Religion & Liberty Online

Sound of Freedom Is a Clarion Call for More Christians in the Arts

(Image credit: Angel Studios)

The box office success of this Jim Caviezel–starring true story of a Christian hero has gladdened the hearts of conservatives while provoking snide dismissals from many in the mainstream press. Will this prove inspiration for a Christian cinematic renaissance?

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This year’s Fourth of July moviegoing experience was a surprise. The top draw at the box office was not a feel-good blockbuster but a thriller about child sex trafficking. It’s called Sound of Freedom and stars Jim Caviezel, of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ fame and the Jonathan Nolan AI-and-vigilantes CBS series Person of Interest. Sound of Freedom cost only $14 million or so and has already grossed more than $40 million in its first week, attracting audiences to the story of Tim Ballard and his Operation Underground Railroad, a nonprofit anti-trafficking organization.

The major attraction of Sound of Freedom is that it’s said to be based on a true story about a sting operation in Cartagena, Colombia, in 2014, saving children and arresting those who enslave and molest them. The story offers the traditional relief of a happy ending but also introduces a subject the movies cautiously avoid, one of the last images of evil that people find disturbing—the abuse of children. Strangely, this has resulted in elite liberal or progressive outlets like Rolling Stone, The Guardian, and even the Washington Post trying to smear the movie as “adjacent” to conspiracy theories, which makes you wonder whether there are any moral questions on which we can stand together these days.

The audience of Sound of Freedom seems to be primarily Christians and conservatives, who are especially concerned with the rare portrayal of good and evil replacing the entertainments that usually distract people from serious concerns. They are also likeliest to be proud of or inspired by the movie’s success. It’s in wide release, on almost 3,000 screens across the nation, and on July 4 it did better business than the new Indiana Jones extravaganza, which is a sad feminist flop, an epilogue to a once-beloved and successful franchise of manly derring-do.

Self-consciously Christian movies almost never succeed and rarely even get made. It’s hard to say quite why that is. Clearly, the more pious or serious Christians for the most part don’t care about the kinds of talents involved in the arts. It was otherwise in the past, but perhaps that’s because the “past” refers to the aristocratic era, and we are now living in a democratic era. Indeed, much of the great art of our civilization is largely meaningless without Christianity, but nowadays we have no more great art.

Moreover, in our times it seems we have gone from separation of church and state to separation of church and the fine arts, as well as separation of entertainment and religion. Since the situation is unprecedented, it’s unsurprising we’re not dealing with it well. Caution would suggest that Christians remember their past and return to fostering and rewarding talent in the arts for the purposes of education. Since Sound of Freedom is a financial success and a sign of hope (at least to conservative Christians), it deserves praise for telling the story of a man of faith who fights against evil.

Of course, the problem is not just that Christians and conservatives more generally have abandoned the arts. Artists are notoriously liberal rather than conservative and likelier to express anti-theological ire than piety in our times. Moreover, it is very difficult for them to be otherwise, because there is some prestige tied up in the arts, given contemporary concerns with self-expression and the power of imagination to create fantasies that might re-create society. The fundamental premise of this way of thinking embraced by liberals is atheistic—no exploration of the beauty of the world or man’s nobility that might intimate something about a Creator and divine law.

The arts might seem unimportant compared to partisan conflicts, a bad economy, or foreign affairs. But the sterile mediocrity of our arts reveals something fundamentally amiss, a political-theological problem, in our way of life. On the one hand, we demand a kind of political guarantee of Progress or at least of democracy and civilization. On the other hand, we can find no way to allow any claims of Providence. The result is conviction without any grounding. How can that lead to sanity? We might need the arts a lot more than we realize, even to understand ourselves and our predicament.

Sound of Freedom reveals some aspects of this problem. It’s a conventional law enforcement thriller: Caviezel plays a DHS agent running sting operations to arrest pedophiles. But soon he runs into a triple problem. First, his moral concern for children is potentially infinite, perhaps because he’s Christian, but the writ of U.S. law doesn’t run everywhere. Secondly, his moral concern also doesn’t admit the limits of legal or moral conduct. He cannot leave it at being a decent man; he has to pretend to be a pedophile to deceive criminals and bring them to justice.

Thirdly, his concern also requires going beyond justice altogether. In the most startling statement in the movie, a colleague who feels tainted by the misery they deal with points out an ugly truth: they keep arresting evil men but they never save any of the children, who are not in America. So Caviezel comes by degrees to act in South America, eventually quitting law enforcement to act on his own cognizance. This sounds like a recipe for catastrophe, not a happy ending, yet somehow it all works out, at least on the Fourth of July. You’ll have to see the movie to believe it, but that’s often enough the case with true stories. Our evidence in general for the plausibility of happy endings is that America has a remarkable reputation around the world.

This universalism may be the most Christian side of Sound of Freedom and perhaps points to something that conservatives understand better than liberals. One thing Americans have in common with people in South America, as well as on other continents, is Christianity, which atheistic elites do not share. Solidarity, dignity, and a motive to act to a common good might be found there if religion is allowed any part of the public sphere. Progress in the ordinary sense of improving life in the direction of civilization requires something binding and admirable.

The straightforward story of a man driven by faith to save children has therefore much to teach those who feel they are much more sophisticated than a simple movie like Sound of Freedom. It has faults one could criticize for the purpose of improving the movie, which is inevitable without a great director and a great cinematographer, but it has the rare merit of showing the mix of acts of daring and temptations to desperation in such an admirable man. One could reflect at length on the protagonist and his need to face deadly danger for a righteous cause. For my part, I believe this is why the movie appeals to audiences. We wish to have such men among our public figures, not just in the occasional entertainment.

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.