The Christploitation genre of films

On a regular basis, I hear about films that are released that are targeted at evangelical Christians that feed them with the comforting notion that their beliefs are correct, that they are their god’s chosen and that the rest of us heathen are grossly mistaken and will suffer in hell unless we repent and turn to Jesus. The film industry is a commercial one and they are well aware that there is a sizable audience out there for this kind of film so it should be no surprise. I myself have not seen any of them. Life’s too short to spend on C-grade religious propaganda disguised as a feature film.

But I am interested in the entire phenomenon and so read J. W. McCormack’s interesting and informative analysis of this genre of films. After a somewhat curious opening paragraph that will put images of vice-president Mike Pence into your head that you will try very hard to get rid of, he gets into the main issues.

By this time [mid-20th century], the Christian picture had split itself into roughly three categories: the biblical epic, a cash cow for mainstream Hollywood since 1941’s The Great Commandment; the end-times picture, exemplified by the evangelical-produced A Thief in the Night series, beginning in 1972 and following the Rapture and Tribulation; and a third, more nebulous subset that I have come to think of as “Christsploitation.”

Fireproof set the standard formula: a figure of authority (a firefighter in this case) faces marital and professional adversity and gradually comes to accept Christ, after which the conflict is miraculously resolved. Fireproof, along with the feel-good cop picture Courageous and the Christian football jock-fest Facing the Giants, was funded by the Sherwood Baptist Church, a megachurch with an average attendance of 1,500 based in Albany, Georgia, which churns out critically trashed, highly successful, disposable melodramas.

Another frequent conflict in Christsploitation cinema is a marriage between an atheist and a believer; see The Case for Christ, in which a jealous reporter (“You’re cheating on me with Jesus!”) interviews a series of scientists and professors, including, randomly, Faye Dunaway and Robert Forster, and is surprised to discover that many of these elite intellectuals are themselves converts to Christianity and that faith in Christ is ultimately the only viable logic. That settles that, I suppose. Part of the fun of Christsploitation is spotting otherwise distinguished actors like Christopher Plummer (The Gospel of John) and Liam Neeson (Pilgrim’s Progress).

The common thread in all these flicks is a sense of retreat from difficult ideas in favor of a reactionary, flustered brand of Christianity.

Make no mistake: Christsploitation is exploitation cinema. Nowhere is there the faintest whiff of sincerity (except in I’m in Love with a Church Girl, the exception that proves the rule). The films’ naked opportunism represents the aggressive co-opting of Christianity by the right wing.

I wrote earlier about one of these films A Thief in the Night in the context of a post about the Rapture and the Book of Revelation in the Bible. I am not sure if any readers of tis blog have seen any of these films. If so, their reactions would be interesting.


  1. mnb0 says

    “You’re cheating on me with Jesus!”
    Now this is funny. As a non-believer I rather have my female counterparting cheating on Jesus (or in my case, on Mohammed) than on Joe the Neighbour.

    “I am not sure if any readers of tis blog have seen any of these films.”
    I haven’t seen any of the mentioned ones. The ones I’ve seen are Mercy Streets (with Eric Roberts, the brother of), which is pretty good, and a piece of crap called October Baby (anti-abortion), with some pastor providing instant healing of complex psychological problems. There must be another on with a title I can’t remember. The story is very similar to Fireproof, but with a cop involved. What I remember is that he saves a corrupt colleague and that the movie ends with an “inspirational”(read: totally predictable and boring) speech.

    Off-topic: this picture shows why I like rugby so much.

  2. Jenora Feuer says

    I haven’t seen much of this, but Fred Clark of Slacktivist actually has a bit of a soft spot for A Thief in the Night because unlike other Rapture books/films such as Left Behind (which Clark has spent years doing a scene-by-scene trashing of), A Thief in the Night actually understands the sort of horrific atmosphere that would be involved, works with how people might actually react under such circumstances, and doesn’t go for the same sort of naked triumphalism that so much of the ‘Christploitation’ genre has gone to.

    Partly this is because the 1972 film A Thief in the Night predates most of the more explicit political radicalization of religion in the U.S. which really started after the IRS threatened to pull the tax exempt status of Bob Jones University due to its explicit racial biases (court cases which ran through most of the 1970s and ended at the Supreme court in 1983) and really hit full force in the founding of the Falwell’s ‘Moral Majority’ group in 1979.

    Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist and Democrat. By the time Reagan had actively helped accelerate the radicalization of the evangelical churches by playing their dogwhistles, ‘Southern Baptist’ and ‘Democrat’ being in the same sentence was a near-impossibility. (And Jimmy Carter has since walked away from the Southern Baptist church, which led to a lot of folks saying ‘what took you so long’.)

  3. kestrel says

    I listen to the God Awful Movies podcast, but I have to say I missed the “I’m in love with a church girl” one because it aired before I started listening: I have indeed been fascinated by the memes that appear in christian films: the Magical Black Lady, the Cancer Mom (or sister, or dad) and so on.

    Anyway, I love the podcast, because they watch the POS so I don’t have to. Besides, it’s hysterically funny.

  4. ColeYote says

    Cinema Snob’s done episodes on a few Christsploitation movies, he’s actually where I first heard the term. I feel like McCormack is neglecting the popular “Christian persecution complex” flavour, e.g. Last Ounce of Courage, Christmas with a Capital C and, most infamously, the God’s Not Dead films.

  5. Ridana says

    The only such movie I’ve seen is The Rapture, which I wouldn’t call a Christploitation film. I’m not really sure what I would call it. It starred Mimi Rogers and David Duchovny, and I watched it with a sense of bemused wonder as I tried to figure out what its deal was. At first I thought it was a skewering of religious nuts and cults, but then The Rapture happened, blowing of trumpets and all, and I was left wondering wtf I had just watched. I’m still not sure what I was supposed to take away from it.

    And yes, that was quite the opening paragraph re Pence. O.O

  6. starskeptic says

    “…The Rapture, which I wouldn’t call a Christploitation film.”
    That’s because it’s in the second of the three categories -- ‘the end-times picture.’

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