From major companies that bend towards films with Christian undertones – billionaire Philip Anschutz’s Walden Media and its flagship The Chronicles of Narnia franchise – to the specialized arms of studios – 20th Century Fox created its “Christian film label” in Fox Faith to oversee a staple of spiritually-themed offerings – Hollywood has responded rapidly, if belatedly, to the clamor for family-friendly entertainment.

Anschutz explains his philosophy of Christian films: “We expect them to be entertaining, but also to be life affirming and to carry a moral message,” he told an audience at Hillsdale College in 2004.

The success of these films is difficult to fully quantify: Some, like The Ultimate Gift with James Garner and Abigail Breslin or the productions of Sherwood Films and Sherwood Baptist Church in Atlanta, deliver solid returns on modest budgets. Others, like the Narnia series, have become international blockbusters.

Most in the genre, however, have struggled to expand beyond their niche appeal. The problem, say observers like faith-conscious media guru Phil Cooke in an interview with Christianity Today, is that Hollywood runs the risk of assuming homogeneity amongst Christian populations.

But that street runs both ways, as many Christian films and filmmakers actively seek to establish a monolithic “Christian identity” on screen. The Advent Film Group teams professional filmmakers with Patrick Henry College students and homeschooled middle- and high-schoolers to make “socially relevant stories with moral integrity and fidelity to a Biblical worldview … by raising up excellent Christian filmmakers” to “address the distressing lack of qualified Christian filmmakers needed to fill key positions as directors of big-budget movies.”

The systematic and specific dedication to preserving a separate Christian sphere of filmmaking is a recent and profound development. Last week, visiting the national evangelical advocacy headquarters of Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colo., I was astonished to peruse the DVD shelves of the Focus bookstore and find almost no overlap between its wares, painstakingly hermetic in their devotional content, and those found in a neighborhood Barnes & Noble or Borders.

Consider this small but telling example. One of the films I did recognize was Amazing Grace, the 2007 drama starring Ioan Gruffudd, Albert Finney and Rufus Sewell in the story of William Wilberforce, the evangelical, abolitionist politician who helped outlaw the British slave trade. The film, directed by Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, the Up documentaries, The World Is Not Enough), played in over 1,100 theaters and grossed nearly $30 million worldwide – certainly no niche picture.

But on this DVD on the shelf, my eye caught the sole laudatory blurb on the cover, a quote from Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus (and perhaps the least-promoted famous alumni of the University of Southern California): “Outstanding. It will move your heart.” —Dr. James Dobson.

The cover art for Amazing Grace on, however, features no blurb from Dobson. It replaces his movement of the heart with two considerably more secular quotes, “****” from The New York Observer and “A Must-See” from O Magazine. Whether Dobson was considered too polarizing for other audiences or The New York Observer and Oprah were considered unfit for Christian audiences, the attention to detail at work in keeping these two worlds separate is a remarkable comment on our segregated cinematic and social spheres.

With such fracturing in mind, I think it is essential to avoid vilifying artistic endeavors on either side of this seemingly untraversable divide. I would disagree with Advent’s assertions on its Web site that the Hollywood filmmaker is “surrounded by darkness,” just as I find it painfully clear that Hollywood discriminates against celluloid art and artists of strong faith.

Particularly for theatrical cinema, that a truly communal event, I cannot fathom that separate films for separate audiences is the answer. How far have we come from 1946, the height of movie popularity in the United States, when fully 80 million Americans, 57 percent of the entire population, went to the movies regardless of their content each week?

I would challenge filmmakers and companies from Advent to MTV, from Fox Faith to Fox Searchlight, to never forget that many of the greatest artistic – and certainly commercial – accomplishments come from those rare films that seat competing ideologies next to each other in the theater, that bind us to a common sense of identity rather than stoking the enmities that so easily ensnare us.