I don’t hate Christian movies…
I know, I know. Such an unpopular opinion. No, it’s not unpopular because I’m a non-Christian but rather because I’m a Christian film student. Christian films students are “educated.” We’re supposed to “know better.” And it seems most of us herald the cheer, “Holl-y-wood! Holl-y-wood! Down with Christian films and more R rated movies!!” Well, that’s not how this film student feels. And before you jump all over me, let me clarify. I don’t hate Christian movies. I hate bad movies.
This post was inspired by the article, “I’M A CHRISTIAN AND I HATE CHRISTIAN MOVIES” By Alissa Wilkinson (https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/christian-movies-why-gods-not-dead-and-faith-based-films-hurt-religion), which I admit has a somewhat misleading title. The article opens with “It’s a frustrating time to love movies and God,” something I definitely will not argue with. It is really hard to find quality Christian films. I have sat through more badly produced, badly written and badly acted Christian films than I care to recount.
The article says, “Hollywood’s definition of the ‘faith audience’ boils down to churchgoers, often Evangelical Protestants, well enough off to afford a night at the movies, interested in inspirational Biblical adaptations and movies about heaven, family, and genial, good neighbors, and highly critical of any sexuality or bad language.” This description brings to mind a conversation I had with a friend last year who ranted several times about Christian movie review sites that listed every curse word and, as she put it, things the site thought were “sins.” She didn’t care about any of that stuff and couldn’t seem to see why anyone else would. And yes, I’ll admit, if I’m going to a movie on my own or with friends, I almost never check Plugged In. If I’m doing my movie-going solo or with friends, are the films the article describes as pandering to Hollywood’s definition of the faith audience the ones I’m going to buy a ticket for? Nope! I don’t need movies to make me feel good or “inspire” me, per say. I want a good story. I want characters I care about and yes, usually, I want a little edge. I can handle your bad words, your sex scenes, your less than moral actions. I’m an adult. Bring it on!
But when it comes to a movie I can watch with my family? When I want to sit down with my parents and younger siblings and see something that I won’t have to wince through? When I want to be able to recommend a movie for family night or kids’ night without worrying that I forgot about a sex scene or major expletive? It’s nice to know there are movies I can pull off the shelf without worrying about any of those things. It’s nice to know that among all the garbage of films, both those riddled with profanity and sex as well as cheesy Christian films riddled with bad film making, there are a few films we might all actually enjoy. Yes, even the hyper-critical film student (all those of you who are the only film student in your family know EXACTLY what I’m talking about).
The article then follows up with, “A lot of these are basically well-intentioned kitsch, innocuous in the manner of a lousy conventional rom-com or inept indie drama.” Well, can’t argue with this one, sorry. Except to say that I occasionally overlook such sins for Disney movies or rom-coms so it seems hypocritical to automatically rule out all Christian films because they might be cheesy or cliche. Some of them, certainly. Most of them, probably. But I can overlook a little cheese or a few plot holes if I’m invested in the characters. And that applies to all movies. I’m not making an exception for Christian movies because I’m taking pity on them. Bad film making is bad film making. But less than perfect film making can be forgiven on occasion. Yes, I’ve seen more Disney Channel and Lifetime movies than I care to admit to…
The next great point the article makes is, “It’s practically catechistic among many faith-based devotees and movie producers that mainstream critics pan the films because they ‘don’t believe in Jesus.’ The problems run deeper. Jesus is all right; the screenwriters, not so much…. Christian theology is rich and creative and full of imagination, that’s broad enough to take up residence among all kinds of human cultures. It contains within itself the idea that art exists as a good unto itself, not just a utilitarian vehicle for messages. (In the Greek, the Bible calls humans “poems” — I love that.) There is no reason Christian movies can’t take the time to become good art. Each one that fails leaves me furious.”
This is so often overlooked in the arguments from Christian filmmakers. As Christians, we have an even higher calling to produce quality art. We don’t get to use our faith as a shield to hide behind as we put out crappy films that have a “good message.” Colossians 3:23 commands, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” I don’t know about you, but the quality of my work would soar through the roof if I was making it for a king, much less the God of the universe. There are so many Biblical examples too. Were the tabernacle or temple examples of poor workmanship? Did they lack good architecture and quality design elements because they were only church buildings? Of course not. And of course, there are beautiful cathedrals in countries all around the world as further examples. Christians don’t get a free pass on quality because we’re making evangelical or faith-based projects. We, in fact, should be working even harder and producing even higher quality work than our secular counterparts because we’re not working for a human audience but a divine one.
There stands in my mind a glaring example of a deeply flawed film put out by Christian film makers and praised by Christian film-goers. That movie is, yes, you guessed it, God’s Not Dead.
The article says about the film, “The glaring problem with God’s Not Dead, and most other films made for and marketed at the ‘faith audience,’ is that instead of exercising and challenging the imagination of their audience in ways that would make their audience better Christians, they shut down imagination and whisper sweet nothings into their ears instead…. God’s Not Dead enlists an army of straw men… then burns them in effigy. The movie isn’t content to merely convert our main antagonist, effectively forcing him to grovel before his 18-year-old student. It also trots in a deus ex machina and kills him off. (Spoiler, sorry.).”
My main issue with the film, as touched on above, is that it spends the entire film trying to convince the audience that there are evidence based reasons to belief in God despite the argument from this “evil” professor that people only turn to God in moments of emotional vulnerability. Then at the end of the film, that same evil professor turns to faith in, yep you guessed it, a final emotion-wrought moment before his death. The filmmakers tried almost the whole movie to make a point they ultimately couldn’t stand behind even in their own storytelling. I was deeply offended AS A CHRISTIAN at the way they portrayed not only the atheist professor who can only come to Christ at the brink of death but also all the other non-believers who “hate God” mostly because back in the day, He did something they didn’t like. That’s not the world I’ve encountered and I would never ask any of my non-Christian friends to subject themselves to the same portrayal of them in film. I can’t use this film as an evangelical tool and would never bring my Christian friends to see it… so what’s the point?
The article by Alissa Wilkinson, to be fair, does not bash all Christian films despite the misleading title. The last section is titled “There’s great Christian entertainment, if you look” and includes a pretty good outline of what the Christian life should look like especially in the art we produce. “Christians live within a system of belief and practice that is meant primarily to be a blessing to people outside the church walls. It is a basic article of Christian belief that all people bear God’s image. We are to exercise the same boundless imagination and creativity that he does. Christians, of all people, ought to push hard against people who try to sell a fear-mongering, illogical, politically driven version of Christianity, where the goal is for your team to win, to prove you’re right.” I would encourage you to read that last section of the article, if nothing else, because it makes some excellent points about the level of Christian entertainment we should be aiming for.
That being said, there are a number of Christian films that have come out in the last year that I have actually enjoyed. My dad and I had a great conversation after we separately watched War Room. We agreed that, yes, the film was flawed but it somehow managed to step above some of the most common pitfalls of Christian films. It felt a little bit more like the Christian life we actually experience. I also really liked Do You Believe? and was deeply disappointed that it didn’t get more publicity. It was, in my opinion, much better than God’s Not Dead, but because it didn’t do as well, it is unlikely that the same type of film will be produced in the future. It showed real people with real struggles, Christians and non-Christians alike, and how faith was applied to the situation. I also loved how over the top and funny Mom’s Night Out was without delving into raunchy content that would have made it hard to watch with my family. While it is great to be entertained when I watch movies, occasionally I don’t mind being encouraged in my faith. I don’t mind seeing characters like me on-screen struggling with issues of faith and how God is applicable in their daily lives. Even in spite of all its flaws, Facing the Giants helped revive my faith at least once in high school. And when it came out during my senior year of high school, the movie To Save a Life encouraged me into thinking I could make Christian films without neutering the language and content needed to authentically tell the story.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me. This is not me saying every Christian should watch Christian movies or even aspire to make them. I am simply sharing my opinion and perspective because I’m sick of being underrepresented. Sure, maybe Christian films aren’t for you. But before you overarchingly bash something, stop to consider that maybe what’s not for you might be for someone else. God has gifted every one of us to reach out and advance His kingdom in different ways. He has also created several different ways to advance His kingdom. Maybe our witness would be overall increased instead of consistently damaged due to our focus on bickering with each other if we focused on finding the ways He has created us individually to advance His kingdom (i.e. being nice to co-workers who disagree with our beliefs so they can no longer blanket all Christians as judgmental and hypocritical) and stopped bashing other ways God is also working (as long as those vehicles are not heretical)?
“There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all… But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary… that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 20-22, 25 – 26).
Bad Christian films hurt all of us. They hurt non-Christians by damaging our Christian images and hurts us Christians because our image has been damaged. So, if you have been called to make Christian films, great. Please strive to a higher level of excellence than the mast majority of Christian films out there today. And if you have been called to make secular entertainment, please honor your call but also follow the countless Biblical guidelines for Christian living. Treat others with love, live in a way that honors God and work hard because you’re working for God, not man. And if you are simply a entertainment goer, don’t be afraid to tell people when you find a Christian film you like. Don’t be afraid to dive into dialogue about Christian films, even bad ones, and the issues they bring up. Be open to God working through anything, whether that be the latest B-level Christian flick or a hard R drama that causes a friend to start asking some hard questions.