Let’s be really honest. Most Evangelical attempts at films in the last 30 years have been, putting it nicely, terrible. Numerous people, Christian and non-Christian alike, have taken a shot at exactly why this is. Everything from “they’re cheap” to “they’re not honest enough” have been suggested.
For the past four years or so since starting my own career as a filmmaker, I’ve struggled to explain to many why I refuse to support these movies. I often will get responses like “well, they may not be the best quality, but we should support the Christians who made them” (which is horrible logic in its own right), and “they’re making money, so that should indicate something right?”
Box office numbers don’t indicate quality (the Transformers franchise comes to mind). Many of these movies make lots of money (Heaven is for Real, God’s Not Dead, and War Room all grossed more than $60 million), but get horrible critical reviews (each got a metacritic score of 47, 16, and 26 out of 100 respectively). Instead of listening to the experts of what makes a good film, evangelicals lash back with childish accusations of persecution. God’s Not Dead is almost a metanarrative about Christian movies in the filmmaking industry, but I doubt the producers put even that amount of thought into it.
Let’s be clear. This is not persecution. Hollywood does not care about religious affiliation when it comes to movies. Hollywood cares about whatever will make money. In fact, there’s been a rising interest in biblical films in the past couple of years. People are interested in the bible, and have been ever since the birth of the motion picture (by 1927, just 21 years since the first feature length film was released, 39 movies found their base on Jesus or the Bible). Really, the critics are just doing their job, and evangelicals are just being whiney. If we’re being honest, these accusations of persecution are not just childish, but also horribly offensive to our brothers and sisters who really are being persecuted.
Since we can no longer rely on this persecution complex, we must ask ourselves an important question. Why exactly are these movies so bad? Before diving in, it would be good to define what a Christian movie really is. A Christian movie, in this context, is one that cares more about the explicit message of the filmmaker than the aesthetic quality of the movie, and is largely marketed as an evangelistic tool.
Why are they so bad?
There have been many accusations as to why Christian movies are so painfully bad. Right off the bat, it should be addressed that it has nothing to do with production quality. High production value and lots of money doesn’t ensure a great film (take a look at Juno, which was made with $7.5 million, grossed over $230 million, and was well received both critically and publically). Good stories with believable characters make great movies. Many Christian movies miss this.
It seems to me that of all the things that make Christian movies so bad, fear appears to be the biggest. Evangelicals are afraid of siding with anything that isn’t explicitly Christian. We need to hear the literal gospel being preached from the big screen in order to feel comfortable accepting it.
There is a problem here, however, because anyone can come along screen-preaching in Jesus’ name, and they would be accepted no matter what they are saying (passages like Exodus 20:7 and 1 John 4:1 come to mind). Christians are then afraid to criticize “their own.” Again, this is a problem because we have movies like the God’s Not Dead franchise that actually harm the conversation between Christians and non-believers because it villainizes and paints atheists in a very uncharitable light (for an example of how this can be done right, please watch Stephen Frears Philomena).
Evangelicals are afraid of ambiguity. This is bad for a number of reasons. One, people don’t like to be preached at. The great irony of the Christian movie genre is that they are marketed as evangelistic tools, and largely only appeal to people who already profess the faith. Two, impactful and life-changing stories ask way more questions than they answer. Many Christian movies give trite little answers to every one of life’s problems in a very sunday-school-esque manor (AKA every answer is “Jesus.”) Three, this fear of ambiguity is antithetical to how Jesus taught. Jesus used parables because they were ambiguous (when Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, does he really imply that we are saved based off of our works?). His parables brought up more questions than they answered. Jesus forced his audience to question their culture, their presuppositions, and their own selves. Throughout these ambiguous parables, Jesus was able to teach truth in an emotionally deep, and life changing way.
Lastly, evangelicals are afraid of honesty. We are afraid of real life issues like drugs, sex, and violence. Sometimes, these are addressed, but the examples are mundane and the effects are surface level, while often leveling a product as a solution (ahem, Fireproof). The main character’s moral failings only go so far (In War Room, the writers teased at infidelity when TC Stallings’ character flirted with a woman he worked with. I’m not saying an affair would’ve made the movie better, but rather I’m asking why the sin of infidelity is only exemplified in light flirtation and pornography addiction?) We are afraid of honest emotions and real life issues. Life is full of complex and hard to deal with issues. There are no easy answers. We are uncomfortable leaving these kinds of raw emotions and issues unanswered, but are also afraid of giving complex answers, because not everyone might agree.
Can we, or should we, fix them?
The first step to solving any problem is by identifying what isn’t working. The next step is to ask if the problem is worth solving. I’m not the type to just give up on something just because it’s not working, but there’s one major problem with these kinds of Christian movies. Really, this problem isn’t exclusive to Christian films, but this problem is rooted into the very nature of Christian media. Christian media as a whole (music, movies, merchandise, anything that can be monetized) enables isolation.
A group that lives in its own subculture inherently decides to abandon other cultures the members could be joining. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. You are going to find yourself living in some culture or another, so why is diving into the current Christian subculture so bad? The problem is that the Church is isolating itself in it’s own subculture. This issue is not a new one, however.
Before Christ, the Jewish people were known for their isolation. Their entire culture was set up around the idea of holiness, or being set apart. Leading up to Christ, the Jewish people were spread apart, in what was called the Diaspora, and this was of great dismay to a Jew. The biggest weakness of the Jews, however, was the greatest strength of the early Church. After Pentecost, the Gospel message was able to spread quickly across the world because the Jews were so spread out. Isolating ourselves is easy to do, and it’s often preferable because it’s safe. Going out means risking rejection, being taken advantage of, and sometimes harm.
Jesus never promised us safety, but he did promise he would always be with us, and a community that would pick you up after you fall. This is the good part about the community of God. We shouldn’t isolate ourselves, but we should be a haven that we can bring others into. The safety offered by the community of God is in fact a very good thing, but the problem here is that the Church has become too dependant on that safety, and avoided the essential calling Jesus gave before his ascension.
What does this have to do with Christian movies? Christian movies are a bad idea because they are one more tool which allows the Church to isolate itself in its own subculture. This isolationist model allowed for such awful movies like GND (and its sequel) to exist, which ultimately makes the world outside look at us for what we’ve become, a weird group that plays the victim with an us-vs-them persecution complex.
I don’t think that movies based around faith are a bad thing. In fact, some of my favorite movies are based around the faith or have an overarching Christian theme (Tree of Life, Gran Torino, Magnolia, Doubting) and there are quite a few heavily Christian themed films coming out that I am personally excited for (Last Days in the Desert, Silence). The interesting thing is that these films are not made by people who profess the faith. It’s a sad state of affairs when non-christians create better faith films than Christians do.
What I am suggesting is that we should stop marketing films as Christian movies. We should stop trying to make a knock-off Christian Hollywood. We should stop isolating ourselves. We fix these movies when we stop making them. We should instead actively engage culture, go out into Hollywood, and make good films. Perhaps then we can make a true impact in the world of film.