Chattaway criticizes “Last Sin Eater”, Director Fires Back


Peter T. Chattaway wrote a thoughtful, observant review of the new movie called The Last Sin Eater this week at Christianity Today Movies.

Just as a Christian car mechanic should be concerned with the technical condition of a car, so a film critic should concern himself with the technical condition of a car. Peter is a Christian … has been for as long as he’s been writing, and longer, and has been a vital part of evangelical-Christian dialogue for years. In the interest of encouraging excellence in filmmaking, even “Christian filmmaking,” he did his job and published this review.

Here’s a snippet:

The film suffers from pedestrian direction, but it benefits from decent performances, especially where its young star, Liana Liberato, is concerned. As a window into an older culture, or an evening’s entertainment with the family, you could certainly do worse. Just don’t be surprised when the movie starts preaching to the converted—that is, to the fellow believers who will undoubtedly make up the bulk of its audience.

And then, on a Christian radio program, the director had a few words to say about that review. [EDIT: The talk-show host agreed with him. He was not “won over,” as I stated erroneously before, but in fact the talk show host became convinced on his own that Peter’s review was not only wrong, but that it was evidence of an “anti-evangelical agenda” at Christianity Today. Quite an accusation. But let’s back up… the director began his comments with a rather audacious claim: that Peter hasn’t really ever sat down to talk with real Christians.

If any of you out there can identify for me the basis of that claim… or explain to me the basis of the claim that Christianity Today’s movie reviewers have an “anti-evangelical agenda,” I’d appreciate it. Because I know most of these folks, as they’re as evangelical as they come. In fact, they are driven by a desire to see excellence in artmaking for the glory of God, and they are zealous to acknowledge and celebrate God’s truth wherever they find it, even in the work of secular filmmakers.

What do you think?

What’s an example of a film that

A) is made with excellence, and
B) portrays Christian faith in a positive light

???

I think Chariots of Fire, Junebug, A Man for All Seasons, Dead Man Walking, The Second Chance, and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days spring to mind as great examples.

Does The Last Sin Eater qualify? Or is it another example of Christian filmmaking that packs a heavy message in a mediocre package?

Is Landon right? Is the CT review way off base?

UPDATE:
Martin’s got an insightful comment below.

And Peter Chattaway has responded to Landon Jr. and to the talk-show host. I think he’s right on target.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • Adam Walter

    And another one for the archives… I just watched it this weekend. Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York does a marvelous job of treating Christians well on screen.

  • Adam Walter

    What’s an example of a film that A) is made with excellence, and B) portrays Christian faith in a positive light??

    Sorry. Old thread, I know. But I just re-watched this one and had to add it to the list: Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out.

  • Anonymous

    Fair enough. But filmmakers always hear from critics and disapponted audiences when their films veer too far away from the original material. And I aways wonder… when a reviewer calls direction “pedestrian” and says a screenplay is “preachy”… what knowledge of those crafts is he actually basing these opinions on? There is so much subjectivity in his whole process. Every film needs to be looked at in its own context. I heard Rod Lurie, former film critic and now filmmaker, apologize to an audience for some of his reviews and harsh critiques because he said he never realized just how difficult it is to make a good film.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    >>I do think in Landon’s defense that Christian filmmakers are always going to start out at a disadvantage with Christian reviewers. I think we all look at each other in a harsher light than we do those not of the faith. I think Peter and Jeffrey probably look more intently for flaws in Christian films because there is a certain intellectual snobbery about films made by Christian filmakers.<<

    That would be of grave concern, if it were true.

    I praised Scott Derrickson’s “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” which was made by a Christian filmmaker and clearly favored Christian faith. I gave three-and-a-half stars to “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” and my primary complaint was that they had compromised its Christian allegory. (I don’t think Adamson is a Christian, but quite a few Christians worked on the film.) Steve Taylor’s “The Second Chance” . . . one of my favorite films of 2006, and one of the best films BY a Christian, ABOUT Christians, and FOR a Christian audience I’ve ever seen.

    My focus is this: Are we demonstrating good storytelling? I’m not going to cut Christian filmmakers any breaks just because they’re Christians. We are called to the highest standard of all. And if we take cheap storytelling shortcuts, I’m going to point that out just as I would with a mainstream film that does the same thing.

    >> Because we have a creative self-esteem problem in the Christian community. We don’t want to be marginalized, packed off to a Chistian artistic ghetto. We want to be accepted by the mainstream.<<

    If my goal was to be accepted by the mainstream, I would do what several other Christian film reviewers have done and do my best to prevent myself from being associated with Christians. I would praise films like American Beauty, which I criticized for celebrating the worst tendencies of liberalism, and for bashing conservatives. And I certainly wouldn’t be spending my time celebrating Malick’s The New World which was a commercial disaster, and which baffled more mainstream critics than it impressed.

    >>In he last 200 years Christians have been mediocre in the arts, so no matter what he does in, Landon is going to start off with the glass half-empty in these guys’ eyes.<<

    Perhaps that’s true with some critics, but not with me. I regularly praise films by filmmakers who have made terrible films before, and I often give poor reviews to films by filmmakers who have made classics. I’m *eager* to see Christians make great films about Christians. I just saw Amazing Grace, which was produced by an outspoken Christian, Ken Wales, and I was quite impressed.

    >> The other thing nobody seems to be reckognizing is that this was a book adaptation from a best-selling Christian author. If the film seems preachy to people, then maybe he was trying to faithful to the novel.<<

    Um… I think that fact has come up several times. In fact, Peter’s review says: “The film is based on a novel by Francine Rivers, and directed by Michael Landon Jr. from a script he wrote with Touched by an Angel producer Brian Bird. All of Landon’s previous directorial efforts have been adaptations of Janette Oke novels (the Love Comes Softly series)….”

    Faithfulness to a novel does not a good movie make. Movies and books are very, very different forms of storytelling. Faithfulness to a novel is often a problem with a film, not a strength. (It can go either way, depending on the novel.)

    >> I’ve read the novel. The “conversion” scene people seem to be bothered about goes on or 10 pages in the novel… 10 pages of the Man of God preaching to Cadi Forbes. Seems to me, the scene in the film is far more understated than that.<<

    That’s probably a wise choice. But that still doesn’t discount anything Peter said in his review. A critic might consider how a film weighs up against a book, but the film must finally be reviewed as a film. And if film critics were required to read all of the books that films were based on, we’d never have time to see movies or write reviews.

    >><Lastly, I think Landon is getting tarred by his affiliation with Fox Faith. There is a certain cynicism running just below the surface with a lot of Christian critics about a big international media company “targeting” Christian with films.<<

    Well, when a company rolls out a “faith-based” line of films, and most of those films are mediocre at best (including that faith-based classic “Garfield”???), I can’t say that I expect great things, but I’m certainly open to discovering them, and I’m all in favor of FoxFaith giving us something to be excited about. (I’ve heard from Mark Moring at CT that their new film with Abigail Breslin is really quite good.)

    >>For me, the bottom line is that most critics have no clue what it takes to actually make a movie, yet with the stroke of a pen, with a few pithy paragrahs, they can dismiss a lot of blood, sweat and tears. Maybe they need get out to a film set once in a while. <<

    Mark Moring and I have visited film sets. I *think* Peter has, I’m not sure. I’ll have to ask him. And I have friends who are filmmakers who correspond with me all the time. It’s not like we don’t know about these things.

    When I go to a car mechanic, or a doctor, I don’t want them to soften up the diagnosis with a lot of sympathy and niceties. I’ve gone to the mechanic or the doctor to get an honest, to-the-point assessment of the condition of things. Christian film critics have the same responsibilities as mainstream film critics – - to speak the truth about art. Now, as Christians, we’re also required to speak the truth with grace. That’s where things get challenging. But so far (and I include Peter’s review of “Sin Eater” in this), I don’t see a lack of grace. The guy praised the film for what it did well. He pointed out where it became more “preachy” and less artful. Good for him.

    And what thanks does he get? The director says, live on the radio, that Peter doesn’t know what Christians are like. He’s “anti-evangelical.” Etc. Etc.

    We don’t do this job because we’re seeking a lucrative career or something that’s going to make us cool in mainstream culture. No, we’ve taken a path that pretty much guarantees those things won’t happen. We’re trying to serve God, with integrity, and to do what needs to be done for the sake of fair critical assessment and advancing the cause of excellent artmaking for God’s glory.

  • Anonymous

    I do think in Landon’s defense that Christian filmmakers are always going to start out at a disadvantage with Christian reviewers. I think we all look at each other in a harsher light than we do those not of the faith. I think Peter and Jeffrey probably look more intently for flaws in Christian films because there is a certain intellectual snobbery about films made by Christian filmakers. Because we have a creative self-esteem problem in the Christian community. We don’t want to be marginalized, packed off to a Chistian artistic ghetto. We want to be accepted by the mainstream. In he last 200 years Christians have been mediocre in the arts, so no matter what he does in, Landon is going to start off with the glass half-empty in these guys’ eyes. The other thing nobody seems to be reckognizing is that this was a book adaptation from a best-selling Christian author. If the film seems preachy to people, then maybe he was trying to faithful to the novel. I’ve read the novel. The “conversion” scene people seem to be bothered about goes on or 10 pages in the novel… 10 pages of the Man of God preaching to Cadi Forbes. Seems to me, the scene in the film is far more understated than that. Lastly, I think Landon is getting tarred by his affiliation with Fox Faith. There is a certain cynicism running just below the surface with a lot of Christian critics about a big international media company “targeting” Christian with films. Well, we better get used to it. All the major Hollywood studios use niche marketing to try and be more effective with their products. In fact, isn’t that what Christianity Today does when they sell ads in their pages to Christian companies and ministries trying to reach target audiences? For me, the bottom line is that most critics have no clue what it takes to actually make a movie, yet with the stroke of a pen, with a few pithy paragrahs, they can dismiss a lot of blood, sweat and tears. Maybe they need get out to a film set once in a while.

  • Martin

    It was Peter Chattaway who said that Jeffrey said…

    Good grief, Paul. That’s the kind of discourse I expect from seventh-grade girls, not from pastors. Somewhere in seminary they should have taught you the importance of getting your attributions straight.

  • Sheila West

    Mr. Edwards,

    I have seen good tracts and bad tracts. The good ones are the ones I deem useful for their task of spreading the Gospel. The bad ones I deem useless and self-defeating wastes of trees. I discard the bad tracts and hang onto the good ones and use them when I evangelize.

    To draw an analogy: Peter Chattaway seems to be saying that the Michael Landon film “The Last Sin Eater” is, in his opinion, a lousy tract not up to the task of evangelizing current-day masses of the unsaved. Nor is it a particularly good specimen of written English, graphic art, or even modern printing technology. While it’s a tract which very well does present the Gospel in clarity, those other considerations prevent him from deeming it worthy of his either:

    a) wanting to hand this tract to any of his unsaved friends

    or

    b) wanting to show it to successful and well-respected printing professionals whom he knows would laugh at its poor quality in content and execution.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    Peter said “see Jeffrey Overstreet’s website.”

    He didn’t say that I used those words.

    I believe he is referring to an article I wrote in which I interviewed several Christians about the issue of profanity, and many perspectives were shared.

    So there is an article about the issue on my website.

    I may be wrong, and if so, I apologize, but I do not believe I have made that claim, no.

    Frankly, I don’t even understand the claim. I know Christians who use profanity. Do I approve? No. Do I think they are Christians? Yes… just as I know that all Christians have sin in their lives.

    But I also know that there is harsh language in scripture, and that even Paul used “salty language” that has been cleaned up in our translation. The way we got from scripture’s exhortations about “idle talk” and foul language to our current list of bad words… that is an interesting subject to discuss, to say the least.

    Anyway, no, I don’t make that claim simply because I’m not even sure what you mean by it. The gospel is the good news of Jesus. Profanity is harsh, obscene language usually employed in moments of weakness. Mutually exclusive? That depends on what you mean.

  • Paul Edwards

    It was Peter Chattaway who said that Jeffrey said the gospel and profanity are not mutually exclusive in a response to one of my posts on his site:

    Leaving aside the fact that profanity and the gospel are not mutually exclusive — for more on that, see my colleague Jeffrey Overstreet’s website —

    If you take issue with being credited with this quote, take that up with Peter.

  • Stephen

    I blogged about this the beginning of the week, and included a couple excerpts from a book by Dr. Harold Best, Unceasing Worship, that addresses the issue of trying to make art something it’s not. He says (emphasis added):

    “This issue is not limited to the church. As irritating as it might sound, totalitarian regimes often use art the same way, though with an evil motive. Please understand that I am not trying to create a linkage between the church and totalitarianism. I am merely saying that a passion to make a message consistently clear, whether this passion is holy or wholly evil, can lead to a flawed methodology. In the case of totalitarianism, the artist is coerced into being a messenger of the state, and any art that fails to speak the message clearly is destroyed and the artist is prosecuted. Any art that encourages people to think on their own is suspect, because thinking on one’s own might undermine the prerogatives of the state. In spite of the evil of this approach to art, the church can make this parallel assumption: whatever art is done, it must align itself with truth. If it does not do this clearly, the artist is suspect or is expected to manipulate the art until it does.

    What does this mean for the arts in the church? Simply this: instead of pushing art forms beyond their limits, we must allow art to be art.

    We must allow each art form, with its particular vocabularies and structures and contours to go directly to God in their purest form, uncluttered by our weak and untrusting spirits that get nervous if everything that we do does not shout John 3:16.

    Our task is to make art as honestly and freely as we can and then offer it to him, and when we do, he will do his work in a way that will validate both his power apart from the arts and the arts themselves as given over to him. He alone can free us from the worrisome thought that the arts are a failure unless they “preach”.

  • Sheila West

    martin wrote: “Well, ah, no. Peter’s Orthodox, but he is certainly conversant with evangelicalism. Funny, someone else labeled Jeffrey a “Catholic film critic” a couple of weeks ago.”

    My bad. And my apologies to Peter.

  • Peter T Chattaway

    I still feel like an evangelical, though. I just don’t feel like a Protestant, is all.

  • Martin

    I see nothing “anti-evangelical” about any of Peter Chattaway’s reviews, nor Jeffrey Overstreet’s writings. I do not see them either denigrating or devaluing the Bible, or advocating that other people in any way scale back or eliminate the Bible’s importance in their lives. They both claim to be evangelicals themselves.

    Well, ah, no. Peter’s Orthodox, but he is certainly conversant with evangelicalism. Funny, someone else labeled Jeffrey a “Catholic film critic” a couple of weeks ago.

  • Martin

    Thanks for your thoughts, Ken. I think Jeffrey’s trying to say that a work that can be reduced to only one, unambiguous, unequivocal, simple message is unlikely to be great art. Sure, you can make a capsule statement about King Lear, but in so doing you’re probably going to have to leave out some of its themes and ideas, and someone else might come along with a completely defensible capsule statement that differs from yours. Even in your other example, the literature professor in Wit observes that The Runaway Bunny is not just a story about a bunny and his mother, but a “metaphor for the soul.” (At least she does in the PLAY, and if Nichols left that observation out of the FILM, then he obviously has an anti-Christian agenda…)

  • Kenneth R. Morefield

    Do you agree or disagree with Jeffrey’s statement that “if a story can be boiled down to a simple message, it’s not great art”?

    Well, I realize that this is tangential to the main discussion going on here, but I would say that I disagree with that statement as an absolute principle. I think it reflects a critical stylistic taste as opposed to honestly and correctly stating an objective truth.

    [Honestly, knowing the virtual Jeff the way I do, I'm not sure I believe he actually meant it as an absoulte principle as opposed to a generalization.]

    An illustrative example might be the end of Mike Nichols’s film Wit, where the former professor offers to read the dying Vivian poems from Donne, but relents and reads from My Little Bunny instead. As someone who likes both works and finds much truth in both (Donne’s Sonnets and My Little Bunny), I would suggest that the term “great art” is too vague and ambiguous to hemmed in that way.

    Yes, (like Jeff I suspect) I generally prefer complexity over didactic simplicity; give me Charlotte Bronte over Samuel Richardson any day. And if someone wants to spiritualize the discussion and talk about milk and meat, well, I would say the diet that is all meat and no milk can be destructive in different ways.

    But the general point I want to make is that there are lots of examples of art that can be “boiled down to a simple message” [though how much boiling needs to take place may vary] that are great in execution even if they aren’t necessarily as complex in their structure as one of Mozart’s opera’s or one of Congreve’s plots: most of MacDonald’s Scottish novels; Dead Man Walking; Little House on the Prairie (yeah, I prefer the books, but have made elsewhere a plea for the television series); The Waltons; King Lear (which I can very easily reduce to a simple message but which I still tend to think of as a great work of art); The Trial of Joan of Arc (Bresson’s or Dreyer’s); A Man For All Seaons (“finally, it is not a question of duty, finally, it is a question of love”); The Godfather (the common road to hell is that of the accumulation of little compromises); L’Enfant (or Le Fils for that matter), Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, etc, etc, etc. blah, blah, blah.

    Anyway, I think I’m preaching to the choir here, so I offer this as a clarification rather than a refutation. I suspect there is a difference in Jeffrey’s thinking between a work that can be reduced to a simple message (or has a simple message at its core) and a work that is nothing but a simple message and doesn’t have to be reduced (or even really seriously thought about) for that simple message to be extracted…where, in fact, the filmmaker (or poet, or novelist) seems to think his job is to extract it for you so that you don’t have to waste any time or effort thinking about what it means for yourself. [Whether TLSE is an example of the former or the latter, I make no claims, not having seen the film.]

    Ken

    P.S. And oh, yeah, as a tangent to the tangent, I thought CoM was overrated, but that’s a discussion for another day.

  • Mark

    If a story can be boiled down to a simple message, it’s not great art. What makes great art great is this: it shows us something that cannot be expressed any other way. It cannot be reduced to paraphrase.

    Exactly. But these filmmakers think we’re applying a different set of standards for secular and Christian filmmakers. We’re not. I’m personally sick and tired of films (on the left or right, Christian or secular) that are propaganda. Although these can be effective (Fahrenheit 9/11, every Christian movie made in the past decade), it doesn’t make them great filmmaking.

    The great thing about art is the humility of the profession. We ask the tough questions, but allow for God to answer them.

    Art can never replace the church. And too many Christian films are like attending a two hour sermon. Rather, the church and art complement each other to bring lost souls to Christ.

  • Sheila West

    Mr. Edwards wrote: “I’m hoping that after I have finished your book, Through a Screen Darkly, I’ll have a better understanding of what is driving the anti-evangelical agenda in evangelical movie reviews.”

    My response: I think reading someone else’s book is a commendable exercise in open-mindedness and fair play. But I take issue with this usage of the word “agenda.” It’s a very loaded word, implying a premeditated conspiracy of sorts. It also smacks of paranoia. But perhaps I should instead focus upon the word “anti-evangelical” here.

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/evangelical

    My understanding of an “evangelical” is that he/she is a Christian whose primary focus is upon the Bible and its supremacy in matters of one’s life and faith (not to be confused with “fundamentalists” who advocate a very literal and often strict interpretation of the Bible). Therefore, I deduce that in order for someone to be ANTI-evangelical, he/she would need to be opposed to other people choosing to elevate the Bible as the most important and authoritative voice/work informing their lives and faiths. That might be a wrong understanding by me and I’m open to another definition. But for this comment/posting, it’s how I’m operating.

    I see nothing “anti-evangelical” about any of Peter Chattaway’s reviews, nor Jeffrey Overstreet’s writings. I do not see them either denigrating or devaluing the Bible, or advocating that other people in any way scale back or eliminate the Bible’s importance in their lives. They both claim to be evangelicals themselves. And I believe those claims since they often quote the Bible and uphold many of its profound truths. I just can’t see where this accusation comes from, unless it stems from a fundamental difference between Mr. Edwards’ view of how to interpret and apply the Bible as opposed to the views of Mr. Overstreet and Mr. Chattaway on Biblical interpretation and application. If THAT is the case, then I would simply plead for them all to agree with each other in the Lord (Phil 4:2).

  • Martin

    I’m not one of those Christians who believe that a film is beyond criticism merely because it has a Christian label. If you listen again to my interview with Michael Landon, Jr. you’ll hear that I criticized his film, as well.

    So you have a right to criticize it, but if Peter criticizes it, that means he has an “agenda”? I listened and I sure don’t remember you criticizing it.

    James’ novel is an enduring work of art. Cuaron ripped off her them and created what you yourself agree is a humanistic version of her underlying Christian message. But you also seem to miss the point of James’ novel.

    Do you agree or disagree with Jeffrey’s statement that “if a story can be boiled down to a simple message, it’s not great art”? Because if you do, then it’s silly to say someone has missed “the point” of a novel. Great art by definition lends itself to multiple interpretations. Next you’ll be saying … oh, wait a minute, here’s what you’ll next be saying:

    It is a lack of committment to objective truth – sacred, inspired, inerrant, eternal, unchangeable truth as revealed in God’s word –

    Whoa, whoa, whoa. We’re talking about a NOVEL.

    that gives you the space to allow for profanity and the gospel to not be mutually exclusive.

    Funny, I thought it was the inclusion of some rather salty language at a couple of places in Paul’s epistles that might give one the space to allow for that.

    So, is this an example of how you intend to treat Jeffrey if he accepts your invitation to be on your show? You claim on your Web site that you try not to antagonize your guests, even when you disagree with them…

  • Sheila West

    Mr. Overstreet wrote about Alfonso Cuaron, director of “Children of Men” : “Sure, some of his sentiments are not what I wish they were. But I am impressed when I see glimmers of the truth reflected in the work of a non-believer. And when they are expressed with such excellence, with such power, and with such palpable longing… I’m deeply moved.”

    My response: I do not recall the name of the Christian author who wrote this, but one working definition of art is: “truth expressed through beauty.” And he wrote a book (I borrowed it years ago from a friend and I do not recall the title) on the subject of art in which he explored his perceptions on that which is truthful and that that which is beautiful.

    He put forth that Christians should be ever mindful of the Truth when they create their works of art, and should likewise by mindful that there must always be SOMETHING of beauty found in them. He further said he unequivocally believes that non-Christians (who do not have the Truth of the Gospel) can (and frequently do) make valid works of art that are both truthful and beautiful. Such an ability, he said, is an example of “common grace.”

    I appreciate Mr. Overstreet’s comment: “Great art invites us to think for ourselves and draw our own conclusions.” I feel that the Truth needs to be arrived at and deduced by those who willingly seek it, not foisted upon them unexpectedly. We can’t reach our fingers into people’s heads and hearts and PLACE the truth there–that’s impossible. We can only SHOW it to them from a polite proximity. And only then, after they have seen and heard, will they (hopefully) choose to start turning the gears in their heads, and start doodling like a scratch pad upon the tablets of their hearts as they work through their own salvations with fear and trembling. The Holy Spirit plays a role in all of this that we neither see nor understand. And bad Christian art tries to do the impossible: tries to do the Holy Spirit’s job for him by being overt and in-yer-face, by-passing the proper role of merely EXPRESSING the truth, and assuming the divine role of IMPLANTING the truth.

  • Julio

    This may not be the forum for it, but can someone explain to me the debate over the de-christianizing of PD James’ Children of Men?

    ***POSSIBLE SPOILERS***

    Having now experienced both forms of the story, there is nothing nearly as beautifully symbolic or moving in the book as the scene when the child is being carried out of the building past the warring factions who stop dead in their tracks out of reverence…In the book, the only overtly Christian references are the fact that the mother and father of the baby are both Christians (who committed adultery to conceive the child). So, very different, yes, but hardly an adaptation that went from overtly evangelical (it’s not like Theo says the sinner’s prayer at the end of the novel) to liberal propaganda.

    Sure there are more subtle jabs at liberal, humanistic viewpoints here and there in the book, but I don’t believe that was the main thrust of her novel either.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    >>James’ novel is an enduring work of art. Cuaron ripped off her them and created what you yourself agree is a humanistic version of her underlying Christian message.

    People make whole new works of art based on other people’s works of art all the time. How many versions of “Beauty and the Beast” are there, in which the story is constantly changed, revised, transformed. “Hamlet” has been remade on stage and screen with special twists to give it new emphases. The art of creative interpretation is one of the valuable freedoms artists have.

    Personally, as I have said on this blog before, I am disappointed that the movie strays from the book, and pointed that out in my CT review. HOWEVER, for many who have not read the book, the movie is full of powerful, moving scenes. I have seen the film three times, and watched people moved to tears by the story that Cuaron DOES tell. As I said before, I would have changed the title. I would have said “inspired by an idea from P.D. James’ Children of Men” instead of “Based on P.D. James’ novel.”

    But having said that, if we consider what the movie IS instead of merely what it ISN’T, we find a story conceived by people who are not Christians, who do not see Christian faith as the answer, and yet who demonstrate for us exactly what scripture says: That eternity is written in our hearts, and that we will find fragments of the truth jabbing at us everywhere.

    Very few Christians bothered to observe just how dramatically different The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe movie was from the book. The filmmakers did all kinds of things to diminish Aslan’s authority in the film, to increase the witch’s power, to explain Edmund’s evil so we would sympathize with him, etc. And then they took a battle that’s is brief in the book and turned it into a 20-minute, cliche action sequence. (If you want examples of these alterations, I’ll be happy to round them up.) But the glimmers of truth still shone through. People were still moved.

    Sure, Cuaron’s “Children of Men” is a more drastic revision. But sometimes, we need to consider the book and the film as different works, one inspired by the other. In poetry, poets are revising and commenting on each other’s poems all the time. And while we may not agree with some of their views, we may find ourselves challenged, moved, and awestruck by the craftsmanship of what they have done.

    My life is about evangelical conviction. And my defense of these films comes from having been inspired and challenged and moved by the work of secular artists as well as Christians, because they have brought me closer to God, and they have inspired new conversations and deeper relationships with my neighbors. Film speaks not just through story, but through aesthetics, through performance, through powerful visions of human behavior and emotion. “Children of Men:The Movie” communicates a great deal to me that is meaningful and valuable. It was inspired by a book that tells a very different story, and that is, as you said, an enduring work of art for many reasons. And I value it as well, as something separate.

    I *expect* works of art to have flaws and weaknesses, whether they come from Christians or non-Christians. But when I come across works that speak powerfully to me, and that set new standards of excellence (whether in storytelling or technical achievement), I am inspired. And I for one, along with many others, was moved and impressed by a great deal of this movie. Again, I wish it had a different title, and that it claimed to be merely “inspired by” instead of “based on” the book. But let’s get past that. What does *this* story have to show us? And if you look closely, you’ll see much, much more than some “profane” “anti-war” flick. It is a powerful story about humankind’s irresponsibility, our need to grow up and behave with dignity and integrity, and the possibility of miracle even in the middle of all of this darkness.

    To suggest that Cuaron merely wrote another version of James’ story that is equally valid as the original is to reveal a committment to the deconstructionist philosophy that plagues contemporary Christianity, especially in its emergent forms. This postmodern view of truth has obviously infected CT movie reviewers.

    It is a lack of committment to objective truth – sacred, inspired, inerrant, eternal, unchangeable truth as revealed in God’s word – that gives you the space to allow for profanity and the gospel to not be mutually exclusive.

    I keep coming back to one question: where is the evangelical conviction in the conclusions drawn by CTs movie reviews?

    The Bible says to love our neighbors. To behave with mercy and grace. To “test all things and hold fast to what is good.” To “dwell on” whatever is excellent, of good repute, etc. (Phil. 4:8) To “have nothing to do with the unspeakable deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them..” Our reviews are driven by these exhortations. Where is our evangelical conviction? Dude, that is the heart of what we are doing: Celebrating what is true, what is beautiful, what is worthy of praise, wherever we can find it. And, thank God, we can find it in the work of secular filmmakers who reflect back to us visions of a messy world, just as we can find it in the work of Christians who know more clearly the source of their inspriation.

    >> It is a lack of committment to objective truth – sacred, inspired, inerrant, eternal, unchangeable truth as revealed in God’s word – that gives you the space to allow for profanity and the gospel to not be mutually exclusive.

    You are way out of line here. When did I ever claim what you say I claim?

    I am a follower of Christ. I am committed to loving my neighbor, and to listening to him. I am committed to walking around Mars Hill, as Paul did, and considering the monuments others have made in their misguided views of hte world, and I am committed to seizing opportunities to proclaim the truth where I find it reflected in the work of Christians and unbelievers alike.

    I am committed to truth. I am committed to art that shows us the world we live in, because if it shows us that, it will show us the truth to some extent. Just as the Bible exhibits people portraying with incredible wickedness in the context of meaningful storytelling, so do great artists.

    The movie Children of Men shows us a violent world, like our own. It shows us individuals compromising, like people in our own world. It shows people full of hope and longing, like people in our own world. It shows us miracle, like the world into which God came. It shows us the hard road of selfless service to others, and what that can ultimately cost.

    I never said the gospel and profanity were not mutually exclusive. I said that I do not condone profanity. Just as I don’t think it’s wrong to portray a character killing another character, I don’t think it’s wrong to portray characters who speak foolishly and rashly … because that portrayal tells us something about that character. As viewers (and listeners) we must think through why characters act and speak the way they do, and consider what that reveals about them.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    Again, I encourage you to read the book. It will save you and me both a whole lot of time going through all of this. I wrote in detail about these things in a book partly so I wouldn’t have to write volumes in blog comments. But oh well…

  • Paul Edwards

    But Christians often behave as if something that proclaims Jesus is beyond criticism, and thta anyone who criticizes it is attacking christianity somehow.

    I’m not one of those Christians who believe that a film is beyond criticism merely because it has a Christian label. If you listen again to my interview with Michael Landon, Jr. you’ll hear that I criticized his film, as well.

    I’ve met Alfonso Cuaron. I’ve talked with him about what his version of the story means.

    This statement goes a long way to identify for me the virus that has infected Christian movie reviews. There is only ONE version of P. D. James’ story – the one she wrote. I have read her novel. I realize it is NOT a Christian novel. Her novel perfectly illustrates the point you make here:

    If a story can be boiled down to a simple message, it’s not great art. What makes great art great is this: it shows us something that cannot be expressed any other way. It cannot be reduced to paraphrase.

    James’ novel is an enduring work of art. Cuaron ripped off her them and created what you yourself agree is a humanistic version of her underlying Christian message. But you also seem to miss the point of James’ novel. The hope she points to is NOT the child. The hope for humanity lies in the recovery of lost faith. Theo Faron, and his struggle for faith in the midst of despair, is the focus of the novel, not the baby. I refuse to excuse Cuaron’s film by allowing for him to image for us merely what P. D. James’ story means “for him.”

    To suggest that Cuaron merely wrote another version of James’ story that is equally valid as the original is to reveal a committment to the deconstructionist philosophy that plagues contemporary Christianity, especially in its emergent forms. This postmodern view of truth has obviously infected CT movie reviewers.

    It is a lack of committment to objective truth – sacred, inspired, inerrant, eternal, unchangeable truth as revealed in God’s word – that gives you the space to allow for profanity and the gospel to not be mutually exclusive.

    I keep coming back to one question: where is the evangelical conviction in the conclusions drawn by CTs movie reviews?

  • Mairnéalach

    Junebug was fantastic in many respects, but I found myself wondering how much better it could have been had the director opted to be more circumspect about the obscene bits (remember, obscene simply means “offstage”). I’m certain the story and characters would have retained all their power even if the eros of the nuptial embrace had been implied rather than depicted. Ironically, those decisions are just as didactic as an explicitly Christian writer “preaching”, just from a different perspective. A Christian moviemaker assumes they have to spell out the gospel for you; a nonchristian moviemaker assumes they have to show people having sex. Both are bad decisions, and both detract equally from what would otherwise be good art.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    >>I’m the DJ referenced in your post (for the record I’m a talk host, not a DJ).<<

    Sorry. I often use the terms interchangeably, and that’s not accurate, so my apologies.

    >>Michael Landon, Jr. did not “win me over.” <<

    Fair enough.

    >>I quite came to the conclusion before ever speaking with Mr. Landon that Peter’s characterization of Sin Eater as “just another set up for an evangelistic punch line” was off base after having both read the novel on which the screenplay was based and seeing the movie.<<

    Whatever the case, mainstream critics and some Christian critics are agreeing that the film feels very preachy. I have nothing against storytelling that presents the gospel, but people who expect that *kind* of storytelling to be treated like great art need to understand that art and lesson-oriented storytelling are two kinds of entertainment that do not go well together very often.

    Great art invites us to think for ourselves and draw our own conclusions. Most Christian movies are fashioned to try and persuade the audience to accept Jesus in a direct, didactic fashion. That method may be good evangelism, but it is not very good artmaking. As film critics, Peter and I have the responsibility to weigh something as a work of art, not as a sermon. If a work leans toward sermonizing, or simplistic Christian teaching, that can be valuable, but it is not good art. Art challenges us to consider possibilities, to explore questions, and to examine how all parts of the project work together. If any of those pieces are less than excellent, it is our job to point that out.

    But Christians often behave as if something that proclaims Jesus is beyond criticism, and thta anyone who criticizes it is attacking christianity somehow. We are not. We care about the gospel more than anything, and so we desire excellence in anything that explores spiritual issues. As Eric Liddell’s father said, “You can glorify God by peeling a potato if you peel it to perfection.” We see hundreds of movies every year and study the differences between excellence and mediocrity in acting, writing, cinematography, musical scores, direction, editing, production, art direction, etc. It doesn’t matter how loudly a movie proclaims the gospel–if it does so in a way that lacks excellence, it is our job as film critics to point that out. That’s what we’re here for.

    And thus, if a film gets preachy, or sentimental, or manipulative, it is working against the purposes and ideals of art. Flannery O’Connor and C.S. Lewis wrote volumes about this. It’s not a new idea.

    So when Peter refers to “an evangelistic punch line,” what he means (I suspect) is that the film culminates with a clear “Jesus is the answer.” That makes it less a work of art and more a lesson. Lessons are fine, but they’re not necessarily art.

    As Ralph Winter told me, art is better at asking questions than delivering answers. Art kindles good questions in us, and throws fuel on the fire of spiritual longing. Christian art often diminishes itseslf by trying to answer questions that the audience is not even necessarily asking, and thus most non-Christians walk away from Christian movies shrugging and treating it like propaganda.

    >>And it wasn’t Michael Landon, Jr. who did the “set up;” it was Francine Rivers who wrote a novel the central focus of which IS the gospel.<<

    Then I suspect that the novel has a similar problem to what Peter was pointing out. I suspect the novel will come across more as “Christian fiction” than “fiction,” more a story employed to evangelize. If a story can be boiled down to a simple message, it’s not great art. What makes great art great is this: it shows us something that cannot be expressed any other way. It cannot be reduced to paraphrase.

    That’s why Shakespeare lasts. That’s why so many Bob Dylan songs last. That’s why Van Gogh lasts. That’s why Dostoyevsky lasts. You can’t reduce it to, “The moral of the story is….”

    >>For Landon to ignore that focus would do injustice to the author’s original work much the same way that Cuaron totally ignored P.D. James’ central focus in Children of Men, choosing rather to produce a film that is evangelistic for a liberal, anti-war agenda.<<

    I’ve met Alfonso Cuaron. I’ve talked with him about what his version of the story means. He is not driven by a “libreal, anti-war agenda.” He is driven by a hunger for hope. He is not a Christian, sure. But as Frederick Buechner says, “The world speaks of holy things in the only way it knows how… which is a worldly language.” His convictions tell him that humankind has screwed up the world, and humankind needs to fix it. His movie is about fighting apathy, fighting disillusionment, fighting despair, and thinking about the future. He has given us a vision of a nightmare, a distillation of so many of the world’s current horrors, and placed them in a new version of P.D. James’ story. He is not a Christian, so of course he’s not interested in her more blatant Christian themes. But what has he done with it? He has, overall, turned it into an expression of hope… that future generations might learn some responsibility.

    I asked him about his faith. He said that he is not “writing God out of the equation.” But he said he thinks we can get lazy. We can ask God to fix everything for us when, in fact, maybe we should get busy and start behaving more responsibly with the resources that God has given us. Maybe the next generation will learn from our reckless indulgence, our wastefulness, and our cruelty. Maybe there are people out there with dreams for a better world.

    I don’t see anything wrong with that kind of idea. Sure, some of his sentiments are not what I wish they were. But I am impressed when I see glimmers of the truth reflected in the work of a non-believer. And when they are expressed with such excellence, with such power, and with such palpable longing… I’m deeply moved. Moreover, his film does not boil down to a simple, preachy message. It gives us so much to consider, so many different characters and perspectives. And its basic story still confirms what you and I already know… that our hope comes not in the form of soldiers, but in the form of a miraculous child, who can make the whole world stand still for a moment, united in hope and longing.

    (Have you read James’s book, by the way? It’s not your typical “Christian fiction.” It’s far, far more complicated than that. A lot of people are talking about her “Christian book,” and I don’t think they really know what they’re dealing with. It’s a challenging, dark, troubling work with an enigmatic conclusion.)

    >>CT, as I recall, gave Cuaron’s work top honors.<<

    We are looking for excellence, and for challenging expressions and explorations that draw us toward beauty, truth, and hope. Of the critics that voted, this was the film that made the strongest impression on us.

    >> Why is it that lately Christianity Today (the magazine of EVANGELICAL conviction) distances itself from overt expressions of CHRISTIAN EVANGELISM in film and the arts while getting as close as possible to films that are driven by a profane and anti-christian agenda like Children of Men? <<

    If that is what you think is happening, you’re not reading very closely.

    - We are exposing those films that are simplistic entertainment with easy-to-swallow Christian messages.

    - We are celebrating art that challenges us to grow in mind and spirit, the way all great art truly does.

    - We are criticizing art that just tells us what we already know, or uses sentimental tricks and shortcuts to make us feel good.

    - We are celebrating art that looks at the world in all of its complexity, darkness, and wonder, and still affirms hope and design and the power of love.

    - We are criticizing art that tells us lies about what will make us happy, or where the answers lie.

    - We are highlighting films by
    un
    believers and believers alike that reveal, whether the artists intended it or not, echoes of the gospel, and that capture our curiosity and imagination in redemptive ways.

    I’m hoping that after I have finished your book, Through a Screen Darkly, I’ll have a better understanding of what is driving the anti-evangelical agenda in evangelical movie reviews.

    If you read my book, you’ll discover just the opposite. We have no “anti-evangelical” agenda. We have an anti-mediocrity agenda. We want excellence and beauty, because those things reflect God in and of themselves. I watched a lot of “Christian movies” when I was a kid. None of them have lasted and made a big difference in the lives of many people… none except those rare, rare exceptions where the film was crafted with surpassing excellence, and invited us into an experience instead of shoving a message down our throats.

  • Paul Edwards

    I’m the DJ referenced in your post (for the record I’m a talk host, not a DJ).

    Michael Landon, Jr. did not “win me over.” I quite came to the conclusion before ever speaking with Mr. Landon that Peter’s characterization of Sin Eater as “just another set up for an evangelistic punch line” was off base after having both read the novel on which the screenplay was based and seeing the movie.

    What Peter characterizes as “an evangelistic punch line” is actually the gospel. And it wasn’t Michael Landon, Jr. who did the “set up;” it was Francine Rivers who wrote a novel the central focus of which IS the gospel. For Landon to ignore that focus would do injustice to the author’s original work much the same way that Cuaron totally ignored P.D. James’ central focus in Children of Men, choosing rather to produce a film that is evangelistic for a liberal, anti-war agenda. CT, as I recall, gave Cuaron’s work top honors. Why is it that lately Christianity Today (the magazine of EVANGELICAL conviction) distances itself from overt expressions of CHRISTIAN EVANGELISM in film and the arts while getting as close as possible to films that are driven by a profane and anti-christian agenda like Children of Men?

    I’m hoping that after I have finished your book, Through a Screen Darkly, I’ll have a better understanding of what is driving the anti-evangelical agenda in evangelical movie reviews. Then I hope, Jeffrey, you’ll come on my program and dialogue with me and my audience about what in the world is happening here! Because I am really perplexed. And if the comments at the CT movie site are any indication, alot of other Christians are perplexed, as well.

  • Joel Buursma

    What’s an example of a film that

    A) is made with excellence, and
    B) portrays Christian faith in a positive light

    This has been bothering me for some time. Why is this? Is it merely that Christian directors and screenwriters are less talented than their secular counterparts? I’m sure there are examples of this. But I wonder if there are inherent problems as well.

    It seems like movies are forced to live in the world of natural revelation. When special revelation enters in, it seems, well, unnatural. Christianity requires a leap of faith to embrace that not all have made. And yet natural revelation can only get you so far in sharing the Christian faith. And so the two tug at each other.

    The other thing is that any “message movie,” whether about Christianity or global warming, is going to run the risk of feeling more like propaganda than art. Some of this can be solved through particularizing — by portraying Christian characters living their faith authentically and realistically, without having it be inescapable that the movie has a Christian message.

  • Martin

    Landon doesn’t address Peter’s remarks so much as dismiss them, and rather brusquely and unfairly at that. First he accuses Peter of having an “agenda” (without specifying what that agenda might be) and then says something to the effect of, “If you’d ever spent any time with someone who’s known the love of Jesus…” (Implying what? That Peter never hangs out with Christians? How would Landon know?)

  • Adam Walter

    What’s an example of a film that

    A) is made with excellence, and
    B) portrays Christian faith in a positive light

    Yup, they are really danged rare, but maybe add to your list… Shadowlands, Millions, Black Narcissus, The Sound of Music–possibly even The Exorcist and the first Omen movie. But it has been a long time since I saw most of these movies, so my memory may be wrong. Also, the Luther with Joseph Fiennes wasn’t bad. I also really like the old CS Lewis biopic narrated by Walter Hooper, Through Joy and Beyond.


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