Convention speech: Julia Sweeney’s guide to religious-themed movies

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Here is an edited version of the speech Julia Sweeney gave on Sept. 16 at FFRF’s 40th annual convention in Madison, Wis. She was introduced by FFRF Co-President Dan Barker:

You’ve seen Julia Sweeney on “Saturday Night Live” for many years. You’ve seen her in the movies and you’ve seen her on “Sex in The City,” where she played a nun. Julia is also an author of a number of books, including If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother and God Said, ‘Ha!’  Julia is also a playwright and she’s written several one-woman monologues, including “In the Family Way,” “God Said, ‘Ha!’” and “Letting Go of God.”

Please welcome Julia Sweeney.

By Julia Sweeney

Julia Sweeney hams it up for the camera at FFRF’s convention. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

Omigod, I’m having so much fun, I love this convention. I really am vowing never to miss it again, ever! It’s so important and so great.

This was the assignment I gave myself: I’m going to watch financially successful religious movies that were released in the last year and give you my opinion of them. I’m a huge movie person. It’s my hobby and my love, my everything. But I had to stop my movie-going love affair to watch these Christian movies — which was a real sacrifice, people, but I did it for you!

I had to think about what that means — religious movies. It is a really interesting thing to think about because the “horror” genre is enormous. I found that, like religious movies, you really had to buy into a lot of stuff in those films to try to understand them. And I hate horror films, so I just thought I’m ruling out horror films, but then there is a film that came out called “Annabelle: Creation.” It cost $15 million to make and it’s earned $100 million, so it’s hugely successful and it’s all about a demonically possessed doll.

And there was another, which was a prequel called “Annabelle” in 2014. I was thinking that the Catholic Church must be so embarrassed about these horror films that take their ideology to the most ridiculous extent.

But what does the Catholic Church really have to say about these horror films? I immediately found an article dated Aug. 20, 2017, in the National Catholic Register, a mainstream Catholic publication featuring an interview with a priest about what he thought about “Annabelle Creation.” I want to read part of it to you: “What children read, what they see on the , an FFRF screen, can inspire them toward greater faithfulness. Conversely, it can lead them into the sordid world of the occult, even opening them to demonic possession. — Father Robert, a priest for more than 10 years and an experienced exorcist.” So, I’m just reading this going, “What? He knows firsthand the unintended consequences when children or adults open the door to demonic activity?” Remember, this is a mainstream Catholic publication.

Let’s get back to religious movies. Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” made so much more money than anyone ever thought. But the thing is, it’s really just a violent porn film. Christians should hate this movie; it’s like watching two hours of Jesus being scourged. There’s one minute of Jesus saying, “Turn the other cheek” or something and two hours of just out-and-out violence. Yet it became this huge popular movie at churches. That’s what started the movement of churches and Hollywood coming together and making these films.

There are basically two big producers in Hollywood of Christian films. One produces down-and-dirty cheap films and the other produces the main studio big ones. The down-and-dirty ones are all made by this company called Pure Flix. Many of you may have seen the first one they released called “God’s Not Dead.”

‘God’s Not Dead’

If you want to be depressed/totally entertained, you should rent “God’s Not Dead.” In the movie, there is this professor who’s sort of like a Richard Dawkins, except he’s not at all. The film begins with this young kid who goes to college and takes Philosophy 101. On the first day, the professor tells his students they must sign a paper saying that God is dead. He’s not even going to teach the class unless they accept that God is dead. Everyone in the class sheepishly writes “God is dead,” except for this one kid, who says “I can’t sign that paper.” He also tells the professor that not only is he going to debate him in three debates, but that he will prove to the professor that God is not dead.

Of course, the three main atheists in the film are portrayed as crazy, God-hating villains. It’s like every single one of them isn’t really an atheist, they’re just mad at God. For example, at one point, the student asks the professor why he hates God so much, and the professor says, “Because he took everything away from me that I loved!” Oh, omigod!

The movie portrays another atheist as only caring about making money. This character is mean to his girlfriend, and when she tells him that she has cancer, he dumps her right during the same dinner, because he’s an atheist and that’s what they do. Plus, his mother, who is a Christian, suffers from Alzheimer’s and he doesn’t take care of her. And there’s this great scene where he visits his mother and she is just blankly watching the static on the TV screen. He says to her, “Mom, I’m an atheist and you know I just love to make money. You prayed and believed your whole life and you’ve never done anything wrong. You’re the nicest person I know and I’m the meanest, angriest person I know.” (You know, how mean and angry people are always making that announcement?) “But now you have dementia, and my life is perfect. Why don’t you explain that to me?” And then she suddenly comes out of her dementia (you know, how demented people just suddenly click back in?) for this one moment to reply, “Sometimes, the devil allows people to live a life of trouble because he doesn’t want them turning to God. Your sin is like a jail cell, except it’s nice and comfy and they leave the doors wide open. Then time runs out, the cell door slams shut and it’s too late.” Then she turns to him and says, “Excuse me, who are you anyway?”

This movie was made for $2 million and has made $140 million. The overall point of all these Pure Flix films is not even about Christianity. No one ever really talks about what it means to be a Christian or have any difficulty being a Christian besides saying, “I love Jesus,” and that’s the end of it. Their life’s great. Pure Flix is really all about vilifying secularists and portraying them as terrible people. That’s the whole point of the movie.

‘God’s Not Dead 2’

Because that was so popular, they had to make “God’s Not Dead 2.” At least it could be “T-O-O” or something like that. No, it’s just “God’s Not Dead 2,” which was made for $5 million and took in $23 million; not as much as the first, but still a pretty good return on that money. Annie Laurie and Dan, you might be in the wrong business, right?

“God’s Not Dead 2” stars Melissa Joan Hart as a history teacher in a public school. She tries to keep her Christianity to herself and cares for her father, played by Pat Boone. And in class, they’re talking about nonviolent resistance, and she uses MLK and Gandhi as examples. A girl in the class, whose parents are atheists  (which means that their son died and they have no feelings about it, and that’s how you can tell that they are atheists!) raises her hand and asks, “Wasn’t Jesus a pacifist?” But because the teacher knows she’s not supposed to mention Jesus’ name in the public school, she replies that, according to the writers of the bible, Jesus did say “Love your enemies.”

But now, of course, she’s broken the rule by mentioning Jesus and she’s hauled before the school board, where they tell her that she can’t mention Jesus in a public school. She replies that she was asked a question and she was just teaching history and he’s historical. The school board tells her that she will need to sign a statement saying that she made a horrible mistake. And she says something to the effect of, “I’d rather be with God against the world than be with the world and against God!”

Then the parents of the girl complain that they can’t believe the teacher said the word “Jesus” in history class, and that they’re going to get the ACLU on the case and sue the school and make millions of dollars doing it! And you’re going to get into an Ivy League school, daughter, because you’re going to be a famous girl who had that horrible teacher who mentioned Jesus in class. So, Melissa Joan Hart goes home to her father, who says, “That’s the thing about atheism —  they don’t take away the pain. They don’t take away all the hope. They just take away the soul of God, and seem to forget that the most basic human right of all is the right to know Jesus.” Is it really? That’s the most basic human right? I’m all for you guys, because this is what we’re up against.

‘Old Fashioned’

The next flick is called “Old Fashioned.” It’s about a Christian carpenter who runs an antique shop, but he used to be wild in college. In fact, he made those “Girls Gone Wild” videos, but now he’s just the town carpenter who has accepted Jesus into his heart. And then there is this free-spirited girl who just gets in her car and drives until she runs out of gas, and that’s how many rules she has in her life! She stays wherever, until she can save enough money to buy another tank of gas and then she moves on to the next town.

Her name is Elizabeth and she runs out of gas near his store. The attraction between the two is immediately obvious and he tells her that she can rent the apartment above his antique store. But when she needs something fixed, he tells her that he’s sorry and can’t come in because he has a personal rule to never be alone in a room with a woman he’s not married to. She responds, “Oh, so you’re only alone in a room with your wife?” He responds that he’s not married. That begins the romance between them, where he reveals himself to be the most screwed up, controlling person in the world! He takes her to a preacher, who makes them do workbooks that will supposedly reveal if they will be compatible together before they can go on a date. It’s so insufferable.

This movie opened against “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which, I have to say, is kind of smart. It’s true.  I mean Hollywood comes out with a lot of crass, sexual stuff that really isn’t for everyone. Not just because people are Christian or prudish about it, but for me “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a horrific film. It just breaks my heart that there aren’t better options than those, like it’s really got to be “Fifty Shades of Grey” or this crazy wacko Christian movie?

‘The Case for Christ’

Next I watched “The Case for Christ,” that Lee Strobel story. I had read the book when I was actually going through my personal faith journey. The Case for Christ book by Lee Strobel, which sold a zillion copies, is about a Chicago reporter who’s trying to prove God doesn’t exist, but then realized that God does exist!

Now it has been made into a movie which didn’t do as well, costing $3 million and only made $17 million at the box office. The character who plays Strobel has great ’80s longish hair and is a rising star at the Chicago Tribune.

One day, his daughter chokes on something at a restaurant, and a woman who knows how to do the Heimlich maneuver (which is a miracle that someone in a restaurant would know how to do the Heimlich maneuver!)  then saves his daughter’s life. When Strobel thanks the woman, she tells him that Jesus sent her there. “I was going to go to Applebee’s, but came here and saved your daughter because Jesus knew I had to.”

This inspires his wife to become a Christian. Strobel becomes very upset by his wife’s new-found faith and decides to write a story for the Chicago Tribune proving there is no God so that his wife will read his article and she’ll realize that there is no God. But first he gets some great advice from his managing editor on what angle he should use to prove there is no God. His editor tells him all he needs to do is debunk the resurrection story and it will all fall like a house of cards.

Strobel begins investigating the resurrection, trying to prove it didn’t happen. But he keeps finding out it did, by going to people like Faye Dunaway, who plays an important psychologist at a university. He asks her how the gospels can be true when the four gospels so obviously contradict themselves. Her answer was that when witnesses give testimony, they are always contradicting each other. (So the very fact that the gospels contradict each other proves that they’re true?) Then, as he is turning to leave, she asks him a question: “Do you have daddy issues?” To which he responds, “It’s true. I do hate my father, so it must mean that I hate God!”

I just keep wondering why are they trying to convince people with facts at all. I mean, why don’t they just say, “Believe it on faith”? That’s what I find so interesting. My theory is that people who don’t have good critical-thinking skills are kind of wandering around in the Christian world thinking that if you really looked into it, it could be proven that it was true, so you don’t have to prove it’s true. You can just say that it’s on faith, but if you did look into it, you would find out it was indeed true. So these movies are being made where people kind of sound like they’re saying facts and they sort of sound like they’re good critical thinkers, except that it’s completely absurd and ridiculous. But they wrap it up nicely with “all is right,” and they can even prove the resurrection.

‘I’m Not Ashamed’

This next movie is a hard one. It’s one of the most ridiculous films. It’s called “I’m Not Ashamed,” and it’s about a girl who was killed in Columbine, where they retroactively went back and made her a much, much bigger Christian than she ever was. Supposedly, right before she was killed in Columbine, she went up to about 10 different people and told them that God loved them. She wanted to date guys with Down syndrome and other guys who were just horrible, but she told them that everything was going to work out OK.  After she was killed, the story grew, but since then has been disproved. According to a witness, one of the Columbine killers asked her if she believed in God. She said, “Yes,” and they said, “Well, then, go be with your God.” But then later that same guy said that he didn’t know if that’s actually what was said.

‘Heaven Is for Real’

Let’s move on to the big-money movies. Sony now has a division called “Affirm Films,” where they make big-budget movies with big stars, or religious movies such as “Heaven Is for Real,” about the guy whose 4-year-old son went to heaven after his appendix burst. But before they were operating on him, the 4-year-old was completely primed and coached with all this religious imagery. After he came out of surgery, they asked him very leading questions, like: “Did you talk to God? Did God have wings? Were there rainbows around?” Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent wrote the book about it, and it sold 20 million copies. The movie, based on the book, stars Greg Kinnear, whom I’ve never met but I feel a little “peery” with him, since he is more of a comedian. And I just feel like, “What? Why, why would you think it’s real?” It cost $10 million to make and earned over $100 million.

‘Miracles from Heaven’

I think that might be why they then made “Miracles from Heaven,” starring Jennifer Garner. The film is about a woman whose daughter has an intestinal problem that all these doctors try to fix by putting tubes in her lower intestines, but it doesn’t work. But then, one day, her daughter plays in a tree and falls down the middle of this dead tree, hits her head and suddenly her intestines start working again. It’s a miracle!

Then it’s so great, at the end, we see the mother is crying because she was going to lose her faith, too. But when her daughter gets well, she believes in God again. It becomes pretty obvious that the filmmakers are targeting both a religious and a slightly skeptical audience. They want to get everybody.

The movie ends with Garner saying, “God loves my daughter and me because we prayed so hard and now she’s going to live.” And then she says, “You know, Einstein once said . . .”  (By the way, if Einstein ever came back and heard of all the times he was misquoted, he would never stop throwing up!) “Einstein said, ‘There are only two ways to live your life — as though nothing is a miracle or as if everything is a miracle.’”

So Garner’s character says that and realizes that everything is a miracle. The sun came up; it’s a miracle! The grass is growing; it’s a miracle! My husband’s faith, my house, my car; it’s a miracle! But that, too, has been debunked. Einstein didn’t even say that.

I love these quotes from famous people that turned out to be debunked. My favorite one is the George Eliot quote: “It’s never too late to become whoever you are meant to be.” She never said that, and the majority of George Eliot’s book’s themes are basically that sometimes you’re too old to be anything. Really. Her theme is the opposite of that quote. Yet I have seen that saying on refrigerators at least 10 times.


Then there is the film “Risen,” about a Roman centurion in 33 A.D., who is sent to investigate whether this guy named Jesus has risen from the dead. He is part of a Roman tribune and basically becomes Columbo, investigating this crazy guy Jesus. The Roman tribune goes out and interviews all the apostles and, let me get this straight, Columbo investigates the resurrection?

My favorite thing is that the centurion has seen Jesus die, so he knows what he looks like and goes into this room where the apostles are, and there is Jesus. Jesus says something like, “Hey, that’s right, it’s me!” So Columbo thinks, “I guess I have to believe, too, because I am so confused.”

The apostles ask him to join them and they all go out to a desert area that has some water. Several of the apostles and the centurion get on a boat and they go out to fish. The apostles throw out a fishing net on the left side of the boat and when they pull it back in they have caught nothing; there’s no fish. Seemingly out of nowhere, Jesus appears on the sand and tells them to try the right side of the boat. Then they throw the net over the right side of the boat and there’s lots of fish! Then the Roman throws off his robe yelling, “I believe! I believe!”

‘The Shack’

Omigod, you guys! I kid you not, this is the plot of “The Shack”: A guy named Mack has three daughters and one of them is killed, so he loses his faith in God. (Can I just say here that I’m so tired of people who believe in God until their own child dies or get sick and then, they question their faith?  Do they not look around at the world or know anyone who has ever had trouble with anyone? OK, back to “The Shack.”) So this guy gets a letter in the mail, telling him to meet Papa at the shack. Now, that’s interesting because Papa is the name that he, his wife and his daughters called God. He goes to the shack for the weekend and that’s where he meets God, who is, I kid you not, Octavia Spencer. Yes, it’s God as a character actress. She invites him in the cabin and confirms the she is, indeed, God. And says she is there with two other gods — her son Jesus, a Jewish-looking guy who’s a carpenter who literally comes out holding a hammer, and the holy spirit, who is this Asian chick who looks like she’s taken Quaaludes. She says, “Hey, man, yeah, I’m the holy spirit.” And then Mack hangs out at the shack with God, Jesus and the holy spirit.

And it’s so Oprah-esque God stuff.Like Max says to Octavia Spencer, “God, wait a minute. I thought you’re supposed to punish people; you’re a mean God!” And Spencer says, “Who told you that? Having to live with the fact that you know you sinned is punishment enough.” — which I personally find so heinous. I mean, the truth is there’s a lot of people who’ve sinned and have done terrible things, who don’t really care that they’ve done terrible things. That is one of the things that I hate about the kind of Oprahfied view of God, where it’s like, “Hey, everybody’s just on a journey and they’re just in a different place.” It’s like, well, actually some people do need to be punished and kept away from other people. — Oh, this is my favorite thing: the son, the carpenter, takes Mack on a boat ride. There’s a boat ride with Jesus as he takes you out in the middle of the lake. Jesus then gets out of the boat and Mack is like, “What? I can’t believe it!” and then Jesus says, “Come on, you can do it, too!” So Mack stands on the water and Jesus says, “Let’s run!” And then they run across the water!

That movie was made for $20 million and earned $100 million.

‘The War Room’

OK, I’m just doing one more: “The War Room.”

The great thing about it is that is has an all-African-American cast. This one cost $3 million and made $12 million. There’s a woman who’s a real estate agent and has a really awful husband. Omigod, he’s so terrible. And at the beginning, she was using a lot of Christian kind of words, like she says to her friend, “My husband is so difficult. Submission is hard.” — That’s such a creepy thing to say!

And then her friend says, “You know, submission is ducking, so God can kick your husband.” — How creepy is that? — And then she goes to this woman’s house and she’s going to sell her house and it’s Miss Clara, and Miss Clara has taken a closet in her house and put all of these biblical sayings on it. And she goes in there and that’s her “war room,” where she tells God how to fix the world. And she convinces the real estate agent that she should do that. And the real estate agent cleans out a closet and then there’s a big, hilarious montage of her cleaning out her closet to put up signs of Jesus and the sayings of Jesus. Her husband, meanwhile, is in another city courting another woman, about to have an affair. She finds out about it and prays to God to do something. And the film cuts back and forth between her, in her war room praying to not let her husband cheat on her, and then back to the husband who is flirting with the young woman. Then, all of a sudden, the husband starts gagging from terrible indigestion and he throws up. That’s what God did to stop him from having the affair.

Glad it’s over

OK. I just want to say my family is going to be so happy for this to be over because it’s so depressing watching these movies. At first it was funny, like “God’s Not Dead.” Whoa, this is ridiculous! And then by like the tenth movie, I was on my side in the fetal position and my daughter came home from school and asked, “What’s the matter?” And I told her that I just watched “The Case For Christ,” the whole thing! My daughter says, “When does this end?” I said, “When we go to the Freedom From Religion Foundation convention!”

All right. Now, I know you’re depressed about it. Part of me the whole time was thinking I have to stop my life and write atheist movies, I guess. But, you know, atheist movies are just movies!

I think it’s right to think that we’re going to come up with some. I can’t decide if these films are a terrible sign of the future, or is this kind of a last gasp? When you go online and you read the comments section about these movies, half the people hate them because they’re secularists like us who just hate the world, and the other half of them are really conservative Christians who think that they’ve misinterpreted the bible in some way.

It’s not like it’s universally accepted, although they have made a lot of money and now Pure Flix has about five movies coming, including one called, “Same Kind of Different As Me,” starring Greg Kinnear again.

And I know I was supposed to get up here and just be funny only. I’m so sorry about that, but I do hope that I have educated you a little bit about the horrendous Christian film landscape out there.

Thank you for having me.