Jesus Is Coming
The Christian Film That Found an Audience in Austin, the Video Mailed Across the State, and Other Stories of Evangelicals Using Film to Spread the Word
Barb Bucklin knows the stories. Each week, she e-mails them to congregations across the state.
Like the one about the troubled little girl living in a foster home in a North Austin suburb, the child who disrupted the class and worried other parents, who walked up during the service and told the congregation she had accepted Christ ... after watching the Jesus video.
Or how about the story of the man right here in the city, who received the video on a Saturday, accepted the Lord that evening, and on Sunday, searched frantically for a place to attend worship. Then he saw a sign -- no really, a sign -- in front of a church that said, "Jesus Is Coming to a Mailbox near you!" He walked straight into the sanctuary and gave testimony.
There are stories even Barb doesn't know. Like the story of a woman in a wheelchair, who came from miles away to see the Christian film that had been playing for weeks in a multiplex north on I-35. Only when she finally arrived, she was turned away because the handicapped spaces in the theatre were all taken. Or the story about the independent film movement -- probably the most successful one today -- that uses the pulpits and the airwaves and the Internet to speak directly to its target audience. Their mantra: "Let's send a message to Hollywood."
And there are stories Barb would probably rather not hear: stories about Jesus videos thrown in the trash, sold to Half Price Books for a quarter, demolished with a sledgehammer.
Barb Bucklin has a story, too. She was in line to buy her first cell phone when her Jesus video T-shirt caught the eye of a mother and daughter nearby.
Turns out the mother had received the video in the mail; the daughter was still waiting. "I wanna watch your video," the girl told her mother. "Why didn't I get one?"
And that sparked a conversation with another woman, which sparked a conversation with someone else, all of whom wanted to know: What is this video? Where did it come from? And Barb Bucklin did what she often does in these situations, what she does perhaps hundreds of times a day, what she did when she was being interviewed for this story, and what she does in those regular e-mails that go across the state. She looked at the girl -- "pretty, pretty girl" -- and she said: "Can I pray with you?"
And so they did. Right there, together, in line at AT&T.
"How many people go to church each week? A whole lot more than go to the movies."
Part One: The Films
-- Michael Harpster of Providence Entertainment, in a story in USA Today
"This stuff is compelling. Even scary."
-- Buck Williams (Kirk Cameron) in Left Behind
Like all good stories, this one contains an element of surprise.
It begins in October 1999, when Providence Entertainment's The Omega Code -- without the aid of theatrical trailers, traditional ads, network commercials, or even positive reviews -- breaks into the weekend's Top Ten movies, with higher per-screen ticket sales than even the No.1 film, Fight Club.
It is no surprise that a powerful conservative Christian community still exists in America. How else could you explain the election of George W., the existence of PAX television, or that pink-haired lady on the Trinity Broadcast Network? It should not be surprising that this substantial community might hunger for a different representation in Hollywood, where religious fervor is more likely to make you the punch line than the protagonist. It should not be surprising that even in the multi-culti new millennium, pop culture and religion still mix -- any nonbelievers should watch MTV, where U2 can boast of being born-again Christians and the biggest rock stars in the world, where Destiny's Child sings "I'm not gonna compromise my Christianity," and where every awards show features a thug-turned-rapper giving "big ups to God." And it should not be surprising that word-of-mouth can trump the industry's monopoly at the box office. What might be surprising (it was to Hollywood, anyway) was that Christians could wage a mass media campaign so invisible to the rest of us -- on the radio station at the far end of our dial, on the television channel we occasionally flip past, the churches we pass on our way to work, and on the Web sites we have probably never, ever seen. By doing so, evangelicals turned The Omega Code -- by all accounts a clunky failure of a techno-thriller -- into a marketing triumph.
None of this is surprising to Dr. Howard Miller, a Distinguished Teaching professor at UT. "These have been media-savvy people ever since the 1830s," he says. That's when evangelicals learned to use the printing press and changed the world by abolishing slavery -- "and we forget that," he says, "but they did." As a history of religion professor for 30 years, Miller has studied evangelicals, whom he calls "the most authentic subculture in America today," and how they have been affected by -- and indeed affected -- the culture. According to Miller, in the past century, evangelicals have consistently mastered emerging technology to promote their cause -- in the Thirties and Forties, radio; in the Fifties, film, recording, and television; in the Seventies, computers. And so it makes sense that in today's world of ubiquitous media, this counterculture could use all of those technologies at their command plus the Internet -- still the most effective way to unite people separated geographically -- to spread the Word.
In the wake of The Omega Code came movies like Mercy Streets, starring Eric Roberts and Stacy Keach, and Carman: The Champion, starring Carman, a gospel superstar mostly unknown in the secular world. More successful was Left Behind, starring Kirk Cameron and based on the bestselling series of apocalyptic books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Although the film opened at No.17 at the box office, its theatrical release came after the film sold 2.8 million videos.
And then there is Road to Redemption, made by Billy Graham's World Wide Pictures in Minneapolis. Although World Wide has been producing Christian films since 1952 (Billy Graham is, indeed, one of the pioneers of Christian media), by the late Eighties, the film company had confined itself to movies made for TV or straight-to-video. These days, however, World Wide is planning a revival. They released Road to Redemption in 16 test markets, hoping when their next film comes out in 2002, they can take it, like their name implies, worldwide.
"There's a major hunger for this kind of family-oriented film," says Barry Warner, the director of operations at World Wide Pictures.
Like every movie in the current Christian film movement, Road to Redemption does not necessarily look like a Christian film. This is partly because Christian films want to redefine themselves -- with slicker production values, hipper protagonists, more modern dilemmas -- but also because most are designed to convert, and they've gotten crafty about it. Their messages sneak up on you, often employing a main character who begins as a skeptic only to -- surprise! -- transform in the third act.
So far, though, it seems that Christian films, while financially successful, have been quite literally preaching to the converted. Written and directed by Robert Vernon, Road to Redemption hopes to break that pattern by tossing aside the gloom-and-doom and melodrama that mark the genre in favor of slapstick comedy and a message of hope. "You'll laugh," Warner says, "and most people cry."
Perhaps you are thinking that Austin -- with its merry pagans and free thinkers -- might be a little resistant to such slap-happy evangelism. That sophisticated Austin probably wouldn't cotton to the likes of feel-good Christian films. Then it will not be surprising to you that when World Wide selected Austin as one of the test markets for Road to Redemption, a local theatre manager advised against it. "We're in the Bible Belt," he said. "But I think we're the hole in the buckle."
But in its fourth week -- after the movie had folded in both San Antonio and Dallas -- Austin's Tinseltown North boasted the film's highest ticket sales in the country.
That's the surprise.
The office of KNLE 88.1 -- "Candle, the light of the Hill Country" -- lies in a strip of office buildings off the access road of 183 North. The Christian station was co-founded 20 years ago by Sherland Priest, a friendly, funny man, who, in the course of our conversation, quotes South Park (three times), references a variety of science fiction films, and demonstrates -- on me -- a handmade toy in the front lobby that, when you hold onto its two small metal clips, emits an electric shock ("Man, the Cub Scouts love this. They just hold hands in a circle to see who can last the longest."). When I ask Sherland what has made Road to Redemption so successful in Austin, he points to the young man on his right -- 21-year-old Assistant Program Director Brandon Johnson -- and says, "He's standing right there."
"This movie really connected with what we were trying to do in the Austin community," says Johnson. "I would venture to say that most movies aren't seen as a family anymore. But when we had our preview, the theatre was filled with families. When do you see that? Obviously most kids would be uncomfortable taking their parents to see Tomcats."
"And when you take your kids to see Pokémon, what are Pokémon's themes?" Sherland asks. "The pocket demon. And do you have to buy 'em all? That's the message to me, that you have to go out and participate in marketing." But for a Christian family looking for something entertaining and nourishing, Sherland says, "There's nothing at the box office."
The station ran regular spots promoting the film and opened up their phone lines to listeners ("We asked YOU to call in and tell us what you thought about Road to Redemption. He-he-he-HERE'S what you s-s-s-s-aid.")
Among the messages left was the following testimonial: "I was a little skeptical when we went to Road to Redemption. I thought, 'Oh well, here comes another cheesy Christian movie.' But I must say, we were very pleasantly surprised. The movie was excellently done. This is something we really need here and throughout the whole nation."
"Anytime a skeptic turns their opinion," says Priest, "man, that's news to me."
Three weeks into the film's run, Tinseltown North sold more tickets to the film than any other theatre in the country. Four weeks in, the audiences were still increasing. The film topped off at a modest $4,033, but it was enough to keep Road to Redemption, with little advertising and not a positive word in the mainstream press, in the theatre for eight weeks. (In contrast, the festival darling George Washington enjoyed a feature story and a four-star review in this paper and was gone after only one week.)
The film's local success owes a good deal to the vigilance of the station's promotion and the listeners who, in turn, embraced the movie. Johnson and Priest have a shameless, infectious enthusiasm for Christian entertainment, and they want to share the good news. By the time I left the station, the pair had loaded me up with a copy of Road to Redemption, a flier for a Christian boy band called Plus One and one for a "Wilson Phillips-type" harmony group named Sierra, and two CDs by the Christian parody band the ApologetiX -- whose songs include the unlikely covers "Livin' What Jesus Spoke Of" (Ricky Martin's "Livin' la Vida Loca"), "Enter Samson" (Metallica's "Enter Sandman"), and "Learn Some Deuteronomy" (Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me"). They also gave me two Krispy Kreme donuts.
"If you wanted to generalize Austin," Brandon says, "you wouldn't say it was conservative. So why does a movie like this do well? It's weird. I know that sometimes being in a place as a conservative or as a Christian -- being in a place where you're the guy that's different -- sometimes that inspires people to be a polar opposite. Or it makes them have more confidence about who they are. I know the filmmakers are really encouraged by the success the film has had here. They really are wondering, 'What's going on in Austin?'"
World Wide Pictures does indeed have their eye on our city; the director of operations now calls Austin "a top market for us." For Billy Graham! It didn't start with Road to Redemption, either. The last film the company released in Austin, 1997's Western The Ride, played for a record 11 weeks.
It may just be that hip, heterodox Austin goes to the movies a lot -- according to the Millennium edition of Trivial Pursuit, the city has more movie theatres per capita than anywhere else in the U.S. And finding available space in one of the city's many multiplexes may be easier than finding it in other cities (surely easier than finding available space in one of the city's dwindling number of arthouse cinemas). But part of the reason a movie like Road to Redemption played for two months in Austin lies in a strong network of conservative Christians in the area, headed up in huge Bible churches and campus groups and youth movements like Young Life ("Young Life in this town couldn't be more powerful," says Howard Miller).
And maybe they just liked the movie.
"There's a lot of cheeseball religious films," Sherland says, "and if we contrast that with the number of cheeseball mainstream films, I think the ratio will work out pretty well. It's just taken this long to get a good one."
"Have you ever wondered ... who is Jesus? Now you can see the film that answers questions about the man who changed the face of history."
Part Two: The Video
-- from the back of the Jesus video
"I used to be an angry guy. Oh yeah, I was angry. But then! But then ... I got my Jesus video in the mail." -- overheard at an open mike comedy night
The call came from Dr. Bill Bright, retired president and founder of the evangelical ministry Campus Crusade for Christ. It was his brainstorm to distribute 8.4 million videos across Texas. By that time, he had inspired similar mailings in places like San Diego, Central Illinois, Ohio. But even the largest of those -- Alabama, 1.8 million -- pales beside sending a video to every house, every trailer home, every PO box in the Lone Star state. If it could be done in Texas, Bright figured, it could be done anywhere.
The video, of course, is the Jesus video.
Made in 1979 and distributed theatrically by Warner Bros., the Jesus video has been used for two decades by Campus Crusade for Christ in their overseas missions. The back of the video claims it "has been seen by more than one billion people, translated into 425 languages and shown in more than 225 countries." Although Leonard Maltin calls the film "a straightforward but unmemorable retelling of Jesus' life," what seems to appeal to its fans is this very spareness. No backstory. No Hollywood spin. No singing. Just parables and scripture from the Gospel of Luke acted out by a man who looks lovingly on the soft, smiling faces of the young and dirt-poor. Often touted is the video's "biblical and historical accuracy." The film was allegedly shot in actual locations in the Middle East, with telephone and power lines removed to accommodate the crew. Interviewees repeat this curious claim: that the filmmakers discovered there were 37 different dye colors available in Biblical times and so only used 37 dye colors in the film. A splash quote from Time on the video's cover reads, "Meticulous attention to authenticity ..." (When I ask Howard Miller about this, he says, "What the hell does that mean? No one knows what Jesus looked like. And the 37 dyes? Well, that's just cosmically absurd.")
In August 1999, Dr. Bright contacted Robby Carson of Ingram, Texas, who became the state coordinator. Late last month, the organization sent one million videos to central Texas homes -- including 27 ZIP codes in Travis County -- as a pilot project. The mail-out was a logistical test, done to ensure, among other things, that the postal service could handle the bulk and that the insert cards (used to request more information about a life with Jesus or a video in another language) could be assembled in time. The next mailing -- to the remaining seven million -- is scheduled for October 1. When I talk to Marketing Director Lee Miller from Lufkin, Texas, he is in a muffler shop, waiting for his car to be fixed. He has left all his notes at the office, but by now, he knows them by heart.
"Quiz me," he says. "Let's see how I do."
Among the statistics he knows are the following:
Amount raised for the pilot project: $3 million (50% from churches, 50% from individuals and corporations)
Amount needed for the second phase: $18 million
Cost of each video: $2.50
Number of 18-wheelers used to haul those videos to the post office: 22
Number of volunteers: 10,000 in 1,000 churches ("As our state director says: From A to Z. Assembly of God to Zion Lutheran.")
One of those volunteers is Lyndon Rogers. Born in Argentina, Rogers is a gentle, soft-spoken man who leads a small Spanish-speaking Disciples of Christ congregation called Principe de Paz on the Eastside. You might picture evangelicals worshipping in sprawling complexes consuming a city block -- Promise Land, for instance -- but Principe de Paz doesn't even have its own building. Instead, the congregation rents space from the Austin Mennonites on Westminster, bordering the St. John's area. As one of the Hispanic pastors working on the Jesus Video Project, Rogers is helping Spanish-language video tapes reach his community and his congregation.
"It's all about connections," Rogers says, "connecting people to each other. There is a lot of power in that. We have so many resources for communication today, and yet there is so much solitude in our society. People going out and being there for each other makes a difference, and I think the video is a tool for that."
The project even brought together area pastors, many of them strangers, who met to plan the video mail-out but ended up also sharing their concerns about racial tensions in the area. On June 9, the pastors and their congregations will participate in the Jesus March, bridging from west to east across I-35, the highway that divides the city like a scar.
Rogers calls the Jesus video a "a message that changes lives" and talks about how helpful it could be for the newcomers flooding the city. He asks me what I see happening with the Jesus video -- he would really like to know -- and I tell him I have seen people offended by it, annoyed.
"But why?" he asks.
People feel that it's pushy. They don't want it. It's a waste.
He wonders if people bring baggage to it, if seeing the video reminds them of their own religious histories, which can be complicated. After all, it's just a video in the mail. "You're getting it in a nonobtrusive way," he says. "I think that expresses the way that God works with us. He's there, and he doesn't push."
When Dr. Howard Miller first heard about the project, he knew it would offend people. "Things like this sort of set off the protective reactions of a heterogeneous society -- a messy, cosmopolitan, heterogeneous society like ours in which religion still makes a difference. And that's good." As for the indignance of some recipients of the video, Miller says, "People seem to think, 'I have a right not to have to see this.' Oh, I don't think so. We have to put up with a lot in life that we would prefer not to put up with. And everybody better get used to it, because that is what free speech is all about."
He goes on to say, "I do not think that our society is really harmed by the power that this particular part of Christianity wields in our society. It keeps everyone on their toes. I kind of find it refreshing when people take any belief system seriously."
And then there is the story of Barb Bucklin.
"Prayer is my passion," Barb tells me over coffee at Central Market. With her denim jacket and paint-speckled glasses, she looks more Austin artisan than conservative Christian, but Barb is honest-to-goodness evangelical, a mother and widow who has rededicated her life to Jesus Christ. "As Christians, there's a lot of fear of witnessing," she says. "I think we're afraid of what people will say. Afraid you'll offend somebody. But scripture says we're not supposed to be ashamed of the gospel. People can take it or leave it, but it's my responsibility to speak it."
As prayer coordinator of the Jesus Video Project, she has been busy over the past few months, praying for the city, for the postal carriers, for the project, for the church, for the film to soften the hearts of those who see it.
Prayer is important to the Jesus Video Project. At the end of the video, viewers are asked to pray for Jesus Christ to enter their lives: "He wants to show you a better life than you are now experiencing. A full, abundant life filled with purpose. He wants to give you his life. Eternal life." It's impossible to know how many people pray with this video, or actually convert upon seeing it, but Barb has heard between 500 and 1,000 response cards are coming in daily, asking for more information or another video -- and "the first one that came in made the project successful."
"If we're honest, and we look around the city, there are a lot of desperate people," she says. "But I see more unity in the Body of Christ in the city than I've seen in some time." She sees people questioning and talking and seeking answers. She sees pastors coming together for the Jesus march. People's lives changed.
Barb and I talk about the Christian film movement, and even though she hasn't yet seen any of the movies discussed in this article, she's hopeful they, too, can bring about a change. "I've almost quit going to movies because they leave you so depressed. They're so hopeless, they're so violent," she says. "Think about if someone were really using the film media to show that loving touch that the Lord brings."
And then she asks me the question: "Are you a believer?"
"No," I say, looking down at the table and shifting in my seat. "I guess I'm ... I'm searching."
"That's good," she says. "People who search for truth find truth."
"Can I pray for you?" she asks.
"Sure," I say.
She places her hand gently on my shoulder and bows her head.
And then as if to answer me, Barb Bucklin begins praying aloud. And even though the crows are swooping and cawing around us, and I can feel the stares of a thousand surly busboys as I bow my head, and even though I will joke about all of this later -- it feels nice. I can feel her hand on my shoulder, her hand cool and soft and smelling of lotion. Maybe it's just hearing her voice, but it calms me, like the patter of rain in a dark, safe room. It's a mystery, how these things can stir you inside. And Barb Bucklin prays for the Jesus march, and she prays for the video project, and for the media, and for Christian movies, and she prays for filmmakers who bring positive images into the world. She prays for the city, for the country, for understanding. For hope.