“Christian” Movie = “Don’t See This” Movie (part 4)

Relevant Church Rochester NY_06

A little while back I posted some blogs about Christian movies. I got more "pushback" on those blogs than most anything I've written in the last year. You can read those past blog here:

I came across a great article the other day, and I think it does a good job explaining how I feel about Christian movies as a whole – he just says it much better than I do. So I will bring back up this uncomfortable topic with this article. You can read it in its original form HERE.

By the way, I still watch Christian movies, but I think their evangelism impact is not what people imagine them to be. And often – they hurt our goal, not help. I've found the Christian movies I enjoy the most are more "artful" and indirect in their approach. 

THE PROBLEM WITH CHRISTIAN FILMS

By Andrew Barber

This past year has been the year of the Christian film. We have seen an explosion of Christian-themed and Christian-produced films, each seemingly more financially successful than the last. In the words of Scott Mendelson, box office analyst for Forbes.com, “I think we can safely say that 2014 is the year that Christian-themed religious pictures officially outnumbered comic book superhero films. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it definitely is a thing.”

And so it seems as good a time as any to evaluate: in their current state, is this flood of Christian films a good trend?

My answer is simple: no. I know it can seem petty to pick on Christian films, but they have become a noteworthy representation of Christianity. Every conversation I have with a non-Christian requires dealing with their perceptions of me as a Christian, which more often than not means dealing with the Republican Party, televangelists, and Christian media. The issue of representation aside, the problems in Christian films must be addressed, because they are not just issues of technique or stylistic preferences. They are issues of integrity.

There are currently two primary problems with Christian films: (1) they are either inherently dishonest and/or (2) they are primarily concerned with what C. S. Lewis called “egoistic castle-building.” Note: discussing both issues will require me to generalize about Christian films at large, so there will be (I hope) some exceptions. But I believe the trends discussed here are self-evidently true for a great majority of the Christian film genre.

1. Christian Films Are Often Inherently Dishonest

Over the last few years, many church-funded films have featured explicit evangelism encounters. They usually come near the climax of the movie and feature one character explaining to another how he/she is a sinner and needs Jesus, the result of which is usually conversion.  Everyone knows this scene is aimed at non-Christians in the audience; it’s the altar-call sequence of the film and frequently features explicit preaching.

The problem is the sense of bait-and-switch. We are saying, on the one hand, “Hey, we know you love art; here is our art over here!” and then “P.S. Now that we have you in the theater, we would like to convert you.” While the scenes can be powerful in presentation, they are more akin to interventions than filmmaking.

If we want to take this problem a step farther, it is worth pointing out that movies simply are not good carriers for complex propositional ideas. Think of the last “big idea” movie you’ve seen. How explicitly did it speak about its ideas? Watching The Matrix didn’t make me an expert on philosopher Jean Baudrillard and, if it had, it would have been an awful film. The Wachowskis understood that the primary role of a film is to entertain and, at most, provoke some basic thought. To work as a movie, The Matrix has no choice but to boil down its big ideas to a few simple slogans. If we, on the other hand, try to package our most important propositional truths, usually explained in 40-minute sermons, into a film, we will either make a bad movie or dilute the message. Probably both.

The films with Christian themes that have worked (Tree of LifeLord of the RingsChariots of Fire) understand that they cannot replace church or the apologist. Their filmmakers simply tried to make good movies that reflected the truth of the world around them (Chariots and Tree of Life do contain some preaching, but the preaching is tactfully employed and does not contain enough information to convert us). One can’t help but wonder if many conversion scenes are included as a justification for church involvement in filmmaking, which only further communicates that we are not making films out of love for the craft.

But What if Someone Is Converted By These Films?

First, if you are asking this question, you have proved my point that the evangelism scenes areprimarily aimed at the audience and not organic to the story.

Second, the ends don’t justify the means. In the words of one of my pastor-friends, “If someone comes to Christ through my terrible sermon, I praise God for his grace and mourn the terrible sermon.” The idea that one conversion validates even the worst means can be used to justify all sorts of evils.

If we use these Christian films as a vessel for our biggest propositional truths, we are just caving to our culture’s unfortunate trend of doing its most important discourse through entertainment.

2. Christian Films Are Often Concerned with Castle-Building

C. S. Lewis introduced his concept “egoistic castle-building” in An Experiment in Criticism. The concept is simple: egoistic castle-building occurs when a group of people project themselves “into the most enviable or most admirable character . . . [thus] reading takes them least out of themselves, confirms them in an indulgence which they already use too much, and turns them away from most of what is most worth having both in books and life.” Lewis was speaking about readers, but it works for filmgoers as well. They are so compelled and so desirous for the reality of this world to be true that “[they] have no objection to monstrous psychology and preposterous coincidence.” An easy and extreme example would be the upcoming film adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey, a story that invites women to fantasize through the exploits of Anastasia Steele.   

Most Christian films fall in the same fantasy category. They take place in a world similar to ours, and yet this is a “real world” wherein college freshmen can defeat learned college professors in debate (God Is Not Dead) and televangelists are important enough to the political process that they are framed and hunted down (Persecuted). These films are meant to assure us that our view of the world is correct. They are evangelical fantasies.

RottenTomatoes.com, a website that tallies all the critics’ scores from across the nation, just dubbed Persecuted the worst-reviewed movie of the summer. If we are trying to evangelize, the fact that most Christian-themed movies are torn to shreds by non-Christian critics becomes an issue. If, however, we just really want to see our fantasies validated on screen, then we will write-off these poor reviews as “persecution.”    

Some may argue that it is good for Hollywood to hear us. They should recognize the Christian audience. But the only message we’ve sent thus far is that we are satisfied with inexpensive, poorly received films. The more we pack out for these movies, the more of them we will get.

Time to Rethink

Certainly, there are ways to make honest, profound Christian films. What if Persecuted was about a pastor, formerly powerful in the Republican Party, coming to terms with his lessening influence?

What if God Is Not Dead was about a Christian wrestling with the fact that he knew atheists smarter and more ethical than himself?

Suddenly we would have a chance to say something vulnerable, honest, and profound. But as long as Christian films are motivated by a desire to trap people into hearing a gospel presentation, or as a consolation for losing the culture war, they should not make the final cut.

3 comments
  1. I think it would be better put to suggest the good parts of the Christian movies instead of tearing them apart for what some determine as ineffective evangelism. For example the movie God is not Dead. What’s wrong with a story about a young Christian man who boldly faces his teacher to dispel the notion that God is dead? Are we Christians misinformed so badly that we do not believe that there is anti-Christian bias in classrooms on some college campuses (if you have doubts just check out Bart Erhman – professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with his criticisms of the New Testament, Jesus, and Christianity).
    In recent Northridge teachings on evolution the term philosophical naturalism was mentioned. The teacher in this movie was a philosophical naturalist and the student did a fine job of pointing that out to the students in his class……………….all of which who eventually acknowledged that God was not dead. Was this not a victory in the sense that viewers got to hear the truth about evolutionary concepts? Did someone get converted? Maybe not but it just might have led to more critical thinking about God…..which could have led to a conversion. Who knows when the Holy Spirit will prompt an individual to seek God? This movie projected a very encouraging theme and the movie brought to light other subjects like unequal yoking in relationships and how that effects your beliefs, the quaint ways that God works in people’s lives, and the hope that God gives you for the future, etc.
    Another is the movie called Heaven is for Real. While some may ask if this was a true depiction of heaven you can’t deny what the child said he saw and what his experiences were. There were many coincidences that would lead even the casual observer to consider that maybe the child really did have the experience. God in His infinite wisdom & purpose may have given that child an experience, a vision, a dream about the glory of heaven itself. Would it not be better to focus on the encouraging aspect of heaven for the believers & non-believers than on considering if this film scored conversion points? And….just maybe……this film might have affected someone watching to learn more about Jesus……..and who knows…..gets converted at some point.
    I think it is difficult to call out specifics on conversion methods. If we asked the world’s Christ believing Christians how they came to make Jesus the leader of their life and forgiver of their sins we would get millions of answers. God in His graceful and loving nature has told us that He is “not willing that anyone should perish but that all should come to repentance”. I don’t think we should restrict our thinking on how conversions take place. Also, as Christians we need to be encouraged when movies that reflect our values and teachings become available. We should always discern the good and not so good points but praise God that we can go to the movies and see where Christ has an affect!

  2. Mike, similar to what the article said – if I preached a sermon where someone came to Christ – Id rejoice in the salvation and repent of the bad sermon. God uses all kinds of evil, bad, wicked, good, and weak things to accomplish amazing things. But that doesnt mean that we rejoice in the sinful, wicked, or bad thing… Our theology is bigger than thinking it is US that draws people to God. But maybe Im misunderstanding what you are saying.

  3. I’ve often felt Christian movies are whined one clean alternatives for our viewing but deep down felt why would a non Christian go to a movie specifically made to try to convert them, or hit them over the head with the Gospel. I’ve also felt as it seems easier to think we’ll let someone else present the whole Gospel in one sitting, than do the hard part of investing in a life to share the Gospel ourselves, in a way that’s organic & not as a salesman with an agenda, as one who is genuinely interested in s person, rather than a temp assignment with no intention of continuation of a relationship when the “deed was done.
    i remember as a young Christian so excited to share my faith. There was a coworker who lived blocks away from me who offered a ride. When she asked what I did over the weekend or where I was going it often invoked some church related activity. One one occasion I caught from the corner of my eye her rolling her eyes, obviously bored of hearing me. That was pretty much the death of my enthusiasm. I could feel a pin bursts a hole in my enthusiasm bubble. I’ve felt like not wanting to impose on people., thinking Would I want a Muslim or Hari Krishna being pushy with me? I have a coworker who recently retired, we built a genius me friendship. Over time I’ve talked to her as if she were a believer, not often but not making a distinction by “editing” my words, & it never felt forced or artificial. Once I was transparent in sharing with her s moment where I fell from grace. I never felt more vulnerable & yet more real with her during that time. She was recently diagnosed with cancer, just a few months after she retired. She called me to tell me. I asked if I could pray for her & I can tell you it was a Zgod moment. I wish there were more occasions than that, but looking at applying Pi2 to my non-Christian relationships. May God help us to “get our hands dirty”, than thinking a Christian Movie will come & save the day.

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