With Evan Almighty, Hollywood Strikes Out Again in Effort to Appeal to Faith-Based Audience

I've produced three books, The Rock & Roll Rebellion, Faith, God & Rock n' Roll and Pop Goes Religion, all making the case for lowering the wall of separation between faith and entertainment. But if the result is both dumbed-down religion and comedy as in the box office flop Evan Almighty, it may be the strongest argument yet for reinstating that wall and keeping religion and the movies as far apart as possible.

In its aftermath, once again the chatter from Hollywood is how, despite another earnest and sincere attempt to make a movie for "those people," the elusive faith-based audience that came out to see the Passion of The Christ has once again failed to turn out en masse for a movie thought to be tailor-made for them. The problem with such an analysis is that it's not unlike making a movie featuring blackface and wondering why the African-American audience isn't interested.

Some experts like Hollywood box office watcher Nikki Finke are wondering if Grace Hill Media, the company many studios engage to reach the faith audience, was the problem. But that is misplaced blame, since Grace Hill did what it always does well: creating broad awareness of the film through faith-based media, months before the film's release.

No, the inability of Evan Almighty to connect with the faith-based audience is deeper and goes to the choices made by the studio, the director and the writers as well as the systemic problems with the way Hollywood has always done business and seems resistant to changing.

The notion that millions of conservative Christians (a large majority of whom are also politically conservative) were going to flock to a movie that depicted obviously conservative political leaders as corrupt politicians going against the will of both a modern day Noah and God himself by trying to ruin the environment by opening up government-owned land for development, is nothing short of madness. It's one of the worst cinematic miscalculations this side of Ishtar.

But there's more. Between one of the characters noting with confidence that God is "in everything" (an idea that many religions hold to, but not the Christian one) and the notion that the Judeo-Christian God is primarily concerned not with sin, salvation and redemption but with encouraging "acts of random kindness," it was clear that if reaching a faith-based audience was the goal, this one was off by a mile.

Then there was the show-stopper: when, as the credits rolled, "Noah" held up a replica of the Ten Commandments, then turned it around to reveal an 11th Commandment, "Thou Shalt Do The Dance." For at least some Americans that may have been the last straw that cemented the film's descent from screwball religious comedy to sacrilege.

But that's assuming they made it inside the theater. It's likely that others simply stayed away when ads appeared before the film's release depicting "Noah" in a Marilyn Monroe pose, complete with a windblown "skirt" he was trying desperately to keep down.

There were other problems: Losing Jim Carrey was a blow. Many traditionalists saw "Liar, Liar" and "Bruce Almighty," and they, just like other more secular moviegoers, like to see movies with real stars of his caliber with whom they're familiar. And between The Daily Show, The Office and the 40-year Old Virgin, Steve Carrell's body of work isn't exactly one that resonates with traditionalists.

Then there was director Tom Shadyac, who, though known in Hollywood circles as something of a Christian, did himself no favors with interviews he gave wherein he seemed to offer up questionable religious doctrine, telling one interviewer that his own beliefs were in line with a poem he had read that suggested that since truth came from many faiths, he could no longer call himself a believer in any particular one.

Of course filmmakers don't have to be religious to create works that appeal to the faith audience, but if he was trying to assure Christian audiences that he was one of them and could be trusted to guide them through an hour and a half of a film that mixed the secular and the sacred, that was not the way to do it.

The systemic problem remains that major Hollywood studios continue to refuse to learn a central lesson of The Passion: Films must be shown early, perhaps as early as six to nine months before their release, to key leaders in the faith community both for their input and their support.

Megachurch pastors and other key leaders, for instance, can influence the moviegoing habits of millions of people, but they will not, as a general rule, recommend a film they themselves have not seen in its totality. Between that and the time needed for them to communicate to their followers, months -- not days -- are needed between such private showings and wide theatrical releases.

But the greatest sin of all committed by Evan Almighty may have been that the film just wasn't particularly funny. Perhaps its creators thought that a biblical theme and lots of cute animals would be enough to draw a large audience.

Despite the bomb that was Evan Almighty, millions of devout Americans are still waiting to be invited into a theater to see a film that is entertaining, affirms their values and doesn't trivialize their deeply held religious beliefs. If Hollywood continues to create films like Evan Almighty, millions of traditionalists may grow to rue the day when Hollywood, with dollar signs in its eyes, began courting them with wilted flowers and stale chocolate.

Mixing religion and entertainment has been long avoided for a reason:

It's difficult to do well. But if the result of this grand new experiment is films that are neither faithful nor funny, millions of traditionalists will likely find less expensive ways to be entertained and inspired.

Mark Joseph is the author of "Faith, God & Rock 'n' Roll" and the editor of Pop Goes Religion. He has worked in development and marketing on such films as "The Chronicles of Narnia," "Holes," "Because of Winn-Dixie" and others and produced the rock soundtrack for "The Passion of the Christ."