Maybe I’m the only one who feels this way, but has anyone else ever gone to go see a Christian film in theaters simply because it was Christian? Or overlooked its flaws, plot holes, bad writing, poor humor and stiff acting for the same reason? Or recommended it to other Christians just because it’s a film about Christianity?
Maybe I’m the only one…but I don’t think I am.
Forgive me (truly) if I step on your toes during this post. Maybe you genuinely enjoy films in the traditional Christian genre. Maybe you are in the camp of “support the genre until the films get better”. Or maybe you feel that Christians should stand behind other believers in any realm of art. My aim is not to bash fellow Christians, film makers or not – my goal is simply to challenge them to step up to the plate both in creating and in viewing films.
Ever since Facing the Giants, Christian directors have been fighting for a Christian foothold in Hollywood. Films by the Kendrick brothers (Facing the Giants, Fireproof, Courageous, War Room) dominate the tiny, growing genre, as well as movies like Beyond the Mask, God’s Not Dead and The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry. These movies are typically low budget, have a strong Christian message (or messages), are conservative, moral and very clean. Churches and youth groups across the country promote these films, excited that we Christians are gaining ground in the movie industry.
But are we?
Compared to other Christian films throughout the years (whether dark and disturbing like To Save a Life or Faith Like Potatoes, or just plain cheesy like the Left Behind series or Time Changer) the Kendrick brothers’ films seemed well-made, and were encouraging to boot. They’re family friendly. Christians know that they can bring even small children in to the theater and not be afraid of any negative material frightening the children. And if there is any negative material (bad guys, scary situations), parents know that it will always be redeemed in the end. So what if the movie is cheesy and badly written, with unbelievable situations and wooden characters?
Parents in general (and Christians in particular) will always want clean, conservative films for their families. But do we really have to sacrifice quality for purity? Think about it – shouldn’t the two go together? (Read: most Pixar films.) Why is it either quality or purity? When else do we go pay good money to see a low-budget, badly-written, preachy, wooden film just because it’s clean? Even if it’s better than the other low-budget, badly-written, preachy, wooden films in its genre? In every other genre in Hollywood, most audiences demand quality, believability, originality and entertainment when they go to the theater. So why are Christians settling?
I don’t know about everyone, but I know that for me, it was almost exclusively guilt. Part of me (even when I was a child, watching Facing the Giants for the first time) recognized the cheese, the poor film quality and bad acting. The other part of me (and I really don’t think I’m alone here) felt like I had to like the film because…well…well, because it was Christian for Pete’s sake! Who wants to be the one person in the movie theater (which is filled almost exclusively with Christians) who laughs at a campy scene or doesn’t applaud at the end? Even in recent years, I excused all sorts of low-quality Christian films because they were at least better than their predecessors, and hey, they had a good message. I had two sets of movie standards – “regular movie” standards and “Christian movie” standards. (I’ll let you figure out which standard was higher.)
Recently though, I’ve decided to chuck the “Christian movie” standard and just have standards. Moral standards, cinematography standards, script standards, acting standards and most importantly, story standards. I never hesitated for a moment to minutely dissect a mainstream movie – to discuss and argue and logically tear it apart on the way home from the movie theater. If I pushed against it from every angle and it still stood, then it was a keeper. But I never did the same with any of the Christian films I watched – nor did any of my friends. I (we) never discussed, dissected or criticized. We simply affirmed.
Until Christians start raising the bar, keeping the same standards for Christian films as “regular” films, I don’t think that Christian films are ever going to get any better. Directors and script writers know that they’re guaranteed to succeed, so long as they have a strong enough Christian message and appeal fellow believers. Supporting a faith-filled film is tied up with supporting your actual faith, and how could you refuse that? (It’s a brilliant marketing technique, I’ll give them that.)
I have yet to see a traditional Christian film (meaning a clean, conservative film containing the gospel message and core Christian beliefs) that comes anywhere close to Hollywood standards. And if the current Christian movie model continues unchanged, I don’t think I ever will. Because (borrowing and meshing together ideas from N.D. Wilson, C. S. Lewis and Kevin McCreary here) simply pushing a message and creating characters and stories around it will never make for a good story. If the characters aren’t developed, fleshed-out, and deeply connect to the audience, why should we care what happens to them? If the story is flimsy and one-dimensional, how will it move hearts and change lives? (Click here to hear more from McCreary on the subject – you’re guaranteed some laughs as well as food for thought.)
Truth is truth. The gospel is the gospel. It is true whether cheesily portrayed or not. I agree with 90% of all of the messages in these Christian films. In a sermon, marriage advice book or Christian lecture they would be powerful and maybe even life-changing. But trying to mix marriage advice, sermons and lectures with movies doesn’t exactly work. God can use a preachy film to reach people – just as He can use a sunset, a visit with a friend at a coffee shop, a secular movie, a song or a dream to reach people. I just think that Christian directors should raise their standards way, way higher and focus on creating great characters, amazing story lines and an excellent film instead of pushing a message. As I said, truth is truth. The gospel is the gospel. If you are a Christian director, writer, artist or musician, and Christ is at the center of your life, He is going to shine like the sun through your art. Truth will come through your stories naturally – no preaching needed.
So what’s the solution? Not to stop telling stories, surely. We are characters in a Story told by a Story-Teller who never stops speaking, never stops creating. We humans can’t help but tell stories of our own – but we can help how we tell them. Christian directors can focus on mastering the art of film making, and learn to tell stories of redemption, glory, sorrow, sacrifice, love, betrayal and courage, instead of trying to simply create two-hour advertisements for Christianity. Christian movie-goers can keep their money in their pockets until there’s a movie that’s worth watching, that conveys truth in all its complexity – whether in the Christian genre or not. Eventually, the directors will get the message. And in the end, the same thing all of us Christians want would be accomplished – the proclamation of truth through excellent, well-crafted, intentional art.
And that, dear readers, is why I didn’t go see War Room. I know that it contains truth about the Lord, about marriage, about prayer and Christianity. But as with any trailer I watch, I’m not watching it thinking, “Hmm, what kind of moral will I be left with at the end of this film?” I watch it with a sharp eye out for characters, effects, music and story-telling. And if it doesn’t look compelling or well-made, the trailer is as far as it goes. Sadly, War Room fell into the it-only-goes-as-far-as-the-trailer camp, along with scores of other movies I’ve seen advertised this year, across all genres. I felt guilty at first for me and my husband being some of the only Christians in my circle to not have seen it, but I don’t any more. And if you, for whatever reason, feel guilty (even secretly guilty) for not liking the genre of sermons-disguised-as-art that we know as the “Christian movie industry”, then please feel guilty no longer. You have permission to keep your money in your pocket until Christian film raises its standards. And you didn’t get the permission from me – you got it from the Story-Teller who writes billions of complex, hard, glorious, triumphant, sorrowful, incredible stories, played out by realistic, flawed, beautiful, deeply loved characters every day.
(Hint: you’re one of them.)