Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Trouble with "Christian Movies"

A lot has been written lately all over the internet over what is wrong with "Christian movies" or other forms of Christian media.  My take on the subject will be limited and attempt to avoid covering the insights of others.  The first important point is that the moniker "Christian movie" is much too broad, especially when articles are clearly only critiquing a certain brand of American Evangelical movie, something along the lines of Facing the Giants or the other movies made by those folks.  What is a Christian movie?  Does it have to be explicit or can it be metaphorical?  Must it explicitly promote accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior or can it merely promote broad Christian morality?  What if it merely has some Christian characters portraying our faith in a positive light?  One thing I do know is, if the label is appropriate at all, then it includes more than this narrow brand of American Evangelical movie.  While I will only be referencing Facing the Giants, this is for simplification, not because I haven't seen other examples.

What is the problem with these movies?  They are preachy!  What does this mean?  They purport to be stories, but are largely just sermons.  Good storytelling leaves the message in the subtext.  It demonstrates truth through action, not through lengthy exposition.  This doesn't mean it has to be an utterly impenetrable enigma, but it should have at least some layer of mystery.  This mystery adds realism, too, as our regular world is not often so overtly ideological, Christian or otherwise.  Something that isn't realistic often doesn't feel truthful, either.  Some have said, although this is a little brush strokes, that Protestants are people of the word and Catholics are people of the image.  This is exaggerated, of course, but it is instructive.  Being of the image is of the utmost importance when working with film, a primarily visual medium.  If meaningless images are going to say meaningful words for two hours, I may as well stay home and read a book.  Aesthetics matter because, in theory, they are the reason you are even using a medium.  Steve Martin once said to aspiring actors, "Be so good they can't ignore you."  I want Christian art that is so good, the secular world can't ignore it.


What about the Gospel being spread by these movies, regardless of quality?  What Gospel?  While I'm sure many have found these movies edifying, many of these movies also contain the sort of shallow, feel-good theology that causes people to leave church when life gets hard.  Facing the Giants shows a character having everything go wrong for him to the point of caricature, and after he turns it over to God, everything goes right for him to the point of caricature.  While God often does bless us in this life and we should be grateful for it, the sort of "prosperity gospel" preached in this movie does not strike me as of the New Testament.  While the main character does vow to praise God no matter what, we never see him in any adversity after his conversion.  Many of the most popular Christian movies have some false teaching under the surface, and I say this from an ecumenical Christian standpoint.  According to their defensive fans, heresy from a purportedly Christian source is not a big deal as long as they were uplifted on the whole.  Also, Facing the Giants briefly promotes in vitro fertilization in a scene that screamed the writers are ignorant of Catholicism.  Why else would they needlessly offend devout Catholics, of which I am one, with such a throwaway reference?  What if someone is influenced by that?


I would also claim that many of these movies, by design, only preach to the choir.  Preaching to the choir is their business model.  If you can pump out b-movies with a built-in audience, why disrupt a viable business model with more plausible attempts at evangelization?  Christians are just another demographic, like horror movie fans.  Most movies and television are made with a target audience in mind.  While Christianity transcends demographics, our movies generally do not.  They are actually preaching to a choir so narrow, they sometimes accidentally alienate fellow travelers in the Catholic Church, as noted above.  While I don't doubt the earnestness of ALL these movies and production companies, in the final product, it is often hard to see any difference between earnestness and pandering.  Some Christians presume these movies must be evangelizing someone due to their own edifying experiences with them, but this is projection.  But what if just one person is saved?  This sort of banal logic could literally be applied to anything.  Anything could lead to someone's conversion somehow, but once the probability dips below a certain amount, it becomes silly to ask this question.  Knowing how much time, effort and money goes into making a movie, they might have won more souls putting their talents and resources into something else.  Lastly, if we truly believe that a poorly made movie can win souls for Christ, this should not be an excuse for mediocrity, but instead it should be a call to action for content creators and viewers to support and encourage better material.  If a bad movie can save one person, then a good movie can save two people.  I  do believe in the supernatural and the miraculous.  While the Holy Spirit can certainly work through a movie, we should do our part, too, and make something good instead of just making sub-par material and waiting for a miracle.  Preaching to the choir is not entirely worthless, but let's not pretend it is more than it is.

Those who claim we "must" support these movies can often be self-righteous, philistine hypocrites.  They are self-righteous because of their judgmental tone, some even insisting it's sinful to express distaste for these movies.  They are philistine because of their bad taste.  They are hypocrites because they insist we must support these movies that they like, but if a good foreign-language or arthouse Christian movie gets released, you don't hear a peep from them.  Apparently God wants us to sit through hokum, bite our tongues and even promote it for the sake of the kingdom, but He is not calling them to put up with subtitles or do a five-minute google search for the kingdom.  They are just lazily watching and talking about what is most readily visible and highly marketed to them.  This is pretty much how mainstream audiences pick out movies, but with a small Christian modifier.  The term "Christian movie," as often used in modern parlance, ultimately refers to a movie marketed primarily to Christians.  This definition is problematic because it is defines the movies by their marketing strategy and not something inherent in them, but it does explain why "Christian audiences" have missed so many great movies while some "Christian movies" are actually secular.  They even have "Christian movie" web sites that conspicuously miss many directors that Christian cinephiles love, thus perpetuating the artistic ghetto.  These audiences are deifying their own tastes and creating a false choice based on their limited knowledge of a surprisingly broad market.  This is even more ridiculous for certain sola scriptura Protestants who claim they only believe in the Bible, but are pushing a canon of (terrible) movies people are obligated to like, lest we be labeled pawns of Satan.  If you truly want to support real Christian media, and not just a narrow brand, do more research.  One only need to type the phrase "Catholic movies" into google to find hundreds of great faith-based and values-based movies, many of which are newer.

I would like to discuss the idea of things being Christian "enough."  Nitpicking over whether a work of art is Christian "enough" is an attempt to make the sacred more sacred, but it can lead to a polarized dichotomy where the secular is more secular and Godless.  By constantly demanding purity, we eliminate the middle, which is where the rest of society is most likely to meet us.  We also accept that certain places, spaces etc. in our lives will be made Godless, because of this all or nothing approach.  This plays into the hands of secularists who want us to keep God only at church.  Over the past couple years, I was blessed to be involved with the young adult ministry at my awesome church.  At meetings, after prayer and teaching, we would go out for dinner and sometimes spontaneously talk about God or even make corny, but tasteful, religious-themed jokes.  If we didn't meet at this halfway point, we might have given God nothing over dinner.  There has to be a middle ground between solemnly praying and goofing off.  When we see Christian metaphors and messages in popular culture, we should celebrate this and prudently use it as a starting point.  It is a sign of hearts yearning for Him on some level.  Father Robert Barron actually does movie reviews/ analyses online where he finds Christian elements in popular secular movies.  As Kanye West reminded us, "The world needs Jesus like Kathie Lee needed Regis."

Everything is Christian on some level because the entire universe belongs to God, even the "secular" parts.  I understand the words secular and sacred and respect their uses, but ultimately things are not either secular or sacred, they are only implicitly or explicitly sacred, or a little of both.  Many of history's greatest minds had their intellectual pursuits deeply wrapped up with their religious devotion because understanding art, science, philosophy, etc. was a way of tapping into the mind of God.  Making these things a dichotomy reduces God to a concept that only exists when explicitly brought up.

Lastly, I would like to issue a warning to my fellow high culture Christians.  Our taste should not be a cause of snobbery.  Also, art is primarily a path to God, not the other way around.  I'm not a Catholic for the Gregorian chant.  I'm here to know, love and serve Jesus Christ.  If someone finds spiritual uplift from listening Christian radio in their car, good for them.  Nevertheless, I think beauty is a great path to God and I do hold high culture Christianity in higher esteem than low culture Christianity and I do believe this goes beyond my personal preference.


Below is a short list of movies that I consider both great and explicitly Christian.  I recommend them to believers and non-believers alike.  Perhaps this is my bias showing, but I believe movies like these, as challenging and esoteric as some of them are, are still a better evangelization tool than on-the-nose, American Christian movies.  If nothing else, they are respected works of cinema that some non-believers actually want to watch.


Some Great Explicitly Christian Movies

The Passion of Joan of Arc
Director: Carl Dreyer     Year: 1928

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a powerful adaptation of her trial and martyrdom.  Her struggles with faith and fear are very real and the audience is brought up close with these internal struggles as most of the movie is close-up shots.  The movie is, of course, meant to resemble a Passion play.  It's a story of destruction and redemption, much like Christ's passion.  Nearly ninety years later, and with a place in the popular Criterion Collection, this old silent movie is still moving movie lovers with the witness of Saint Joan.  The newest DVD has a great original soundtrack.

Director: Robert Bresson     Year: 1951

This movie is harder to describe than the others, but still great.  It is the story of a new young priest who moves into a country parish and is treated with hostility and apathy.  He is shy, introverted and misunderstood.  On top of this, he is deeply ill, uniting him to Our Lord in suffering.  I have hardly seen a more theologically significant film.  Nearly everyone in this film is dealing with some crisis of faith which leads to some deeply moving and complex conversions.  This is a movie about the interior lives of individuals and brings with it a certain suspense and urgency of salvation. 
On the Waterfront
Director: Elia Kazan     Year: 1954

This is one of those movies I show to people I want to introduce to a black and white movies.  It's the story of a longshoreman wrestling with his conscience over reporting a mob murder.  It's also the story of a parish priest who must step out and care for his flock at any price.  The speech about seeing the crucifixion in contemporary suffering and injustice is very rousing, both for itself and for the subtext of the priest bringing his sermon to the streets.  Marlon Brando gives one of the greatest performances ever.  It's a great story about putting faith into action.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini     Year: 1964

Oddly enough, the director of this movie was an openly gay, Marxist, atheist.  Nevertheless, this is one of the best adaptations of the life of Christ.  This movie only covers the Gospel of Saint Matthew rather than the usual amalgamation of all four.  It does so in a very literal way with a simplicity reminiscent of an icon painting.  It covers the most essential details without a lot of cinematic add-ons.  The soundtrack is made up of classical music, African music, gospel music and more. 



Into Great Silence
Director: Philip Gröning     Year: 2005

This is hands-down one of my all-time favorite movies.  There's no narrator or added music in this documentary; just two hours and forty minutes of Carthusian monks, who have taken a vow of silence, going about their daily business.  It is an immersion into a monastery and an invitation to meet God as a "still, small voice."  The monks pray silently alone, they chant liturgy of the hours together, they eat meals, shovel snow, cut wood and occasionally talk.  When one gets caught up in the trance of this movie, it's sad to see it end.  Click the title above for my full review.

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