Media is a powerful tool. Just look at the many instances of fake news and their adverse effects we have had to deal with in South Africa recently – the targeted attacks against minister Pravin Gordhan during his fight against state capture is just one.
The entertainment media is also an obviously powerful tool. Even if we watch movies purely for entertainment, messages screened do have the power to influence our world views and ideologies.
What about ‘Christian’ or ‘faith-based’ movies? Do they likewise have the power to change and impact our thinking? Of course. I am living proof that they can. When I was 13 years old I saw The Cross and the Switchblade at a Sunday School end-of-year party. The film was the story of how evangelist David Wilkerson worked among a bunch of street hoodlums. Nicky Cruz, the gang leader, became a Christian through Wilkerson’s loving ministry. And the day I watched that film I, too, became a Christian.
Context and purpose, though, matter. In my example above the context was a Sunday School party. I was primed, therefore, to expect something ‘Christian’. And in terms of content the film itself was overtly evangelical.
Message Marketing for the mainstream
But movies that are released onto the main cinema circuit and shown to thousands of viewers in a secular setting must appeal to a wider audience. Showing overtly evangelical films in this type of setting could chase viewers away. It could close them off to the gospel message we so dearly want to bring to them. What’s the alternative then? Message Marketing.
Humble Pie Entertainment is a South African creative media company that specialises in the ‘family and faith-based’ film industry. They do what is called ‘Message Marketing’. Message Marketing, according to Humble Pie CEO Peet Louw, essentially means telling a story through film, where the focus is on the message, not the person or the film itself. The stories in these types of films are often true, uplifting, promote good morals, and teach universally important lessons. Many of the films are directly Christian, for example Faith Like Potatoes, while others may be moral, family-based ones like The Blind Side. Others may be about Christians, but they dial back on evangelism, aiming to be palatable for non-Christian viewers, for example The Least of These.
A gripping tale
The Least of These, which had a limited release in South Africa in April 2019, is based on the true story of the murder of Australian Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons in 1999. The film is set in India and is directed by Aneesh Daniel. South African composer and musician Bruce Retief, was responsible for the soundtrack.
Decades before his death Graham Staines and his wife Gladys started and ran a leprosy mission in India. They imbued the patients with dignity, defying conventional wisdom that treated lepers as outcasts. In the 1990s religious tensions rose, when, in Hindu areas, accusations of ‘illegal conversions’ were levelled at Christians.
The action in The Least of These starts at this point and centres on journalist Manav Banerjee (acted by Sharman Joshi) who has a wife and a new baby. Banerjee is an ambitious writer with desperate living conditions and he tries to make it big by covering the sensationalist rumours of the aforementioned illegal Christian conversions. Urged on by his editor, Kedar Mishra (Prakash Belawardi), Banerjee searches for evidence linking Staines (Stephen Baldwin) to these accusations. He actually finds none but manages, nonetheless, to inflame a listening crowd, who kill the three innocent victims.
Banerjee’s own journey in the story takes him from scepticism, through regret, to realisation of Staines’ innocence. He then uses the media to put things right. The journalist’s journey acts as a vehicle for highlighting the influential role of the media in political and religious tensions.
Gladys Staines reacts to the murder of her husband and two sons by forgiving the perpetrators and staying on in the country for many more years, serving in the same leprosy mission.
The gospel at heart
The messages in The Least of These are: undeserved forgiveness; selfless love of ‘the least of these’; faithfulness; undeserved suffering in the name of Christ; and the fact that genuine conversions to Christianity cannot be coerced. Put like this, the messages are clearly those of the Christian gospel.
But the film is not overtly evangelical. It is, by and large, aimed at a wider market, and couched in wholesome Message Marketing. On its own is this Message Marketing enough to bring people to an unequivocal, saving knowledge of Jesus? I don’t think so.
I think that in addition to Message Marketing, Christians need to actively engage their non-Christian friends in thoughtful discussions after watching such films. Discussions that point clearly to Jesus. Even in my own Christian conversion experience the film I watched was explained to me afterwards.
Conversation starters from The Least of These, for example, could be:
- Why do you think Gladys Staines was able to forgive her family’s murderers? Who else does this point to?
- How and why were the Staines able to love unlovable or unacceptable people? Do you know of any Bible stories in which ‘the least of these’ are shown love?
- Why do you think Christians might continue to serve despite dangers to their lives? Do you know the motives of any Bible characters in similar situations?
- What do you think it means to be a Christian? Does it mean being good or being forgiven?
Is Message Marketing in movies – instead of direct evangelism – merely selling out? No, I don’t think it is. But I do think it’s an occasion for Christians to ‘live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity’ (Ephesians 4:15,16) to participate in Christ’s mission.
For more information on Humble Pie Entertainment see https://bit.ly/2YTAD62.
My review of this film first appeared on A Feast of Tales. https://afeastoftales.wordpress.com/
Trailer of The Least of These: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9376172/videoplayer/vi3822041625?ref_=tt_pv_vi_aiv_1