‘Jesus Revolution’ can teach us about religion and entertainemnt

Actor Jonathan Roumie plays Lonnie Frisbee in “Jesus Revolution.”

Actor Jonathan Roumie plays Lonnie Frisbee in “Jesus Revolution.”

Dan Anderson, Lionsgate

The movie “Jesus Revolution” was predicted to debut at around $7 million in ticket sales, but something surprising happened — the film debuted on Friday at more than double the predicted amount, bringing in around $15.5 million over the weekend, according to Collider.

The film is about a pastor named Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammar) who teams up with a hippie, Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie — the actor who portrays Jesus in “The Chosen”), to start a movement to convert hippies to Christianity.

Critics were mixed on the film, giving it a score of 54% averaged across 37 reviews, per Rotten Tomatoes. Conversely, the audience of over 1,000 reviews loved the film, giving it a 99% rating. With strong audience reviews and the fact that the film finished third this weekend (behind “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and “Cocaine Bear”), “Jesus Revolution” shows that there’s an audience for pro-faith entertainment.

The popularity of ‘The Chosen’

It’s hardly the first film or television series to do so.

Over the last few years, “The Chosen” has become the favorite television show of many people of faith. Rated by more than 33,000 people on IMDb, it has a 93% average rating. The series has appeared on several streaming services, including Netflix. In a 2022 New York Times article, an independent consultant said it’s estimated that 108 million people across the world have watched at least one part of one episode.

Series creator Dallas Jenkins has revealed that they have a goal of reaching 1 billion people with “The Chosen.” Even though the series hasn’t reached that point yet, its popularity among people of faith gives a signal to Hollywood — there really is an audience for this kind of content.

Viewpoints on ‘Unorthodox’

Other recently produced films and television shows produced about people of faith have been criticized by those religious communities for misrepresentation. For example, the show “Unorthodox” has been criticized by members of the Orthodox Jewish community.

“Unorthodox” was released in 2020 as a Netflix series. It follows a woman named Esty who leaves her husband and Orthodox Jewish community, deciding to live a secular life.

Julie Joanes in Forward said that the series took religious practices out of context and misrepresented them. She also expressed disappointment that the show left out positive elements of the Satmar community, such as their initiative to give free food to hospital guests and visitors. She didn’t think the series was fair to the community where she said most people are happy to be.

The critics’ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes were overwhelmingly positive, despite the criticism the series received for its portrayal of the Satmar community. “Unorthodox” did involve Jewish actors and crew members, according to Vogue, but it’s unclear if anyone from the Satmar community was involved. Forward mentioned a former member giving a tour, but didn’t mention the involvement of anyone from the community.

Reviews of ‘Silence’

Another major production had more mixed to positive reviews from people of faith than “Unorthodox” did. Take, as another example, the film “Silence.” This Martin Scorsese film came out in 2016 with Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver playing the two main characters. The plot involves them as two Jesuit priests who go to Japan to find another priest who had been missing and they discover that Japanese Catholics face intense persecution.

Reportedly, some Japanese Catholics were angry about how the movie sympathizes with Catholics who avoided martyrdom, per National Catholic Register. Other Catholics, like Deacon Steven D. Greydanus, gave the film a positive review.

John Anderson at America Magazine marveled at the film. He said that it’s one of “the most challenging movies, intellectually and spiritually, that a major studio has ever released.” He commented on how intricately and carefully the film treated faith. In this case, practicing Catholics were involved in the creation and development of the film.

The difficulty of depicting faith in entertainment

Of course, “Jesus Revolution,” “Unorthodox” and “Silence” all have different narratives. “Jesus Revolution” is about inspiring a conversion moment, “Unorthodox” depicts a person leaving the Satmar community and “Silence” grapples with conversion and maintaining faith in the midst of persecution.

Depicting a religious community in entertainment is a tricky business. What religious people consider sacred and holy often doesn’t make sense to people outside of the community when it’s portrayed in film, because there’s symbolism associated with the specific tradition. The smaller the religious the community, the more there is at stake in their depiction — for some viewers, that will be their introduction or only encounter with a community.

People of faith are also not a monolith and simultaneously, general trends can be observed. It seems that people of faith value fair treatment of their religion with robust involvement from those who are actively in the community as well as allowing the community to keep some elements sacred and holy.

So maybe that’s a reason why “Jesus Revolution” is having a better debut at the box office than previously thought. The majority of entertainment in the Christian category tends to be lower budget and therefore, doesn’t have the glitz and glam that comes with a high-budget Hollywood production. That does present some obstacles for content creation.

“Jesus Revolution” had a bit of the same problem with a lower budget, yet the film still ended up being done well. The movie doesn’t preach at you, but it does inspire you. Like Roumie said, “Jesus Revolution” is a film that is for everyone. Even though it’s about people of faith, it’s telling a good story, just like “The Chosen.” There’s something to that.