What Can Make Christian Films Better
I recently came across this post by Nicholas McDonald and it challenged my thinking. As someone who has worked with artists and as someone who may have some creative tendencies myself, it can be often too easy to take the “what’s wrong with Christian films” approach, especially after a recent unpleasant experience with a film that claims to be “Chrisitian”. Sometimes the artist within me wants to spew my unadulterated thoughts all over the internet like an explosion of space junk that might make me feel better for a moment, but does little to help the problem. So, thank you, Nicholas for reminding me that there may be a better way.
Having watched a recent “Christian” film, I left with many thoughts I wanted to express, most of which were not provoked by the content of the film but it’s use of the medium. Most of the thoughts were negative, but I also recognized some excellent art within the film as well. But rather than make this post my own review of one particular film, I want to add some more general thoughts to what I hope to be a continuing conversation throughout the Christian community on how we all have a responsibility in helping to make better (Christian) films.
1. We need more filmmakers who are Christians
“Christian” art has been around for a long time. One could make an argument that, in general, at least in Western Civilization, Christian art has done more to influence culture than any other artistic influence (think Handell’s “Messiah”, or Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, etc.). And while a lot of so called Christian music gets a bad rap, I would argue that the Church has also done more to propel singers and artists into careers in the music industry and art music than any other institution would ever dream (even many modern pop stars got their start singing in church or even in making “Christian” music). But this isn’t so in the film industry.
Dreams are often born in childhood. Yet if you were a child in church anywhere from the early 1900’s even through today, you most likely heard your share of sermons from the pulpit of the evils of Hollywood and the gutter other wise known as the film industry. It comes as no surprise then, that until recently, we have not had a major influx of Christian filmmakers. This has been born out of a philosophy that began to take root in evangelical churches in the 80’s of the more “neutral” nature of a particular artistic medium (mainly music at that time) and that the words were what made something explicitly “Christian”. This philosophy has now carried over into the young, fledgling Christian film industry as well and is partly what rubs many (film critics and movie goers) the wrong way.
You see, while we are beginning to tout the roll of martyr in our culture when it’s convenient politically, we are still a pretty sizable bunch. Actually, one could argue that we are the largest “special interest” there is when it comes to film marketing and relatively speaking, we’re a pretty supportive group by those standards. Here’s the problem:
- We (Evangelicals) now want to see Christian films (20 years ago, many weren’t even “allowed” by their church’s teaching to darken a movie theater)
- We are a relatively “new”, yet sizable market.
- We have relatively few sources to provide these films for us.
- We are often left with 2 options:
- Trust non-Christian filmmakers with experience and large budgets to make these for us and put up with their “artistic license” (especially when it comes to explicitly biblical themes–think Noah, Exodus, etc…).
- Support lesser-experienced film makers with smaller budgets and fall short in competing with the Hollywood elite.
Christians aren’t the only ones to make bad films. There are TONS of bad films (by anyone’s standard) made each year by non-Christians, but the worst among those don’t get seen by the masses because the film industry has a well-established filtering process and most people won’t go and support poorly made films. Yet, Christians often do. The Christian film maker has a unique advantage over his peers in that his interest group WILL support his film if it has the “right” propositional agenda and can get marketed by the “right” ministry conduits, even if it doesn’t qualify as good art. Like any special interest, however, the artist is forced to pander to the desires of his audience, which in this case desires mostly propositional truth devoid of much of what is considered good art (tension, conflict, contrast, passion, indeterminate, etc.), because even if he’s capable of creating good art, his audience (the one paying the bills) often can’t handle it. BUT by having more Christian filmmakers, we will increase the odds that even the propositional films will be better made and that an increasing number of filmmakers will take the risk to make more artful films with redemptive themes.
2. We need to more carefully consider the audience
Nobody likes a bait and switch, but that is largely what has given Christian films a bad name in the eyes of the general public and even among a friendly audience. There have been too many propositional films that have marketed themselves or wrapped themselves in different clothing leaving a poor taste in the mouths of those who had a different expectation.
Recently I remember purchasing tickets to another local mega-church’s Christmas production. It was marketed fairly heavily (and well) and I had great expectations going in hoping I could also learn something (as I was also at that time producing large scale Christmas events). I paid $20 for the ticket and another $20 for a friend to attend with me. There were some cool elements to the program, but it attempted to do too much (story wise) and had me looking for the exit door about 30 minutes in from sheer boredom. To make it worse, after over 90 minutes of yawn worthy production time the pastor of the church got up and spoke (preached) for another 30 minutes. I just remember thinking if I felt this way (as one who was all for what they were trying to do), what did the person who was simply expecting a Christmas Extravaganza think? I felt at the end like I had paid $40 to attend a church service. Now, most people get it–it’s a Christmas program and it’s likely to carry the story of Christmas (hopefully anyway). But there is a big difference between selling tickets to a show (with the idea of “outreach”) and having people feel like they paid good money to hear a preacher (for 30 minutes) when that’s not what they were expecting.
I can’t imagine the financial pressure of having to squeeze every last dime out of potential revenue just to make a film happen in the first place, but too often the Christian film industry trades short term gains for long term losses in this case. I personally do not have a problem with propositional films, but if you’re going to make a propositional film (one that’s main goal is to prove a largely religious viewpoint) don’t wrap it in the form of art or secuar entertainment. Here’s a list of the top 10 “Christian” movies of the last 3 decades. Their box office success seems to further prove the point.
|Rank||Title||Studio||Lifetime Gross /Theaters||Opening / Theaters||Date|
|1||The Passion of the Christ||NM||$370,782,930||3,408||$83,848,082||3,043||2/25/04|
|2||The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe||BV||$291,710,957||3,853||$65,556,312||3,616||12/9/05|
|3||The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian||BV||$141,621,490||3,929||$55,034,805||3,929||5/16/08|
|4||The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader||Fox||$104,386,950||3,555||$24,005,069||3,555||12/10/10|
|5||Heaven is for Real||TriS||$91,443,253||3,048||$22,522,221||2,417||4/16/14|
|6||God’s Not Dead||Free||$60,755,732||1,860||$9,217,013||780||3/21/14|
|7||Son of God||Fox||$59,700,064||3,271||$25,601,865||3,260||2/28/14|
|9||The Nativity Story||NL||$37,629,831||3,083||$7,849,304||3,083||12/1/06|
The top 4 movies are beautiful stories, well made, with redemptive themes that appealed to a much broader audience. The rest are either propositional movies where it’s clear from the title (i.e., Heaven is for Real, God’s not Dead) or it’s religious content is made clear in the title. The only exception at #10 is Courageous, but having been associated with Fireproof, you pretty much know what you’re going to get. I don’t think most people have a problem with Christian movies in general even if they don’t agree with their premise, but I think we do ourselves a disservice if we’re not at least honest about it.
We need to write better stories
Admittedly, my perspective on this is more as a consumer than as one who has lived in the industry. Having been a part of producing a few short films, I do understand the enormous amount of work and planning involved just to create something on a smaller scale. So, I applaud anyone with the vision, guts and fortitude to put themselves out there and create. Keep creating. Keep growing. Keep going. My experience has been more on the music side of the Christian entertainment industry and one thing I’ve learned regardless of budget, process or production–it’s all about the song. Great production can’t hide a lousy song. In a similar fashion, a great movie is all about the story. You can wow people with cool special effects for a few minutes, but it’s a great story that captures the heart. A heart that’s been captured in art is a heart that’s been influenced. We can’t forget that. So whatever the motivation for filmmaking, it will be accomplished best when told with a great story.
I think the Bible is full of great stories that haven’t even been tapped yet. Many of them would have to be sanitized so much to make them “Christian” (oddly enough) that they may never make it to the big screen. You could make a whole series out of the life of David (there have been some attempts), but you probably couldn’t bring your kids to see it. Or what about the story of Ehud and Eglon? That sounds like something more from Game of Thrones or Star Wars (a la Jabba the Hutt). Needless to say there are so many stories and themes that haven’t even been tapped by modern filmmakers yet. Let’s unearth those or learn from them and create stories that capture the imagination and the heart. We’ll all be better off for it.
We need to be more comfortable with artistic tension.
As consumers of “Christian” films, the more comfortable we get with actually seeing good art in a redemptive context, the more Christian filmmakers will be inclined to take the risk of making great art. Unfortunately, the larger evangelical audience is more content with screen versions of 1970’s flannel graph and feeling good about receiving validation of their beliefs from a space that they believed for so long was “of the devil”. But if we want to truly influence a different audience, it’s not going to be done by sub-par art marketed with bait and switch tactics. We need to tell great stories (redemptive, yes) created in the form of good art. For most people outside the Evangelical bubble, the medium is the message. We can’t ignore that. The Bible itself is full of tension. Ideas like the sovereignty of God and the free will of man have spawned more denominations than we can count, but there’s no question of the Bible’s influence despite the tension or because of the tension (perhaps?). We may be content with pandering propositional films to a friendly audience, but if we want our art to change the world, we need to be comfortable with the tension that involves. A film shouldn’t have to make the choice between being “Christian” or being great art. However, if the audience would allow, perhaps it could be both.
What would you add to this list? What do you think is missing or should be added to films that express faith?