Why I Didn’t Watch War Room (And Why You Don’t Have To Either)

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?

The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry doesn't have anything going for it other than a clear portrayal of the gospel message.

The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry doesn’t have anything going for it other than a clear portrayal of the Gospel.

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?

Courageous's actual film quality is higher than the Kendrick brothers' previous films, but is severely predictable and cliched, with poor acting.

Courageous’s actual film quality is higher than the Kendrick brothers’ previous films, but is severely predictable and cliched, with poor acting.

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.

Fireproof boasts good acting and a strong message, while seriously lacking in the quality of the cinematography itself.

Fireproof boasts good acting and a strong message, while seriously lacking in the quality of the cinematography and story-telling.

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.)

Beyond the Mask was one of the least preachy Christian films I've ever seen. While cliched and cheesy in many parts, it felt more like a Christian version of a Zorro film or classic black-and-white action movie than a stereotypical Christian film.

Beyond the Mask was one of the least preachy Christian films I’ve ever seen. While cliched and cheesy in many parts, it felt more like a Christian version of a Zorro film or classic black-and-white action movie than a stereotypical Christian film.

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.

God's Not Dead had a mixture of good and bad actors, but an unrealistic story line that felt like Christian propaganda.

God’s Not Dead had a mixture of good and bad actors, but an unrealistic story line that felt like Christian propaganda.  All the Christians were good, kind and reasonable, and anyone who didn’t believe in God was selfish and cruel.

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.)

5 thoughts on “Why I Didn’t Watch War Room (And Why You Don’t Have To Either)

  1. Amen. As a movie critic and a Christian, I long since left off feeling guilty about avoiding Christian films. I did see War Room (my mom wanted me to go), but it was awful, and we mostly giggled through its over-earnest preachiness. While I do think the evangelical Christian niche in Hollywood tends to be pretty terrible, there are, however, filmmakers who incorporate Christianity very strongly into their works – alas, these films tend to pass most people by.

    I recommend The Mission (starring Robert De Niro), Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (especially since you liked Bonhoeffer’s story so much), Babette’s Feast, Chariots of Fire, A Man for All Seasons, Becket, The New World, Ordet, and The Tree of Life, for starters. The New World and The Tree of Life are both Terrence Malick films, and can be a bit boring, but they reward the watch. The New World is my favorite movie. A romance about the true meaning of love.

    • Oh, cool! I’ve never heard of those! I’ll have to check them out – in fact I think my sister in law has Sophie Scholl and I could borrow it from her. There are definitely great movies based on Christian characters or themes out there (The Lord of the Rings, A Christmas Carol, Gifted Hands, Soul Surfer), but I have yet to find one of the “typical” Christian/Evangelical movies that’s good. I should have made that distinction in my post – thank you for pointing it out!

  2. Oh, my goodness! I am so glad you saved your money … I wish I had! I am not a movie-goer but this movie had so many good comments by people on Facebook (people I respect) I just had to see it. It was very dissapointing, to say the least.

    What I saw was a Cosmic Santa Claus dispensing answered prayers from His goodie bag. EVERY prayer was answered! Do I believe God answers prayer? Absolutely! Do I believe He will answer every prayer in the way we expect? Not at all. The message this type of movie is sending is: “come to Christ because He will make your life wonderful.” We forget He tells us to pick up our cross and follow Him for Who He is, not for what He can give us.

    Thanks for letting me rant. I have found very few Christians who agree with me on this, and I totally agree with you. The standards need to be raised not only for Christian movies, but also Christian music and books.

    • Exactly! I feel the same way about a lot of the messages in Christian movies. They are not accurate representations of a real walk with Christ. Haha, don’t be sorry! Feel free to rant any time 😀

  3. Ok, so I think you had a lot of good points. I would like to leave my comment, however. I think that one of the main reasons Christians have flocked to the theaters in the early 2000’s to see faith-based films is not because they felt guilty, but simply because the faith-based market for the film industry was severely starved. There were so few Christian movies being made that Christians settled for the lower standard. That’s why production companies spent so little – because they knew that they’d make money either way. However, I think this is changing. With the underwhelming box-office of films like Risen, and I’m Not Ashamed, and the partial disappointment of God’s Not Dead 2, it is evident that the standard is rising. Perhaps the answer to raising the bar on Christian movies is not to simply avoid them until they reach perfection, but instead support them until they reach a standard competitive in any demographic.

    Oh, and the trailer for War Room was way worse than the movie .

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