Friends, Romans, Moviegoers, I come not to bury Christian movies nor to glorify them. I am here to discuss how they can be made better. I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention but since 2014 there has been a massive bumper crop of Christian movies, that is, those aimed at an Evangelical Christian audience. Personally, I’m all in favor. I believe in diversity, and I believe that everyone should have movies that speak to their own beliefs, but I think the Christian audience deserves much better than what they’ve been given.
Recent complaints over the lack of diversity in Hollywood gave me a lot of time to consider this crazy medium that consumes my life. Last week I wrote that the best way to embrace diversity was not to change the Academy Awards, but to change the industry itself. This is only in consideration of the fact that motion pictures are the most powerful artistic medium that mankind has developed. It’s the most important of the mass arts because it allows us to be enveloped in other cultures, other means of living that we in our daily lives may not experience.
I’ve seen diversity come and go, with movies aimed at the Black audience, Asians, Hispanics and, in the last 25 years, a positive portrait of the LGBT community. Therein, I believe that the Christian audience deserves to see themselves and their beliefs on the screen as well. But I am trouble by what are they being given? For the past three years, there has been a boom in Christian-themed movies as they seem to be rolling out with the same output and ferocity as horror movies but they are the movie of such bad quality in writing, acting, directing and production that one might believe that half of these movies were filmed in someone’s back yard. And that’s before we get to the issue of The Message. When they get to The Message, it always seems to be presented as pompous, judgmental, pretentious, sanctimonious and exclusionary. The message is one-sided and that’s a problem.
Let’s look at a few:
God’s Not Dead
Here is the most extreme example of a Christian movie that didn’t play fair. Here was a movie that elicited the idea of Christianity vs. atheism to the point of being offensive. Gods Not Dead was a multi-character study of several people, both believers and non-believers, who clash over several days. Yet, at its center was the story of a college freshman who is asked by his atheist Philosophy professor (played by Kevin Sorbo) to sign an agreement stating “God is Dead” so that any questions of the All Mighty would be taken off the table and out of the class work. When the kid refuses, the professor demands that the student put together a presentation proving the existence of God. Failure to do so results in a failing grade.
The problem was that God’s Not Dead was so weighted to the Christian point of view that any other objections or discussions were unable to enter the room. Every Christian character in the movie was seen as a serene and beautiful saint. Meanwhile everyone who was a non-believer was a mean-spirited, loud-mouthed jerk. The movie sectioned off all of its characters into one of two camps. The movie brought about the notion that God exists but did so with blunt force. No measures of love or understanding were allowed to enter the picture.
Heaven is for Real
Less ferocious, but still just as unbalanced was Heaven is for Real based on the supposed true story of Todd Burpo, whose 4 year-old son Colton claimed that he died briefly on the operating table. Fine. Sounds like a nice story. But any measure of mystery given to this idea was beaten out of the movie. There are no challenges, no discussions, no ideas one way or another. The movie nails the mystery to the wall as absolute, unbending truth that, YES!, this kid DID DIE and that nobody anywhere can question it.
Mom’s Night Out
This, I think, was suppose to be the Christian answer to “The Hangover” dealing with four harried mothers who decide to take a girl’s night away from screaming kids and overgrown man-child husbands. In good hands that might have been a workable idea, the problem is that these ladies are clearly suffering from anxiety issues, hyper-tension and at least one case of near psychological meltdown. The problem is that the movie dismissive of these things and believes apparently that the best way to deal with mental issues is to calm down and take a dose of Vitamin Jesus. I’m not being dismissive, but I came away from the movie concerned for those involved that religion was being heaped upon them for problems that desperately needed professional help.
Here was supposed to be the Christian answer to Fifty Shades of Grey, the story of a reformed ladies man who is so afraid of his own actions that he refuses to stand in the same room with a woman that he’s not married to. It is suppose to rekindle an older, simpler form of courting but it only succeeds at making the guy weird and off-putting. It’s a gimmick that is suppose to seem noble but it comes off as just plain creepy.
Son of God
This probably doesn’t count, but basically this was a big screen adaptation of one part of The History Channel’s series “The Bible” – the Jesus section. Fine. The problem is that it still felt like a segment of that series. It purports to cover the life of Jesus Christ by following the same chopped up narrative structure as the series – that’s not good news. What you get here are a series of highlights of the most important moments in Jesus’ life: He heals the sick, raises the dead, feeds the multitudes, walks on water, gives inspiring sermons and gets under the skin of the Romans until they crucify him. We learn nothing new about Jesus. We don’t approach him. We feel at a distance. We see the events, but never get close to man.
There are other examples but these seemed to be the most extreme.
All of these movies have the same problem. They are dismissing discussion in favor of sermonizing. There is only one point of view and that point of view belongs to those who believe. There are no considerations, no ideas, no points to ponder. There’s no thinking here and that seems to come from the idea that the filmmakers are almost afraid to challenge their audience.
If you’re going to make a Christian movie, chances are you have a point of view. That point being that God is the great architect of the universe; the teachings of Jesus are flawless and any other path through life is fruitless, sinful and a sure-fire pathway to Hell. No one can argue with that, everyone believes in his or her own way. The problem is that these movies leave nothing for the average viewer. These films are made with the message already beaten into the film with a sledgehammer and with no doors or windows left open for debate or discussion.
This is the wrong approach. Christian-themed movies should illicit that same function as religion, to enlighten and to inform, not just to those who occupy the pews, but more importantly to those who don’t. Christian teachings should be a vessel of instructing the best way to live a good life constructively within the word of God. It should be an instruction. The problem with most Christian movies is that are used a blunt instrument, availing Evangelical Christians as beatific saints and atheists as angry and unhappy philistines whose chief interest is to gnash and snarl at those who have found a life in Christ. That’s not reality. If you portray the believers as heroes and the non-believers as villains, who really are you speaking to?
So how best to fix the problem? Well, first of all (Please!) send the filmmakers to film school so that they can learn how to better their craft. The latest crop of Christian movies have been terrible on a base level of production, writing, directing and acting. They maintain the kind of production value that you would find from an old TV sitcom. You can spread the good word, but you have to make a film that has, at the very least, some kind of artistic merit. Look, we dress up for church because we want to look good in his house, right? Shouldn’t movies that glorify him look their best too?
Also, the subject matter needs to be handled much better. Sermonizing is an easy way to get believers into the theater but what does it teach them? Christian films should challenge, they should provoke, they should ask questions. They should inspire discussion. That’s what great movies do, they get our brains working by laying a foundation of questions and issues and letting us fill in the blanks. The best films with Christian messages or overtones do so in an indirect way; The Passion of the Christ, Chariots of Fire, Tree of Life. They express the belief in God and the needs for a faith-based life but they do it indirectly so that the message comes to you through thoughtful observation.
So how could they be made better? Well, it’s simple, stop bashing the audience over the head or shoveling messages that are provided only to draw an ‘amen’ from an already faith-based audience. Doing so pushes the non-believers out of the room. Here are some suggestions.
Instead of Gods Not Dead being about a Christian reforming an atheist. How about a movie in which they enter into a discussion that leaves both with their beliefs but understanding of why each other thinks the way they do?
Instead of Heaven is for Real slapping us in the face with stone-cold facts about God’s existence, how about the mystery of this little boy challenging people’s perceptions of what they think about the after life?
Instead of Moms Night Out being about psychological problems being addressed through church instead of therapy; how about a movie portrays these women being guided through therapy and also incorporating their Christian faith.
Instead of Old Fashioned being about a creep who is pathologically afraid of woman, how about a movie about a Christian couple who meet and get to know one another?
Instead of Son of God being a patch-job of the red-letter moments of Jesus’ life, how about a movie the really explores what Jesus was going through emotionally? Let us get to know him as a man so that we can feel comfortable with ourselves just as he did.
I’m saying that there need to be considerations, thoughts, ideas so that Christian films won’t seem so exclusionary. Putting these ideas into play, suddenly Christian-themed films would have something to say. They would be able to say something vulnerable and honest and open people’s minds to what God has been trying to tell us for 2000 years. His message is powerful, and the medium of film is the most powerful artistic medium that we have. It’s time we started using it in a more efficient and educational way.