“Christian Film”: Still Abysmal After All These Years

As someone who has lived, worked, and/or studied in the film industry for the last three years, it pains me to say it, but say it I must: the “Christian film” is no better today than it ever was. Of course, I would be the first to suggest that there shouldn’t even be a Christian film industry, that “Christian” makes no sense as a generic modifier. But there IS a Christian film industry, and will be as long as there is a Christian subcultural marketplace; thus, the least we can do is make good films, right?

Wrong. We make films like this:

Does anyone want to see that movie? The problem is not the concept; I would welcome a film that uplifts marriage and argues against divorce as the easy way out. The problem, of course, is the execution. This film–as evident from the trailer–features antiquated filmmaking techniques, cheap-looking sets and costumes, horrible acting, and a cheesy Christian music soundtrack. There is nothing aesthetically interesting going on in the trailer. It’s painstakingly ordinary and grievously cliched. God help us if this is the best we can do.

We need to put a moratorium on making films like this until we can prioritize craft. We have to appreciate aesthetics as valid apart from didactic storytelling (aka preaching). Good can be done (dare I say: converts won) by an achingly beautiful cinematic image just as effectively as by the most clear-cut conversion scene. We must recognize the value of style as itself a crucial form of content.

But mostly we just need to strive for excellence and stop churning out bilge.

32 responses to ““Christian Film”: Still Abysmal After All These Years

  1. Excellent thoughts Brett. I actually saw this trailer earlier today on Paul Scheer’s blog making fun of it – http://paulscheer.com/post/46864361/damn-kirk-cameron-has-done-it-again-fireproof

    We need more Christians here in LA and around the world that are willing to devote time to the craft…otherwise it’ll get us nowhere.

  2. dude! you are ON POINT!!!
    as much as i respect everyone involved in this horrible looking pile of cheesy poop, and i know their intentions are great, and i even know that the Lord God will use this to really touch people…. i just can’t help thinking exactly what you are about it.
    on point man.

  3. Yeah I’m not sure if Evangelicalism eschews aesthetics or if Evangelicals just have rotten taste. But look: Left Behind, Thomas Kinkade, CCM, the direction contemporary Evangelical ‘worship’ has taken… It’s yucky.

  4. Feelin’ you, Brett. The term “Christian art” — whether film, fiction, or music — is ambiguous, creates unnecessary expectations in the viewer / reader / consumer, and potentially reduces the role of the Christian artist to that of propagandist. By implication, “Christian art” requires a message. And, sadly, so many believers are willing to wink at mediocrity as long as that “message” is clear. Hey, the heavens declare the glory of God without a word. So why should “Christian art” be any different?

  5. FWIW, I do have hope that the situation can improve. Just look at “Christian music”.

    Sure, there’s still a lot of schlock coming out of that arena. However, there are also folks like Sufjan Stevens, David Eugene Edwards (Woven Hand), Daniel Smith (Danielson Famile), Over The Rhine, and Innocence Mission, not to mention a burgeoning underground scene.

    It might take several more years, but if the Flickerings program at Cornerstone is any indication, I know that there are Christian filmmakers out there who want to make solid, artistic “Christian” films.

  6. As long as we’re making them, let’s strive to make them “good” – sure; but I still maintain that Christians shouldn’t be making “Christian” films. Christians should be creating art that is true. Stories that have truth. Not expensive felt board fairytales. Over The Rhine et al make excellent music because their music has truth as the foundation. M. L’Engle said that “Artists of all disciplines must be willing to go into the dark, let go control, be surprised.”

  7. As long as we continue to divide creative expression by “secular” and “christian” we will be forever painted as the “lesser” of the two. Creativity is creativity, the Creator is THE Creator, He didn’t make a secular world and then a Christian world. There aren’t trees that He made that cuss all of the time and worship Satan and then shrubs in southern Texas that sing praises to God while never dancing!! So, why do we constantly try and compartmentalize creativity?

  8. I agree with you 100%.

    i believe that this post came 2 days too late. I had the chance to screen this film this week. I work for a Christian radio station in Oklahoma and I fear I may have to “talk up” and “endorse” this film to our listeners.

    Any ideas as I try to convince my managers not to hop on the bandwagon of this film…?

  9. Well, I’m with you in saying anything not-human with a modifier “Christian” before it should probably not exist (aka, christian music, movies, so on and so forth). The problem came when Christian replaced good – and so we settle for Christian art because it is not X (insert “secular” alternative).

    I just saw last night that there is a “Christian” version of Guitar Hero. God help us.

    There are occasionally films that leap out, always indie, always without fanfare, and we ought to celebrate those for being good art and not for being made by Christians. Our purpose is not to celebrate Christians who succeed, but art that is good. If we look to that, we don’t care if good art comes from the worst sinner who is not aware of it or the worst sinner who is aware of it (a Christian).

    With that said, a film that I constantly point to is Primer. Without a doubt it has a small time appeal, it’s a science fiction indie film that uses actual physics as its premise (and some of its plot points), but it was made by a believer and it succeeds not because it mentions Jesus (it doesn’t) but because it is a solid piece of film.

    Find things like that, celebrate them, and tack onto the end “and it was made by a Christian!” and hopefully the tide will turn in the next century.

  10. Wow. I am very bothered by the portrayal of people of color in this trailer. Is it a characteristic of “Christian movies” to either ignore or villian-ize POC’s except for the wise black mother or father that guides the white main character?

  11. petertchattaway

    Just wondering, are the films made by Sherwood Baptist Church really representative of the “Christian film industry”, per se? Except for a few of the most technically-oriented crewmembers, the films are made by volunteers and non-professionals, and are much more analogous to, say, plays and skits put on by church drama groups than to productions put on by actual Christian theatre companies. Admittedly, the fact that Kirk Cameron is involved in this film does blur the lines a bit; he has been working in Hollywood practically his whole life, so he is certainly a “professional” and a member of the “industry” even if he was a volunteer on this film just like the other actors. But the film as a whole is definitely made with a different emphasis and a different aesthetic than, say, the Billy Graham films or the Left Behind films.

  12. I don’t think Sufjan Stevens or Danielson or Over the Rhine count as ‘Christian music’ any more than Napoleon Dynamite counts as ‘Mormon cinema.’ If every piece of art requires its artist’s belief system as genre classification, the world is even worse off than I thought.

  13. What about Pedro the Lion?

  14. Lots of good comments here. I agree w/ gilliebean that “Christians shouldn’t be making “Christian” films. Christians should be creating art that is true.”
    I agree with the several others who point out that we should really quit labeling things “Christian” in art, b/c that really has nothing to do with the relative goodness, truth or beauty it contains. Tim you are right on that a piece of art should not take its creator’s belief system as a genre classification. It is my longterm hope that one day we won’t need to have “Christian” genres of literature, music, movies, etc… But given that we DO have them today, I don’t think it’s asking too much to hope that they strive to be of higher quality.
    I expressed a lot of my problems with the “Christian” genre classification in this post from last year.

  15. petertchattaway

    Brett wrote:

    “I agree w/ gilliebean that ‘Christians shouldn’t be making “Christian” films. Christians should be creating art that is true.'”

    FWIW, I think that’s a false dichotomy. You might just as well say that Christians should never write hymns or sacred songs, only songs that are true. Or that Christians should never build sacred spaces, only buildings that are true. Or something like that.

    Like ’em or hate ’em, Fireproof and the other movies made by the guys at Sherwood are intended primarily as ministry tools — similar to church plays, as I suggested above — and not as “art” or even “entertainment”. And I think they need to be evaluated within that context.

  16. Peter,
    I don’t think it’s a false dichotomy. The idea is, I think, that Christians should be striving for truth above all, but only in the sense that the truth (if we are Christians and creating within and in response to that reality) which will be expressed is indeed Christian or sacred truth. I doubt that much of the pantheon of sacred art was originally crafted to be “Christian” as opposed to “secular.” Rather, these pieces were crafted by Christians who were expressing truth as they saw it, as artists who were Christians. The problem with Sherwood’s films (and Left Behind, Billy Graham films, etc) is that their poor execution (in acting, among other things) rings more false than true and feels more like marketing than honest reflection on anything. Sure, they might be explicitly expressing “truth” in words and propositions, but as we all know, that is just one part of the “truth” that cinema can express. This is why I think the best route for Christians who are making anything (art, entertainment, or everyday communication) should be a focus on truth first and foremost–honesty with one’s self, the world, and relationship to the divine. Then the “Christian” aspect of it will arise organically, rather than directly or propositionally. Anything that is force-fed in a didactic manner rarely works, whether a piece of art, a “ministry tool” or whatever else.

  17. It’s humiliating and screamingly hilarious all at once. Oh Mike Seaver you went off the deep end!

  18. petertchattaway

    Brett wrote:

    “I doubt that much of the pantheon of sacred art was originally crafted to be ‘Christian’ as opposed to ‘secular.'”

    Well, a lot of it was crafted to be “Christian” as opposed to “pagan” or “Muslim” or whatever. :) But certainly, there is something about sacred art that is, by definition, “set apart” from other art, just as sacred spaces are “set apart” from other spaces. That might not be so obvious to Protestants who worship in movie theatres or gymnasiums, but for the vast bulk of church history, there has been a tendency to regard certain places and objects and, yes, works of art as “set apart” from other places and objects and works of art. (The primary example of this would probably be the Eucharist, which is no ordinary bread and wine, and which is prepared on an altar which, itself, was often raised above the burial spot of some saint or other; the food, the furniture, the bones in those cases were all “set apart” from the usual sorts of food, furniture and bones.)

    I shudder to put a movie like Facing the Giants or Fireproof in the same category as the Body and Blood of our Lord. But the notion that art can serve a primarily ministerial purpose has plenty of tradition to back it up.

    And let’s not forget that the notion of art as a mode of self-expression, rather than as a tradition that artists humbly (and often anonymously) submit to, is fairly recent, and goes back only a few centuries in the West. (I’m not even sure it exists in the East, though obviously iconographers such as Andrei Rublev were able to develop personal reputations *within* their traditions.) In those days, “striving for truth” may have meant something different for an artist than it means today.

    “The problem with Sherwood’s films (and Left Behind, Billy Graham films, etc) is that their poor execution (in acting, among other things) rings more false than true and feels more like marketing than honest reflection on anything.”

    I might agree with regard to the Left Behind and Billy Graham films, which were clearly produced as part of a parallel “industry”. (Kirk Cameron even says in his autobiography that there were virtually no Christians on the set of Left Behind.) But Sherwood’s films just seem to be in a different category, for me.

    Incidentally, I say all this as one who has seen Fireproof, but not the trailer for it. So I have no idea how it is being marketed.

  19. Sherwood films, which is out of a church I think, used what they had and God has taken it and allowed it to play a part in bringing people to the Lord. Just like the story of the young boy with the two fish and five loaves.

    Is it up to par with most films I agree but I commend them for at least trying.

    Brett, we need people like you who have “lived, worked, and/or studied in the film industry” to get out there and start making some quality movies. As Christians, we tend to point out the problems with things, instead of becoming a part of the solution.

  20. Below are examples of some folks that are trying to make a difference. I have also met and know of some Christians in mainstream film schools trying to make a difference. They are not there to learn how to make “Christian Movies” but movies that inspire and bring change to lives of individual.

    Compass Film Academy.

    Center for creative media

  21. Pingback: Collide Magazine » Blog Archive » Upfront Week In Review - 8/29/08

  22. My general rule is, if the entire message of the movie can be summarized by putting “metaphorically” after the title, it’s not worth watching.

  23. I agree with Michelle. The way NOT to improve the quality of any film genre is to criticize someone else’s attempt. To be honest, I’m shocked at how harsh these comments are toward this trailer. I don’t like the trailer, and won’t see the movie. But at no point am I given the biblical authority to bring criticism toward it, as an example of what not to do.

    The way to improve any film genre is to create the improved films. Jesus didn’t come talking about a life filled with redemption, hope, and sacrifice. He provided that life, and invited people to watch.

    May we be the people who stink of Christ’s aroma during our weekdays; and may that aroma spill onto the canvas of our media.

  24. I think there is a significant difference between ‘that aroma spill[ing] onto the canvas of our media’ and the kind of poorly-put-together propaganda that commonly passes for Christian ‘art.’

  25. OK, I have to admit that my first thought while watching the trailer was, “Is there a rule that Kirk Cameron has to be in all Christian movies?” My frame of reference could be misleading me however as the only “Christian” movies I can recall seeing after the age of about 7 (when I saw the “Thief In The Night” movies) are the Left Behind films. Wait, I take that back. I did see one in college that had the helicopter pilot from Lost season 4 in it. I think it was called Revelation.

  26. your critic you put forward reminds me of a books title i once read about christianity and the arts … “ADDICTED TO MEDIOCRITY”…….. i hear ya loud and clear!

  27. I’ve thought about this some more. I don’t know if the “church play” writ large assessment in regards to Christian movies is a seamless analogy, but I can see its merits.

    Could Christian drama, whether a church play or feature film, fall into the category of “making a joyful noise”?

  28. Have any of you even seen the movie?

  29. While many of the “Christian” movies, plays and books seem to be subpar when compared to the secular works, at least they are out there. Many of these projects are working with minimal budgets at best and they are trying to present an interesting storyline that encourages and uplifts. Considering what they are up against, it’s not easy. Isn’t it better to work with what you have until you can do better rather than doing nothing at all? The secular world is not going to make it easier for us. But those who are His will hear His voice no matter where it comes from. I, for one, am determined to be part of the solution… as soon as I get my “Christ Inspired” novels published. :)

  30. Pingback: Fireproof « The Search

  31. Having seen the movie in the theater, I would say the story is good and the acting okay (not the best, but I’ve seen worse from the “secular” side). Sherwood Baptist Church is moving forward and doing better than others that I’ve seen. We should encourage them to continue and follow where God leads them. We should also step up and do what God has called us to do. I like C.S. Lewis’ comment on NOT needing more “Christian” works, but needing more Christians to write great stories (or make great movies, music, etc.) Use every resource available, God places them there to be used for His Glory.

  32. Pingback: Best of the Blog’s First Five Years | The Search

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