As you may already know, this week a radio talk-show host accused Christianity Today Movies’ film reviewers of misrepresenting the magazine’s foundation of evangelical conviction.
And a Christian filmmaker responded to one of those reviews by declaring that one of CT’s most prolific and respected reviewers clearly needed to sit down with real Christians and learn what they are like.
Well, it should be clear that these are serious claims, with serious implications. I’m not naming them here, because I’m not interested in narrowing this to a personal dispute. The issues at stake here are huge, important, and essential for any Christian involved in culture to consider. …
Since all of us writing Christianity Today‘s movie reviews are Christians, desiring to glorify Christ with our writing, and determined to write the best film reviews we can, we have been startled and dismayed at these claims.
I’m not interested in perpetuating a “who-said-what” debate or throwing stones in public. That would be stooping to the tactics of the folks who started this. I’m interested in asking you to consider the evidence in reference to the simple accusation that my colleagues and I lack evangelical conviction.
Bear with me. I’ll be restating what I’ve said a thousand times before, and in great detail in my book. But this time I’m aiming right at that accusation, and I want to show why it is such a misguided claim.
The Evangelical Christian Approach of my Film Reviews
I will let other CT film critics speak for themselves. But as for me…
My film-review writing is
- driven by a desire to celebrate excellence, because excellence reflects God’s glory. (And that means I want to highlight it and celebrate it wherever I find it, even in the work of people who don’t realize they’re reflecting God’s glory.)
- driven by a desire to expose mediocrity and encourage artists to higher standards, in order to better reflect God’s glory and honor him.
- driven by a hunger for more storytelling and artmaking that is challenging, compelling, transcendent, even life-changing.
- driven by a dissatisfaction with, and weariness of, works that are simplistic, or sentimental, or manipulative, or preachy, or that misrepresent the world we live in.
- driven by a respect for “Sunday school lesson” storytelling, but also by a compelling desire to grow from “milk” to “meat.” I want to encourage audiences to move beyond simplistic, formulaic gospel lessons into the magnificence of the gospel as it is revealed in the lives of our neighbors, in creation, in history, in the aesthetics of great art, in mystery, and in the darkest corners of the world.
- driven by dissatisfaction with work that just “preaches to the choir” or that wraps up messages we already accept in packages that are cheap and derivative.
(Do not misunderstand… my frequent use of the word “driven” is in no way an endorsement of the Sylvester Stallone film Driven!)
While I acknowledge that artists must often reflect back to us the world in all of its ugliness, portraying the vulgar behaviors of human beings like you and me and our neighbors, I do not praise portrayals that condone, glorify, or recommend vulgar behavior.
Instead, I acknowledge and respect portrayals that portray or consider or expose wickedness — vulgar behavior, pride, violence, reckless words, etc. — if those things are shown in context, and shown in a way that contributes to the meaningful whole. (“Have nothing to do with the unfruitful deeds of darkness,” says Paul in Ephesians 5:11. “Instead, even expose them.”)
If portrayals of evil in a film are merely indulgent or excessive or employed just to hold our attention, I strive to communicate that in my review and call it irresponsible. The great Christian artist Flannery O’Connor spoke out clearly on this point, saying that great art includes nothing gratuitous or indulgent or unnecessary. And she was one who was not afraid to include portrayals of grotesque human behavior in her storytelling. (Many Christians reading her work today would probably call it “vulgar,” when in fact it is about vulgarity.)
I want to see what is good is lifted up. And I want to see crass and sinful behavior reflected truthfully so that we can see it as unhealthy and then live our lives with that understanding.
In other words, as I have said since 1996 when I started writing reviews, I am looking for signs of truth, beauty, excellence, and redemption in art. And that means looking closer, not putting on blinders.
To “test all things, and hold fast to what is good,” (to borrow a phrase from a letter to the Thessalonians) . . . that is a high calling, and a difficult challenge, and I am still learning how to do it.
But as I grow, I move farther away from excusing “Christian art” from criticism just because it has a “good message.” A good message in a bad package is a lousy way to draw others to Christ . . . in fact, it sends people running the other way. Who wants to be part of something that is cheaply made, or dishonest about the challenges of this world? Who wants to be told that Jesus will make us happy and successful, when Christ promises us that our lives in his service will be filled with hardship and struggle and unanswered questions? Even the great heroes of the faith were plagued by questions and doubt and frustration, and their lives were decidedly R-rated stories.
If my reviews are going to be part of the way I share Christ with others, they must be honest, truthful, uncompromising, gracious, and willing to admit fault and find virtue in films from anybody, anywhere. Christ is reflected in beauty and goodness and truth wherever it can be found . . . including in the R-rated material of secular culture.
Enough with the condemnation, already!
Unfortunately, many Christians are not comfortable with art that reflects the complexity and the darkness of the world. Many would prefer movies that make them comfortable, or that steer their attentions away from the problems in the world and the rough edges of worldly people. They prefer movies that tell them that Christians are clearly “the good guys” and everybody else, well, they’re the bad guys. And they do not discern the difference between portraying/exposing wickedness and misbehavior . . . and actually condoning wickedness.
They want Christian critics to condemn movies that show them the reality of evil, because dealing with evil is a discomforting, painful, sometimes horrifying process. So they accuse me of celebrating works that “advance profane causes” rather than considering what my reviews actually say about these stories.
My reviews should, if I am fulfilling my goals, discuss what these disurbing films reveal about good and evil, choices and consequences.
Further, as I write for Christianity Today Movies, I anticipate that all films will be flawed in some ways, because all of these films are made by human beings.
Christian films and secular films alike offer themselves up for inspection, and if I do not point out the strengths and weaknesses in all of them, I wouldn’t be doing my job. I have not been hired to give Four Stars to movies that present the gospel simply and clearly. I am here to consider how the film conveys what it conveys, whether there is room for improvement, and whether that vision is truthful and meaningful.
I anticipate that films made by people who aren’t Christians will reflect “worldly” ideas and values, and as they do, I point that out. But I am not here to serve as a judge, condemning people, or approaching their work with an aim to attack and destroy. In examining a movie, whether it’s Pan’s Labyrinth or Lassie or L’Enfant or Little Miss Sunshine . . . or Facing the Giants . . . it is my responsibility to point out weaknesses, but also strengths, and to do all of this with grace and truth.
Too many Christian media personalities and critics are preoccupied with condemnation, condescension, and “labeling” everything they see. They rail against movies that offend them, calling them “worldly.”
But you know what? Frederick Buechner says, “The world speaks of holy things in the only language it knows, which is a worldly language.” If we’re going to communicate with our worldly neighbors, we need to know and attend to their language. (And we need to remember that just because we have a relationship with Christ does not mean there are not still “worldly” sins at work in our own lives.)
Just as Christ approached people with open arms and a listening ear, instead of immediately shouting out their faults in public, we want to approach our neighbors and their movies with grace and attentiveness. (In fact, one of the few times Christ ever loudly and publically condemned someone, he was condemning religious men who spent their time loudly condemning the culture around them. He criticized them for behaving with self-righteousness and contempt. Christians who speak out against culture in public should take that to heart.)
(I explore these ideas in much greater detail . . . and take the time to share some rather bewildering experiences . . . in Through a Screen Darkly, for what it’s worth.)
(Note: Over the last ten years, my reviews have earned me criticism for being “too liberal,” “too conservative,” “politically correct,” “politically incorrect,” “lacking evangelical conviction,” “pro-war,” “anti-war,” “too Catholic,” “elitist,” “too intellectual,” “too worldly,” “too prudish” . . . you name it. You see, if you can label somebody, and easily categorize them, then you can dismiss them, and you don’t have to actually deal with them as individuals or discuss their ideas.)
Too many of the films that have inspired, moved, and ministered to me and my neighbors have been labeled and rejected as “abominations” by those who announce themselves as the voice of the church on these matters. This approach sends messages of self-righteousness, arrogance, contempt, and judgmentalism, instead of a loving care for beauty, excellence, and the revelation of God in the world. No wonder our neighbors shake their heads and roll their eyes when they see a Christian talking about movies on MSNBC.
I am an evangelical Christian, and I am a film critic. Although it goes against what the world has come to expect from Christian film critics, this is my mission and my passion:
- I am here to consider whether the filmmakers’ work (Christian or otherwise) is excellent or mediocre.
- I am here to consider what their perspectives (Christian or otherwise) reveal about the world, human nature, good and evil, and God.
- I am here to look for beauty and grand design, because they reflect God’s glory. The heavens declare the glory of God, after all, and creation “pours forth speech.” We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and the big screen can reveal that oh so powerfully.
And because all artists are made by God — whether they are Christian or otherwise — they have “eternity written in their hearts,” which will often manifest itself in one way or another. Further, because they are filming things that God has made, using materials God has made, and telling stories in order to communicate something meaningful, their stories will almost always offer something worthy of notice and praise. Thus, I am here to draw our attention to these things.
I believe that if we accept this mission, and develop this passion, we will be drawn into a more meaningful and fruitful engagement with our culture, opening more opportunities to highlight the ways in which Christ reveals himself. I call that evangelism.Now, the man who accused Christianity Today’s reviewers was upset that one of us criticized a movie in which the Gospel was clearly presented.
We do not object to sharing the Gospel.
But we are art critics. And good art cannot be reduced to a simple, extractable message. If your movie leads up to a simple “Come to Jesus” climax, that’s a sermon, not a story. That’s an altar call, not art.
Sermons have their place. I look forward to them every week.
But when I go to a movie, I do not want to sit in an audience and have the gospel preached to me. That makes the audience feel cheated, like they’ve been baited in for a story and then hit with a sales pitch.
It’s just not good art.
Only true masters of art are able to weave the clear message of the gospel into something greater than itself . . . a lasting and powerful incarnation.
I do not object to the Gospel, but if it is suddenly *delivered* at the end of a movie, then the movie becomes a tool of direct and didactic persuasion, which cheapens everything that has come before it. That might be useful as a lesson, and could be helpful as an illustration, but we’ve got to acknowledge that this disqualifies it from the upper eschelons of art. Apples and oranges. Most “Christian movies” are designed so that they set us up for a “come-to-Jesus” moment. They’re like church Christmas pageants or Vacation Bible School plays, which serve their purpose but cannot be compared to Shakespeare. I’d be hard-pressed to think of any great art that has one simple, solitary objective. Art invites us into an experience full of discovery and possibility, making many aspects of the truth accessible to us.
Chariots of Fire included gospel messages, but it did so as part of a much greater ambition – it gave us two complex and compelling character studies, and it dared to suggest something even more: That living out the call of the Gospel might not be just about preaching . . . it might be about running at the Olympics, and running with integrity. That great film demonstrated the very thing I’m saying here . . . that the Gospel is about much, much more than just preaching a message. And in art, we have a chance to manifest the Gospel rather than merely preaching it.
Was it Francis of Assissi who said, “Preach the gospel. When necessary, use words…”? I love that. It suggests that the gospel is not so much a matter of making your message clear. It’s not about ending the film with a clear, evangelistic climax that declares “The moral of this story is….” It is about the form, the beauty, the truth of that artwork. The gospel is manifested in an incarnation . . . whether that be through a beautiful and inspiring vision, or by way of making us consider what has gone wrong when we look at a nightmare like The Departed or Babel or Children of Men.
And you know . . . this form of evangelism ends up humbling me and opening me to further transformation along the way. That is why I seek critical dialogue about a film. I want to learn where I’m wrong about it, and where my experience resonates with others. The more I study these things, the more I learn that God will always surprise me as to where and when and how he is working.
So, are Christianity Today’s movie reviews written with an anti-evangelical agenda?
- We are here to love our neighbors by attending to their art with care and discernment.
- We are here to acknowledge the beauty and ugliness manifest in the world and reflected in art.
- We are here to address our readers with care, making them aware of the nature of the art
so that they can decide whether any particular film is worth their own time and attention. (Each viewer is different, faced with different kinds of challenges and different issues of conscience, so we emphasize discernment, rather than exhorting people to see things that would draw them into temptation or compromise.)
- And we are here to examine each film, hold fast to what is good and truthful, and expose what is shoddy or false or mediocre or indulgent or unnecessary.
Revisiting CHILDREN OF MEN
I went to see Children of Men for the third time last night. It was voted the #1 film of 2006 by Christianity Today’s film critics in their “Cream of the Crop” list. And while it was not my particular choice for film of the year (nor Peter Chattaway’s choice, for that matter), I came away deeply impressed with it again.
I want to consider it again here because it was held up this week as a prime example of a “profane” movie, and we were scorned for not condemning it at Christianitiy Today.
No, I would not recommend Children of Men for everyone. It is a harsh, wearying, R-rated movie. The characters speak with vulgar language, and the film portrays a world consumed by violence, terror, and all kinds of wickedness. This might prove too difficult and too damaging for some viewers. You don’t need to see it, necessarily.
But in the middle of that dark vision, which reflects so many of our world’s real terrors, there are broken, mixed-up people fumbling around in search of hope. That hope comes in the form of a miracle. And they struggle to preserve that miracle, and to try and give future generations some hope by treasuring the gift that has been given to them. The film affirms the value of a newborn baby, and in fact the film is an overwhelming affirmation of the value of human life . . . something that Christians would do well to applaud.
It’s a perfect example of a movie made by people with different ideas and beliefs than the folks who go to my church. But still, in spite of themselves, they have offered bright glimmers of gospel truth.
- “What about the scene of euthanasia? Isn’t the film glorifying so-called ‘mercy killings’?”
Well, there is a scene in which a man euthanizes someone else. But this choice is not glorified. It portrayed in such a way that most viewers will feel deep sadness and dismay. We can feel pity for this man, who thinks he is doing the right thing. He is trying to free someone he loves from pain and suffering. He knows that this poor soul will be tortured and viciously killed if he does not step in. He is sending the character off in peace, because he knows that torture will be a miserable end.
Do I condone his choice? No. But am I going to condemn the film for portraying it? No.
I feel pity for these characters, and while this scene breaks my heart, I believe the character making the choice has been portrayed as mixed-up and simple-minded. (For example, his preoccupation with marijuana has turned him into a rather reclusive and scatterbrained fool . . . although a loveable fool.) Previous scenes have provoked in us a healthy horror at the thought of “putting someone out of their misery with a pill.”
- “But . . . isn’t Children of Men a vulgar, humanistic re-write of an honorable novel penned by a Christian, P.D. James? Isn’t it an act of anti-Christian sabotage?”
- The novel Children of Men is hardly a typical Christian fiction book.
It does not come across in any way as “evangelism” or a simple Christian story.
The Christians in the book are complex and strange. And the conclusion is enigmatic and, for some Christians who have read it, deeply troubling.
The book is more complicated than that many Christians (some of whom haven’t read it) are claiming. I get the feeling that many people upset about this issue have not read the book at all, and are defending something that doesn’t exist.
No, I haven’t read the whole book myself, but my wife did, and she took me through it, in detail, explaining the motivations, choices, values, and struggles of the characters. So I know what it’s about, and I’ve read three chapters of it. I recommend that Christian reading groups go through the book and discuss it. You’ll be in for a very interesting ride.
But no, these filmmakers did not take an uplifting story about the gospel and pervert it. Instead, they seized upon a premise that they found intriguing, and wrote a whole new story with it. This story reflects their own questions, struggles, values, and visions. And those do have an integrity and value all their own. I respect their finished work, and have been moved and challenged and inspired by it. I’ve taken friends to see it, and I’ve seen them moved to tears by the powerful hope illustrated at the end.
- I wish that the film did not claim to be “based on” the book.
The plot of Cuaron’s movie is very, very different from the plot of James’ book.
It starts with a similar premise, and there are a few similar elements, but the characters in the film, the plot, and the world in which the film takes place are almost unrecognizable when compared to the book.
Cuaron and his colleagues would have been more accurate if they said, “Inspired by an idea from the book…” instead of “Based on the book.” But I can’t change that, and neither can they at this point. So, that’s a problem with the film, and I have acknowledged that from the very beginning, in my review for CT.
Still, this is hardly new. Many, many films have been drastic revisions of the book. Take Flags of Our Fathers for example. Or Blade Runner. Or The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which consistently diminished the power of Aslan and consistently increased the power of the Witch. The movie Shadowlands takes liberties with the source material, the stage play, which I suspect took a few liberties with the real-life C.S. Lewis.
- No, the film is not made by Christians, but it glimmers with real hope.
Feel free to write off Cuaron’s Children of Men as a humanistic document if you must. But I’m telling you, the movie reflects the real conflict of good and evil in the world, and makes powerful observations about the the ways in which the world is behaving disgracefully towards humankind.
The movie is made by people who wanted to create a sort of big-screen nightmare based on real-world nightmares. There are reflections of the Holocaust, the sufferings of immigrants, human rights abuses, Abu Ghraib, and all kinds of situations in which human beings have behaved irresponsibly.
And what is it that brings the chaos to a pause? What is it that gives people hope? An unborn baby, brought into the world through something like a miracle. A baby, discovered by our hero in a stable. A baby who must be hidden, while our heroes go on the run from oppressive authorities.
And one of the primary players in this film is, according to Alfonso Cuaron, meant to remind us of Moses, who could not reach the promised land, but took his people as far as he could. While Moses was kept out of the promised land due to his sin, this hero just isn’t strong enough to reach the promised land, but at the end of the film, the hero has a powerful sense of faith and hope.
(Cuaron explained this to me when I interviewed him. Yes, I sat down and talked with the man who made this so-called “vulgar” and “perverted” film and I’m grateful that God gave me the opportunity.)
If this is just a humanitic, anti-war movie as my accuser claims, bring me more like this one! Because it drew me clos
er to God!
- No, Children of Menis not a simple “anti-war” movie by any means.
In fact, the main characters are driven to respond with violence in order to save the miracle baby that has come into the world, so this is not a simple expression of anti-violence. (Some Christians have tried to write the film off as some kind of simple protest against the Iraq war.)
But the film is a powerful lament for the evils at work in the world, and a poignant expression of hope. It acknowledges the presence of miracle. And it exhorts us to take responsibility for our mistakes and to behave with hope and diligence in this crumbling world. No, Children of Men was not made by Christians, but I am deeply moved and challenged by much of what their movie shows me.
- No, it’s not perfect.The conversations in this film often move so fast that it’s almost laughable. The film’s rapid pace is detrimental to character development. The film’s vision of this collapsing world is relentlessly bleak, and I don’t believe the world is so devoid of beauty, even here in these turbulent times. (But then again, the filmmakers wanted to accentuate the darkness in order to let the brightness of hope stand out all the clearer in contrast. And to that extent, it really works.)
And with those quibbles aside, I am more grateful than ever for the movie’s wonderful sentiments about hope, for its aesthetic mastery and technical excellence. And its unsettling depiction of a culture obsessed with escapism is a challenging nightmare. I come away richer every time I see it. And I have heard from many more who have been similarly moved, inspired, and blessed by that too.
As a film reviewer, a Christian, and a person committed to advancing the cause of Christ (“evangelism”), I want to note the movie’s faults and praise it for its excellence and meaningful story.
I want to acknowledge that the power and meaning of Children of Men are made manifest by people who do not affirm the gospel, and probably weren’t interested in doing that. (I acknowledged that in my original review, and in spite of that I am still accused of “glorifying humanism.”) But that’s the way God works — if you’re making something beautiful and truthful, you just can’t keep him out. When the Apostle Paul drew everybody’s attention to the “altar to an Unknown God,” he was not glorifying false gods . . . he was instead highlighting the fact that “eternity is written in our hearts.”
And I want to caution viewers that they should think things over before deciding whether or not to see Children of Men. It might contain things that trouble their conscience, or influence their behavior, and if that is the case, they should steer clear.
But all of us have different strengths and weaknesses, so far be it form me to declare Children of Men “unclean” and forbid anyone from going. There’s too much excellence here for me to toss it aside.
Whew! Okay, that took a long time to write. On to other things.