Monthly Archives: April 2012

33 Films That Take Faith Seriously

Christian moviegoers sometimes lament the dearth of good, positive, realistic portrayals of faith in film. If Christians are portrayed in film, it’s usually as right-wing zealots (Citizen Ruth), scary pentecostals (Jesus Camp), or psychotic killers (Night of the Hunter). Or faith is reduced to schmaltzy simplicity, as in most “Christian films” (Facing the Giants, The Grace Card). But many films throughout cinema history have actually provided rich, artful portraits of faith. The following is a list of 33 films that take faith seriously; films I believe every Christian should make a point to see.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer, 1928)
Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1951)
Ordet (Carl Dreyer, 1955)
Becket (Peter Glenville, 1964)
The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965)
A Man For All Seasons (Fred Zinnemann, 1966)
Brother Sun, Sister Moon (Franco Zeffirelli, 1972)
Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1973)
Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981)
Tender Mercies (Bruce Beresford, 1983)
Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984)
The Mission (Roland Joffé, 1986)
Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987)
Jesus of Montreal (Denys Arcand, 1989)
The Decalogue (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1989)
Shadowlands (Richard Attenborough, 1993)
Dead Man Walking (Tim Robbins, 1995)
The Apostle (Robert Duvall, 1997)
Central Station (Walter Salles, 1998)
Signs (M. Night Shyamalan, 2002)
Luther (Eric Till, 2003)
Land of Plenty (Wim Wenders, 2004)
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (Marc Rothemund, 2005)
Into Great Silence (Philip Gröning, 2006)
Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, 2007)
Amazing Grace (Michael Apted, 2007)
A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)
Get Low (Aaron Schneider, 2009)
Letters to Father Jacob (Klaus Härö, 2010)
Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois, 2011)
The Way (Emilio Estevez, 2011)
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
Higher Ground (Vera Farmiga, 2011)

Moving Beyond “Christian Films”

The filmmakers and many of the defenders of Blue Like Jazz have gone out of their way to distance Jazz from the “Christian film” stigma. Understandably. Director Steve Taylor even stirred up what really amounts to a non-controversy by declaring that the “Christian Movie Establishment… is out to get us,” going so far as to say that Sherwood Baptist (the church behind Courageous and Fireproof) issued a “fatwa” against Blue Like Jazz. 

It’s easy to understand why Jazz felt the need to get defensive about the “Christian movie” thing. Jazz is made by Christians, based on a bestselling Christian book, and directed by a veteran of Christian rock (Steve Taylor).  And there is indeed a case to be made for Jazz not being part of the “Christian film” genre: it contains quite a few s-words, a good amount of drug use, lesbians, a dope-smoking Pope, book-burning, steeple-sized condoms, and so on… all things you don’t typically see in a “Christian” movie.

But the self-aware “Hey! We’re edgier than Courageous!” undertones in Jazz–which labors to create a quirky, indie, Garden State-esque ambience of coming-of-age rebelliousness–are precisely what end up sabotaging Jazz‘ claims of being something truly different. The film–like the book, to a lesser extent–feels deliberately constructed to be “edgy,” “non-religious,” and “controversial.” Jazz goes out of its way to usurp what people expect a story about faith to be, and in the process it loses its authenticity.

Rather than shunning all comparisons and attempting to just tell a truthful, believable story, Jazz fills its overlong run time with an array of extraneous episodes that serve to excessively hammer home the already-made points that faith can be messy, people are complicated, and Christianity isn’t at all “safe” or squeaky-clean. And for every real, human moment in the film (and there are definitely those moments, most of them thanks to lead actor Marshall Allman), there are even more cringe-worthy instances of zany preciousness (man in bear suit steals extra tall bike), over-the-top caricatures (“the hypocritical youth pastor,” “the grizzled drunk dad,” “the idealistic and sweet social justice Christian”), relentless indie soundtrack and “just, why?” superfluity (the poorly animated “busty carrot lady” transition sequence?).

Ultimately, Blue Like Jazz is more like a typical “Christian movie” than it is different, which is disappointing. As is widely, embarrassingly known, Christian movies are typically characterized by amateur-looking, low-budget, undisciplined  filmmaking. And Blue Like Jazz unfortunately fits that bill. Is Jazz better made than the Courageous-type Christian film? Yes, but not by much. It’s not preachy, saccharine, or “safe” in the way Courageous is, but it’s pretty much equally as minor, from a filmmaking point of view.

Talking about “Christian films” wears me out, partly because it’s such an obvious and easy target, and partly because I wonder why we are even still having this conversation. The Blue Like Jazz conversation didn’t have to be one about “Christian film,” but the filmmakers opened themselves up to it with the whole pre-release “us vs. the Christian Movie Establishment!” controversy. And sadly, Jazz falls into just as many Christian movie pitfalls as it avoids. In its own way, Jazz is just as didactic and message-heavy as Fireproof, albeit with a message that is more rough-edged, meandering and “nonreligious.” And like those other Christian movies, Jazz lacks a coherent stylistic vision and a genuine, infectious interest in beauty.

I long for the day when we will have moved on from  “Christian film” as a category. I long for the day when evangelicals will make excellent films that are beautiful, lasting, complex and true. I long for the day when Christian moviegoers will appreciate truly great films and encounter God through them, regardless of if they are made by Christians or pagans.

I know I’ve been hard on Blue Like Jazz here, but the truth is I’m glad it exists and I’m thankful for the step forward it represents. I’m glad it got made, and I’m glad people are seeing it. Even the most imperfect films can be used by God to reach someone’s heart.

That said, I hope the next generation of Christian filmmakers don’t make a Blue Like Jazz. I hope they make films like The Kid With a Bike, Of Gods & Men or The Tree of Lifefilms about faith, God, transcendence and beauty, made with subtlety and attention to craft.

The priority for Christian artists–filmmakers included–should be excellence: making work that is thoughtful, groundbreaking, beautiful, with the goal of pointing in the direction of God’s grace and glory. Christian artists should study the classics and learn from the best, so they can know what excellence looks like. And they should read a tiny little book by Hans Rookmaaker called Art Needs No Justification, from which the following is one of my favorite quotes:

Handel with his Messiah, Bach with his Matthew Passion, Rembrandt with his Denial of St. Peter, and the architects of those Cistercian churches were not evangelizing, nor making tools for evangelism; they worked to the glory of God. They did not compromise their art. They were not devising tools for religious propaganda or holy advertisement. And precisely because of that they were deep and important. Their works were not the means to an end, the winning of souls, but they were meaningful and an end in themselves, to God’s glory, and showing forth something of the love that makes things warm and real. Art has too often become insincere and second-rate in its very effort to speak to all people, and to communicate a message that art was not meant to communicate. In short, art has its own validity and meaning, certainly in the Christian framework.

We should definitely support Christian filmmakers. But we shouldn’t coddle them, and we shouldn’t encourage low-quality work. We should hold them to a higher standard, spurring them on to excellence so that what they produce truly does open viewers’ eyes to the magnificence of our gracious God.

The Horror of Grace

In Lee Chang-dong’s film Secret Sunshine (2007), there’s a scene that absolutely floors me, because it captures something so true about the way humanity deals with grace. The scene takes place in a prison, as protagonist Shin-ae (whose son was recently kidnapped and murdered) goes to visit her son’s murderer, in prison for life. Shin-ae, a new convert to Christianity, wants to forgive her son’s killer. Her friends tell her she doesn’t have to see him face-to-face in order to forgive him. But she insists. She wants to see him in person and (truth be told) wants to witness the look on his face when she offers him the gift of forgiveness.

And yet when she sits down to confront the prisoner on the other side of the glass from her, Shin-ae finds him unexpectedly happy, peaceful, even joyful. “You look better than I expected,” she tells him. She goes on to tell him that she’s found peace, love, and a “new life” in God, and that that’s why she’s here. She’s “so happy to feel God’s love and grace” that she wanted to spread his love by coming to visit him. But then the shocker. The prisoner has also come to faith in Christ.

“Since I came here, I have accepted God in my heart. The Lord has reached out to this sinner,” he says.

“Is that so?” replies Shin-ae, crestfallen and shaken. “It’s good you have found God…” she says, very tentatively.

The convicted murderer continues: “Yes, I am so grateful. God reached out to a sinner like me. He made me kneel to repent my sins. And God has absolved me of them.”

And this is where Shin-ae begins to wilt, as she’s confronted by something she didn’t see coming.

“God… has forgiven your sins?” she mutters in disbelief.

“Yes,” he replies. “And I have found inner peace… My repentance and absolution have brought me peace. Now I start and end each day with prayer. I always pray for you, Ms. Lee. I’ll pray for you until I die.”

This hits Shin-ae hard. When she leaves the prison, she collapses, overcome by the horror of an idea she had not considered: that even the killer of her own son could be saved by God’s grace, and that God could beat her to the punch in forgiving the killer, offering him the only real absolving he needed. Unfortunately, Shin-ae can’t accept this seeming injustice–how can a law-abiding, good citizen like her and a convicted child-killer be on the same leveled playing field in terms of God’s grace? She can’t take that, and abandons God because of it.

This, I think, is the greatest, most mind-blowing quality of God’s grace, while at the same time being the hardest for humanity to swallow: His grace is sufficient for all, and it saves unconditionally, based not on our merits or relative levels of moral stature. We’re all sinners, fallen short of the glory of God and alienated from him, and thus we all need exactly the same grace from Him to repair the breach.

I need the same grace as anyone who has ever wronged me.

Trayvon Martin needs the same grace as George Zimmerman.

Jason Russell needs the same grace as Joseph Kony.

Barack Obama needs the same grace as Osama bin Laden.

Mother Theresa needs the same grace as Hitler.

Charlie Sheen, Tim Tebow, Whitney Houston, Joe the Plumber, Kim Kardashian,  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Benjamin Netanyahu, the pepper spray cop, Susan Boyle, Madonna, Jerry Sandusky and the boys he molested… All are hopeless and condemned without the exact same grace. That is: the grace of God, freely given through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ, who–though perfect and undeserving–bore our sins on that dreadful but majestic cross.

It’s absolutely scandalous, and for many, a pill too hard to swallow. We’re prideful creatures, us humans. We want to believe that “right” living warrants us  a better standing in God’s eyes than, say, the killers and thieves and pedophiles. We don’t want to believe that we are in exactly the same predicament and in need of exactly the same salvation as the world’s most evil person. We want God to reward us for being good and punish others for being bad. Deep down, pride is what leads many to resist the free gift of grace… because they can’t stomach the notion that earning or deserving are not words that exist in God’s economy of grace.

But if we can just get over our pride, emptying ourselves in the same way Christ did both in how he lived and died, the “free to all” nature of grace begins to look beautiful rather than horrific (as it did to Shin-ae). Grace becomes life-transforming precisely because it takes us outside of ourselves, freeing us from our sinful chains and narcissistic self reliance, instead focusing our attention on Christ–and what HE did that Good Friday not just for me, or you, or the “good people,” but for the world.

Holy Week Prayer Requests

We praise you for the wait, oh Lord.

For the now: the darkness building all around, the tornadoes, the hoodies, the fear.

For the not yet: the reconciliations to come, the healing, the sunrise, the joy.

We praise you for the tension of light meeting dark, valley meeting mountain, weariness meeting rest.

In the midst of our political malaise, economic hardship, cultural degradation and existential funk, give us hope.

Grant us patience for Sunday, even as the blows of Friday take their toll.

Quiet our hearts this week, Oh Lord, and help us to remember your passion.

Help us to remember it on the stressful days, when we’re sitting in traffic, doing our taxes, staring bloodshot into a screen, locking ourselves out of this and that.

Help us to remember it on the lonely days, when we want to see someone but can’t and want to be somewhere other than where we are.

Help us to remember it on our prideful days, which is every day. Remind us constantly of your sacrifice, and of our calling to pour ourselves out for others, as you did.  Help us to love one another, to lay our lives down for our friends.

Knowing that you defeated death–that you made a way–let us go forth with courage, saying the things we struggle to say, embracing the pain we so ardently avoid, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call.

Let the morning we celebrate–the morning you rose–be the morning ever on our minds, even through the long nights.