwittingly participate in making faith a means to a end rather than an end in itself.

**UPDATE: Craig Detwiler (who I have an immense amount of respect for by the way) posted an explanation of his role in the effort at Out of Ur: “Why I wrote sermon notes for a blockbuster Hollywood film.”**

32 Comments

  1. Thanks for the insights on the marketing moves, Jonathan. Their motive may not be to advance the Gospel, but I’ll go along with what Paul said in Philippians 1:18 – “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”

    That sounds like good news to me.

    Cheers,
    Tim

    P.S. Here’s my take on the Man of Steel and others as Christ figures: http://timfall.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/whos-your-superhero/

    • My thought exactly. Fact is, it’s nice having a movie that isn’t cheeseball Christianity packed into 90 minutes. Let them keep making movies that mirror the greatest story of all time. At the end of the day, it’s going to soften hearts to the moment they hear the simple gospel.

      Eyes on the Son!
      Caleb

  2. Jonathan Merritt

    Tim,

    I agree, which is why I say that I rejoice over the exploration of these themes. But I raise a brow when Christian pastors–who should already be preaching Christ–divert from their “regularly scheduled programming” to participate in what is basically an effort to sell movie tickets to church members.

    Best,

    Jm

  3. Those notes would work great for sermons in an LDS church, whose god is a finite superhuman from another planet, near a star named Kolob. Reference the hymn from the LDS hymnal, “If I Could Hie to Kolob, in the Twinkling of an Eye.”

  4. UHM fascinating Jonathan! Your perspective, I agree! I am thankful they are at least producing movies that are not making culture worse, but as you mentioned we don’t want to step over the line in our churches either! Let the public relations group promote the movies and let the church preach JESUS!!!! No matter what it always seems to come down to motive!

  5. I agree with Tim and JM’s early comments. And yes, Jesus should be preached no matter what comes from Hollywood. I too share the deep concern that Hollywood is trying to leverage the church for it’s own gain, and if our history holds true we will bite hook, line, and sinker.

  6. To draw a parallel between Jesus and superman is blasphemy and obnoxious!!!

    A fictitious supernatural man comes no where lose to the infinite Lord of Lords, Immortal, invisible, almighty, King of Kings, Creator, Sustainer, the Great YHWH, Son of God, the mighty Rock, the great IAM, who died for our abominable SINS!!!!

    The modern church today wants a Savior. But mind you, it wants a Savior that makes them feel GOOD!! and not a one that deals head-on with their beloved and cherished sins.

    This is terrible!!!!!

    Regarding Hollywood, I’m reminded of what Paul said in Romans 16:18 (AND NOT Phil 1:18)

    “For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple.”

  7. Based on this article (which I think is very well-written), it sounds like the movie implies things about Jesus and Christianity that many evangelicals wouldn’t like, which makes the church outreach even more perplexing to me: http://popwatch.ew.com/2013/06/17/man-of-steel-jesus/

    Example: “The final book of The New Testament, The Apocalypse (or Revelation) according to John, tells of a last battle between Christ and Satan in which The Devil will be destroyed and afterward Jesus and his truest believers will live together forever in a new creation. Man of Steel turns this eschatology inside out to take perhaps its most veiled shot at Christianity and all religions that espouse a final judgment that divides humanity into sheep and goats, wheat and chaff, clean and unclean.”

  8. Hollywood is most certainly manipulating Christians – those who saw the film might understand this, because Christ is not preached. I didn’t go to the movie expecting to see Messianic parallels because I do not look for false Christs, whether they are on the big screen or in life…and I would encourage these readers to do the same. Needless to say, one could argue that there are religious parallels in the Superman story – unfortunately, if this movie is actually taken seriously by pastors and Christians, they have fallen for a misrepresentation of the gospel. Hollywood has worked for years to remove Christ from His throne – and now we are going to pledge allegiance to them? No one will be touched by Man of Steel, no one will be healed, cleansed, delivered, or saved. If Superman is a representation of Christ, he is only the false Christ that the world wants. As a pastor – I have to give a review to the pastors who are compromising their faith to promote and encourage people to view a film that makes Christ into nothing more than an E.T. — and to you I say “Thumbs Way Down”.

  9. Andrew, you summed up my thoughts exactly. Without spoiling the movie, there was another thing Superman did in the movie that Christ didn’t do. I see this as the door slightly opening to the Christian world that you can do things if the means justify the end.

  10. I welcome Christological hero tales to the multiplex. Surely we can all tell that Superman isn’t Jesus any more than Harry Potter is.

    But there’s one great story — one Great Story of the universe — and we all love to hear that old old story, over and over again, even those who aren’t Christians.

    Unfortunately, Hollywood has a way of getting Jesus wrong, and it shows in spades in the new Superman movie. Just look at the end, in which thousands — millions? — of people are destroyed left and right, but Superman survives and at the last second saves good old Lois. … yay?

    A Christology that so callously ignores the destruction of the world — the people — that God so loved is a pretty horrible Christology. At the end there still needs to be a world that you’ve saved — a way to populate heaven, if you will. Unfortunately, this is just another example of a trend that goes back at least a couple of decades in big summer blockbuster movies, and tells a very uncomfortable truth about the hearts of Americans.

  11. The creators of Superman were Jewish but it has been obvious from the start that their story was a riff on the story of Jesus. I’m a little shocked that some people think of this as a new idea, or that in drawing out the parallels, the filmmakers are being in any way devious. They are simply stating what has been part of the Superman myth from the start. Christians ought to be aware of the parallels so that we can talk about the many basic ways the Superman story diverges from the Jesus story.

  12. I agree that superman has, from the beginning been a savior figure. That genre of story, however is neither new, nor unique to the Christian faith. Part of being human is seeking “salvation” from the woes of this life and hoping against hope that someone will come to help. From that perspective it matters not whether the “rescuer” (I hesitate to use the word “savior” because we use that in a unique way for Jesus) comes from a nondescript far away place, another planet, the Greek pantheon or God the father.

    As a preacher, then, I am always seeking opportunities to capitalize on a story like this to say, “Isn’t that cool? But you know who is even cooler than superman? Let me tell you how Jesus is even better?” In doing that I often make reference to movies, books, current culture and events. That is my job to make those connections.

    The marketers are on the one hand are certainly trying to turn a profit on us. On the other hand, they are helping me to make those connections by providing video that can be used legally and other materials if I choose to purchase them.

    It would be nice if they would give free and legal use of clips to pastors for use in spreading the gospel, but they are not in the business of spreading the gospel. They are in the business of making money.

    That is the nature of capitalism. They have something I want – a video clip that connects to pop culture. I have something they want- money. If we can agree on an exchange, capitalism has worked. If I realize that I can do without paying for their clip- by telling a story for instance- that is my prerogative.

    Are they seeking to make a profit? Yes. That is their job. Is it manipulative? Perhaps (isn’t that the nature of all advertising?) It is entirely up to us, however, whether we will participate.

    Good discussion. Thanks.

  1. […] But I am interested that many people are interested in superheroes. In particular, that so many Christian writers are responding to the latest reboot of Superman as a film franchise. It’s tempting to note the film as another, rather transparent example of Hollywood trying to market to a Christian audience. (Here’s the “Man of Steel Ministry Resources” site.) Jonathan Merritt is surely on to something when he writes: […]

  2. […] These critics’ main quibble isn’t with the quality of the movie, though many faith-based reviewers concur with secular critics who think “Man of Steel” suffers from an overstuffed plot and a surfeit of special effects. And there are others, like Religion News Service blogger Jonathan Merritt, who wonder if all the targeted marketing “represents another step forward in the commodification of Christianity.” […]

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