Reviewing the Critics: Can We Trust Secular Film Critics?

Editor of Movieguide, Tom Snyder writes,”Just because the secular movie critics and secular elites in Hollywood don’t like some of the movies we pick does not mean that they are really bad movies within the categories in which we pick them. In that sense, ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS was a very entertaining, uplifting family movie that kids would enjoy. The mainstream critics trashed it, but the American audience, many of whom still have strong vestiges of their Christian heritage, even though not all of them may understand essential Christian doctrines like the sinlessness of Christ and the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, not by works, seemed to like the movie very much.”

Most believers accept the fact that our culture is filled with ideas, embedded in captivating and entertaining forms, which are antithetical to the Christian worldview. Films, TV shows, songs, and other cultural productions can be used to propagate immoral values, anti-Christian or religious ideologies, or dehumanizing views of life: however, they can also reveal the human need for a Savior, the transcendent meaningfulness of God ordained relationships, and the beauty of Christ’s creation. Making things more interesting, it is not uncommon for a film to contain all of these diverse and contrary elements. This diversity means that the job of the critic is extremely difficult, and our duty in choosing a critic who is discerning enough to accurately inform us of the merits of a film seems no less difficult. The question which is of particular importance is:

Considering all the divergent and potentially deviant ideas and content in modern film, can we trust the judgment of a secular critic?

The discussion I will provide here will be far from comprehensive, but I hope to show that Christians should value and critically examine the judgments of secular critics in the same way they value and critically examine the judgments of all non-Christians.

Before I delve into the more detailed and theological aspects of this topic, I would like to address a basic assumption concerning whether or not we can trust secular critics: Secular critics are people who write for secular publications. The problem with this statement is that we cannot assume that film critics writing for secular institutions are themselves secular. There are many devout Christians glorifying God in their workplace across the country. So to conclude that a review of a film is inaccurate because it was written by a secular critic, which is assumed because the critic wrote for a secular publication, which is defined as a publication which is note overtly and explicitly devoted to the Christian worldview, is poor logic and fundamentally does little to help us determine the trustworthiness of a critic.

Anyone who doesn’t exclusively watch films made by Christians has some understanding of Common Grace: the idea that while man is fallen, there remains good and blessed aspects of his humanity due to a measure of grace God has given to the whole human race. We understand and take for granted that fallen, unredeemed humans can make excellent works of art due to common grace, but some struggle to offer the same trust to the opinions of secular film critics. Both filmmakers and critics address issues of moral values, truth, meaning, and beauty. The difference, one might suggest, is that critics condone or condemn; they make value judgments about what is good, and without a biblical understanding of “goodness,” the critic is unable to accurately discern. Filmmakers, however, also condemn and condone through what and how they film. And they also make value judgments. No filmmaker goes out to make a “bad” movie. Even the most campy film is created with the intent to make a good campy film (or it is at least the failed attempt at a sincerely good film).

Since filmmakers and critics share many of the same concerns and make similar value judgments, we can look at the way we discern the quality of movies for a model for how we can discern the quality of a critic’s review.

As believers, we are required to thoughtfully consider the morality and truthfulness of everything we involve ourselves with. Hopefully, we don’t expect a Hollywood movie to be completely true to the Christian worldview; our assumption is that we must guard ourselves from ungodly influences (just what constitutes an influence might vary). We must test everything according to the Truth of the Gospel. And in a very similar way, we should test the critiques of film made by critics according to what we know to be true. If we accept the fact that “secular” filmmakers can create movies that contain true statements about the world, movies of excellence, then we must accept the fact that “secular” film critics can make true statements about those films and their excellence.

At this point there is an important distinction that must be made between recognizing that we should think critically about “secular” film reviews and assuming all secular film reviews to be inaccurate. Since we can see that it is wrong to assume that a critic writing for a secular publication must be a non-Christian, and since we recognize that owing to common grace non-Christians are quite capable of creating good works, we should not presume that the reviews found in secular publications are inaccurate without examining them on a case-by-case basis.

There are two other points I would like to treat briefly which offer further support for my argument. First, we must take into account the formal aspects of film which are, for the most part, able to be judged regardless of the critic’s worldview. Editing, the verisimilitude of dialogue and acting, composition, sound, and many other formal elements of film are, in general, not tied to issues of worldview. Certainly when it comes to these elements, there should be little difference between the judgments of secular and Christian critics. And in film reviews, criticism of the formal aspects of a film are quite significant.

Second, thanks to the Judeo-Christian legacy in Western culture, especially in America, it is not unreasonable to expect critics to make some of their value judgments based on some aspects of this heritage.

We live in a world that is hostile to the Gospel and what we believe. This hostility demands vigilance and thoughtful discernment. However, by God’s grace, Christians are not the only people blessed in their ability to make good – and to some extent true – works. While it might be easier to ignore and condemn the reviews of “secular” film critics as unredeemed, we must acknowledge that there are many “secular” critics who can responsibly judge the merits of film. Between common grace, our Judeo-Christian heritage, and the relatively transcendent, formal aspects of film, we should not be surprised or opposed to the fact that non-Christian critics can accurately judge the merits of film. Fundamentally, it is always the obligation of the individual believer to test films and reviews of films against the Truth. And of course, there is tremendous benefit in reading Christian criticism (this website is a testament to that fact). But the benefit of Christian criticism and our obligation to test everything against the Truth does not diminish the fact that secular critics can produce helpful and accurate reviews of film.

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • http://lookingcloser.org Jeffrey Overstreet

    The American audience is famous for choosing cheap, trashy stuff. In food. In merchandise. And yes, in entertainment and art.

    If we look to the box office and say, “Well, this is what people WANT,” and let that guide us, we’re only going to perpetuate a decline in artistic appreciation and understanding.

    In the same way, if we point to McDonalds’ “a bazillion people served,” and let that be our guiding fact, we’re just going to ensure that Americans continue to eat garbage and become obese and unhealthy.

    It’s our job to coax people toward what is better. And what is better is not necessarily what is *easy*, or what is “family-friendly,” or what the majority prefers. Even amongst Christians, what is popular is often mediocre, simplistic, and telling us what we *want* to hear rather than what we *need* to hear.

    I prefer to learn from those who study hundreds of movies every year, and grow in my appreciation of artistic excellence and artful storytelling. Let truth and beauty, not the box office, lead. And truth and beauty are messy subjects, often troubling, and sometimes, yes… R-rated.

    The authors of scripture knew that. Shakespeare knew that. Many Christians writers and artists know that. More and more Christian film critics are realizing this all the time. And whatever the folks of Movieguide might think, the seasoned filmgoers that they write off as “the secular elite” know that too.

    The films I have discovered under the guidance of great critics – both Christian and otherwise — have drawn me deeper into understanding of the truth, and closer to God. And I’m grateful for them. Just as I don’t need my auto mechanic to be a Christian in order to learn from his expertise about cars, so I don’t need a film critic to be a Christian to learn from his perspective on a movie.

    If I’d had to survive on the mediocre fare typically celebrated by Movieguide, I would have been stuck eating big-screen burgers, and missed out on lavish feasts. And my artistic appreciation would not have matured beyond that of an eight-year-old. But thanks to others who dig deeper, I am finding richer meaning, greater art, and I am beginning to travel “further up, further in” in a journey of faith through the world of art.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    I’ve posted related comments at the usual place.

    @Jeffrey – You make some very good points. I think it was when I threw off the yoke of my fundamentalist-lite church tradition that I was able to absorb the many thoughtful and worthwhile works that just couldn’t fit into the framework set up for responsible media consumption by my congregation. As I was once there myself, I understand where those are coming from who feel they cannot engage PG-13 films (let alone R-rated fare), but still it’s difficult not to look upon such a perspective without feeling pity. There is so much to learn and so much of value out there; to avoid such consciously seems like poor stewardship of our hearts and minds and souls.

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  • David Dunham

    Well said Alan. What a shame it is that Christians immediately judge a secular film critic as non-Christian and all his comments as unredeemmed and false. Thanks for that warning.

  • http://www.thewonderingpundit.wordpress.com The Pundit

    I can’t help but wonder who gets to decide what is “good art.” How does one “steer people toward what is better” without imposing our standard of goodness on others?

  • HPoD

    Popular art is decided by a mass through a filter of publishers attempting to profit from the mass. Good art is determined by a tradition of criticism (generally by practitioners in the field), asking questions relevant to discovering if a new work of “art” meets certain traditional criteria of other “good” art. Examples– Does it follow a specific form, or make knowledgeable and innovative uses of a new form? Has it had, or does it have potential for longevity in terms of its impact? And so on…

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    @The Pundit – Or to restate HPoD’s explanation:

    Popular Art is identified by its commodification as a commercial product.

    Good Art is identified by its commodification as a product to bolster the reputation of the cultural elites and/or the cultural intelligencia as being elite and/or intelligent.*

    Great Art is identified by its commodification as something I like.

    *note: all this is made clear in HPoD’s repeated mention of Tradition as being key in discovering Good Art.

  • http://www.thewonderingpundit.wordpress.com The Pundit

    The Dane,

    Now that is an honest answer! You, sir, are a gentleman and a scholar….

  • http://www.decablog.com/barber Johnny T

    The Dane and The Pundit,

    Well done, sirs. It is important to expose the concealed values hiding behind concepts like “Good Art”.

  • HPoD

    The Dane,

    I don’t know if it is the best option to define good art as simply a “commodification as a product to bolster the reputation”. Really, do we have to result to the debasement of the academic faculties? No one seems to have a problem with them if they’ve been dead long enough. Also, it was these very writers and academicians that gave art a notion of itself, and helped to raise it above “bad taste”. Consider the following. Basketball, as a sport, is relatively easy to understand and to play, no? Most anyone can go into their driveway and play a satisfying version of the game. However, I don’t think anyone playing in their backyard can claim with any great certainty that they are better than Michael Jordan? (MJ being reputed as a “good” basketball player).
    Why?
    Because most people understand the difference between a skilled basketball player on or off a professional court and Bobo-Joe (wherever it is that he may play). Alternately, I can tell you that because I am academically educated in the roles of the “sport of entertainment” so to speak, that I can tell you (arguably) good players from bad ones. I may not be able to solve Hank Aaron from Babe Ruth or some such, but I can tell you that Daniel Day-Lewis and There Will Be Blood is far more “skilled” art (i.e. having “good” qualities) and perhaps, the Wayans Brothers’ White Chicks film…

  • HPoD

    Unless of course, you’re going to claim that MJ’s style of play is his particular, professional style, and that the definition of a “good” basketball player is in question…

  • HPoD

    And one more thing. Are you going to tell me that there isn’t a “Christian” intelligencia that isn’t repsonsible for bringing forth and directing thought, taste, and opinion regarding Christianity, or even the Word of God?

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    @HPoD – I don’t know what I’m going to tell you, I’ll have to wait ’til I get the script. Oh, here’s one now…

    You do a lot of guessing of what I’m going to say, so this probably shouldn’t surprise you: I’m not sure your analogy is entirely suitable to the discussion.

    There’s a big difference between discussing how good a player Michael Jordan is and how good a film The English Patient is. The value of Michael Jordan as a basketball player is far more easily quantifiable than the value of The English Patient. Evaluation of an athlete’s performance includes a small degree of subjective measurement, but since the goal is clearly stated and quantified, the bulk of the measures taken to achieve the goal are likewise quantifiable. Thus, evaluation of sports relies heavily upon statistics.

    In basketball, success hinges upon getting the ball in the hoop enough so that one team’s points outweigh the other team’s. But imagine that there weren’t points and we let players mess around with the ball and hoops for ninety minutes—and then, we decided to judge the game based on largely subjective points (things like hair-style, choice of vocabulary used during the game, the manner by which someone dribbled), stipulating only that teams would be disqualified if they left the court and we’d prefer it if they touched the ball sometimes. And then game after game, we chose relatively similar things by which to judge the results, yet never were we able to actually define the goal of the game. That would be a closer comparison to judging Good Art.

    Whatever Good Art is, we can certainly say that the definition is mobile. At one time, craft may play a large part in its definition. At another, creativity may take priority. At another, we may decide to value the theme expressed. At another, the ability of the artist to express a theme in way that communicates most clearly with his audience.

    Whether something is Good Art or not, depends entirely on what is in vogue in the art-judging establishment, in that group to whom society has given the reigns to such decisions-making.

    In some world The English Patient might be considered Good Film. In fact, in our world (or at least a peculiar corner of it), it was considered such. Despite the fact that the film was trash.

    See, things in the world of art aren’t so easily quantified and discerned as you represent.

    And as far as this goes:

    Are you going to tell me that there isn’t a “Christian”
    intelligencia that isn’t repsonsible for
    bringing forth and directing thought, taste, and
    opinion regarding Christianity, or even the Word of God?

    Why on earth would I tell you that?

  • HPoD

    Why on earth would you tell me that? Because it seems (I could be very wrong) that you imply something wrong with art as defined by the “commodification as a product to bolster the reputation of the cultural elites and/or the cultural intelligencia as being elite and/or intelligent.*” I guess I should ask you first whether you consider that a bad thing or not? Do you? I felt that by your use of language you did. Ideas like reputation bolstering promote a second agenda. If you do consider it a bad thing, I would then ask you, like I tried to at the end there, what we make of any intelligencia at all, or any person that makes their career inside of an academic forum? What is so wrong with a person who makes a statement about what is good and bad in a field which he/she has devoted their life to study and interact with? Would we consider their words better if they did not? Do we not in Christian culture demand academic training and a lifetime commitment to study of the subject when we make church ministers and what not? I think it’s a terrible double standard.
    As for the Jordan example, ok, not so good, but I still must argue some relevance– Is MJ good simply because he can score points, or is it how he does it?
    However, I still don’t know how you can call “The English Patient” trash so readily if the standards are not so easily quantifiable. You can say, as you have said earlier, that you did not like it. But does that give you the authority to say it is or is not, or to what degree it is art? It seems to me that one of the great standards of art is accepted form– (who establishes accepted form is, apparently, questionable I know, but let’s move on for a moment) and if a knowledgeable population, consisting of those who have academically come to understanding of the subject say that a certain piece of art is good, who are those who are OF that discipline to say otherwise? Certainly you wouldn’t allow a secular artist to come and tell your pastor that the man has no authorative or respectable grounds to talk about God and Bible because he makes his living do it?
    To end– please forgive my impertinence, truly. I do tend to get fired up in pursuit of these things, and should try to be more like the Father, yeah? Thanks for the patience. Cheers.

  • http://www.decablog.com/barber Johnny T

    HPoD,

    Claiming that there is such a thing as an aesthetic authority is a problem. Academic training only develops the individual’s ability to recognize and appreciate those things they have been trained to recognize and appreciate. A problem with this is that people confuse what they have been trained to look for with some sort of objective aesthetic law; contingent cultural values disguise themselves in a cloak of natural law. Attributes like complexity and innovation become universal standards by which all art is judged. But these standards say more about the critic or the culture then they do about the art. As Oscar Wilde says, “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” Taking a staunch stance on things like aesthetic authority, tradition and academic training says more about you than it does about art.

    I would recomend being careful not to confuse subjectivity with objectivity.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    @HPoD – I do not actually consider the classification of Good Art as a means by the cultural elite to establish themselves and secure their reputation as elite to be a bad thing. I think it is just one of those things that is. It can be used for good or ill, but the creation of cultural boundaries by a particular group is part of the privilege of membership in such a group.

    I don’t see any great harm in it. i just think it pays to recognize it as a shibboleth and move on from there.

    I think that in some ways you mistake what I am saying, interpreting my words to mean that there is no use for the person who studies an art, say film, since I think it inherently difficult for such a person to judge Good Film by any objective standard (largely because we are not aware of any objective goal toward which a prospective good film must aim). This is not the case at all.

    I think there is great value in those who devote their time to the particular study of the film medium—only that value lies not so much in telling us whether or not a film is good or not. Instead, the value of the critic (I’m using this term as synonymous with those whose academically study and discuss the work, rather than merely review it and offer an opinion—see my latest post for more on the distinction) resides in the critic’s ability to offer interesting insights into a film that might otherwise escape the average viewer (for example, a critic would be more apt than a reviewer or average viewer to recognize the breadth of Citizen Kane as a illness-induced delirium rather than a post-mortem investigation into Kane’s life). Critics can offer something far more interesting than an evaluation of a film’s merits; they can offer discussion of the film itself.

    So yes, while I prefer to listen to someone knowledgeable in the medium discuss how different aspects of their area of expertise contribute to a particular work, if I want to know whether a film is good or not, I’m more likely to get a serviceable answer from any friend who shares similar tastes with my own.

    And I say this as someone who engages in both sides of the coin. I am knowledgeable in the creation process of the cinema as well as a variety of cinematic storytelling techniques. I study directors and their works. I listen for musical cues in films. I am, in fact, an amateur critic.

    Simultaneously, I play the reviewer, quantifying films left and right. Creating meticulous lists evaluating films and comparing them with each other. I will flat out tell you whether a film is good or bad or a step above average (Ratatouille, I’m looking at you). And I do this all the while recognizing that these are my subjective opinions about film.

    I think that when responsible reviewers rate movies, they’re doing so with a nod and a wink. No matter how deeply they praise a film or or haughtily denounce a film, they must realize that they are only speaking for themselves and they who share their tastes. Of course, for them to get audiences, they can’t admit that publicly (since people don’t really want a reviewer like that); but still, that’s what’s going on.

    So that’s how I can so easily quantify the English Patient. Because unlike saying whether something is Good Art, I am not aiming for an abstract intangible goal that has never actually been defined. Instead, I aim for a very objective goal: whether I thought well of it or not. Despite the fact that my opinion is subjective, there can be no doubt for me as to what my opinion is once I decide upon it. Therefore, The English Patient was an objectively bad film—the objective being what I thought of it.

    As for the comparison between pastors and art critics, I fail to grasp how the two are all that similar.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    @Johnny T – I am always in the mood for an Oscar Wilde quote.

  • http://www.thewonderingpundit.wordpress.com The Pundit

    My favorite Wilde quote is, and I paraphrase: “You can take away all the necessities in my life, and I won’t object. But you’d better not touch my luxuries, for then I’ll be upset.”

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    @The Pundit – I am always in the mood for an Oscar Wilde quote.

  • HPoD

    To the Dane–

    I thought the Pastors and Art Critics (when I use that I think we can agree on the definition you provided last post) are very similar. Here is my thinking.

    1) A critic, or academic, is a person who has studied (most often formally, and if not formally, from formal texts– i.e. you can learn Plato in college or you can read him yourself) and assumedly understands a valid interpretation of the material.
    2) The critic or academic then makes his career by offering his informed opinion on the subjective nature of universal artforms. (I say univeral artforms because eventually specific artforms have very specific critera– i.e. classical western sculpture is based on realism, therefore, the most epitomizingly western (good western) art is that which is the most realistic). Regardless…
    3) Pastors, in most Christian communities I’m familiar with, are required to attend formal schooling to be able to be adequately equipped with knowledge of the material that allows them to Pastor for that Church.
    4) Although the source material (the Bible) can be considered infallible, human interpretations of it abound, thus more denominations and many different schools of thought and interpretation.
    5) A Pastor, like a Critic, has been formally educated in a subjective interpretation of source material(s). Additionally, both of them may, and often do, require this for their profession. So I do not see how Pastors and Critics are so different– excepting in type of source material and purpose of the source material. One says why one thing is good or bad, another says why he thinks one way to see something is more right than something else.

    To Johnny T–
    I agree the practice is dangerous, but I won’t admit that it is unmerited. However, I’m still working on a counter-argument. Will post later.

  • HPoD

    Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative. Oscar Wilde– my favorite.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    @HPod – The difference is that when someone says of art that there is a Good or Bad, it’s not at all clear that this is the case. The proponent of Good Art is aiming at something arrived at arbitrarily, which is in flux. The pastor is aiming at an objective goal, representing God and God’s gospel truthfully. The more a pastor preaches establishment doctrine rather than Bible, the less valuable he is. The more an art critic preaches establishment tradition… well, it doesn’t really matter, does it? Because he’s just referring back to a mobile, arbitrary standard anyway.

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  • HPoD

    The Dane–

    You don’t think a large portion (I won’t say all) of man’s views of the Bible, be he Christian or unChristian, are arbitrary interpretations?

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    Arbitrary? Not usually. Wrong a bit? Yeah. But arbitrary doesn’t sound right.

  • http://solshine7.blogspot.com SolShine7

    I just found your blog via Looking Closer Journal and I really like what you’re doing here. Your concept is similar to mine and it’s encouraging to find another blog that I can point people to.

    As far as this article goes I agree with this statement: “If we accept the fact that ‘secular’ filmmakers can create movies that contain true statements about the world, movies of excellence, then we must accept the fact that ‘secular’ film critics can make true statements about those films and their excellence.” That’s a good point.

    Keep up the good work!!!

  • http://www.sharefaithblog.com/ Daniel Threlfall

    I know I found it late, but had to comment. Great article. The bottom line assessment of the author is spot-on: “It is always the obligation of the individual believer to test films and reviews of films against the Truth.” On a similar line, here is an article on movies and church. How do the two fit? Or not fit?
    http://www.sharefaithblog.com/2010/08/pastors-movies-stop-bringing-hollywood-sermon/


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