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 Life, Lord of the Rings, Chariots 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 are primarily 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.