What are movies—including but not limited to Christian-made movies—meant to do?
If Christian movies are like Christian sermons, how should they play by sermon rules?
Do these films actually challenge people? Help people convert? Have any timeless appeal?
Those questions are from the first episode and second episode of the 21 Challenges for Christian Movie Critics and Fans. Here’s the final episode, and this time I will risk beginning to offer some answers to my own questions. My thanks to readers for their sharpening me.
If you’re familiar with “content warnings” or “trigger warnings,” among either evangelicals or progressivists, you may be tempted to laugh or shrug this off. Sometimes I feel the same. But the apostle Paul warns1 against doing something that is causing weaker brothers to stumble.2
In this case, what happens when a Christian movie fan hears a Christian critic blasting it?
I don’t believe the fan would technically stumble per Paul’s warning. That is, the fan would not feel tempted to imitate the criticism of Christian movies but with sinful motives. But the fans could assume certain things about the reason for the critic’s condemnation, such as:
Is the Christian movie critic responsible for misinterpretations? Not at all. And yet Paul promotes care and love for people who might wrongly assume that your good action is actually evil. He says, “Do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.”3 I’m often re-learning this truth. If I’m going to go out challenging or critiquing a Christian movie, I need to be sensitive to and respond to what fans will assume.
You may love Christian movies and think they’re not only amazing, but a great way to reach people who would not otherwise listen to Christians or visit a church. If so, have you also considered whether the actual nonbelievers you know feel the same way about the movies?
Some people instead have stigmas about evangelical culture such as Christian movies, or even music or Thomas Kinkade paintings. Some non-Christians—especially if they grew up in certain evangelical backgrounds—react to evangelical culture in the same way Christians (rightly) react to blasphemy or TV nudity. A non-Christian sees an evangelical-culture thing and assumes, “I gave that up when I was a child. That’s not worth my time.”4
If we choose to embrace the Christian culture that is marketed to us, we run the risk of giving nonbelievers and new believers the impression that this culture is essential to the faith, that part of what it means to be a Christian is to accept a set of cultural tastes and interests. Even if we have the freedom to decorate our home with porcelain figures from the local Christian bookstore, to exclusively let our children watch Veggie Tales, and to listen to the Christian radio station, if these cultural choices come to define us as a community, then we can very easily present a false image of the faith. If we are more easily identified by our particular taste in movies than our love for each other, or if these become inseparable, then we have conflated the Gospel and the community of the Church with the social phenomenon that is Christianity.5
If non-Christians have such stigmas about Christian movies, then we need to rethink the reasons we like these movies (the challenge of question 2 in episode 1). At least, we must avoid saying things like, “Christian movies can reach unbelievers with biblical truth.”
Once upon a time, most of the big movies were made by Big Hollywood. Evangelicals would see them sometimes, but usually condemn everything wrong with Big Hollywood.
And the evangelicals would not actually try to make any of the big movies themselves.
Today, some of the (relatively) big movies are made by Christians. Other Christians see them sometimes, but usually condemn everything wrong with the Christian movie-makers.
And most Christian movie critics do not actually try to make the big movies themselves.
So—are critics incidentally turning into little but a complaining counter-culture? Are they vulnerable to the charge of, “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it”?
This challenge is partly untrue. Some Christians are trying to make their own films that are not typical family-friendly “Christian movies.” I’ve heard of examples, including a few independent Christian-made movies that acknowledge their limitations and try to value not only truth but excellent production value. But for whatever reason, these movies have not taken off like a War Room or a God’s Not Dead.
Like it or not, there’s a bigger audience for those popular movies than there is for, say, a Christian-made indie art-house drama.
Christian critics of poorly made, sentimental-story Christian films need to show, not just tell. And some need to make better films that appeal the popular level. Like how Jesus did.
Some critics who say we need better, deeper, hotter, expensive, more-biblical Christian movies need to be told just one little shutdown phrase: “Okay, that will be $70 million.”6
But what Christians need first may be even more expensive:
Imagine a movie in which an angry politician, exasperated business leader, or desperate action hero lets loose with an F-bomb. Depending on the context this can be offensive, understandable, or even seemingly “required.”
Now, imagine a Christian movie in which a wholesome Christian character depresses the verbal detonator. It won’t come across as anything other than awkward or even hilarious.
In fact, I’ve read some “edgy” Christian fiction in which it’s obvious the author is playing with verbal matches. I can almost see the gleeful “Hee hee, I lit up a word and set the page on fire” grin on their faces. Or in a better context, you can see the author just awkwardly try out the Bad Words in a story context that does not even lend itself to the swear.
Like it or not, cussing isn’t most evangelicals’ native language. You may argue that it should be. Here I’m ducking that issue. What I say is that “wholesomeness” critics who awkwardly force such “edginess” often look just as silly as the folks who enforce “wholesomeness.”
Careful Christian reviewers avoid confusing movies and fans. But anecdotally I spy this impulse in myself and in other critics of sentimental and poorly made Christian movies.
For example, some negative War Room reviews say things like “This idea could lead naïve Christians to believe that …” or, “This part of the story could imply that …” And this is a bad movie-review hermeneutic. This does not engage the movie on its own terms. This does not keep the movie itself separate from the fans we’re picturing in our heads—an imaginary crowd of evangelical magpies who snatch anything spiritually shiny without discernment.
Yes, these folks do exist. But they should not make cameo appearances in movie reviews. Anyway, lambasting them or their movies is not the way to challenge the problem.
However, I must admit this: Most Christian movies emphasize overtly “spiritual” things, especially the moment of salvation. This frustrates me. Not because I think the theme of salvation is boring, or so “mysterious” as to be meaningless, or cliché, or “unartistic.”
Instead I’m frustrated because the approach is almost always so limited.
Christian movies often act as if conversion (or re-dedication) is first a theatrical moment or a decision point, rather than a miraculous—yet quickly quantifiable—life transformation.
Or as if the whole story must be about the conversion rather than what happens afterward.
The closest genre equivalent is the romance or romantic comedy in which the story does not start with an already-married couple but a pair of singles who, after ensuing hijinks, Learn to Love Again. I don’t oppose this. I love these stories. But I also love other stories—especially fantastical ones.
Now imagine a theater full only of singles-find-love stories.
Is that what Christians want to be known for? As if Christianity is only about conversion or overt re-dedication events? What happens after salvation? I mean, what do we do in real life other than try to get other people saved, or Rededications, or Family Values?
I suspect many Christians think these are our best and thus most story-suitable qualities. Only when we explore the universe-rebuilding aspects of the gospel will we reconsider this.
Think like a pragmatist marketer who gets the raw materials of the Christian religion.
No, not the audience. Not the people in churches. The faith itself.
Imagine you’re a movie producer/writer. Lock yourself in a room with just the Bible and some of the classic works of theology written about it. Now write a movie story proposal.
Too much to start with? Then start the way pretty much every movie producer seems to be starting: Pre-existing name recognition from before the D.S.E (Smartphone Distraction Era).7 What do most people assume or know accurately about Christianity?
Too deep? Keep the theme popular but also deep. The best movies do both. How about:
Theodicy. As a recent conversation confirms, people hate/love exploring the issue of why an omnipotent God allows sin, and suffering. This is prime popular-Christian-movie material, especially if you honestly end with some questions unanswered.
Parables. Some Christian movies are adaptations of Jesus’s popular parables, yet with at best mixed results. This may be because they imagine a parable’s purpose is “to teach a moral” or “to convert the hearer.” But “to reveal a truth about the Kingdom of Heaven that takes some digging to understand” is closer to Jesus’s purpose in telling parables.
Epics. Christians, we keep forgetting we started the fantastical story genre. All of Western culture has been based on a Judeo-Christian worldview that includes God and creation and miracles and providence and redemption plus the true-myth version of the Hero’s Journey that has been a crux of stories for centuries. There is no reason to abandon this depth of our faith and leave it to be explored by secular filmmakers. We know the Hero of the Hero’s Journey. We may not have millions, but we have this creative “edge.” Why not mine the riches of our faith about Him and use those riches to finance our cinematic creativity?