Four Ways Christians Approach Film

Jack Hafer has been a Christian working in the film industry since the 1980s (you may have seen his 2003 film To End All Wars). He’s also the current chair of the film department at Biola University, an evangelical college with an impressive track record for producing graduates who find success in Hollywood. For my book Gray Matters I asked Hafer to categorize different approaches Christians have taken to film & filmmaking, and he described three. Below I’ve summarized his three approaches, plus a fourth that I have personally observed.

Which do you most resonate with?

1) Message-centric: Some Christians are only interested in films insofar as they explicitly preach the gospel or relay an unmistakably biblical message. This approach typically downplays aesthetics in favor of unmissable morals, preferring didactic direct-ness to subtlety. Good films are evangelistic films. Examples: Thief in the Night; Fireproof.

2) For the common good: This approach doesn’t focus on evangelism as much as whether or not a film has overall positive values for the common good. “In Hollywood it’s easy to make temptation look enticing, but challenging to make goodness look attractive,” notes Hafer, but “that’s a challenge this approach takes on.” These are films not made for the church but for wide audiences, espousing broad but generally Judeo-Christian values, where good triumphs over evil. Examples: Indiana Jones, The Blind Side.

3) Religious in content: This approach favors films that feature religious elements or plotlines: movies about Christians, preachers, nuns, monks, Joan of Arc, etc. This approach sees value in films that make religious sentiments look attractive, or create a sense of awe, longing, and wonder about the transcendent. These films need not be preachy, but often compellingly portray stories of faith. Examples: The Way, The Diary of a Country Priest.

4) Aesthetically transcendent: In this approach, “sacred” films are those
which — through style, exceptional artistry or powerful narrative — evoke feelings of transcendental longing akin to what Germans call sehnsucht. They are films so beautiful and evocative that the viewer is brought to a place of sublime stasis or spiritual contemplation. Christians who favor this approach are less interested in specifically Christian messages or plotlines than they are with true, powerful portrayals of beauty and longing. Examples: Tokyo Story, The Tree of Life.

9 responses to “Four Ways Christians Approach Film

  1. If I had to choose from these four, I guess I’d fit in mostly with the second category. But I think many people also watch movies to discover truths about the world, and that can be messy. Of course, it’s always good for Christians to be discerning about the mindsets that a film can be effecting in them.

  2. This is very helpful. I’d be interested to know of other examples in your fourth category. Also, how would you categorize a film such as Shawshank; perhaps a combo of categories 2 and 4?

  3. I feel like you need a fifth category for the Christians who insist on ‘gritty’ films that are ‘real’. Films like ‘No Country for Old Men’. I’m not really sympathetic to this view, but I know lots of Christian twenty-somethings who seem to hold to it.

  4. As a graduate of Biola’s film school a year ago, I must say that I find it sad to hear the department chair put Christian filmmakers in these categories. It’s a sandbox I have no interest in playing in. As a friend of mine put it, it seems as though Mr. Hafer views film as a “hammer” in which Christians are to shape culture into their own design and belief system. There is no mention of Christian filmmakers being great artists; according to this, they are purely in place to further the Christian mandate. Movies like Fireproof and Facing the Giants hurt the Kingdom more than help it. If society places so much value on success, why not meet them on their level? Hollywood needs acclaimed filmmakers who are Christians. Only then will they be given a seat at the table.

    I do appreciate Brett’s addition of the fourth category. It certainly presents a broader view than Mr. Hafer’s.

  5. Nolan, it would be good to chat sometime, as I hear in your comment the same heart that I have. The problem with films that become hammers are that message has overcome art. But all films have a message, or they aren’t films. See Stan Williams’ book, The Moral Premise, that spells this out. All four categories require that the filmmaker be an “artist.” The films that have failed have usually been that either the filmmakers weren’t adequate artists, or another audience watched the film than the one the filmmaker intended, and the film didn’t work.
    Hollywood has good filmmakers who are Christians – Wim Wenders, Scott Derrickson, Martin Scorsese, et. al. Scorsese, for example, says that his faith in Jesus is the most important thing in his life and that all of his films have come from his faith.
    At Biola, we not only stress the art of films, but we also take our distinctive in “Beauty As Truth,” which says that the point you are making (and all stories must have a point) must be in the story and not tacked on by preaching. Preaching is a different art form than story, and has different rules. Once you start preaching, you break the rules of story, and your story quits working. But if you don’t have a point, which is the hero’s journey, you don’t have a story.
    And Brett’s fourth point is included in my third point – I even used those same film examples with him – he just wanted to emphasize what he would consider films with the mystery of faith as being important, as do I. – Jack Hafer

  6. Pingback: Four Ways Christians Approach Film | Bensonian

  7. Brett, it seems that your categories correlate (with some overlap, of course) to concepts of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Though they are rarely strictly separate, it seems each approach focuses more on one than the others. Message-centric (albeit often didactic) film seems to correspond most with “truth”; the common good with “goodness”; and the transcendant with “beauty.” Religious in context could easily be any of them, but often focuses primarily on “truth” or “goodness.” Of course, it’s not this simple, as any good “Christian” film generally touches on all three in complicated ways, but it’s an observation.

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