In recent years we have seen the growth of a genre I might call “theological documentary.” As faith-oriented films go, this genre has become somewhat of a bright spot in an otherwise uninspiring “Christian movie” landscape. Documentaries can get away with being didactic and apologetics-oriented in ways fiction films can’t, which is why they’re often well-suited for theological content. Last year’s For the Love of God documentary, for example, was a far more effective defense of Christianity than any of the God’s Not Dead films, in my view. The potency of American Gospel as an exposé of the prosperity gospel derived in large part from the interviews with real people it featured.
With an ever-broadening array of streaming platforms and direct-to-consumer distribution options, Christian documentary filmmakers have an easier time getting their films to audiences. All of this adds up to an exciting time for faith-oriented documentary filmmaking—and I hope it’s only the beginning.
Just in the first few months of 2020, I’ve seen three new, noteworthy Christian documentaries that I commend to you. They’re about different subject matters—sea creatures, the spiritual realm, and serving in war zones—but all three are great for church or small-group discussion. Check them out.
The Riot and the Dance: Water
The second film in the Riot and the Dance franchise—a more whimsical, faith-infused Planet Earth—releases March 6. Like its predecessor, Riot and the Dance: Earth (TGC review), this is a “supernatural nature documentary” that explores the mind-boggling diversity of life, in a variety of locations and ecosystems, but through a lens of seeing nature as God’s creation, his living museum that reveals his artistic brilliance. Written by N. D. Wilson and starring biologist Gordon Wilson, this installment focuses on creatures in watery environs—frog-eating bugs in muddy ponds, humpback whales in Monterey Bay, snakes and salamanders in the Everglades, and so forth. It’s a fascinating, family-friendly film that highlights the wonders of our watery world, even as it ponders the meaning of water in theological terms. Early in the film the narrator observes that, at this moment somewhere in this world, the molecules of water that were used in Christ’s baptism “are still at work, floating in clouds, falling on windshields, heaving in the tidal seas. . . . It might be in baptism that we see water as its truest self. It is death. It is life. Destruction. Resurrection.”
How to view: Group and family screening packages available
The Unseen Realm
If you’re looking for a film to watch and discuss with your church small group, or a group of friends who like pondering heady theological questions, add The Unseen Realm to your list. Based on the book by Michael Heiser (TGC review), the film explores how the grand story of Scripture—from Genesis to Revelation—is fundamentally one of supernatural spiritual forces doing battle. Not only is the documentary fascinating and informative, but it’s a welcome reminder—in a rationalistic, demystified age—that the Christian story is inescapably supernatural. Featuring interviews with pastors and scholars like Darrell Bock, Eric Mason, and Ben Witherington III, the documentary at times feels like an overly academic lecture in need of dramatic visuals to match its intriguing content. But as fodder for discussion about intriguing topics like a rebellion in the “divine council” and the identity of the “sons of God” and the Nephilim in Genesis 6:1–4, the film is definitely worth a watch.
How to view: Digital, Blu-ray, and church viewing options available
Free Burma Rangers
Free Burma Rangers is one part war documentary, one part missionary profile. Produced in partnership with LifeWay Films, it follows the globe-trotting missionary efforts, over two decades, of Dave and Karen Eubank. Worldly wisdom would call the couple crazy for bringing their three young children to live and serve in violent war zones like Burma and Syria. Indeed, the film raises great questions for discussion along these lines. Is there a point where laudable gospel ambition becomes reckless and dangerous? Should a missionary of Jesus ever wield a machine gun and partner with combat forces? For students of missiology, active or aspiring missionaries, or really any Christian, Free Burma Rangers is worth your time. The film is a provocative and moving portrait—similar in some ways to 2017’s Facing Darkness—of how the gospel of Jesus Christ motivates believers to flee comfort and run toward danger, dodging bullets and bombs to be conduits of healing and hope.
How to view: In theaters Feb. 24 and 25