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As a film writer and a person of faith, it?s reasonable to assume I might have an interest in faith-based films, the ones that blatantly tackle issues of belief and Christianity in America. You know the types. ?God?s Not Dead,? ?Fireproof.?
It?s forgivable to assume I?d be interested in the same movies many of my friends and family tag as ?must-sees? on Facebook or organize church movie nights around. After all, I?m a Christian who has attended mainly evangelical churches. I have worked at a Christian bookstore and written extensively about my faith in film reviews, newspaper columns and blog posts. I understand why people assume that because I?m a Christian who loves films, then I must also love Christian movies.
But here?s the secret: I can?t stand the majority of films marketed to faith-based audiences. I hate them. I avoid them. No, I haven?t seen ?Breakthrough,? and I likely won?t be lining up for ?Overcomer.?
I?m tired of brushing off people?s questions about whether I?ve seen these films with an ?I?ll have to check it out? or, ?hmm, sounds interesting.? And if I love film and want others ? including my brothers and sisters in the faith ? to love it as well, I want them to eventually see why these films, in my opinion, aren?t just bad, but insulting, and even harmful to Christianity.
This isn?t an issue of me wanting to keep my spiritual and cinematic lives separate, or of a liberal wanting to do away with any Christian art and thought. On the contrary, some of the most powerful and meaningful films wrestle with faith. Just within the past 10 years we?ve seen ?Silence,? ?Calvary,? ?First Reformed,? and ?Of Gods and Men,? which all provoked me to think more deeply about my faith. I believe cinema has great power to deal with matters of faith. And if I believe what C.S. Lewis said praise being the consummation of an experience, then I want other Christians to experience this power as well.
But there?s another quote that guides so much of my criticism and that, I believe, also speaks to why this issue is so important for me. It?s a quote from philosopher Daniel Dennett, who said:
There?s nothing I like less than a bad argument for something I hold dear.
And there?s the reason I dislike the majority of ?Christian? movies. My faith is personal, meaningful and important to me. I believe that Christians should talk about their faith publicly. I believe it?s worth sharing with the rest of the world and can be a thing of hope and healing.
And I believe that the way the vast majority of these faith-based movies talk about that faith flat-out suck.
And I?m going to tell you why.
- Artistry matters
It?s the number one, most obvious question a critic asks ? is it any good? Despite a film?s subject matter and how much we might have even enjoyed it, when we sit down to write our reviews, we have to ask if it?s a thing of quality. How?s the script? The acting? The cinematography? Is the director doing the best work possible? You can disagree on many things about a movie, but the one where you?ll usually find the most agreement between critics is in the matter of whether the basic skills of cinema have been met.
And with Christian films, that answer is usually, ?no.?
This has little to do with budget. I understand that most studios making these movies don?t have hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal. They can?t afford big special effects or top-line movie stars. You?re not going to get Alex Kendrick ? the director of ?Fireproof,? ?Courageous? and ?Overcomer? ? to make ?Star Wars.? It?s not about the money.
But it is about what they do with what they have. Because I?ve seen many wonderful indie films. In fact, many of the films that have touched and moved me the most have been made on a shoestring budget. My top 10 list for last year included ?Minding the Gap,? ?Eighth Grade? and ?Sorry to Bother You,? none of which were big-budget films. They were simply made by people who understood how to make a great movie, whatever their limitations.
I?ve seen many faith-based films. I?ve seen the original ?Left Behind,? ?Fireproof? and many of the films made through Billy Graham?s production company. They look flat. The editing is choppy. The acting is stilted. The script is less story and more sermon illustration, with a perfect spot for the characters to make a climactic altar call. And while I won?t knock a film for having no budget for special effects, I will knock a filmmaker for not understanding how to make their constraints work in their favor or for not having the sense to say ?hmm, maybe we don?t need to make this a special-effects story.?
The thing is, I can bring up cheesy dialogue, bad acting, ham-fisted direction and ugly cinematography until I?m blue in the face. When I do, my friends who love this movie just respond, ?yeah, but it has a great message.? As if a message we believe in should excuse filmmakers from either doing their best or realizing they?re not cut out for this line of work.
But we wouldn?t use that line of thinking anywhere else in life. If I hire someone to fix my roof and they leave holes in it, I?m not going to hire them again just because they?re Christians. I don?t care how passionate a chef is about their faith ? if you give me food poisoning, I?m not going to recommend you. It?s the same thing with the movies ? you can be preaching a message I agree with 100-percent. But if your movie?s crap, that means nothing to me.
And as followers of Christ, shouldn?t we want our art to be excellent? When God commissioned artists to put together the items for the Tabernacle, didn?t he want the best of their work? Does doing work just ?get the message out? glorify God? If you?re just cranking out movies because you can and they hit a large audience ? but you don?t love cinema and have no storytelling ability ? wouldn?t you be able to bring much more honor to God by doing something you?re passionate about and gifted in?
Also: I get my messages from church. I don?t support movies just because they have good intentions.
And, as we?ll see, I don?t necessarily think that the messages these films are preaching are ones that I always want to get behind.
2. Faith is nuanced.
There are two typical templates to Christian movie plots. The first is where an unbeliever comes up against an obstacle in life that eventually brings them to a place where they ask God to save them and then ? poof ? their problems resolve. The second where believers are put into a tough situation usually involving people who challenge their faith. Times get tough but, in the end, the unbelievers are proven wrong, a prayer gives them much-needed strength, and everything turns out okay in the end.
That?s great for a sermon illustration. It?s not great for a movie. And, honestly, it?s a pretty dishonest portrayal of Christianity.
I realize everyone?s conversion story is different. But, in my experience, praying a ?sinner?s prayer? doesn?t ultimately solve my problems, nor is conversion a quick, one-point decision. And while I believe in the power of prayer, I?ve very rarely said ?amen? and suddenly had all my problems go away.
The life of the faithful is hard. It?s a constant wrestling of worldviews and trust. It requires confidence in a Bigger Story while doubt nips at your heels. Christians believe victory is guaranteed in the next life, and there?s current spiritual victory in resting in Christ. But just a cursory read of the Bible affirms that life is filled with trials, sickness, danger and disappointment ? I don?t see that reflected back in the vast majority of the Christian movies.
In short, spiritual life is nuanced. And as Brett McCracken once wrote, Christians are historically horrible with nuance, something you can see in faith-based films. In ?Facing the Giants,? the characters pray that God will grant them a win at the big football game and that the coach?s wife will have a safe delivery, but they say they?ll still praise God if that doesn?t happen (I might be wrong, but ?Overcomer?s? trailer hints at a similar plot). Instead of giving them everything they?ve prayed for (which the film does), wouldn?t it be more interesting to see a negative answer to their prayers, and more affirming of faith to the see them still praise in loss?
I want films to challenge and provoke my faith and force me to wrestle with it, that don?t leave me in the same place I was before the opening credits. I enjoyed Darren Aronofsky?s ?Noah? because it took a story that we normally associate with flannel-graph and kids? storybooks and engaged it for what it was: a story about dangerous faith, genocide and near-madness. I?m not asking every Christian movie to be high art; I don?t think Steve Taylor?s adaptation of ?Blue Like Jazz? is a great movie, but I think it?s come closer than any other faith-based film to wrestling with how we?re to live among people who don?t share our faith. It argues that sometimes need to stop preaching and start listening (and confessing). At its core, it has love and compassion for both its saints and sinners. And it ends on a place not of decision or answers, but of understanding between people who are different and an admission that we all have a lot to learn.
Faith-based movies often don?t want you to wrestle with questions and doubt. They want to affirm what you already believe. Perhaps the biggest offender is the ?God?s Not Dead? series, which creates a world of liberal atheists out to get Christians. They just won?t understand what we believe, the film argues, so we have to be brave and fight back, because we?re right and they?re wrong. At the end, the Christians are validated because all the bad guys become Christians or die as punishment for their unbelief.
What these films tell you: you?re right. You?re doing awesome. Just keep it up.
That?s boring. If the purpose of art is to change us, who wants to go to the movies (or read a book, listen to a song or see a painting) and walk away thinking ?well, I guess I?m okay?? I don?t want to go to a movie and leave the same way I am. I want to go in and be challenged. I don?t want to go in and receive answers; I want to come out filled with new questions. The best films about faith have done that to me. ?Of Gods and Men? made me think about what it really means to love my enemies. ?Babette?s Feast? is one of the most beautiful and enlightening meditations on grace I?ve ever seen. Even ?Jesus Christ Superstar? presented a view of Christ I?d never seen and made me think anew about how we often try to distort him into our own image.
But worse than that, it?s isolating. Christianity, its followers believe, isn?t about seclusion. It?s about going into the world and loving others, befriending them, and serving them. And yet, these films feed the mentality that causes us to further retreat into our Christian ghettos and believe that those who don?t share our faith are our enemies. It doesn?t foster compassion, dialogue or understanding, but elevates our thinking and beliefs above other people, turning it not into a dialogue but into an argument. The result? We retreat further. We watch movies that tell us we?re doing great and the non-believers are wrong. And we don?t pay attention to anything that might change us or put us in a position to engage with others about matters of the soul.
It doesn?t sound very Christian to me. And there?s a reason for that. Because?
3. There?s no such thing as a Christian movie.
Derek Webb once said it best: the word ?Christian,? when applied to anything other than a person, is nothing more than a marketing term.
There?s no such thing as ?Christian? music, movies or literature. Those things are nothing more than works that meet a certain retail criteria ? they mention Jesus, have no swearing or sexual content, and usually include some moral lesson. They are packaged and sold to consumers who want that alternative to ?secular? entertainment.
I guess I can understand, and if these films were sold as ?family-friendly? entertainment or ?offense-free,? I might not be writing this. But the term ?Christian,? when used this way, is very problematic, because it omits so much.
For one thing, these movies don?t represent all of modern-day Christianity and instead endorse the values of mainstream American evangelicalism (and I don?t have to explain why that might be problematic today). They argue for a six-day creation, no evolution. They often have a strong conservative political bent. ?God?s Not Dead? introduces its atheist blogger character not by dwelling on her unbelief but by focusing on a car festooned with bumper stickers touting liberal politics and veganism. By and large, the actors in the film are white middle-class residents, struggling with fights in their marriage, bullied because of their faith or wanting God to bring them health/success.
That leaves out quite a bit. For movies that say ?this is Christianity,? I have to admit I feel left out. Where are the ?Christian? films about theistic evolution? Where are movies about progressive Christians? What about films tackling, with real depth, the uglier sides of life? Why can I see a more accurate portrayal of a church family in ?Junebug? or ?Lars and the Real Girl? than ?Courageous??
There?s no such thing as a Christian movie. These are targeted at Christian audiences, who readily eat it up because they?re clean. There?s no foul language. No violence. No sexuality. It?s clean. Better yet, it?s safe.
But Christianity isn?t safe. And neither is art.
Christians live in a world that they believe is fallen. And if our art is to be true, it must reflect that. If we believe that Christianity is holistic and that our faith has relevance for every portion of our lives, why do we run from art that illustrates that? Why can?t Christian films deal with the very real doubt that lives alongside faith? Why can?t Christian filmmakers deal with the darker and more negative aspects of the church? Why don?t more artists approach questions of mourning, doubt and the silence of God? What about films where Christians realize that atheists, Muslims and people of other beliefs can be good friends, worth engaging in civil conversation? Where are our Christian films that deal with sex from an honest, biblical basis?
I love film. I love my faith more. I want art that reflects my beliefs. And I do find it, just in the most unlikeliest of places. I learned that it?s okay to laugh at the flaws of religious folk from ?Life of Brian.? I found more power in ?The Shawshank Redemption?s? story of hope than any sermon on the subject. I learned more about relationships and marriage through Richard Linklater?s ?Before? series than in any church, and I saw the importance of living a life devoted to others more clearly in films like ?Ikiru? than in any Sunday School illustration. For whatever its problems and possible heresies, I understood the deity of Christ and the tension between that and humanity far better after seeing ?The Last Temptation of Christ? than I did from reading any theological treatise. My faith is challenged by the movies, often the ones the Sunday School crowd shies away from. I?d like to those Christians learn to love more challenging films. I?d like to see their eyes opened to what cinema can do for the soul. And I?d like them to pick up cameras and try their hand at making something beautiful, profound and soul-stirring.
So, until that happens, I?ll be staying away from the films that give me a shallow look at faith. I want something that burrows into my soul.