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What makes a film 'Christian'?
Aug 18, 2008
PHOTOS COURTESY WARNER BROS., SHERWOOD PICTURES, PARAMOUNT, WALT DISNEY/PIXAR
The Joker (Heath Ledger) puts Batman’s moral fortitude to the test in The Dark Knight, a movie that stirs some feelings of ambiguity in viewers.
Most of the Reporter’s news staffers have reviewed films, and at times have been asked to promote a film that advances family values. Not all of these films, however, would rank high on any critic’s list.
So we wondered aloud what makes for a “Christian film” and launched a discussion that made its way into print. Staffers Bill Fentum, Amy Forbus, Mary Jacobs, Ken Lowery and Robin Russell participated.
BILL: You know you’re in trouble when publicists ask you to rate the movie you’ve just previewed—as an evangelism tool. And they’re waiting outside the theater to make sure you don’t escape that chore.
That happened to me last month at a screening of Fireproof, the latest from the team behind the 2006 hit Facing the Giants. Like any well-behaved critic, I’ll wait till the film’s late September release to offer a full review. But let me say this much now: I’ve had better times at the movies this summer.
That’s because Fireproof, for all its sincerity as a tribute to courage, loyalty and faithfulness in marriage, is a message-movie first and entertainment second. That’s never the best strategy for drawing an audience.
My experience a week earlier, watching Pixar’s Wall•E, was entirely different. Writer-director Andrew Stanton’s sci-fi adventure is no less faith-based: He’s been frank about that in interviews. But the bond between the title character and fellow robot Eve conveys as much about sacrificial love as any moment in Fireproof... without an onscreen sermon.
KEN: But then many of this summer’s blockbusters have tackled tough moral conundrums while never forgetting to entertain. Wall•E is one of the best, but it shares company with titles like The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and Speed Racer. Even The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian’s Christian roots are undetectable to audiences who aren’t looking for them.
Iron Man’s titular Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) wrestles with Marvel Comics’ most famous maxim about great power and great responsibility. Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) finds himself at a crossroads between bending to his corporate masters for financial stability and staying true to his artistic spirit and his family. The Pevensie children in Caspian struggle to build self-sustaining faith in the face of doubt and despair.
But Batman, the Joker and Harvey Dent may take the prize for strongest moral quandaries in summer blockbuster clothing. Those three men—and their supporting cast—represent different ideas about law and order, and their fight for control ends up defining the soul of Gotham City.
The question The Dark Knight asks—whether the ends justify the means, even with present and future lives on the line—seems immediate and contemporary, but the resonance comes from that question’s very timelessness. Daringly, this blockbuster offers only ambiguous answers and hard-earned wisdom. When was the last time a film on faith had the guts to do that?
ROBIN: The question seems to be: What makes a film a “Christian” film? Does it have to pummel its characters over the heads with Scripture until some rascal converts? If it doesn’t contain the gospel message, can it still be considered “Christian”?
And why are some overtly Christian-made films so darn cheesy, anyway? So many have formulaic storytelling and one-dimensional characters. The weak storytelling is obviously just a means to set up the preaching point.
Think of the awful One Night With the King, about Esther, which some churches praised as a must-see. It was marred by bad acting, choppy editing, atrocious costuming and musical score, and even played a bit loose with the Old Testament version.
I can see why Facing the Giants was such a hit with evangelical churches. The scenes depicting repentance and newfound dependence on God were poignant and the message of overcoming obstacles was worthy enough. But again, the dialogue, acting and overall production quality (I know it was made by a Baptist church on a shoestring budget) made me wince.
Are Christians really OK with a poorly told story as long as it gets the gospel out there? Even if it misses connecting with their target audience?
MARY: With enough money, it’s possible to “buy” good production values—a decent musical score, good costumes, better acting and editing. But that doesn’t address all our gripes here. I’ve seen low-budget indie films that managed to overcome limited budgets and not-so-great production values and still tell a great story.
Ken brought up the two key words: ambiguity and guts.
A reader once e-mailed me to suggest that a Q&A we ran with a secular leader should have included a sidebar with the “proper” Methodist interpretation of the issue at hand. My reply: We publish a newspaper, not Sunday school curriculum. If we provide accurate quotes and reliable information, I’m confident our readers can wisely weigh diverse viewpoints.
This points to a common error made by “Christian” directors: not having the guts to leave questions unanswered or allow for ambiguity. Do they assume viewers will come to the wrong conclusions unless hammered over the heads with the “right” ones? Or that ambiguity is somehow an opening for Satan to come in and mess with our minds? (Even the Bible leaves us with ambiguity at times: See Job and Ecclesiastes).
The urge to propagandize and the inability to handle ambiguity is a hallmark of bad filmmaking, regardless of the director’s religious or political leaning.
The Dark Knight wisely dealt with the complicated issue of finding a balance between individual rights and privacy in the face of terrorism: It offered only ambiguous answers. Bravo.
Christian directors, watch and learn.
AMY: Back to Robin’s question for a moment... what makes a film a “Christian” film? One possible answer: the viewer. We all bring our own lenses of life experience to anything we observe. I have friends who can turn just about anything into a sermon illustration because they’ve cultivated their sensibilities in that direction.
I also have friends who can turn just about anything into an indictment of religion, and a so-called “Christian” movie is often an easy target. One night last year a group of my friends wound up watching a screener of a faith-based film sent to our office. Our main goal was to make fun of it, and we were not disappointed. When we were finished, it went straight into the trash.
The movies with the most significant faith messages aren’t necessarily those marketed as such. And they often aren’t squeaky-clean, either.
The Reporter received a complaint a few years ago when we reviewed a movie that had either a PG-13 or an R rating. The reader suggested that a Christian paper should only review family-friendly films. Shutting ourselves off from the culture might bring comfort to some Christians, but it doesn’t really help in the long run. Besides, you never know what wisdom could be waiting for you behind one of those ratings.
BILL: Ahhh, thank you Amy. Reminds me of the letter I once received from a pastor who was deeply upset that I had reviewed Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). “A blasphemous film,” he called it, “that dares to tie in Christmas with Halloween, the most satanic day on the calendar.” He did add that he’d be praying for me. It’s a wonder I had the courage to submit another review.
Sure, I’ve gathered food for theological thought from a number of films that a lot of Christians wouldn’t consider “Christian.” The central conflict in last year’s There Will Be Blood, between selfish oil baron Daniel Plainview and compromised preacher Eli Sunday, left some viewers feeling they had no one to root for. And there’s certainly no salvation in the nihilistic final confrontation.
But Blood did leave me wary of my own vulnerability to sin, whether it takes the form of Daniel’s unhindered greed or Eli’s flimsy faith. I needed a cleansing shower after two-and-a-half hours in their presence, but I can’t say the experience wasn’t good for my soul.
ROBIN: I can certainly think of movies that are good for the soul, that offer hope and redemption, with characters who do the honorable thing, yet don’t even mention Jesus Christ.
The Shawshank Redemption is a gritty yet ultimately beautiful portrait of hope that doesn’t disappoint.
In The Straight Story, director David Lynch (of all people) shows the impact of seemingly small but unselfish encounters that change lives for the good.
Schindler’s List, though hard to watch, highlights the power of the individual in doing the right thing against overwhelming evil.
These are all Judeo-Christian themes, powerfully told, yet the producers hardly intended them to be “religious films.”
Nevertheless, it’s these movies that I’d use in a small-group discussion at church or with friends. Powerful storytelling gives the Holy Spirit room to prompt a moment of grace without the “help” of a heavy-handed director or script.
We need to get beyond the subculture of “Christian” films with their formulaic plots if we want to resonate with people who think “family-friendly” means “sappy,” yet who wonder what God’s really up to in the world.
AMY: Robin, your examples make me want to add a pair of movies to the list: Secondhand Lions and Big Fish. One weekend we sat down to watch them both, without knowing that their themes were so similar. It turned out to be incredibly serendipitous timing.
In both films, central characters tell outlandish stories that nobody believes, yet the tales turn out to be packed with truth—and Truth beyond just the factual type, too. Secondhand Lions, starring Haley Joel Osment, had our church youth group primed for discussion. At our house, though, Big Fish prompted more reflection. Neither was explicitly Christian; both had an impact on my faith.
KEN: As the others have said, we need to be open to the idea of scripturally sound ruminations in unexpected places. Though the culture at large may not view stories through a Christian lens, they nonetheless grapple with recognizable problems in ways that can be instructive—for them and for us.
Take this spring’s In Bruges. Yes, it’s a foul-mouthed and violent dark comedy about hit men engaged in all kinds of questionable behavior. But at its heart beats a story about redemption, and a Christian viewer (like myself) cannot help but see the sometimes hilarious, often melancholy dialogue as a man searching for grace. Religious symbolism abounds, mostly to reinforce the film’s themes, not beat you over the head with them.
MARY: There are two ideas on the table here that stick in my craw. First, the idea that good messages can come in foul-mouthed, violent and disturbing packages. Yes, absolutely, there’s often grace and redemption to be found in R-rated movies (Shawshank being one of my favorites, too), but I worry we’re falling for one of the prevalent prejudices of our time: a tendency to equate the cynical, the dark and the disturbing with “serious” art. Are we too quick to back away from offering discernment for fear of being labeled “judgmental”? (Bill, I want to hear more about why you felt the urge for a long shower after There Will Be Blood.) Many a nihilistic, self-important director has proven his ability to offend or upset me. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he had something of moral or artistic value to say.
Second, I question whether it’s all that bad for Christians to “cut themselves off” from popular culture. Of course we should engage in the moral issues of our time, but do we really have a religious obligation to engage pop culture? Personally, I think an occasional media fast is good for the soul, and that people of faith would do well to question the overblown, manufactured importance of pop culture now and then. I think of a friend who grew up in an area so rural there was no television. Aside from the fact that he doesn’t know the theme song of “Gilligan’s Island,” I don’t see any way that his life experience was compromised. Maybe the opposite.
We don’t want smug, close-minded Christians to speak for us, but let’s don’t allow secular critics to think for us, either. Both have underlying assumptions that we’d do well to question.
What mainline Christians need is a much richer conversation about what it means to be “in the world but not of the world” when it comes to pop culture. I like to think this conversation is a good start.