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  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan

from Film Forum, 05/02/02

A new movie studio, Epiphany Films, has set out to produce films that glorify good spiritual values. This week, its first film has arrived. Churches and many Christian film critics are raving about Joshua. The film is based on the novel by Fr. Joseph F. Girzone, a Catholic priest who has written a popular series of novels. But reviews from the mainstream press raise questions of whether the filmmakers' tactics will work with an unchurched audience.

The movie is set in a small town that is visited by a charismatic stranger (Tony Goldwyn) who contributes to the rebuilding of a church. His contributions include healing a blind woman, arguing with religious leaders, and even raising the dead. This greatly dismays a local Catholic priest (Amadeus's F. Murray Abraham), who tries to get the church to denounce him. The drama is underlined by a soundtrack that features popular contemporary Christian music stars Michael W. Smith, Nicole C. Mullen, Point of Grace, Third Day, and Jaci Velasquez.

Hollywood Jesus offers a link to Epiphany Films' "leadership guide" for those who want to lead a discussion after viewing the film.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Director Jon Purdy, while not giving us a stellar example of cinematic artistry, still succeeds because he remains true to the film's simple and yet poignant message: God is love and we need more love in our lives." Similarly, Dick Rolfe (Dove) calls it "enchanting … spiritual but not preachy, provocative without being gross, entertaining without taking the low road that so many filmmakers feel compelled to travel."

"The story touches on many of the … issues presented in the Gospels," says Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family). "Joshua plays like an extended episode of TV's Touched by an Angel in which the Lord has cut out the middleman."

Critics Ted Baehr, Robert Baehr and Bob Beltz declare, "Movieguide applauds the filmmakers for tackling a difficult subject in such a sensitive, powerful manner and recommends that everyone go see Joshua."

In Christianity Today, reviewer LaTonya Taylor says the film has several striking moments but the plot is undeveloped and safe. "Joshua does not take creative risks like Godspell or Jesus of Montreal," she writes. "Instead, Jesus walks the streets of Auburn with the primary purpose of comforting people. There's nothing inherently false here, but it is an incomplete and sometimes overly simple story."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says the film makes "a bold attempt to tell the story of Jesus Christ visiting our culture, and shows the speculation and persecution he might endure from both the religious and secular camps." But she adds, "If anything, the story is a little too easygoing and needed more conflict to make it challenging."

McClure's criticism is amplified by mainstream critics, who argue that this subject isn't difficult, challenging, or powerful. It's just "business as usual."

Michael Dequina (FilmThreat) writes, "I have no objection to films whose aim is to reaffirm religious faith, but more often than not these films engage in Bible-thumping overkill, and Joshua is no exception; any attempts at nuance given by the capable cast … is drowned out by director Jon Purdy's sledgehammer sap, which commonly manifests itself by way of Christian pop star Michael W. Smith's maudlin instrumental and song score. There's a fine line between inspiration and manipulation, and from its first frame, Joshua crosses it and never looks back."'s Christopher Null says, "At its heart, Joshua is … a movie about religious mysticism, and it thusly absolves itself from having to make total sense. After all, when you resurrect a dead man, Hard Copy should come a-knocking, no? The ending makes no sense, either, serving only as a way to get to the credits. There's nothing left to think about or ponder, only a slap to the back of the head with a 2x4. A religious picture that really challenged old beliefs or, heaven forbid, made you think? Well, that would be a miracle."

What does the movie have to say about the church? Dr. Frank Swietek, Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, writes, "The brand of Christianity preached in the picture is of the most vanilla kind—basically the messiah's message is the same as the Beatles' 'All You Need Is Love'—and it teaches simply that everybody should be nice to one another and that denominations don't matter. (Peculiarly, members of the Catholic and Baptist congregations seem indiscriminately to attend each other's services.) The Christian life seems basically to come down to hugging, being nice, and maintaining a vacuous expression on one's face."

Similarly, Marjorie Baumgarten (Austin Chronicle) complains, "One key problem with these ardently Christian storylines is that there is never any question of how things will turn out. The current spate of Christian films is notable for its growing proficiency and technical expertise, in addition to the ability to attract big-name stars to these projects. The narratives, however, are proving to be lame exercises in transparent religious parables."

And Walter Chaw writes, "The problem with Joshua isn't its message or its conviction in its message, but rather its conviction that faith is the most attractive when free of all traces of recognizable humanity and controversy. It's for … folks looking for faith in small words, comforting images, artless emotions, and simplified theologies. How interesting that Bill Paxton's Frailty, released one week earlier and portraying an axe murderer slaying for the Lord, is actually the more compelling portrait of faith, the faithful, and faithfulness."

E Online's critic agrees that this movie is "Only for the already devoted."