what about “christian” movies?

Can you guess which independent film grossed the most at the box office in 2008?  Slumdog Millionaire?  That would be a good guess given how many Oscars it picked up on Sunday night, but no.  Would you believe Fireproof?  I learned this interesting trivia during NPR’s Weekend Edition on Saturday.  In an insightful and balanced report, Barbara Bradley Hagartey looks into the rapidly growing Christian movie industry.  Fireproof’s financial success is just one sign of the niche’s growth.

Hagarety filed her report from the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival (SAICF) where 2,000 people gathered in January to screen the best Christan films in 5 different categories.  Top honors (including the $101,000 Jubilee Award) went to  The Widow’s Might, “a feature length comedy adventure that tells the fictional story of how aspiring filmmakers came to the aid of an elderly widow who faced losing her home due to rising property taxes.”

The reason for the SAICF and the increasing amount of Christian films is not difficult to guess.  The festival’s organizer puts it bluntly: “We’re here to send a message to the world that we no longer want our children immersed in toxic media which is in opposition to the Lord Jesus Christ.”  This rationale makes complete sense given his understanding of media’s powerful influence.

“What is the single biggest influence on our families?” he asks. “I wish I could tell you the biggest single influence were churches, but that regretfully is not the case. The truth of the matter is, it is the media the people take in which are shaping and forming ideas.”

In other words, the church is simply unable to compete with media.  While it would be nice to believe that spiritual formation happens within the community of believers, this isn’t realistic in today’s media-saturated culture.  Thus, in order to counter the siren call of pop culture Christian filmmakers should provide clear alternatives that can stand up to the best Hollywood has to offer.

What do you make of this?

I have to admit that the NPR story surprised me.  I was unaware of the ongoing impulse to create a uniquely Christian film industry.  While the motives for these films make sense, these are some questions I wonder about:

  • How is the Christian-ness of a film determined?  Does a film that includes the not so family-friendly but quite Biblical themes of violence and sexual misconduct make the cut?
  • What about films that are not explicitly Christian and yet contain themes that are clearly Biblical?
  • Does a Christian film industry imply that there is nothing of Christ outside of this industry?
  • Has the church been abandoned as the primary vehicle for spiritual formation within American culture?

The role of explicitly Christian films is certainly not a new consideration (A Thief in the Night anyone?) and there are many ways these questions could be answered.  I’m curious about your perspective.  What role, if any, should explicitly Christian films play in our day?

16 thoughts on “what about “christian” movies?

  1. I totally just wrote my thoughts about the current state of “Christian film”, actually: http://otakudad.wordpress.com/2009/02/06/christian-film-to-support-or-not-supportth/

    But yeah, to summarize, I feel that the biggest issue barring Christian films from the quality levels of regular “indie” film, is the issue of audience. Traditional “Christian film” is torn between serving two masters: Trying to evangelize to non-believers, while trying to encourage those who currently believe.

    What an audience is left with, is a wishy-washy mess that doesn’t say anything strongly to either audience. I feel that if “Christian film” is to be taken seriously by anyone, it really needs to determine its audience first, and then proceed. If you’re speaking to a non-believer audience, then let’s focus on how Christians are not perfect people, how we struggle with our faith sometimes with issues… If you’re speaking to the church, then certainly, show the uplifting story or one that’s an allegory to a biblical event.

    Christian themes pop up often in non-religious media, but I think there’s a missional statement about a company producing a film that makes it part of the genre of “Christian film”.

    Also, to your last question…I think that the church hasn’t been abandoned as much as the church doesn’t necessarily make the appropriate steps to reach out and be where the world is (without being of the world, of course). I think there ARE some churches using new media in interesting and compelling ways. But most are happy saying that they’re a progressive and relevant church because they have a rock band for worship. Media is constantly evolving and saying with that evolution “see, we care!” But the church doesn’t always reach out so continually. I think that is where the disconnect occurs.

  2. Contemporary Christian Movies now? Just another Christian ghetto creating bootleg content safe for their sheltered, side-blinded families.

    do i sound cynical? i am.

  3. I think these are all tough questions.

    After being inspire at Sundance a couple years ago, I along with a group of my friends from Fuller decided to enter a Christian film festival called the 168 Hour Film Project. You are given a verse out of scripture as a basis to write, film, edit, and produce a short film in one week, 168 hours. In our romantic comedy, about finding joy and life in the midst of pain and death, one of our non-Christian characters said the line, “He works for a church, for Christ’s sake.” This throw away joke was in response to her friend being concerned that she was going on a blind-date with a pastor, revealing just how little the character understood about God. Because of this one line, our film was labeled “Blasphemous” and kicked out of the festival. No sex, no drugs, no cussing, no violence. A film about redemption, hope, and belief in something more was labeled blasphemous by the Christian community.

    The creator of Hell Raiser 4 (maybe 3?) was a Christian and would label his film as a Christian film. He said he wanted to “scare the hell (literal) out of people.”

    Fireproof made me cringe, but my brother loved it. There is an audience for these films, it’s just not me and I don’t think it is many people outside the church.

  4. Christianity Today Movies editor Mark Moring apparently commented on this here.

    as did noted critic/writer Jeffrey Overstreet here.

    personally, i was encouraged the last few years by Christians coming out and engaging the world through their art (whether it was Switchfoot or the director – whose name escapes me now – who did Hellraiser IV and The Day the Earth Stood Still), rather than creating another insufferable ghetto that truly creative Christians cannot escape out of (think Mark Heard, Terry Taylor, Steve Taylor, Leslie Phillips [had to change her name], Rich Mullins, Gene Eugene, Mike Roe, the list goes sadly on and on…).

  5. Ah…”A Thief in the night.” I have vivid memories of watching that at church as a very young child. Of course, I also read Chic Tracts and we had an “end times” drill that scared the living daylight out of me.

    But “Christian” movies? I think that “Christian” means “one of those following Christ” and as far as I know thats something only a person can do. Not a movie. Not a book. Not a song. How could a movie be indwelt by God’s Spirit? I wish we could come up with some other term and avoid having the word “Christian” get more muddled than it already is.

    As for creating a competition between our culture’s consumer choices and a nearly-identical-but-not-as-sexual/violent set of consumer choices – I’m not a fan of that phenomenon either. Aren’t we given much much more exciting tasks to do? If the Good News if really good, worth living for and dying for, isn’t it going to meet more felt needs than cheesy songs/books/movies?

    That being said, I have two precious young boys and I am astounded at the depth of innocence-and-purity destroying influences that already surround them and their peers. But I’d rather have Christ followers infiltrating (salt and light!) our culture than creating a B quality alternate one for us to hide in. As it is I don’t feel that the Christian culture is more Christ-like than the secular, hence is more dangerous by being more subtle.

  6. First, I really think you have to ask yourself what you consider to be the point of Film making? Personally, I think there are two categories, and both do not necessarily work well with what I think the Christian Film industry wants to do, versus what it does. Let me explain:

    1. To entertain, encourage, or document
    This I think, is what Christian films are good at doing, within their own market and even than, a small market. I have only seen a few categorically “Christian” films, but the ones I have seen, have done none of the above. They are either low tech, low quality and are not visually or lyrically pleasing (thus entertain). They rarely are prone to encourage me, because most of the time they seem cookie cutter and avoid the problems of real life interactions. Finally, most tend to lack relevance to my life as a single young adult (mid 20-30s).

    2. To bring about change, create conversation, or otherwise stimulate a response.
    This is where I think Christian films are extremely off base, especially in marketing films. If you are going to require squeky clean films (like in JJ’s example) then you are going to loose any sense of reality in the film. How could you hope to evangelize when you take reality out of the movie? How do you inspire conversation, when the film cuts conversation and controversial positions off because they are unpleasant? If the Christian Film industry fails to show it’s relevance to the non-believer, than it is simply creating a film for the first category and failing miserably at the reason it should be making films in the first place.

    Put another way, I think that the idea of a Christian Film industry is great, however, the marketing and self-insular problems, just make it cumbersome and uninteresting to a non-believer. What is the significant difference between a Christian Film and let’s say a Good ol’ Disney Leave it to Beaver type of film? My answer would be evangelism.

    Honestly, two of the most thought provocing pieces of non-Christian work, that inspired me as a Christian growing up (and encourage my Christian beleifs), were Jesus Christ Superstar (the stage production) and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Neither are funded by Christianity as a whole, and yet, they made me ask myself what would a non-Christian see in this piece of work? What misconceptions could I answer? And how can I understand why a person would see Christianity/Religion in this light?

    Christian films need to learn how to be relevant to a larger audience if they want to do more than entertain a select few.

  7. I feel like each of these comments could have been blog posts themselves. A few quick thoughts:

    OtakuDad wrote, I think that the church hasn’t been abandoned as much as the church doesn’t necessarily make the appropriate steps to reach out and be where the world is. I follow what you’re saying, but I think the Christian film industry shows what happens when the church tries to keep up with “the world.” It seems that our churches ought to embody a completely different reality, one that doesn’t need to keep up.

    JJ’s experience directly addresses the question of what makes a film “Christain.” A film about redemption, hope, and belief in something more was labeled blasphemous by the Christian community. Rather than looking for the beautiful and just in all art, our subculture often is more interested in drawing a clear line between the sacred and profane.

    I appreciate Catherine’s perspective because I’ve wondered how much my thinking on this will change when I have a child. But I’d rather have Christ followers infiltrating (salt and light!) our culture than creating a B quality alternate one for us to hide in. As it is I don’t feel that the Christian culture is more Christ-like than the secular, hence is more dangerous by being more subtle. That’s a huge statement with a bunch of implications. If I follow, because elements of the Christian subculture are not Christ-centered, their subtlety makes them more dangerous than their secular counterparts. I’d love to hear more about this.

    jujbird makes the interesting point that Christian films best serve as vehicles for evangelism. What is the significant difference between a Christian Film and let’s say a Good ol’ Disney Leave it to Beaver type of film? My answer would be evangelism. If this is correct, she’s right to bemoan the sub-par quality of many of these films.

    And thanks to jas dye for the additional links.

    Additional thoughts?

  8. The Christian movies I have seen tend to be horrible because evangelicals, on the whole, tend to be confused about what art is for. These films tend to be about polemic instead of beauty. They tend to be about propaganda rather than exploration. They tend to be about slipping a trite platitude version of ‘the gospel into a visual medium’ rather than participating in the Imago Dei by co-creating.

    Incidentally, no one has mentioned Mel. He might be an anti-Semitic embarrassment, but he’s a brother and produces really transcendent art.

    I guess I am less interested in Christian art (music, lit, film etc…) than I am in great art with redemptive themes…and it would be great if Christians were doing it. Rob Bell said something pretty similar to Catherine’s comment “’Christian’ makes a great noun and a really bad adjective.”

  9. I don’t mean that if Coca-Cola is willing to spend $25 billion on advertising, so should the church… I’m not saying THAT kind of “keep up”. But if media is where people are (and they are) then why isn’t the church in media? In a real way?

    That’s what I’m saying. I think that there is a place for explicitly Christian film, but those filmmakers need to get real, and not try to make every film an after-school special.

    I think a different reality is good, if it’s REAL. I know that sounds silly to say such a strange and seemingly contradictory sentence, but I think it’s true. I think the world needs more films about baby christians. It needs more films about Christians losing their faith, and that struggle. It needs more films about those deeply entrenched in their faith. And it needs to address issues that are real in the church like church politics and pride. But, these issues don’t get discussed (outside of documentary, that is)…

    If the church cares enough to be honest with people in film, then they are keeping up. Television shifted to “reality stuff” and “deep drama”. The church is still about connection on the surface, and then digging deep after connection is established. People are READY to make deep connections soon. (And yes, I know the parable of the seed in the rocky soil!) But what I’m saying is that people are not trusting of surface ideas and don’t buy into stuff based solely on reason these days. It’s gotta be reason plus emotion. Reason plus real life examples. Film CAN deliver that experience, which can lead to a more fruitful follow-through by caring church members who want to help facilitate that kind of discussion.

    But films like Fireproof (which I haven’t seen yet, admittedly) and Facing the Giants, are good at showing examples of Christianity, but not where people are at in their own lives. I think that as a missional tool, they suck badly. But as pseudo-reality for hardcore, committed christians, that’s great. But why preach to the choir? What’s the point in that? That’s what church is for, in my opinion. To continue education, to grow bonds, and to lean on each other. But in a consumer experience like film, that’s a great opportunity for true outreach where people are willing to suspend their disbelief for a couple hours and get into what you’re talking about… Why not use that medium to its full potential and really speak to the people in the audience?

    No one is doing this! No one! They claim to, but are afraid of really meeting people where they are at. They won’t talk (or rather, show) gritty descriptions of people in the grips of sin. They won’t discuss addiction (except in the Lifetime-movie, over-the-top, uber-drama sense) . They won’t discuss themes that are close to home, or possibly even condemning of the filmmakers themselves. They’re too afraid to tackle those subjects, for fear of Christians condemning their film (see JJ’s comment).

    Sorry, this is something near and dear to my heart (as someone who loves and works on film in a non-professional manner, but always aspired to be a professional filmmaker…).

    I think of what indie filmmakers are doing for other subjects, that are sometimes controversial to their subjects themselves… amazing, deep films that are not budget-intensive, but have a clear vision, know what they want to say and who they’re saying it to. And then they make that film, and damned be the consequences. Because they were compelled to make that film!

    Why aren’t Christian filmmakers compelled to make that film? Is it simply that there aren’t any quality filmmakers in that arena? Is it lack of experience? It can’t be solely budgetary, because I think that if I needed to, I could raise $25,000 to make a film. It must be drive, or lack of vision, then. And that, to me, is ludicrous, that out of the millions of Christians out there, the entirety of the subset that are cinematically inclined haven’t a strong enough conviction or drive to make that film? That saddens me. That we can have literally a glut of Christian musicians, that we can have a glut of pastors, that we can have a glut of people willing to do all sorts of things in the name of Christ, except film?

    That’s what astounds me and frustrates me.

  10. I agree with Stanford, by the way, entirely. The reason that “Passion” was so great was because Mel had a burden to make a film that was gritty, real, and honest. It wasn’t all feel-good and fuzzy lens shots, and these portrayals of biblical characters as perfect people (well, other than Christ, that is) but instead showed the story as truthfully as I think he could, given our time distance to the subject.

    And most people liked it (even if they had a hard time watching it), and a lot of people really really hated it. I don’t think Mel Gibson cared much. I think he wanted to make this film about Christ. Then he made a film about Christ. Then, he said “I’m done.” And was. The art was the intended result. The resulting discussion was where the church came in. But the media was not created to start discussion as much as it was to simply exist. Of course, discussion of great art is inevitable, but you can’t put the cart in front of the horse. Great art first, THEN discussion follows. You can’t try to work the discussion into the art, because then it’s not art…it’s a discussion awkwardly pressed into a medium that it doesn’t quite fit.

  11. Money quotes from stanford:

    The Christian movies I have seen tend to be horrible because evangelicals, on the whole, tend to be confused about what art is for. These films tend to be about polemic instead of beauty. They tend to be about propaganda rather than exploration. They tend to be about slipping a trite platitude version of ‘the gospel into a visual medium’ rather than participating in the Imago Dei by co-creating.

    and Otukadad:

    The art was the intended result. The resulting discussion was where the church came in. But the media was not created to start discussion as much as it was to simply exist. Of course, discussion of great art is inevitable, but you can’t put the cart in front of the horse. Great art first, THEN discussion follows. You can’t try to work the discussion into the art, because then it’s not art…it’s a discussion awkwardly pressed into a medium that it doesn’t quite fit.

    It appears that the important conversation has to do with a Christian theology of art. Both quotes point out the tendency to create art that exists for a purpose outside of itself (polemics and discussion). This differs from an artist who creates because she must create; from art that exists for art’s sake. I suppose we can agree that all art will provoke something beyond itself, but what is being reacted to here seems to be the manipulation of that reaction. Is that correct?

  12. I’ve enjoyed this thread.

    A few years ago, I had a lengthy email conversation with Dallas Jenkins, son of the co-writer of the “Left Behind” series.

    At the time, Jenkins was aspiring to produce the “Pulp Fiction” of Christian movies. I agreed with him and cheered him on. We’ve since lost touch. To my knowledge, he hasn’t succeeded yet.

    I think we lost touch, because I told him his dad’s books were hardly honest depictions of what the heathens would be like if the rapture took place.

    What is it about Christian art that removes itself from criticism. It’s like every Christian that colors a picture, it must be stuck on the fridge with a gold star no matter how awful it is.

    Through a shared acquaintance of Dave’s and mine, I’ve heard of Christian Men’s retreats that integrate movies like “Pulp Fiction” and movies like “Fatal Attraction” into their weekend movie lineup. They use it for discussion and to raise important questions. “Fatal” qualifies as the movie to scare the hell out of a man to avoid extramarital relationships.

    I come from the upbringing that the Old Testament is relevant with all its sex and violence, because of its honesty of human behavior and cyclical need for redemption.

    Does the OT makes “Christian art” look dishonest? If the Jewish forefathers were honest enough to include Abraham, Hosea, Lot, David, Solomon, et cetera ad nauseam, surely Christians have the right to be honest in their artistic endeavors.

    Might it be questioned that if Christian art is dishonest, than it somehow stymies honesty in those that admire or take part in it?

    JW

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