“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil 4:8)
Last week, Ted Baehr and the folks over at Movieguide.org held their 16th annual Faith and Values Awards Gala. The show is dedicated to awarding the best family-friendly films of the year and the best films for mature audiences. In addition, every year Baehr, chairman of The Christian Film and Television Commission, presents his statistical analysis of the Box Office profitability of films with Christian worldviews compared to those with non-Christian worldviews.
The ten best films for families according to Movieguide were:
3. Alvin and the Chipmunks
5. The Game Plan
6. In the Shadow of the Moon
7. Shrek the Third
8. The Ultimate Gift
9. Nancy Drew
10. Bridge to Terabithia
The ten best films for mature audiences were:
1. Amazing Grace
2. August Rush
3. Spider-Man 3
4. I Am Legend
6. The Great Debaters
7. The Astronaut Farmer
10. Live Free or Die Hard
Films with strong redemptive themes are nominated for the awards event whose main purpose is to prove that movies with a strong Christian worldview make more at the Box Office than those with very strong atheist, agnostic, nonspiritual, or anti-spiritual worldviews. The culmination of the awards show is Ted Baehr’s statistical report on the Box Office, which “consistently shows studio executives and filmmakers that family-friendly, spiritually uplifting content can significantly increase the profitability of their movies.” In other words, Baehr has discovered that it is more profitable to present a Christian worldview in film.
What exactly does Baehr mean by a “Christian worldview”? Besides looking at the “Ten Best” lists presented at the awards events, we can get a clear sense of how Movieguide defines a good film with a proper worldview from Baehr’s analysis of what moviegoers want to see: “[They] want to see movies with very strong Christian content. They want the Savior to overcome the darkness, Truth to triumph over falsehood, Justice to defeat injustice, and Beauty to overcome ugliness: they want the Good News of Jesus Christ.” We can summarize the mission and message of the awards show like this: a film is aesthetically excellent (worthy of an award) and commercially successful if it properly portrays the theme of good triumphing over evil.
But this raises the questions, in what way is the theme of redemption the only judge of aesthetic excellence and should we try to convince filmmakers that these kinds of films ought to be made because they are profitable?
To answer the first question we should look to the Old Testament. Even a cursory reading of Psalms, Job, Proverbs, or Ecclesiastes makes evident a common truth in the Old Testament: the world is unjust. The unrighteous rule, gain wealth, and go unpunished, while the righteous are abused and go unavenged. The Bible gives us no hope for true justice in this life. To demand that all films show good triumphing over evil, or justice over injustice is to go beyond the Bible and lie about the fundamental nature of the world. When Baehr argues that a movie is only good if it properly contains these themes, he either shows an ignorance of the Old Testament, or he is advocating art as pure escapism. While watching a hero win out against incredible odds is uplifting, to claim that any other plot structure is unbiblical and unworthy of praise is nonsense. It is precisely a world where the unjust currently go unpunished that Christ came to save: a fallen world.
Movieguide’s judgment of the quality of a film is based almost entirely upon its presentation of morals and morality. Returning to Paul’s list of things to think about, it seems that Movieguide has only heard Paul say, “whatever is pure;” ignoring all the other standards Paul gives us. Is Alvin and the Chipmunks really excellent? Is Nancy Drew commendable? Is Shrek the Third lovely? The problem here is that they are willing to praise films that are pure (which Movieguide seems to have defined as being morally inoffensive and having an uplifting message), even at the expense of excellence, loveliness, truth, and justice.
As an example, we can look at the fact that Amazing Grace was awarded best film for mature audiences, while Juno did not even make the top ten. Witty, poignant, and thoughtful, Juno tactfully explored teen pregnancy and modern families in a manner that forcefully asserted the sacredness of children and family. While I very much enjoyed Amazing Grace, the truth is that the film never managed to get beyond biography. It lacks any discernible theme other than “if you believe in something, keep at it!” The movie amounts to the abbreviated highlights of William Wilberforce’s life, failing to delve much beyond his surface motivations. Although it is far from a bad film, Amazing Grace simply does not measure up to the quality of Juno, No Country For Old Men, or some of the other films released in 2007. The choice of Amazing Grace over Juno and other films demonstrates that Movieguide is willing to elevate “whatever is pure” above whatever is excellent, commendable, just, lovely, and true. Which brings us to the second question: should we try to convince filmmakers to make films with a “Christian worldview”?
Baehr’s argument goes that there is more money to be made in movies with redemptive messages. But lets consider some of the examples he gives us of “good” films: Alvin and the Chipmunks, Live Free and Die Hard, August Rush, Nancy Drew, Shrek the Third, and Pride. The average review score of the Ten Best movies for mature audiences, according to metacritc, is 60.4. Compare that to the Oscar nominees for best picture (Juno, No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Atonement, and Micheal Clayton) which have an average score of 86.2. What do these scores tell us?
They tell us that while movies with a “Christian worldview” might make more money (according to Movieguide), on the whole they lack the quality of their “secular” counterparts. Therefore, the message Baehr gives to filmmakers is that making a profit is more important than making something of excellence. Since a Christian worldview (as defined by Baehr) produces a better Box Office success, movie executives should make these uplifting films, even at the expensive of aesthetic excellence.
Here are some closing thoughts:
First, we need to always keep in mind the comprehensiveness of Phil 4:8 as we make aesthetic judgments. We are not commanded only to think on what is “pure,” and to single out this element above the others is to create a standard that is extra-biblical.
Second, while optimistic stories are good, they are not the only acceptable kinds of stories. In a true biblical perspective, justice is fallen in this world, and therefore we should not expect the “good” or “just” to always triumph.
Third, as believers we should try to encourage artists to make works that are commendable, not just works that are profitable.
By God’s grace, believers can make and support works of excellence, but we must be willing to praise what is truly worthy, not just what conforms to our definition of the Christian “worldview.”