Climate Documentaries Are Christian Movies, Too

On Dec. 8, 2015, the basilica in the Vatican was baptized in blue water. Images of endangered animals climbed the columns and domes of the magnificent Italian church, and giant illuminated butterflies clung to its walls. Fifty projectors lit up the white stone of the Roman Catholic mecca with rare marine life swimming to the facade’s perimeters while the echoes of wild birds played on loudspeakers. Many visitors cried in the middle of St. Peter’s Square, perhaps at the wordless beauty or at the dwindling stock of nature’s bounty portrayed in the installation, titled Fiat Lux. Nearly 225,000 people saw the display in person, with many thousands more via online.

“The pope’s number two told us that the last artist to do any [artwork] on the Vatican was Michelangelo,” said Louie Psihoyos, the Academy Award–winning director who curated the installation. He later integrated footage from Fiat Lux into his 2015 documentary Racing Extinction, which explains how human action has led to the mass extinction of many species.

Oceanic Preservation Society

A scene from Racing Extinction showing images of endangered species illuminated on the Vatican walls as part of the Fiat Lux installation in 2015.

Before the installation made its debut at the Vatican, Pope Francis had released a strongly worded encyclical for Catholics to help save the planet. “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home,” he wrote in May 2015. “I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. … Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. … We require a new and universal solidarity.”

But it was hardly the first time religion and environmentally conscious filmmaking had come together. Five thousand miles away, about a decade earlier, the US version of The Great Warming was made with evangelical communities specifically in mind. After its successful small-screen run on the Discovery Channel in 2004, producer Karen Coshof and her husband, director Michael Taylor, set out to take their global climate change doc project into movie theaters. For this 2006 big-screen effort, narrated by Keanu Reeves and Alanis Morissette, the Canadian filmmakers integrated new footage with talking heads from the US religious community — like physician-turned-author Matthew Sleeth; Rev. Richard Cizik, who was then vice president for government affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, and is an influential voice in US Christendom and politics; and lifelong civil rights and environmental activist Gerald Durley. “We were interested in what the total American audience was like,” Taylor told BuzzFeed News. And for many US viewers, religion was — and is — “a driving force.”

In the final cut, church congregations raise their hands in worship in between sound bites about climate change’s impact on the globe. “The [environmentalist] movement will in itself bring grassroots people together,” Durley says in the documentary, talking to kids at a YMCA in Atlanta, not far from the church he led for more than 25 years. “And when grassroots people come together, they do something in America called ‘voting.’ And when voting takes place, it impacts those who make the decisions.”

“You might be more open to believe it because you’re in a place of trust — more than if you just saw it on an airplane.”

In addition to opening in movie theaters, The Great Warming was distributed for free on DVD, and screened at hundreds of town halls and churches in an effort to encourage conservative Christians to vote for environmentally friendly politicians during the US House elections in the fall of 2006 and the presidential election in 2008. Variety called it a “kinder, gentler” global warming documentary compared to the other climate doc from 2006, An Inconvenient Truth. Al Gore’s stats-packed film, directed by Davis Guggenheim, became a foundational movie for modern environmental documentaries with its PowerPoint-style presentation and the famed hockey stick graph. It helped to propel the environmental movement — particularly those simpatico with Gore’s position on one end of the political spectrum — into born-again status.

In the decade since, even more documentaries, like Psihoyos’s Racing Extinction, Before the Flood (2016), Chasing Coral (2017), and From the Ashes (2017), have spread messages about the apocalyptic damage humans are doing to the planet and the increasing efforts it will take to repair it — as will forthcoming films like An Inconvenient Sequel (opens wide Aug. 4) and Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman (Aug. 31). Also in the decade since, thousands of churches and faith-based organizations centered on “creation care” have been preaching the same sermons as these movies.

Netflix; Discovery Channel; Paramount Pictures

Documentaries have been used to educate congregations, to convert the unconverted in halls of worship and in homes, and to motivate believers into action to combat climate change, a cause that has become an increased priority in evangelical, Protestant, and Catholic traditions in America. And according to the dozen interviewees who spoke with BuzzFeed News for this story, churchgoing constituencies get a lot more out of the films when they lean into the moral and human centers of the environmentalism movement.

Like last year, when there was a small screening of Fisher Stevens’ 2016 documentary Before the Flood — a title evocative of the flood of the Old Testament — at Baylor University in Texas. The Big 12 private Christian college’s student population draws heavily from Houston and Midland, communities rooted in the natural gas and oil industry. “There’s a lot of diametric opposition that these kids experience, because of the source of wealth from where they come from,” said Andy Peterson of the marketing group Different Drummer, which focuses on “healthy conversations” about faith and entertainment. “But they themselves are very interested in this conversation, and even became advocates for this message after they saw the film because of what they believe.”

Courtesy of Sally Bingham

President and founder of Interfaith Power & Light Rev. Sally Bingham.

When An Inconvenient Truth was released in 2006, Episcopal priest Sally Bingham set out 200 chairs and rented a popcorn machine for her congregation at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on a Saturday afternoon, promising a movie and some conversation. The first screening filled up, so she offered a second one two hours later; then a third.

Gore’s film, which went on to gross $24 million domestically over its theatrical lifetime, had a domino effect and a “big influence” on the religious community on the whole, Bingham said. Though the science about global climate change had been around for many years, “before 2006, it was an off-the-wall hippie Democratic liberal idea. But after [Gore] showed all that science, there’s a lot of people who thought, Wow, I had no idea.

Bingham is also the president and founder of Interfaith Power & Light, a US-based inter-religious network of 20,000 groups — most of which are Christian churches — that disseminate copies of documentaries to show inside churches or at church screening events to get religious people to respond to climate change.

During its Faith Climate Action Week, IPL gave away copies of Before the Flood to whomever asked for one, which was about 1,000 congregations. With the average congregation being 400 parishioners, according to Bingham, “that is 400,000 people, potentially. And if they showed it twice?…”

Appian Way / National Geographic / Via

Leonardo DiCaprio meets with Pope Francis in Before the Flood.

Before the Flood follows Leonardo DiCaprio’s round-the-world journey to colorfully illustrate the planetary destruction predicted 10 years earlier in An Inconvenient Truth. The film has had a long life on the National Geographic Channel since its release in October, but it was also shown to many church groups, in part because it highlights DiCaprio fetching face time with Pope Francis.

“If you saw [Before the Flood] in your congregation, you might be more open to believe it because you’re in a place of trust — more than if you just saw it on an airplane,” said Terry Tamminen, CEO of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. Tamminen and Stevens were on hand in Beverly Hills during the Environmental Media Association’s Impact Summit in March, where Stevens echoed that enthusiasm for attracting such audiences, who may be more prone to get involved if they have a community of accountability. “We wanted to get this movie in front of as many churches as possible,” he said.

Director Jeff Orlowski, who helmed 2012’s Chasing Ice and the new, sad sequel-of-sorts Chasing Coral, doesn’t refer to audiences as “converts versus unconverted” — because to him, that indicates people have heard the gospel but rejected it. Instead, he thinks more in terms of “choir versus non-choir.” Orlowski’s hope is to peel the scales from viewers’ eyes with new and previously unseen video of remote glaciers and mysterious underwater environs, no matter a person’s stance on biblical literalism or evolution. After grasping the hard science of the current and immediate earthly situation, the barrier for the viewer, then, isn’t climate denialism, but determining what action they’re going to take after they’re up-to-date on the facts.


Chasing Coral

For Orlowski, the key is pairing church and community screenings of his films with sermons or Q&As from local church leaders. “We’re talking about glaciers. But they tie it into why the film matters to that the congregation, making it as local and relevant as possible. When we were screening with the evangelical community … it was really powerful to hear the emotional connection from these religious leaders about why this issue was so important to them,” he said. “I’m not particularly a person of faith. … I can’t replicate the language. I think the most powerful speakers on climate change are speakers from the faith community who are helping to shift their community on an issue that has been framed as a political one.”

“Scientists aren’t well-versed in sharing emotional stories,” Orlowski continued. He evoked the late film critic Robert Ebert’s quote about films being “empathy machines.” “Our job is to be a translator for the scientific community,” Orlowski said.

Jensen Walker / Paramount Pictures / Participant Media

Al Gore giving his updated presentation in An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.

Rev. Bingham said there’s a similar dynamic between screening a film and preaching about its cause. When congregants roll into an optional church-sponsored screening on a Wednesday night, “they’re gonna get a sermon no matter what,” she said. The movie (as well as the popcorn) “is a perk.” That way a minister can impart theological wisdom to spur action, whether that be installing solar panels on the church roof, biking to work, or writing letters to local politicians.

“No religious leader, no priest is gonna give information that Al Gore or Leonardo did,” Bingham said. Documentaries “provide information that a clergyperson can’t provide. … We can use film to deepen the education around climate.”

Believers may catch docs at Saturday afternoon church screenings, or go to college Christian fellowship gatherings, or head to the bingo hall movie night, but they may also be consuming spiritual food in homebound sanctuaries: HBO, Netflix, PBS, Nat Geo, Discovery Channel, and other platforms. For example, Psihoyos’s Racing Extinction was broadcast via Discovery to 220 countries simultaneously on the day of release.

“Documentaries share the wonder of the world with us,” said Katharine Hayhoe, atmospheric scientist and author of A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions. “They bring the world into our living room in our home on a screen, and they open our eyes and sometimes our hearts, too, to things that we wouldn’t otherwise know about that are real.”

Showtime / Via

Katharine Hayhoe with actor and correspondent Don Cheadle in a scene from Years of Living Dangerously.

Hayhoe, along with her husband Andrew Farley, an evangelical pastor and author, were filmed in their home state of Texas for the pilot episode of the docuseries Years of Living Dangerously, which made its original bow on Showtime in 2014 (and was produced by heavy hitters like James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jerry Weintraub). “They actually went to churches and they filmed people going on prayer walks,” Hayhoe noted. She was impressed by the filmmakers’ willingness to include spiritual interview subjects in their fight against the threat of global warming — which was as much of an act of targeted storytelling as it was savvy marketing.

Marketing executive Peterson said that he and his team are increasingly interested in audiences who “do not necessarily describe themselves as faith-based consumers. It’s an audience of people for whom faith is probably the most important thing in their lives, but they wouldn’t necessarily define their entertainment choices that way.” Viewing docs at home gives Christians exposure to science and perspectives that their church may not offer — or even endorse. Such an audience is “probably not going to see God’s Not Dead. They live in the real world and subject themselves to the same film and television that anybody else does.”

To put it more plainly: “You’re competing with the Housewives, you need to make something that grabs people’s attention,” Durley told BuzzFeed News.

“It’s not about polar bears, but it’s about our children’s health today.”

Sometimes that means gorillas, several stories tall, curiously perched on a doorway of the Vatican. And sometimes that means meeting people where they are, whether it’s at home, in church, or at the Alamo Drafthouse in Lubbock, Texas, which screened Before the Flood for Texas Tech’s Climate Science Center. Or maybe it’s at small events like EarthxFilm or the Justice Film Festival. Or perhaps it’s at institutions like the Toronto International Film Festival, which premiered Before the Flood; or the Sundance Film Festival, which debuted the Inconvenient Truth follow-up, An Inconvenient Sequel, in January, and boasts not only a climate documentary programming block but a high number of attendees from nearby Salt Lake City, home to a huge Mormon population. (An Inconvenient Sequel filmmakers and Gore declined BuzzFeed News’ request to comment on this article.)

Now, exotic animals, wilting icebergs, bleaching corals, and burning palm oil trees won’t feel so far away to a creation care steward. “It’s not about polar bears, but it’s about our children’s health today,” said Mitch Hescox, the president and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network.

Hescox traveled to Washington, DC, in June to meet with lawmakers about the dangers of climate change and to influence their decision-making with the concerns of his conservative base.

Hescox — the former pastor at Grace Church in Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania, as well as a coal industry vet of 14 years — has looked at climate change from a lot of different angles. To him and his conservative peers, “creation care is a matter of life. It’s a pro-life issue. It protects our unborn children, and our born children. And we’re killing our kids with fossil fuels and petrochemicals,” he told BuzzFeed News from Capitol Hill, seven days after President Trump announced that he would withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord in June. “I am a pro-life evangelical. And my values are the same as many of the values [of] those 81% of evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump.”

Courtesy Mitch Hescox

Mitch Hescox, president and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network.

Hescox and other religious leaders are quick with scripture when it comes to those values about man’s dominion on Earth: Psalms 24, Isaiah 24:3-6, Galatians 1, Ephesians 2:8-10. And in the first chapter of Genesis, there’s God’s creation of the Earth.

But then there is the story of Moses parting the seas: a great wading into the unknown which is an apt description for having faith and taking steps forward in this divided environmental era. As the education on climate has deepened, so has the politicization of climate causes. Political partisanship has had obvious and lasting effects on churches when it comes to leaning left or right, denialism, “fake news,” elections, social justice, and prioritization. Focus on the Family, for example, disagrees with other conservative Christian groups that affirm global warming is caused by humans. Atmospheric scientist and author Hayhoe said that the international ministry Willow Creek Association told her that they receive too much negative feedback from their constituents regarding the issue of climate change. (Willow Creek Association did not respond to a BuzzFeed News request for a comment.)

“The whole dialogue has to change to make this not an issue of being a Democrat or being a progressive. For America, it should be a bipartisan issue,” Hescox said.

“If you’re not following climate change right now, you’re really not following Jesus.”

“There’s a split in the evangelical church. There’s a perception that the church is a monolith. That is incorrect,” said Peterson, whose Nashville-based marketing company has worked on 10 climate and environmental-focused documentaries. Per a 2016 Rice University study, self-identified evangelicals are far more skeptical of evolution than they are of climate change. “There are a number of churches and emerging churches every day, month, and year that are jumping on this bandwagon,” Peterson said.

Documentaries as well as testimonials, sermons, YouTube channels, and proprietary film curricula help Christian leaders illustrate how poor stewardship hurts Americans in their own backyards, like the speedy ice melt on Lake Michigan, a severe uptick in childhood asthma, the rise in mercury pollution in food and water sources, and rampant spread of Lyme disease in the Northeast.

Hescox is partial to Peter Byck’s 2010 film Carbon Nation — tagline “a climate change solutions movie (that doesn’t even care if you believe in climate change)” — because of its practical free-market solutions, and because it “didn’t mention ‘climate’ once.” That kind of economy-centered touch, plus firsthand experience “in the great outdoors,” is why Hescox thinks Christian conservatives are increasingly coming around to environmental issues. “I don’t like to brand myself as an environmentalist because it’s a very problematic word in our community,” he said. “A lot of people in my conservative community think that when you say the word ‘environmentalist,’ you think of a tree-hugger or an Earth worshipper or something like that.”

Among the crossover audiences who believe in combating climate change as well as the gospel of Jesus Christ, there are some people who just don’t want to hear the names “Al Gore” or “Leonardo DiCaprio” (or even “Pope Francis”) when it comes to stewardship and good works. Film funding and distribution often hinge on the endorsement and participation of big-name personalities, but perceived Hollywood elitism or liberal ideology can be a major turnoff to right-leaning constituencies like Hescox’s, a catch-22 for cinematic proselytizers.

Pew Research Center

But the hurdles for religious Americans to overcome in order to accept climate change are being knocked down. As an example, in an August 2014 Pew Research Center study, only 28% of white evangelical Protestants said the Earth is warming primarily due to human activity (the same study had black protestants at 56%, Hispanic Catholics at 77%); however, in a fall 2015 study from University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy, about 60% of evangelicals (the vast majority of whom are white) accepted global climate change as reality. That base is building to what Hescox estimates will be about 20 million evangelicals in the next two to three years. “And we think that’s a sizable part of the evangelical world. We see it doing nothing but going up.”

That’s because, to worshippers and activists like Hescox, battling climate change isn’t just a moral exercise, but a bounden Christian duty. “Basically our stance is: If you’re not following climate change right now, you’re really not following Jesus.”

In the upcoming Discovery Channel documentary Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman, a cross hangs from the rearview mirror of a truck belonging to the farmer of the film’s title: Justin Knopf, of Knopf Family Farm in Kansas. There’s a moment in the doc where Knopf bows his head at a harvest picnic with his loved ones, and he prays: “Lord, we thank you for the day, for the crop in the field and the wheat. We thank you for the work we’ve been able to do…”

His story, along with those of other farmers who’ve converted to sustainable and conservation practices, is an illustration of reaping what one sows. The Knopf Family Farm’s work — the ballet of combines and trucks, weights and seeds, and (figuratively and perhaps literally) praying for rain — is their ministry. Another farmer in the film, Ben Thompson, gestures toward his native pasture. “It’s something that’s been going on since before Jesus walked the earth,” he says. “Once you’ve killed it, it’s gone forever. I dunno, it’s almost a spiritual thing.”

“We got a chance at building and sustaining the movement.”

In making the Tom Brokaw–narrated Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman, co-director John Hoffman was “keenly aware of the importance of making a film that would be of interest to faith-based communities,” he said. Thus, Hoffman, who is also executive vice president of documentaries and specials at Discovery, consciously made the connection between Knopf’s identity as a farmer and his identity as a Christian. “Justin is just beautifully eloquent on how he integrates his views about creation and his role as a farmer and his role as a steward,” Hoffman said. “Faith is an extremely important part of the entire family. Justin will be the first to say that he is here as a steward of God’s creation, and that in this time on Earth, he is here to protect the Earth.” (Knopf was unavailable to talk with BuzzFeed News — “harvest season has him very busy,” said a publicist for the film.)

Real-life figures like Knopf can influence how people of faith view their day jobs, or how farmers perceive their relationship to the land, because those kinds of humanizing impressions leave marks on viewers. Hoffman referred to the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center’s study of more than 20,000 people, which concluded that viewers who watched the 2008 agribusiness documentary Food, Inc. had “significantly changed their eating and food shopping habits.”

Courtesy Discovery Channel

Justin Knopf and his son Andrew Knopf walk together in a field in Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman.

So when filmmakers collaborate with the religious faithful, the message of climate action could become an even bigger revelation.

At a church revival, as Durley illustrated it, a minister could simply sermonize, “but then you hear an organ and singing and you start to yell out.” For an environmental revival, “it has to be a combination of efforts. … We got a chance at building and sustaining the movement.”

He concluded: “Two perspectives makes what we each do much stronger.” ●

Katie Hasty is a deputy entertainment editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.

Contact Katie Hasty at [email protected].

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.