Tag Archives: christian film

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.

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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.

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.

“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.