Recently, folks have been musing about a question which has plagued us since the inception of film: “Why are Christian movies so bad?”
I’ve appreciated these conversations, mainly because I always like Christians putting their minds to cultural creation and artistic excellence.
That being said, I’d like to offer four gentle rejoinders to the dialogue taking place. We’d do well to mind them before offering up yet another critique of Christian films:
1. First, don’t offer simple correctives. When we punch out articles which easily explain the faults of Christian film, we’re subjecting ourselves to the same mindset that plagues Christian art in the first place: the idea that art is should be easy. Film, and other art forms, are extraordinarily difficult to master, and encapsulating the faults of all Christian films under a single rubric oversimplifies the problems it seeks to solve.
For example, a popular sentiment in the going articles about Christian film goes something like this: “Christians are trying to get messages across, and Hollywood is just trying to create art.” There you have it. The solution.
But the situation is more complicated. In fact, Hollywood screenwriting masters like Robert McKee say the opposite: the problem with most Hollywood scripts, says McKee, is that they have nothing valuable to say. Survey the award winning films of the last century, and you’ll see a theme that sets them apart: they have an agenda – something which is considered a curse-word in the Christian filmmaker conversation.
In reality, having an agenda has nothing to do with why Christian films aren’t on par with others. To chalk up all our problems in the film world to a pithy conclusion like that is like saying the problem in Ferguson is racism. Sure, we can all cheer – but it’s hardly insightful, substantial, or helpful.
2. Second, don’t critique unless you create. There is a world of difference between the view from the arena and that from the stands. We can all be Monday morning quarterbacks, but our value as critics would prove insubstantial were we to step into the field. We would discover, there, that the situation wasn’t nearly so simple as it appeared on television. There are a zillion different decisions to be made, each of which contributed in its own incalculable way to that “obvious” mistake seen from the living room couch.
The truth is, to be frank, unless you create films yourself, you have no idea what you’re talking about. We can all recognize a terrible dish, but we can’t all create one – that is, very few can diagnose how it arrived at what it is, and how to correct it. We can all critique, but only those in the field can diagnose, and prescribe.
3. Third, consider your definitions. One of the articles I read recently defined Christian film as those with an explicitly Christian message, then went on to critique Christian films for that very reason! If I define Christian film as “a film with no aesthetic value”, the game is rigged: Christian films, by definition, will never be good.
But did you know, for example, that the screenwriter for the Christmas movie “Elf” is a Christian? To me, this movie embraces all the principles critics pine for in “Christian” films, yet, it never seems to make the list. Why? Because “Christian films” are, by definition, weak. They’re the skinny-kid on the playground – anyone can beat on him, but it gratifies our ego to do it anyway. There’s no pride in winning a rigged game: we need to either broaden our definition, or abandon the term altogether.
4. Fourth, reject a martyr’s mindset. Almost every article critiquing Christian film winds up saying something like, “What makes Christian films bad is that they’re too Christian.” But this approach subtly equates anything which distinguishes Christian art from Hollywood as inherently negative. In fact, the opposite is true: being a Christian is an artistic advantage. For example:
- Christians are free to be honest about our deepest flaws. The gospel frees us from self-protective art, and allows us to create vulnerable work without fear of judgment from the public.
- The Christian is free from self-justifying art. In other words, we’re free from art that points to our capacities as an artist, rather than the work itself.
- Christians have clear values that create powerful messages about personal transformation. An “exchange of values” is the core of any protagonist in a well-done story.
- Christians have the humility to create in community. In his book “Creativity INC” Ed Catmull hammers the point that the key to artistic greatness at Pixar is summarized in a single word: candidness. Mark Hamill once noted that the flaw of Star Wars Episodes I-III was Lucas’s divorce and withdrawal from community. Christians, of all people, ought to know that they are not an artistic Island, but are designed for community.
These four advantages are by no means exhaustive: Christians also have zeal for their work, a desire to honor true beauty, lifelong study of the greatest piece of literature ever created, the Spirit of creativity Himself, etc. There are plenty more. The point is, we need to stop talking about the distinctly Christian aspects of art as a liability – in many cases, being a Christian is an artistic asset.
Where Do We Start, Then?
All of this being said, I do believe something is severely lacking in the Christian film community: conversation. Those of us in pastoral ministry need lead conversations in which we both affirm Christian artists as God’s means of providing beauty to the world, as well as spurring them to think out how their work as an artist is distinctly Christian (see points above).
It takes incredible courage to create, and true artists know all too well that “a work of art is never perfected, only abandoned.” Artists hardly need more critics. They hardly need more vague truth-bombs in the form of, “Your Christian films need to be more ARTSY, DUDE!”
What they need is a place where they can meet with others in the field, and discuss what they do under the umbrella of redemption. In other words, what Christian filmmakers need can be summarized in three words: the local church. This is the hospital in which diagnostics and prognostics are truly discovered, where conversation happens, where Christ’s kingdom is brought to bear on the film medium.
So, rather than “Why Christian Films Stink”, I’d like to see more articles along the lines of, “Five things I’ve learned as a Christian in the Film Industry“, or “6 Unique Challenges For Filmmakers in my Congregation“, or “12 Things my Artistic Mentor Taught me About Christianity in Film”. Articles which flow, in other words, from the bunkers of the local church, and the trenches of the field itself.