What Does it Mean to Be Christian … and an Actor?

The Magnificent Seven lands in theaters today, starring Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington and burgeoning superstar Chris Pratt. Next week, another box-office megastar, Mark Wahlberg, will unveil his latest action flick, Deepwater Horizon.

All three actors, incidentally, are Christians.

“Put God first in everything you do,” Washington recently told the graduating class of Dillard University, a liberal arts college in New Orleans. “I pray that you put your slippers under your bed tonight, so that when you wake up the morning you gotta get on your knees in the morning to find them. And while you’re down there, say thank you. Thank you for grace, thank you for mercy, thank you for understanding, thank you for wisdom, thank you for parents.”

Pratt talks about how praying for his son, born nine weeks premature, “redefined” his faith. He regularly posts Bible verses on Facebook. He encourages his fans to pray for sick children. And this Easter, the actor posted a series of pictures on Instagram showing himself and some friends building and erecting a gigantic cross.

Mark Wahlberg, a Catholic, goes to church every day. He credits his faith with turning his life around when he was a troublemaking teen. “Anything that’s good in my life is because of my faith,” he told Time back in 2010. “A lot of people get in trouble, go to jail and find God, and the minute they don’t need God anymore, they’re gone. But I spend a good portion of my day thanking God for all the blessings that have been bestowed on me. If it all ended today, I’d be happy. I’ve had such an amazing journey.”

I don’t doubt these actors’ spiritual sincerity. In fact, I think I could learn a thing or two from them. Even though I work for a Christian organization and spend lots of time talking about faith and film, I don’t post lots of Bible verses on Facebook. I don’t go to church every day. Do I put God first in everything I do? My honest answer: sometimes. When I remember.

But all three of these guys have made movies that we’ve knocked, and sometimes knocked hard. I called The Magnificent Seven’s body count “unseemly” and some of its more notable acts of violence “sadistic.” And I was pretty nice to Seven in comparison to Ted 2, the last movie of Wahlberg’s I reviewed. I said that film was a “poly-blend stuffing of filth.”

Which leads me to a question. When you’re a Christian and an actor, does that obligate you to take roles that are in line with your beliefs? To appear in movies that reflect those beliefs?

It’s an interesting question, and one that I think Christian actors themselves struggle with on some level.

Kirk Cameron, the Christian film industry’s go-to star these days, famously told NBC’s Today show that in Fireproof, the actress playing his wife (Erin Bethea) was swapped out for his real-life wife (Chelsea Noble) when the script called for a kiss. “I have a commitment not to kiss any other woman,” he said. In the same interview, he admitted that even in his latter Growing Pains days, when he was the ABC show’s teenage heartthrob, he clashed with producers when the script strayed into what he considered immoral territory.

Denzel Washington has starred in plenty of movies that Cameron would reject. But in many of those movies, he plays a man of principle and honor. The Book of Eli, a dystopian R-rated thriller, features Washington’s Eli protecting (spoiler warning) society’s very last Bible, for goodness’ sake. In Training Day, Washington plays against type and slips into the skin of corrupt monster of a policeman. But the guy dies at the end, apparently because Washington wanted him to. The only just ending for such a foul character, perhaps?

“I’ve been fortunate as an actor,” he told Parade magazine in 1999. “I’ve made some interesting films, and I think some of the work I’ve done has touched people. Maybe it sounds corny, but I try to do things for goodness’ sake—to send a good message.”

Wahlberg, meanwhile, jokingly asks for forgiveness for some of his on-screen parts. “Holy Father please forgive me,” he said during Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia last year. “I’ve always hoped that the good Lord has a sense of humor when it comes and pertains to many of the movies I’ve made.”

There’s a certain irony in the fact that these actors’ willingness to speak out about their faith also leaves them open to charges of hypocrisy. We do not shake our heads sadly when, say, Joaquin Phoenix makes a movie we find morally objectionable. We don’t get mad at Brad Pitt for appearing in an R-rated flick. We don’t have a vested interest in their career choices. They’re not in our Christian club.

But when we learn that a prominent actor or actress claims to be a Christian, we hold them to a higher standard—and perhaps rightfully so. As believers, we should honor God in all we do, right? Actors are no different.

Still, this stuff is tricky.

I’m glad these people talk about their faith. And when they make a movie that feels like it’s in line with that faith, it makes me happy. But when they make a “bad” movie, it doesn’t make me mad or sad. Maybe it should, but it doesn’t. I don’t think it’s my job to stand in judgment when it comes to the motives of these people’s hearts. That’s a responsibility God reserves for Himself.

The question recalls, for some reason, C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy, a book from his Chronicles of Narnia series. In the book, the one-time Calormen princess Aravis is asking Aslan, the book’s Christ-figure, about the fate of an old servant she once knew. “Child,” says Aslan, “I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.”

The decisions actors make seem to be an intrinsic part of their own story. If they make a “bad” movie by Plugged In standards, sure, I have all the license in the world to tell you what makes it so. I’m fine making a judgment on a movie. But to judge the people for taking part in the movie? That makes me uncomfortable. It seems like infringing on the tale that they, and God, are writing.

But enough about me. What about you?