Fifteen years ago, Erin Bethea earned her first role in the film Facing the Giants, as her father Dr. Michael Catt moved Sherwood Baptist Church toward what would be the first of many films encouraged by the church. As a preacher’s kid, Bethea was discouraged by some people within the church, but always gifted with space to know herself by her parents.
“‘Entertainment is no place for a Christian young lady,’ they said,” tells Bethea, reflecting twenty years later. “‘Maybe you should run a drama department at a Christian school.’”
The Catts saw their daughter’s gift, even as they created space for Bethea to become an actress and her sister Hayley to explore her own path. Now, she recommends Barnabas Piper’s book The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith to articulate some of her own story, recognizing with Piper that “the pastor’s kid is the most and least known person in the church.” While this is true for the pastor’s kids, it’s sometimes true for actors as well. But Bethea’s foundation was firm in faith with room to breathe, acknowledging that sometimes the church doesn’t actually know the pastor’s kids but thinks they do based on their own expectations for the kids. She even cites the differences between Bethea and Hayley in church, where she chose a more public role but was no more or less faithful.
“Everyone knew who I was, but very few people knew who I was! There are expectations placed on that. I’m outgoing and opinionated and drawn to leadership positions; my sister is the opposite, she doesn’t want to be in the spotlight and asked to lead. ‘You need to be teaching Bible study, leading children’s class.’ But people think because your parents have this, you must have the same thing.”
The same thing can happen within the Christian film market, especially for women. Bethea is often cast as the believing wife who has to patiently steer her wayward husband back to faith, the “good Christian girl.” In Sunshine in Heaven, across from Corbin Bernsen, she was able to play the other side of the situation, as a daughter reflecting on how her father had once protected her, and how she now had to consider his death.
“I really resonated with ultimately the way the movie is about the power of letting go. Whether it’s in our story line, to let our dad go or elsewhere, the question is raised, ‘Is it more of a demonstration of our faith to hold onto him and expect a miracle, or more of a demonstration to let him go and know that we will see him again?’ Everyone will deal with that at some point. In the flashback you’re dealing with his daughter letting go of his daughter. He comes across as villainy, but he wants what is best for her and is letting go what her life looks like.”
“None of us really have control of what the future looks like. At some point, we’re challenged by what our faith looks like - not by how we respond but why we respond. We see these people learning that faith doesn’t always mean planting your flag in the ground but letting go and seeing where it goes.”
Bethea, the pastor’s daughter and now a theological mover in her own right, says she appreciates films like the two films she has out now, Sunrise in Heaven and Miracle on Christmas, because they don’t paint faith as a free pass to having a person’s problems solved.
“We still live in a broken, fallen world. Our faith helps us navigate that, with hope that maybe not everyone has. I love a sad ending or imperfect ending but that everything isn’t solved but putting trust in faith gives them a new hope or a new lease in life. Loss is a part of life. How do you explain to someone who isn’t a believer when they’ve lost a loved one far too young or too soon? People have a tough time accepting Christian culture when we say things like, ‘Just believe and it’ll be fine.’ Things don’t always work out the way you prayed and the world goes, ‘How can you still have faith in God?’ It’s our responsibility to explain that God is sovereign that the pain we experience is not without purpose.”
Bethea, who is married to another filmmaker and actor, Drew Waters, recognizes that different films are aimed at different people, even Christian films. But sometimes, the church isn’t very discerning, even as Christian creativity in writing and acting is getting better. Some people still think that the only career path in the entertainment industry is for Christians to make specific projects. “What’s crazy to me is that the entertainment industry is the only career path where a Christian is told to choose to only do it for Christians, by Christians!” Bethea exclaimed. “Who hears of a lawyer getting asked if they’re only serving Christian clients? A doctor who only cares for Christian patients?”
For the projects that she or Waters take on, the hope is to find a powerful story, and to consider who the audience is. They’re both drawn to films like New Life that they worked on together, that have a message of faith without speaking sermons on screen, that show their worldview. “I don’t need to paint pictures of Jesus - but I can paint and you can see Jesus in them.”
Bethea continues to hone her craft as actor and storyteller, looking for the right stories to tell, and seeking out the right way to balance work and life. “There will always be other projects but there will never be another Drew and me!” she shared, with a chuckle. Now time will tell what stories Bethea and Waters are called to tell, what elements of faith they have yet to show, and how God will use the skills they’ve grown to share their life experience with audiences everywhere.