On the Poor Quality of Christian-Made Movies: A Proposition

GodsNotDead

A year ago at this time, discussion of Hollywood’s “religious renaissance” began in earnest. Movies like Son of God, Noah, Heaven is for Real and God’s Not Dead were preparing to release, with more faith-oriented films set to come out later in the year (Mom’s Night Out, The Identical, Left Behind, Exodus). A year later, after mixed box office results and plenty of heated blogosphere chatter, what have we learned about what works and what doesn’t when faith and film collide?

There is a lot that could be said about this topic, and a lot that has already been written. Brandon Ambrosino’s excellent recent Vox piece, “Why are Christian movies so painfully bad?” summarizes many of the key themes. I’ve done a lot of thinking and writing about this topic over the years and hate to belabor familiar points, but the increasing ubiquity and decreasing quality of the “by and for Christians” genre has me pondering anew what is wrong and what can be done. 2014 saw a new low for an already low bar, after all.

Take a look at the following list of “made by and for Christians” films, with their Rottentomatoes.com scores in parentheses: Son of God (21%), God’s Not Dead (17%), Heaven is for Real (46%), Mom’s Night Out (18%), The Identical (7%), Left Behind (2%), Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (0%). The average score of these seven films is 16%. Even Christian critics joined the critical consensus in acknowledging the poor quality of these films.

Peter Chattaway called God’s Not Dead “a sloppily written, badly argued, unevenly acted film,” and suggested that “if this becomes the standard for all Christian films to come, then the genre is truly in deep, deep trouble.” The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, who recently wrote about being a Christian and a film critic, described Mom’s Night Out as a “strained, clunkily orchestrated and dismally retrograde film.” Christianity Today critic Jackson Cuidon gave Left Behind half of a star (out of four), writing that “Left Behind is not a Christian Movie, whatever ‘Christian Movie’ could even possibly mean.”

Why are these movies so terrible? I’d like to propose that the problem is propositional. That is, these are films that reflect the propositional bent of evangelicalism (think three point sermons with clear “life application” takeaways).

Consider the very titles of God’s Not Dead and Heaven is for Real. They are themselves propositions, unambiguous assertions stating a truth: God is NOT dead! Heaven is for REAL! The films’ flimsy conflicts are only temporary doubts and objections systematically overcome en route to the black-and-white conclusions already asserted in their titles. God’s Not Dead is literally mostly an argument in a lecture hall, and Heaven is For Real spends far too much time literally preaching from the pulpit.

Art should neither preach nor lecture, and yet many Christian films do too much of both, telling us what faith is rather than showing us.

It’s not that films shouldn’t have messages; they should. But the message should not be a foregone conclusion based on the title, nor should it (I would argue) be self-evident even after the end credits roll. The best art gives shape to a “message” (or maybe “reflection” or “revelation” are better words) that is considered, wrestled with, debated and engaged far after we initially encounter it. And sometimes the construal of a message is secondary to the experience of beauty; something few Christian filmmakers seem to understand.

Christians should be the first to acknowledge that the mysteries of God and the grace of Jesus Christ are not concepts to be understood or arguments to be won as much as goodness we receive, beauty that confronts and truth that transforms. This is why art is so urgent and necessary. It sometimes comes the closest to capturing the aspects of religious truth and transcendent experience that words, sermons and propositions cannot adequately communicate.

When I think about the most affecting “Christian” films to come out in 2014, the ones that come to mind are not the clear-cut, “the answer is in the title” films but rather the ones that feature complex portraits of believing characters or journeys of faith. Films like Calvary, Ida, The Overnighters and Selma are powerful films that take belief seriously yet do not present tidy resolutions to the tensions they explore. They are powerful in part because they are sincere without being saccharine and beautiful without being unblemished. It’s perhaps notable that the average Rottentomatoes.com score of these four films is 95%. Critics are not inherently opposed to sincere films about Christianity. But what they respond to is not a message preached or points made as much as truths explored and beauty unveiled.

The problem of the “by and for Christians” films is that they assume that the packaging or the how of storytelling is important only insofar as the what being proposed is clearly and unmistakably communicated. It stems from the evangelical failure to recognize that the relationship between medium and message is inextricable rather than incidental.

Most evangelicals acknowledge that the medium is important, and for that reason they often put lots of money and resources into the latest and greatest communication technologies: using the newest and most expensive cameras to make their movies; expertly employing social media in their ministries; hiring design firms to create cutting edge brand identity for a church. But making medium a point of emphasis is not enough. Christians need to recognize that medium and message are related to each other in an ontological and not just instrumentalist way. Style, form, packaging, etc. cannot and should not be employed simply in service of the message. They are the message. To see the forms of art and worship as irrelevant or merely instrumental to the communication of content is dangerous and downright Gnostic.

Evangelical filmmakers need to focus on becoming masters of form not so that they can make the message more pretty; but because form can itself be a powerful message, revealing things that might otherwise be lost if we focused solely on the intelligibility or “takeaway value” of what we have to say. The saying itself, and the living, matter at least as much as what is said.

The Incarnation is the perfect example of this. Jesus was not formless content or simply content with form. He was the Word made flesh, fully God and fully man, salvation and hope in embodied, storied form. He wasn’t just a walking powerpoint presentation; he healed and lived and worked his way through a very specific story. In the fullness of time God sent his son because He recognized that the salvation of humanity required not a message but a man; not concepts but a cross: a real, tangible, splintery, beautifully ugly cross.

10 responses to “On the Poor Quality of Christian-Made Movies: A Proposition

  1. Reblogged this on Chrisicisms and commented:
    Great thoughts on something I’ve tried to articulate (probably clumsily) several times

  2. Reblogged this on Egotist's Club.

  3. A few years ago, a script I had written for a sketch to be performed at church services came back to me with the note “This is too preachy”. At the time, it didn’t make sense and it took a while for it to sink in. The sketch was for church, after all, an extension of the sermon. I get it 100% now. You just put a little bit more clarity on the issue for me. Thanks.

  4. You seem to think that Christian art (or art made by Christians) should always be about the Questions of life.
    But our relationship with Christ (a.k.a. our faith, our religion), is the Answer. Not AN answer, but THE answer.
    Therefore, at least some of the time, when we Christians make art, we want to present that Answer. To be sure, our relationship with Christ allows us to experience and explore the questions, but you also must allow for the Answers in our art.

  5. I’ve been struggling with this topic for years. I’m editing a novel now – a story informed by a Christian worldview – and trying to make sure the message doesn’t overtake the story.

    My theory on why the devil has all the good movies (similar to music) is because spiritual truths transcend the flesh. For the most part, we enjoy movies, stories and music because they appeal to the flesh. If they do not, then they will be a failure for the average person (believer or not). Of course, if there’s a spiritual theme rightly threaded through the adventure, we love it even more. That, unfortunately, is extremely difficult.

    Name me 10 films that succeed at a Christian message but appeal to our flesh need for a believable adventure of a story. Hard to do, isn’t it? Actually, overt films work better (Ben Hur, Ten Commandments).

    Same goes with music. An honest Christian would have to admit that most of the time, the best pleasure in music is found with the secularists tunes. Spirituality and the flesh, they just don’t mesh (well). And yet they did in Jesus. Hmmm.

    P.S. 7% for The Identical was unfair. A few slip-ups shouldn’t cost the film 93%. Me thinks Rotten Tomatoes is extra hard on Christian films (not that they don’t deserve chastisement). But why is that the case? I think its because the spiritual message in a film is irksome (my point, above). It tends to take us out of the fictional dream and into reality (not a good recipe for a good story).

  6. Mick,
    Your theory that, “we enjoy movies, stories and music because they appeal to the flesh” is interesting, but I must strenuously disagree. If we can agree that “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and vice versa,” then your theory would pretty much exclude good stories from having a place in authentic Spiritual life. Which would be weird since, for the most, God chose the medium of story to carry His revelation in the scriptures.

    I would contend that stories appeal to us at a fundamental human level in that they engage us – mind, will, and emotions. Those are good things and part of what it means to be human. They are not “opposed to the Spirit” per se. For me, storytelling, music, and artistic expression that doesn’t reflect truth, even if done expertly, lacks authenticity. Yet I agree with you that it is equally annoying if it becomes propaganda. This is not an exclusively “Christian” dilemma, as is evidenced by the tons of bad/preachy/imitative secular movies out there.

    Here’s my list of 10 great movies reflective of a biblical worldview:
    1) The Giver
    2) Divergent
    3) City of Ember
    4) Blue Like Jazz
    5) A Walk to Remember
    6) I Am David
    7) The Truman Show
    8) Amistad
    9) I Robot
    10) Lez Miz (w Liam Neeson)
    11) Babette’s Feast
    12) The Pianist
    13) The Matrix (first one)
    14) Gran Torino
    (‘Sorry, it’s hard to keep it to 10…)

    • Thanks Art.

      I agree with your points. I should clarify that when I speak of the flesh, I’m not picturing it as evil or anti-Spirit. Though, now that I think about it further, in some ways I suppose it would be hard to define otherwise.

      What I mean by flesh is the more base-human desire v. the desire for God and His truth. Hollandaise sauce on eggs benedict. The fat melodic sound of a sweetly cut electric guitar lead in a blues refrain. Or a brilliant cinematic composition of a gorgeous nature background balanced by a stage left lit beautiful women in a classy cotton dress. (I know that God created all of these, but they are only of the general revelation, not the specific.)

      Somehow, the secularists have racked up more wins in their columns on these kinds of things than Christians writing Christian-themed compositions. I think part of the reason is because the secularists are unhindered (most of the time – you are right that sometimes they get caught running a Leftist commercial) with adding a purity point.

      Thanks for the movie list – I haven’t seen some of those and will check them out. I will say, though, that I don’t think these films contain a clear message of Christian truth and a number of these also imply an alternative morality to Christian purity. But I agree with you that there are elements of a Christian worldview in a lot of these. I think it was Francis Schaeffer who said “all truth is God’s truth.”

      P.S. I didn’t like Babette’s Feast. I wanted to. I kept waiting and waiting for resolution or reconciliation with the villagers or an “aha.” Maybe it was the climax — it just didn’t seem that poignant or moving.

  7. Thanks for the clarification, Mick, but I guess I still don’t really understand your distinction: “flesh = the more base-human desire v. the desire for God and His truth.” As followers of Jesus I think we must take care to conform our understanding to God’s revelation. There is nothing innately bad, or even imperfect with being human. We bear the image of God, and He pronounced His creation very good. Therefore I think we have to say that “the flesh” must have something to do with the our fallen-ness – the sinful elements of our nature. Someday “the flesh” will be done away with, yet we will still be fully human.

    I think Babette’s Feast is a perfect example. It’s the story of an isolated religious, almost cultic, community of basically sweet people, who had come to consider the pleasurable enjoyment of things that God Himself had created to be sinful/indulgent. When the outsider living among them prepares a fantastic feast for them, they are conflicted. Her sacrifice, her gift, and her attitude were all beautiful, and imho, Christlike. I recall your comment that secularists are unhindered. Babette was unhindered, but she was also right. The only reason the religious people in the movie were hindered, was because they had set up religious (unbiblical) hindrances to an fully appreciative, 3 dimensional, balanced, life-affirming existence.

    I like your reminder that all truth is God’s truth. To the extent that secular movies succeed, they are tapping into our God-given desires for the goodness that God has envisioned for us. I think God-lovers should actually have an advantage because we have the potential, at least, of fully appealing to the ideal that our Creator placed inside of all of us. Hopefully without adding in a bunch of false, misleading and perverted crap which secularists so inevitably must do. Furthermore, as the culture slips more deeply into Post-modern thinking, I think it will inevitably lose its grip on the idea of the coherent and uplifting story. Whereas for the follower of Jesus, that is the air we breathe.

    We just need to figure out how to keep it real for people who live in the real world.

    Which of the movies I listed does not “contain a clear message of Christian truth”? I admit they’re not comprehensive, and do not contain a 4 point salvation gospel presentation. But if that’s what you want to give someone, you can hand them a tract. I contend that our art should aim for the heart. I think part of our problem is confusing art with sermonizing, (which does have it’s place, btw.)

    (Please don’t take my comments as combative. I find your comments to be thought provoking…)

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