There is something of a vicious cycle in the world of Christian films. Pious people want to make a movie, but lack the necessary funds and skills. Undeterred, they make a movie anyway and rely on their message to make up for the lack of polish in other areas. So, most Christian films wind up cheaply produced, amateurish, and preachy. This in turn scares off others who might have the necessary technical know-how from even considering taking part in such productions. Son of God, the latest mainstream example of Christian film, falls prey to the twin problems that seem to plague all adaptations of books to film. First, it is comprehensible only to those who have read the book, and second, it antagonizes that very audience by its departures from the source material.
For non-Christians, the choppy presentation, poor direction, acting, and plotting will be ample to put them off the film regardless of religious background. If we are serious about spreading the Faith by means of art, we need to be better at producing good art. Bad art does nothing to show others the truth, beauty, and goodness of Christianity. Instead, such art tends to show that we really are backwards and can’t even make a good movie. It is no hyperbole that we have the greatest story ever told, but to do the story justice we have to tell it well.
Overall, however, I would have to admit to feeling edified on many occasions while watching Son of God, though I feel as though that was inevitable given the source material. Even a poor, crude, vaguely accurate representation of the truths of the Gospel has a power about it that other narratives can only hope for. It is important however, not to confuse the edification with the aesthetic (de)merits of a piece of art. Even a badly-acted Crucifixion scene still presents a profound truth of the Faith. There is undoubtedly some value in having a somewhat more vivid, visual presentation to meditate upon, but this value is due more to the profundity of the truth portrayed rather than the merits of the portrayal. More to the point, this edification will not happen in someone who is not already sympathetic to and familiar with Christianity.
Nevertheless, in Horatian aesthetics, the point of art is twofold: to instruct and to delight, and perhaps the latter needs to be stressed more these days. Art can have a message, but its message should be consistent with the point of art. Movies are not sermons. The high arts are about producing beautiful works. Poe in “The Poetic Principle” points out that literature teaches properly only by presenting virtue as beautiful and vice as ugly. The sheer beauty of a piece of art will be what inspires people to imitate virtue because it delights them.
For being a film that tried not to offend any group and was cut together from a TV miniseries, Son of God perhaps did the best it could. Aristotle in The Poetics notes that one ought not try to present an epic on stage. By analogy, it is perhaps impossible to satisfactorily present an entire life in a film, much less the life of Christ. Many reviews of Son of God have compared it to The Passion, and the success of the latter film is based precisely on the facts that it is better produced, better executed, and more focused.