In all the major religion-related films that came out in 2014, God got just one cameo: Isaac Andrews, an 11-year-old from Britain, played a rather obnoxious version of the Almighty in December's Exodus: Gods and Kings. Nonetheless, God played major roles in films ranging from the Biblical epic Noah to the apocalyptic Left Behind and the polemical God's Not Dead, causing floods and raptures and existential crises in university students from far off set. Plus, Jesus got lots of screen time, portrayed in Heaven Is for Real as a white guy on a horse and in Son of God as a white guy with an undeniably smarmy smile.
Some of these movies were big hits at the box office. Noah grossed $101 million and Heaven Is for Real hit $91 million, while God's Not Dead and Son of God both netted roughly $60 million. Exodus was cinematographically beautiful, despite its ridiculous script and casting, and Left Behind featured such venerable actors as Nicolas Cage and Chad Michael Murray.
Despite their varying levels of success, these films all share one quality: They're culturally awkward. Which suggests it’s difficult, probably impossible, to frame the "character" of God in a way that will attract a core religious audience while not alienating more secular or casually observant viewers. Ticket sales indicate there's a strong appetite for religion-related film in America, and the best may be yet to come: Ewan McGregor is slated to star as Jesus in Last Days in the Desert in 2015. But even if the economic case for making more God flicks is clear, it's not obvious that these kinds of movies will ever qualify as interesting art.
This year, filmmakers tackled the God problem using a few different tactics. There's big-budget obliqueness, seen in Darren Aronofsky's choice to refer to God only as "the creator" in his telling of Noah's story from the book of Genesis. Heaven Is for Real, Left Behind, and God's Not Dead take a debate-team approach: All of them feature long speeches from characters about why God does/does not exist, attempting to persuade viewers to see the world from a theistic point of view. Son of God is a straight-up Bible movie, while Exodus hovers somewhere between action flick and theological challenge.
And each of these tactics is fraught. The enchanted world of Noah feels more like Middle Earth than early human civilization. The central question of Heaven Is for Real, Left Behind, and God's Not Dead is whether or not God exists, and even to believers, they may end up feeling more like propaganda than pieces of creative work. For those who don't—or do!—believe in the divinity of Christ, the literalism of Son of God might be a turn-off. And while Exodus is morally provocative, the bizarre sight of Christian Bale, who plays Moses, talking to a child version of God is distracting.
It's possible that these pitfalls indicate a lack of creativity on the part of the directors and producers. But it's more likely that filmmakers are in an impossible position when they make religious art. Believing in God is a sorting mechanism, separating those who do and those who don't into camps with totally irreconcilable world views. In America, the cultural particularities of religion take that sorting mechanism one step further: Some may believe in God, but may not want to display that belief in their public lives. For people like this, and for non-believers, art that is centrally concerned with the existence of God may be uncomfortable or not compelling; and for those who define themselves by their faith, any circumspect approach may feel like a personal attack.
Perhaps this would be the tension would itself be an interesting topic for a religion movie yet to be made. But for now, God deserves some credit for doing gangbusters in Hollywood.