Yet another “Christian” movie opens today. Letters to God is inspired by the true story of a young boy fighting brain cancer. His mom Maddie (played by Robyn Lively), already a cancer widow, can barely keep it together to care for young Tyler (Tanner Maguire). Tyler’s older brother resents the attention he thinks he deserves going all to Tyler. Tyler’s grandma (Maddie’s mom) moves in to help care for him so Maddie can go back to work. Tyler’s infectious smile is rivaled only by that of his friend Sam (short for Samantha), who frequently sneaks in through his bedroom window. They’re third graders, so nothing to blush about.
The final major character, and the connection to the film’s title, is Brady, an alcoholic postman who finds himself in possession of the letters that Tyler write to God. Every day. And puts them in the mailbox, with real stamps. As he wrestles with what to do with the letters, Brady’s journey becomes inextricably linked with Tyler’s.
Given the pediatric cancer patient in the lead role, you will be hard pressed to stay spoiler-free. I went into my screening experience with as open a mind as I could. Recall that To Save a Life is the only “Christian” film I’ve seen since the dreadful Left Behind. I was rather bored with the pace for the first half hour, but the character development, coupled with those darn smiling kids, drew me in to the point that I was as misty-eyed as the next guy by the heartwarming, heart-wrenching final act. (The guys were misty-eyed, the ladies were bawling.)
Letters to God will be well received by the Christian community. It excels other recent Christian film-making endeavors in a couple of ways. The cast and crew engaged in devotions, led by a pastor, each day on set. The Gospel is clearly presented to characters who respond favorably, tugging strongly at your heart strings.
Where I will have to part ways with this, and any similarly marketed film, is in the producers’ assumption that marketing heavily to church audiences will somehow penetrate the broader culture. I think developing intentional ministry strategies to reach out to those touched by cancer is a fantastic idea. If a pastor wants to devote some pulpit time to talking about it, that’s fine. But when I walked in for the screening I was handed a packet of promotional materials to rival any secular street team. The whole gamut of evangelical junk is waiting for us to buy in bulk. Bibles, jewelry, greeting cards, apparel, the Letters to God Bible, even stationery for your own letter to God… it’s all there. If this doesn’t illustrate what Greg Stier called “Starbucks Spirituality,” I don’t know what does. In other words, the more we roll out Christian-focused movies that are primarily consumed by Christians, the less attention the message will get.
Justin Bieber owes at least some of his commercial success to what he calls “Bieberblasts.” At his bidding via Twitter (twidding?), young girls with hearts a-throbbing repeatedly purchase his songs or albums on iTunes to falsely bump it up the charts. In a brilliant marketing ploy, you have to buy the online version to get special album-only tracks, but if you want to find a Golden Ticket (yes, as in Willy Wonka, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, you got it) and get a private concert with Justin, you must go to the store and buy multiple copies of the CD that you will quickly have no use for. Kind of sounds like churches that buy out entire theaters on opening weekend to make Hollywood sit up and take notice.
Christian films will continue to be made. I hope they will improve. Given the depths from which we came with Left Behind, I’m hopeful that will be the case. But what about films made with a thoughtful, integral worldview? Not made primarily with an intention to get churchgoers into the seats, or with the often-misguided notion that nonbelievers will magically show up and be touched by the message, but simply great art given as a gift to the audience. One such film, made by a gathering of friends including Stephen and Mary Pruitt, is Works in Progress. It shows on April 18 as part of the Kansas City FilmFest. I got to see previews and have heard updates as to its creation from early on. I maintain hope that good art for art’s sake may do more to engage the culture than overtly Christian films. Time will tell.