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.