Four Things to Consider Before You Criticize Christian Films.

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.

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nick.youthwriter@gmail.com

Nicholas McDonald is a blogger, pastor, and author of the book "Faker: How to Be Real When You're Tempted to Fake it." He studied creative writing and communication at Oxford University and Olivet Nazerene University, and received his M.Div from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. He currently resides in Lexington, NC, with his wife and two boys, Caleb and Owen.

16 Comments

  1. Good post. Particularly the one about definition. We only call it a Christian film when it meets the overt Christian preaching criteria with bad acting and writing. Solid point. May I suggest a follow up. Can you give us a list of Christian film makers who have made films with a more subtle delivery of world view and agenda?

    • Thanks Andrew – I’d be very interested to see that as well…although, I’m not sure where one would find that information.

      • I can name a few individual films I like –

        “When The Game Stands Tall” is based on a real-life religious school’s football team, and so the characters occasionally discuss scripture and theology in addition to sports.

        “The Identical” is a what-if in which Elvis’ Presley’s twin brother had been given up for adoption. His foster father is a minister, and so religion becomes a key element of the film, especially when the brother character decides not to follow his foster father’s vocation; he’s a lot better with his hands than he is with his words, and so makes a living as a mechanic before he’s discovered by a promoter.

        ^(In real life, Elvis recorded several gospel songs in addition to his rock music. Had he been surrounded by a better class of individuals, he might not have fallen apart as badly as he did. He was reportedly investigating various religions in his final days – including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – but his years of hard living claimed him before he could fully turn his life around).^

        “Ghost Rider” isn’t what most people would consider a “Christian” film (it’s based on a Marvel Comics property), but the theological elements are undeniable. (Title character Johnny Blaze makes a deal with a demon named Mephistopheles in order to save his dying father, then spends the rest of the film paying the price. Once he’s freed of his contract, Blaze vows to use the very same powers he was given by Mephistopheles to fight him and any other evil-doer he finds.)

        “Saints And Soldiers” is a WWII movie in which four American soldiers and a downed RAF crew member fight their way back to allied lines during the Battle of the Bulge. One of the soldiers is LDS, and in fact he served a religious mission in Germany before the war. This raises a whole host of ethical issues after a German soldier they blunder into proves to also be LDS. (The German soldier is in no position to oppose his superiors or protest Hitler’s plans without great risk to himself, but he *is* in a position to help everyone slip past the other patrols. This serves to make viewers think about the tendency to dehumanize “others”, especially during wartime.)

  2. Those articles would be great, Nick. I read things along those lines at Think Christian, but they make a concerted effort to follow the path you lay out here.

  3. Pingback: Unsuspecting Marriage Hazards & Five Posts You Should Read

  4. No, number 2 goes too far. I write a lot of fiction, and I’d hate someone to feel they couldn’t offer a criticism because they aren’t writers themselves. And neither would we want to say that nobody should be allowed to write about Shakespeare unless they themselves have some experience in writing renaissance drama. Obviously it’s something to be handled with care, though.

    • If you read carefully, Haze, you’ll see I’m actually not saying we shouldn’t offer criticism – I’m saying we shouldn’t diagnose the problem, or offer solutions. To me, there’s a difference.

      • I tend to agree with Haze. I almost dismissed the entire post because of the heading for #2, “don’t critique unless you create.” Fortunately, because I would have missed an excellent post if I had dismissed it, I kept reading. I do think you went too far, but “critiquers” need to keep in mind that they do not know all the things that went into making a film (or writing a book) unless they are in the business.

  5. I’m a movie reviewer for a small local publication known as the Copperas Cove Leader-Press. http://www.coveleaderpress.com/

    In my capacity as a reviewer, I’ve had to review a handful of religious films, including “Son of God”, “God’s Not Dead”, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”, and “When The Game Stands Tall”.

    Given this, please permit me to offer some insight from the other side of the issue.

    #1 – “Having an agenda” isn’t a bad thing *per se* when it comes to movies. The issue is how the film goes about delivering its agenda.

    Some agenda movies rely too heavily on stock tropes, especially when it comes to characters. The “good guys” are charming and dynamic, while the “bad guys” are cookie-cutter oafs. At one end of the spectrum we have “God’s Not Dead”, in which the writers didn’t develop most of the characters as well as they thought
    they had. At the other end, we have films like “The Terminal”, in which I guessed the entire plot of the film about five minutes in based solely upon the real-life political leanings of some of the involved talents and the “Department of Homeland Security” logo on the main antagonist’s office door.

    Other agenda movies get the job done so artfully that the average person doesn’t even realize they have an agenda until they’re engrossed in it. For example, “The Lego Movie” (it’s been a year, and so I’m presuming that this is not a spoiler) was about reaching out to older individuals and asking them to remember the simpler joys; the dad had become so uptight about his Lego collection being just so that he forgot about actually having fun with anything.

    In the end, it all comes down to writing.

    #2 – I’ve actually been trying my hand at fiction since high school, and I’m working on my umpteenth manuscript (a novella) for solicitation. In that sense, although I have a pitifully low ratio of solicitations to published pieces, I can claim to have had experience as a writer independent of my job as a reviewer.

    I can also claim acting experience as well if you count the “personal selling” class I had while doing my undergraduate work (I have an MBA, believe it or not; most writers shoot for journalism or fine arts degrees from what I’ve seen).

    So not everyone is just a “Monday morning quarterback”. A few of us critique because we know the ins and outs for ourselves.

    3. This actually goes beyond “Christian” films and into the actual issue of how fluid genre definitions can be. For example, “The Santa Clause” is a Christmas film… but so is “The Best Man Holiday”. One is a Disney comedy, while the other is an R-rated cluster foul-up that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a comedy or a drama. It would, therefore, be better to list them as “family” and “dramedy”, respectively, with “Christmas” as a secondary genre.

    Similarly, is “Saints And Soldiers” a “Mormon” film because most of the creative talents on the film were LDS, or is it a “Mormon” film because one of the main characters is LDS? Never mind, of course, that the whole thing is a WWII film set against the backdrop of the real-life Malmady Massacre and the whole “religion” angle is as much a plot device as anything else (the character served a religious mission in Germany before the war and so knows a German conscript; the conscript remembers his co-religionist and so covertly helps the characters escape).

    Or we have films like “The Identical” and “When The Game Stands Tall”, which are *technically* Christian because of the Christian elements involved but aren’t what most people would call religious films.

    This isn’t exactly something I’d lose sleep over, and in fact I simply skip labels unless I have to specifically discuss how a film was affected by attempting to fit in a specific genre or raise another relevant issue.

    #4 – Relating to the above three points is the issue of “how much and how fast?”. A good Christian movie IMHO should nudge audiences into reconsidering their POV on a topic, not play stickball with their frontal lobes.

    One *good* thing about “God’s Not Dead” is that it presented matters as a debate, allowing both sides to make their case (even if only in an abbreviated fashion).

    • Brilliant thoughts, Darren. Thanks. My favorite line: “A Good Christian movie IMHO should nudge audiences into reconsidering their POV on a topic, not play stickball with their frontal lobes.” Thanks for sharing.

  6. Great Article. Your blog is my absolute favorite.
    I know nothing about movie making so I won’t comment on that but I have seen a couple of great movies that I hardly ever see recommended. One is called “Bella,” and the other “Belle.” Both have messages which seemed to be told with heart, style and depth.

  7. Interesting. I wrote a piece on my blog in response to a piece in Vox, a secular liberal publication on, “Why are Christian movies so painfully bad?” I expected to be a hit piece, but it was actually a good analysis. I argued that one reason Christian art isn’t known for excellence as it once was in Western culture is the insular nature of the Christian subculture. I certainly don’t disagree with your affirmation of the importance of the local church in fostering the creative gifts of its members, at all, but the conversations can’t stay there. If they are going on there at all. In far too many churches, they are not. In the trenches, as you say, is where Christians need to ply their art, and compete for the hearts and minds and dollars of the public.

    • Right, Mike, I agree. I think there’s a downplaying of common grace in protestant circles – we don’t think we can learn from people outside our circles.

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