Weigh In: Should We Be Concerned About “Christian Movies”?

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Rikki Elizabeth Stinnette: Very interesting question. Before I answer, what do you mean by “concerned”? Do you mean concerned as in worried about their bad impact or concerned as in wanting to make more of better quality? Or something completely different?

Joshua Gibbs: I nearly asked, “Are Christian movies any good?” but I thought it kind of dull. When I say “concerned,” I suppose I mean, “Do they matter?” Are they helping? Are they worth talking about anymore than, say, the latest Newsboys record is worth talking about? Should I feel bad if I don’t like most of them?

Justin Spencer: Christian films, by and large, are not very good pieces of art. There is almost no merit in most of them that should cause us to consider them for inclusion into the canon of greatest films ever made. If I had to guess, I’d say most will be largely forgotten five years after their release, as most poor art is. If only this aspect of films is considered, most Christian films don’t matter, they aren’t worth talking about (save in passing), and one certainly shouldn’t feel bad about not liking them.

However, I doubt very much if inclusion into the canon is a going concern for those who make most Christian films. I don’t really believe that great art is the goal, nor are cinemaphiles the intended audience. Christian films seem to me a type of visual devotional, or Bible study book, made to bring quite a few people closer to God. If that objective is accomplished Christian films do matter, they are worth discussing. I still don’t think anyone should feel bad if they don’t enjoy the film being watched.

C.S. Lewis could easily have been talking about Christian films, not Christian music when he explained:

I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

Rikki Elizabeth Stinnette: Thanks for the clarification. I appreciate your charitable response, Justin. Christian films do hold a place in cultural conversation, if only for the discussions they raise among filmmakers of all stripes. They convert a handful of people and can convict Christians–including me. Matthew (1993) does an incredible job of showing a loving Jesus, and The Nativity Story (2006) illuminates both the humanity and wonder of the Gospel. Granted, only the former was an independent Christian film.

These movies probably matter most to conservative Christian parents. They want a night of innocent family entertainment that upholds their faith. As such, Christian films are a reaction against secular Hollywood. Reaction as art form is not all bad. Crime and Punishment combated literary romanticism. Impressionistic art contradicted realism. However, many Christian films copycat Hollywood. What If… replaces The Family Man.Facing the Giants is the Christian answer to most high school sports movies.

To be honest, I have a mixed relationship with Christian films. As a teenager, I wholeheartedly believed in the indie movement and dreamed of making a Christian film myself. I now know and have made a film with several Christian filmmakers. They are gracious people who genuinely believe they are following God’s will. I love the film we made together.

As I watched other Christian films, though, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. It wasn’t the production values that bothered me–many are quite good. It was the stories. The Gospel tells a heart-pounding, gut-wrenching tale of perversion, damnation, sacrifice, and redemption. Nearly all the Christian films I know sugar-coat reality. They don’t exalt evil like some secular films, but they often give pat answers to pain and depravity. Flat characters and predictable plots abound.

To quote C.S. Lewis again, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” Films designed particularly for Christians have their place. I enjoy some of them, as do my friends and family. However, they have little enduring value for a wider audience.

I would like to see Christian filmmakers make the cinematic equivalents of Crime and Punishment or Paradise Lost. Christian films should present the most powerful and engaging stories of all. I just don’t see it very often–at least not yet.

Joshua Gibbs: While “Christian Movies” is a term which rightly brings to mind Kirk Cameron/Kevin Sorbo films, I think it should also bring to mind Tree of Life and Damsels in Distress. While a good many contemporary Christian movies are an embarrassment to Christianity, we should also remember that the best maker of dramatic films alive today (Terrence Malick) and the best maker of comedies alive today (Whit Stillman) are both Christians who make films that are obviously Christian. Most Christians don’t think of Malick and Stillman as “Christian filmmakers,” though I wonder if we’ve let our own self-image be overly dictated to us by manifestly Christian publishing houses and media outlets. Malick and Stillman don’t market their films as “family-friendly,” which seems to be enough for some Christians to dismiss their work.

Timothy Lawrence: I think the problem here is twofold. On the one hand, you have the stigma against “Christian movies” (of the Facing the Giants/Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas variety), held by Christians and non-Christians alike. On the other, you have the stigma many Christians hold against secular films (hence, the reactionary creation of “Christian – that is, non-secular – films”).

It seems to be generally taken for granted that most “Christian movies” aren’t very good. While the production value is, admittedly, increasing, the plots are generally poor and the morals ham-fisted. Courageous, for example, feels more like a sermon than a story (it ends with a literal altar call). Miss Stinnette is spot-on: the vast majority of independent Christian movies sugar-coat reality and give pat answers to questions that deserve more.

Dorothy Sayers writes, “The end of the work will be decided by our religious outlook: as we are so we make. It is the business of religion to make us Christian people, and then our work will naturally be turned to Christian ends, because our work is the expression of ourselves. But the way in which the work is done is governed by no sanction except the good of the of work itself; and religion has no direct connection with that, except to insist that the workman should be free to do his work well according to its own integrity.” For all their laudable moral fiber, if Christian films aren’t good films, I’m not sure how much they please God. Christians should seek to do their work well, and the mere fact of art being good art will be pleasing to God. Good art isn’t necessarily explicitly Christian.

That said, it’s worth pointing out (as Gibbs did) that, thankfully, not all explicitly Christian movies are bad art. In addition to Malick and Stillman, there are other Christian filmmakers working in Hollywood today (notably, many of the key creative team at Pixar are Christians). Looking back further, we have great works like Ordet, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, and Babette’s Feast. Additionally, not all films about Christians but not made by Christians are critical of the faith – most recently, look at this year’s Calvary and its immensely sympathetic portrayal of a priest.

James Banks: I do not know that I have a lot to add to the conversation that has not already been said. The works of Terence Malick, as well as recent movies such as Gravity are consistent with a Christian telos which is, I think, ostensibly how we ought to define a “Christian” movie, as opposed to—say—the recent adaptation of the Left Behind *series, which may or may not be made by Christians and is definitely marketed to Christians but is just as assuredly not a Christian movie.

The fact that a movie is consistent with a Christian telos may not be enough to say that it is actually of the Lord’s party, though the influence of faith often coincides with the development of these films in very real ways. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is (from what I can make out through online searches) Catholic but, while The Lives of Others could be described as a Christian movie, its anti-Enlightenment humanism could not be described as being exclusively Christian. Film’s seeking to be exclusively Christian often end up being something else entirely. One genre in which Christian filmmakers should make headway with improved production values is the documentary. A talented director or cinematographer can make a film a memorable experience even when propagating a message worthy of withering disdain (see Eisenstein, Sergei and Riefenstahl, Lena). The fact that the genre is grounded in reality discourages sentimentality while a typically modest budget will encourage resourcefulness and creativity. Nonetheless, the excursions of directors who purport to be Christians into this particular genre have not been promising. Dinesh D’Souza’s movies are atrocious. I think that a large part of the problem with “Christian” films which are trying to be “Christian” films is that the financiers of such productions do not know what they are getting into. Filmmaking is a genre specific art, but a filmmaker cannot expect to master it without having a deep understanding of many other genres. Analogously, one cannot expect to understand algebra without first understanding arithmetic. Filmmaking frequently depends on both photography and narrative, but too many filmmakers seeking to produce an alternative to Hollywood are not aware of all that goes into it. I am as yet unconvinced that films which are seeking to be exclusively Christian, made by the Kevin Sorbos, Kirk Camerons and Dinesh D’Souzas of the world, can ever have the same quality the counterparts they seek to replace. I hope—for everyone’s sake—that filmmakers like these will eventually produce better work. Until then, we should keep watching movies by Terence Malick, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and Alfonso Cuaron if we want to see the sort of work that Christian filmmaking should aspire to.

Justin Spencer: While I agree that Malick, Cuaron, et al. are great filmmakers, that their films will be remembered as great films, and that their films draw deeply on Christian themes, the simple fact is that few people (comparatively) see their films, fewer still understand them on a surface level, and fewer still understand them as deeply Christian films. Of course those are the types of films that Christians should desire to make and Christian viewers should want to understand and be moved by, simply because they are some of the truest, most beautiful, best films ever made.

However, the vast majority of viewers are not moved by such films in the same way that they are moved by a second or third rate films like Facing the Giants. That counts for something.

That Facing the Giants is a bad film (artistically and perhaps thematically, I haven’t seen it in a long time) is not disputed. That it has the positive effect of bring certain viewers closer to God is certain. That alone means that we should answer Josh’s question in the affirmative. We should be concerned about Christian films. They do matter.

Joshua Stevenson: Christians—with the notable exceptions already mentioned—have gotten really good at turning art into something that has a carefully curated, “correct”  message. We view ourselves as people who have the answers and therefore people who need to communicate a set of thoughts which accurately convey those answers. This creates art that’s like a live-action power point presentation. It gets thoughts from one place to another, and is brighter and more exciting than a slideshow. Christians seem to think of different mediums as only different in application, not as different in substance.

But pieces of art don’t only, or even primarily, advance positions or ideas. They provide an aesthetic experience. You can’t really agree or disagree with Tree of Life. You can be moved by it, or not be moved by it. You might be able to get a reasonable idea about a particular point that a filmmaker was trying to make and deal with that, but that’s not what’s at the heart of a major aesthetic experience. If all you’re getting out of art is a set of ideas, then you’re missing it.

When our Christian practice relies on a set of ideas, we’re prone to make bad art—art that merely strives to accomplish an Evangelico-Capitalist goal of “getting the message” out there, or which just upholds the most basic aspects of the Gospel. What humans actually want in art is the experience of transformation. You know that feeling that you got at the end of The Matrix? You felt transformation in your body. You felt it at the end of Eternal Sunshine, or The Incredibles, or A Room With a View, or Hamlet, or Die Hard. But you don’t feel it in Christian movies. We’ve been good at showing altar-calls and conversions, but bad at making an audience feel a transformation.

In my own thinking I probably denigrate the ideas that movies convey beyond what balance would dictate. But I don’t really care. Something has to offset our concern for getting those ideas right. Think about the liberties that Dante and Milton took. If we can get free enough of thinking right, we might have a chance to make someone feel something right, which would be effective far beyond the bounds of communicating a message.

Justin Spencer: I like a lot of what you had to say Joshua. The only question I have after is about the transformative aesthetic experience you described. I agree that that is, in large part, what makes great art great. But isn’t it also fairly subjective? To be clear, I don’t believe that subjective equals bad, but it seems that quite a few people have a transformative experience watching things like “Facing the Giants.” I only have the personal experience of teaching at a school where such films were extremely popular to back that up, but it seemed that standard Christian films deeply affected those who liked them. How do we account for that?

Joshua Stevenson: First, it should never be surprising that a given mass tends not have a developed aesthetic sense. Which is fine. There’s no way around it. Most people aren’t wise about movies (or visual art, or poetry, or literature, or music) and aren’t trying to earn wisdom. So I’m inclined not to worry too much about what a given population thinks is good.

Like the pursuit of any kind of wisdom, there is a necessary subjectivity here. However, people who’ve done some of the work and trained their aesthetic sense arrive at some less subjective judgments. They might generally agree that Bach is worth your time. Or that you should read some Jane Austen, or Dostoevsky, or watch Tree of Life. And If you’ve had your aesthetic sense trained, maybe you wouldn’t respond to Facing the Giants  in quite the same way. Unfortunately, we’ve had a major deficit in our evangelical landscape and mentors with a developed aesthetic sense are as rare as consensual congress between ducks.

The other issue is that any group can allow themselves to be manipulated into delighting not in the aesthetic value of a thing, but in the fact that it reinforces already held beliefs. When our tribe is represented, we tend to react like someone at a football game who sees themselves up on the jumbotron. Everyone does this to an extent. And I’m not saying that you should work to divorce aesthetic delight from your core beliefs. I’m saying that the two should be more closely integrated—that we shouldn’t accept excellent ideas clothed in subpar execution—and that we should be open to some push and pull between them.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books, collects records and jogs to work. He and his wife have two children, both of whom have seven names. He tweets at @joshgibbs and blogs for the CiRCE Institute.

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