- - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Not since Mel Gibson’s wildly successful “The Passion of the Christ” a decade ago has a faith-based movie caused this much pre-release drama. Except Gibson’s film was under the gun from secularist and anti-Christian critics. Paramount’s upcoming “Noah” is in the cross-hairs of its target audience.

Since the studio hosted test screenings for faith-based audiences in May, the negative buzz around the film has only escalated. Early cuts of the movie were said to abandon the traditional biblical origins of the story, which were replaced with a Leftist environmental message.

Ted Baehr of Movieguide, considered perhaps the top Christian film critic in the country, said reactions to those early test screenings were so negative that Paramount essentially had to take stewardship of the movie away from its Academy Award-nominated director Darren Aronofsky.

“[Paramount] suddenly realized they had a $200 million movie everyone hated so they were scrambling,” Baehr said.

Recently Baehr’s Movieguide saw the final cut of the film that will open in theaters later this month, and he says it’s a different movie.

“The studio took the movie away from [Aronofsky] and buried a lot of his environmental message,” Baehr said. “Some of it’s still there, but the main part of the story is that man is sinful and must repent, and God is 100 percent the judge, which is in the Bible.”

Since the controversy, Aronofsky has done little to soothe his target audience’s angst over the film. He recently called it the “least biblical movie ever made.”

“I think he probably is trying to sabotage the movie,” Baehr said.

It seems to have worked to some extent.

Ray Comfort, one of the nation’s leading evangelists, isn’t a fan.

“Paramount originally listed ‘Noah’ as ‘fantasy,’ which was the catalyst for the production of our own Noah movie that is coming out on the same day as theirs,” Comfort said. “[Paramount] has the fake Noah, but we have the real thing.”

Comfort’s version can be seen online at www.NoahTheMovie.com.

Dick Bott, founder and chairman of Bott Radio Network, one of the largest Christian radio companies in the country, told me the negative advance buzz for the movie made him hesitant to promote it on his airwaves.

“Knowing the film is controversial makes me leery of what message is intended by those producing it,” Bott said. “The message of the Bible is one of redemption and forgiveness, not license.”

Jerry Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, urged Paramount to include a disclaimer with the film that it was inspired by the Bible but not taken directly from the Bible, lest audiences feel like they’re victims of a “bait and switch.”

“There are a lot of positives in the film, but there are also some negatives,” said, Johnson, who has seen it. “In a world where ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ sets the record for the most ‘f-words’ in one movie, it’s a positive to see a film where God is presented as holy and human beings are held accountable to His judgment and mercy.”

And the negatives?

“The environmental agenda is still so overplayed that it comes off as kind of phony,” Johnson said. “At times it seems like a modern climate-change take on ‘Mad Max’ that doesn’t work. Also, the Noah in this movie is at times very unlikable, and not always the man of faith and righteousness described in the Bible.”

Johnson said, contrary to a report in The Los Angeles Times, he did not urge Christians and Jews to boycott the movie.

“I’m taking my family to see it when it comes out, but I wouldn’t recommend that people who don’t have a knowledge of the Bible get their view of Noah and the flood from this film,” Johnson said.

Johnson believes the central problem of the film is that it tried to please everyone regardless of their religious viewpoint, which usually means you end up pleasing no one.

“Hollywood would never touch the Koran without making sure they weren’t offending Muslims, so why not ask what Christians and Jews will think about a film like this before making it?” Johnson said. “Yes, there can be some creativity to fill in the details of character development, but if you push that to the point it undermines the message of the story, that’s a problem.”

As I was writing this column I did an informal poll of my Facebook friends, most of them Christians. I wanted to know if the pre-release controversy surrounding the film had changed their minds about going to see it, and what one word came to mind after watching the trailers?

My Facebook friends were pretty divided on their views of the film in light of the controversy. Words used to describe the trailers ranged from “misleading,” “inaccurate,” “unbiblical,” and “skeptical” on the negative side, to “epic,” “interesting,” “powerful,” and “curious” on the positive.

The good news for faith-based consumers is that with the success of shows like “Duck Dynasty” and last year’s “The Bible” miniseries, Hollywood is finally figuring out how much money it hasn’t been making by failing to provide more of such content. But it need to do its homework about the subject matter before creating such content to avoid similar backlashes in the future. A much-anticipated update of the biblical story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt starring Christian Bale as Moses is due out later this year. Will its filmmakers learn from the mistakes of “Noah?”

Furthermore, will faith-based consumers learn to grant some mercy of their own as Hollywood considers wooing them again for the first time in decades? In a culture becoming increasingly ignorant of the Bible’s teachings, faith-based consumers may need to learn the difference between intentional distortion and well-intentioned artistic license that misses the mark to avoid being shunned altogether.

Steve Deace is the author of the new book “Rules for Patriots: How Conservatives Can Win Again.” You can follow him on Twitter @SteveDeaceShow.