On Christian Films
In an attempt to give context to some of my thoughts on “Christian Films” let me tell you a little about how I have felt about them in the past. I do this because I want to be fair, which is more than can be said for most Movie Reviewers, Sites, and Newspapers when it comes to discussing a “Christian Film.” I’ve made a real effort to not only be informed of what is happening in the Christian Film Community but also to try to be a voice within that community.
Like many people, I grew up watching many of the classic “Christian Films” which were produced by Christians for mostly church going audiences. For years, these films low production quality, poor acting, and didactic scripts would turn anyone away who wasn’t a Christian. In fact, to enjoy many of these films I would say you have to turn your brain off.
As I grew older and started to branch out into more and more secular films as they came out in theaters. I was immediately enamoured and knew that my days of enjoying “Christian Films were coming to an end. The quality of them was just lacking in so many areas that I could hardly watch them anymore.
Then, “The Passion of the Christ” came out. It was artistically done, conveyed a strong faith message and was the most realistic film about Christ I had ever seen. It gave me hope that one day, films like this (serious, thoughtful, quality) might be the norm for Christians and not the exception.
This reality, unfortunately, has not changed. Christian Films are till the second class citizens of movies. Every couple of years, one of them breaks out and does numbers at the box office and the whole movie industry sits up with an expression on their face that says, “How the heck can we capitalize on this hidden cash cow?” What they do not say, normally, is that the film is good. By their standards, the films are terrible.
Frankly, most of the time, I agree. I still watch, though, waiting for those gems and trying to support them when I find them.
I genuinely want to see faith represented in film but not in the Hallmark Channel cheesy way that it often is. Those sorts of story encourage Christians to believe, at best, in a simple and rosy “faith that fixes any problems in your life.” At worst, they can be propagandist and stoke fear which is an enemy of faith.
Film as Entertainment
One of the tragedies of the modern world (as it has always been) is that things are often boiled down to how much money they are able to make. The proliferation of the nickelodeon, the shift of theaters from pay-once-watch-multiple-films to charging for each individual feature, and the slow conversion of modern theaters from primarily viewing venues to food service courts have all resulted from chasing the dollars that follow people in their search for entertainment. This is understandable and has been the case for books after the invention of the printing press, ceramics and glass work with the invention of modern manufacturing, and even food with the invention of the fast food model.
Within each example, though, is an artform at the core. This core, which for purposes of this article I call art, is something related but separate. Art, whether it be in the form of an oil painting, hand thrown pot, a novel of soaring human emotion, or a film which only cinephiles would watch, is about the pursuit of something else. It may be about communication of an idea, emotion, or even a social concern. To the extent that something seeks to be about something other than money, at this stage of my intellectual development, I believe it is an art.
Art makes an attempt at discourse with the audience or a sort of engagement that is less interested in the emptying of its pockets as the filling of their souls, minds, and hearts. As art, film is a powerful tool for engaging our whole being to see ideas, people, and faith as they truly are and even move our hearts in the direction of redemption and sanctification. Each film may have things you take issue with or find offensive but therein lies its value. To help us know ourselves and the ways that we are limited, judgmental, driven by passions, and hard hearted is a value, I would have thought as a young man, would be valued by any Christian.
Alas, this is not so. This is the tragedy that I believe has befallen Christian Film. During the 70s many Christians (Evangelicals Mostly) felt Hollywood was turning into a secular indoctrination machine wherein the passions were inflamed let loose to run amok in society. To some extent (though not completely) I would agree with them but rather than recognizing these films as words and phrases in a discussion, they saw them as the power of entertainment, which is certainly a factor, and envied it.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a Christian complain about the state of entertainment in the world and a wish for more entertaining films with wholesome Christian values. Through these complaints they have inadvertently brought in to the pursuit of entertainment which at its core, from the perspective of studios, is a pursuit of wealth and fame. The goal became to “vote with your dollar” for entertainment which had some sort of moral compass and thereby “force” Hollywood to make more of them.
This effort is doomed to failure. First, because Christians who feel this way are rapidly becoming, more and more, the minority, thereby limiting the money which can be gained from them by those who seek them as an audience. Second, as that cash incentive falls, so does the number and quality of such films, leading to more pathetically basic films which portray the faith in word only because keywords are easier to put in a film than a persons heart. Third, as Christians have demonstrated this as their only condition for gaining their dollar, they have paved the way for studios, producers, and churches to dupe them out of their money with films as long as they have a church in them and someone prays at some point.
I know that this is an oversimplification and there are clear exceptions but this trajectory is definitely present and must be resisted. The temptation to see faith representations as a product that we buy, are entertained by, and then feel good about our money and time that was spent is pernicious and present in my heart, for sure, and, most likely, in yours.
Let Christians, then, examine their media and question whether they love it because it is entertainment or because it brought them closer to God, His people (all of them not just Christians), and His creation.