When more than 1,000 New Yorkers rose to their feet to sing “Amazing Grace” in Broadway’s historic Nederlander Theater, it was difficult to stave off the tears. The play by the same name as the beloved hymn tells the story of songwriter John Newton’s conversion and fight to end the slave trade. It has everything that critics want—a rapturous love story, soaring score, jaw-dropping special effects, and a Tony-quality cast.
But unsurprisingly, the mainstream media was not impressed.
Charles Isherwood of The New York Times called the play “an overstuffed history lesson trimmed in melodrama.” And Variety deemed it “tough sledding.” But as I think back to the tears flowing down so many cheeks in the room (I cried through the whole performance), I wonder why faith-based entertainment continues to baffle, ruffle, and enrage the mainstream media.
All of this feels oddly familiar. Last year, I starred in an independent-film titled "God’s Not Dead.” It scored a measly 16 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, a website which aggregates and averages the reviews of major film critics. The critics slaughtered it with impunity. But moviegoers, and especially religious consumers, found it to be a breath of fresh air. It earned a staggering $70 million in domestic box office sales and millions more in DVD sales, digital downloads, and merchandising making “God’s Not Dead” the highest grossing independent film of 2014.
Our experience is not uncommon.
In 2008, the faith-based film “Fireproof” from the relatively unknown filmmaking brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick earned a “rotten rating” of 40 percent, but earned more than $33 million. In 2011, the same duo released the film “Courageous,” which was given a measly 30 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, but generated more than $34 million. And in 2014, Sony's Heaven is For Real also got a “rotten rating” of 46 percent while earning a staggering $91.4 million in domestic box office sales.
You can expect this trend to continue as most major movie studios are actively developing similarly faithful projects. This summer, for example, Sony will release “War Room,” a film by the Kendricks that explores the power of prayer. With over 4 million trailer views so far, expect this film to “shock” Hollywood critics once again.
Critics might tell you that the people supporting and seeing these films just don’t know what good art is. They see themselves as the gatekeepers of how to tell a good story in film, television, and theater. But I think these films are lost on elitist critics because they don’t understand the deep spiritual impulses these shows are exploring. And they have lost touch with the millions of consumers who continue to purchase tickets despite critics’ warnings.
The mainstream media just doesn’t get faith-based entertainment because they don’t have faith. And they don’t understand people of faith.
Unfortunately for them, the box office belongs to audiences, not elitist critics writing from their ivory Manhattan towers. It belongs to working mothers who want to raise their children with a strong sense of values and devoted fathers who are coaching softball games after a long day on the job. It belongs to regular people in small towns and flyover states and middle-class suburban neighborhoods who are struggling with how to live meaningful lives in an ever-changing society.
If critics want to meet these Americans, they can walk into a church on any given Sunday and listen to their stories. Their tales of faith and redemption sound something like this: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”
Until critics understand these types of stories, they’ll continue to misunderstand faith-based entertainment.