Celluloid Sermons

Celluloid Sermons: The Emergence of the Christian Film Industry, 1930-1986

Terry Lindvall
Andrew Quicke
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 287
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  • Book Info
    Celluloid Sermons
    Book Description:

    Christian filmmaking, done outside of the corporate Hollywood industry and produced for Christian churches, affected a significant audience of church people. Protestant denominations and individuals believed that they could preach and teach more effectively through the mass medium of film. Although suspicion toward the film industry marked many conservatives during the early 1930s, many Christian leaders came to believe in the power of technology to convert or to morally instruct people. Thus the growth of a Christian film industry was an extension of the Protestant tradition of preaching, with the films becoming celluloid sermons. Celluloid Sermons is the first historical study of this phenomenon. Terry Lindvall and Andrew Quicke highlight key characters, studios, and influential films of the movement from 1930 to 1986--such as the Billy Graham Association, with its major WorldWide Pictures productions of films like The Hiding Place, Ken Curtis' Gateway Films, the apocalyptic end-time films by Mark IV (e.g. Thief in the Night), and the instructional video-films of Dobson's Focus on the Family--assessing the extent to which the church's commitment to filmmaking accelerated its missions and demonstrating that its filmic endeavors had the unintended consequence of contributing to the secularization of liberal denominations.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-6535-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. 1 God Talks
    (pp. 1-24)

    One late spring day in May 1934, the Roman Catholic cardinal of Philadelphia, Dennis Dougherty, ordered his diocesan flock to “stay away from all [movie theaters].” He framed this exhortation not as pastoral counsel, but as a “positive command, binding all in conscience under pain of sin.”¹ The same year, a forceful Roman Catholic layman, Joseph Breen, commandeered the reins of the Production Code Administration board, believing, like many frustrated church people, that the movie morality czar Will Hays had compromised the mission of guarding the public from Hollywood excess.²

    When Hollywood looked at religious concerns, they were likewise frequently...

  6. 2 Evangelical Film Auteurs
    (pp. 25-55)

    At the outset of the 1940s, a trinity of undaunted filmmakers would spark the eruption of the Christian film industry, fulfilling what they saw as their roles in the Great Commission, the call to go, teach, and make disciples of all men and women. James Friedrich, Carlos Baptista, and Irwin Moon would each, in their own peculiar way, adapt the marvels of filmmaking to tell biblical stories, call for personal responses, and reveal the wonders of God’s creation. Their celluloid sermons would, respectively, hark back to rhetorical modes of Gospel stories, evangelistic appeals for repentance, and Psalm-like reflections on the...

  7. 3 Methodist and Ecumenical Films
    (pp. 56-91)

    According to 19th-century satirist Ambrose Bierce, the Scriptures were the “sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.” Even as Christians shared a common tradition, differences among denominations shaped the celluloid sermons of each. While some denominational films were designed to show a common ecumenical faith, many others emphasized a particular Christian sect’s saints, doctrines, or practices as distinct from others. For example, Lutherans would feature their founder, Martin Luther, and Southern Baptists would stress certain fundamentals of their faith, such as the importance of adult baptism....

  8. 4 Reformed and Dissenting Images
    (pp. 92-115)

    During the 16th-century Reformation, a radical group of iconoclasts exploded out of the Reformed Church, denouncing what they saw as the blind veneration of images preserved by the Roman Catholic Church. In 1566, in the northern, Calvinist provinces of the Netherlands, riots broke out against “idols in paint,” altar paintings, crucifixes, and statuary of saints. Seeking to obey the Decalogue’s prohibition of making or worshipping any “graven image,” the radicals “cleansed” the churches of any potential blasphemous art. The German reformer Martin Luther, however, had no sympathy for the image smashers, and he even sought to have his translation of...

  9. 5 The Studio Era of Christian Films
    (pp. 116-143)

    In David Prill’s lackluster satire of the Christian film industrySecond Coming Attractions, the author tried to capture some of the amateur wackiness of true believers engaged in making films for the Kingdom of God.¹ But his creation of a fictional Christian film producer of Good Samaritan Films, Leviticus Speck, pales in comparison with the actual characters involved in the mission of making films as Christians. Individuals like the Gospel Films producer Billy Zeoli and director Mel White would prove to be more fascinating, complex, and hilarious than any novelistic construction. As Lord Chesterfield once observed, “You will often meet...

  10. 6 The Master Filmmakers
    (pp. 144-170)

    On September 21, 1969, CBS broadcastWoody’s First Specialin which Woody Allen interviewed the evangelist Billy Graham, whom the comedian and film director called “charming and provocative.” Allen introduced his guest by announcing that he disagreed with Graham on a significant number of issues (Graham’s favorite commandment at the time was to honor thy father and mother, which was Woody’s least favorite as he was saving up money to put his parents in a home; Graham hoped it would be in a home with Woody). As they squared off, Woody wondered which of the two would be converted, as...

  11. 7 Mark IV and Apocalyptic Film
    (pp. 171-187)

    The Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards recommended a sort of salutary terror in the communication of the Gospel. Although delivered in a staid monotone, his classic jeremiad sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” goaded sinners into repentance and toward a great awakening. The threat of God’s wrath on unrepentant sinners, dangling like spiders over the raging fires of hell, has been an efficacious tool in the hands of prophets and evangelists for centuries, particularly with regard to impending end-times terror. While the use of shock aesthetic techniques of the horror genre in Christian films has been criticized, scholars...

  12. 8 Global Film Evangelism
    (pp. 188-202)

    While much of the Christian film industry settled into domestic production, several visionary producers looked across the seas. Realizing that a media-saturated market in the United States limited their appeal, they envisioned multiplying their investments and their effectiveness in communicating to the world. Grounded in the Great Commission—the call of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew to preach the Gospel throughout the world—these producers sought to adapt the medium to other cultures, with mixed results. As communicators, they were little concerned with cross-cultural communication problems; even when these filmmakers produced their films in foreign countries, their product was...

  13. 9 Conclusion: A Modest Renaissance before the End
    (pp. 203-218)

    In 1979, a group of graduate film students at Regent University were given twelve hours in a television studio to shoot a documentary on the history of the Christian film movement. TitledWe’ve Come a Long Way Baby, the hour-long presentation featured the former Gospel Films vice president Dave Anderson as its host, reflecting on key people and films over the previous forty years. Even with a noticeable fatigue overcoming the host after the long shoot, with his eyes and shoulders drooping and his words becoming slurred, the crew managed to capture the early energy and the tentative hope of...

  14. Appendix: Chronology of Christian Film History
    (pp. 219-222)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 223-258)
  16. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 259-262)
  17. Index
    (pp. 263-269)
  18. About the Authors
    (pp. 270-270)