Have We Lost Our Minds?

If you’ve been reading the CT Feedback page and reading this blog, you’ve seen a lot of recent criticism, and read a lot of accusations, regarding the philosophy of CT Movies reviewers.

Well, my blog post describing our “philosophy” inspired an invitation to share the same thoughts at Christianity Today Movies. So my editor, Mark Moring, and I did a bit of editing and polishing and now here it is again, new and improved, with a much better title.

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Have We Lost Our Minds?

How can CT Movies say good things about films with questionable content—and give poor reviews to “Christian” movies? In this reply, one of our critics gets at the heart of what we’re all about.
By Jeffrey Overstreet

Editor’s note: CT Movies has a clear mission statement, which includes “informing and equipping Christian moviegoers to make discerning choices about films through timely coverage, insightful reviews and interviews, educated opinion, and relevant news—all from a biblical worldview.” Precisely how to accomplish that is something we’re always discussing: What exactly does that mission “look like” in our coverage? A number of readers—including some media personalities—have raised some questions about our coverage, especially in the wake of our annual best-of-the-year lists, which often include some films that are not “family-friendly.” Some have even questioned our Christian commitment. In the wake of these good questions, we need to stand ready with an answer.

One of our film critics, Jeffrey Overstreet, has written the following commentary, partly in response to some of these questions, and partly to explain his personal philosophy of reviewing movies. Even though Overstreet is speaking primarily for himself here, much of what he writes applies to all of us at CT Movies—and to what we’re trying to accomplish. We think it’s an excellent primer for anyone who wants to better understand how we think and operate.

Has Christianity Today Movies gone off the deep end when it includes R-rated—and decidedly non-family-friendly—films in its best-of-the-year lists? Are we missing something when we give good reviews to movies that depict sinful behavior—or when we give less-than-stellar reviews to “Christian” films?

Have we lost our minds?

And so go some of the questions we sometimes get from readers. They’re good questions, and they deserve an answer.

I’ll start by saying that all of us writing reviews for CT Movies are Christians, desiring to glorify Christ with our writing, and determined to write the best film reviews we can.

Other CT Movies critics can speak for themselves. But as for me, my 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 that their work reaffirms God’s truth.)
  • 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.” Sermons have their proper place and purpose, butart is something different. 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 aesthetics, in mystery, and in the darkest corners of human experience.
  • 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.

Applauding Evil on the Big Screen?

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 expose wickedness and invite us to consider the reality of evil and the consequences of wrongdoing. If those things are shown in context, and shown in a way that contributes to the meaningful whole, that is a rewarding pursuit that glorifies God. (“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 warn viewers about that in my review. Such recklessness wastes our time and abuses our imaginations. It’s flat-out 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, taking a note from stories in Scripture, she was not afraid to include portrayals of grotesque human behavior in her storytelling. (Many Christians today would probably call her work “vulgar,” when in fact it is about vulgarity.)

I want to see that 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, I am looking for signs of truth, beauty, excellence, and redemption in art. And that means looking closer, not putting on blinders.

Holding fast to what is good

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. I am still learning how to do it.

As I grow, I move farther away from the prevalent sentiment of my conservative Christian upbringing—”In the name of Jesus, be nice.” Christians who strive to glorify God with excellence need to have thick skins, humbly setting aside their ego for the sake of learning how they can improve their work. Movies—especially “Christian movies”— should not be excused from criticism just because they wear “good messages” on their sleeves. 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 many of their lives were decidedly R-rated stories.

(This goes for reviewers as well. I used to be a hothead if someone criticized my reviews, but I’m learning to value those remarks, to go back and reexamine my opinions, and revise them if necessary. But I still struggle to remain calm if somebody tells me I’m “anti-Christian” merely because I point out weaknesses in a Christian movie.)

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, goodness, and truth wherever it can be found—including, sometimes, in the R-rated material of secular culture.

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 actually condoning wickedness.

They want Christian critics to condemn movies that portray the reality of evil, because dealing with evil is a discomforting, painful, sometimes horrifying process. They have accused me of celebrating works that “advance profane causes” rather than considering the truth that I hope they will see in contemporary cinema.

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. My reviews should discuss the technical excellence of each film I consider, whether inspiring or disturbing, and what a film might reveal about good and evil, choices and consequences, humankind and God’s designs. That’s one way in which film critics fulfill their responsibility to “test all things and hold fast to what is good.”

Flawed humans, flawed films

All art, even the greatest art, will be flawed in some way because art is the work of flawed human beings. Likewise, all art, especially great art, will reflect something of God, because all of us have “eternity in our hearts.” As C. S. Lewis observed, we do not create, but rather, we arrange elements that God has made and put them in a frame. Those elements “pour forth speech” as God intended, even when our own agendas interrupt or dilute that speech.

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, or to approach their work with a “search and destroy” mentality. 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. I know this, because I behaved this way myself for many years—I railed against movies that offended me, calling them “worldly” or “abhorrent.” I was so focused on finding a shortlist of items that offended me (cuss words, murders, sexual misbehavior) that I was blind to how these discomforting elements might actually contribute to meaningful art.

Today, I keep this at the front of my mind—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.

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 publicly condemned someone, he was responding to religious men who were self-righteously condemning the culture around them. Any Christians who speak about matters of culture and art should take that to heart.)

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 arrogance and contempt, when we should be known for our love of beauty, excellence, and the revelation of God in a messy world. No wonder our neighbors shake their heads and roll their eyes when they see a Christian ranting about movies on MSNBC.

Art criticism: My mission and my passion

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, it is my mission and passion to celebrate the truth and beauty revealed in art from all corners of the world, even from those corners in which Christ is not embraced. 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.

CT Movies reviewers have been criticized for giving less-than-stellar reviews to movies 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 may make for an entertaining sermon, but don’t ask us to praise it as great storytelling. 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 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. 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.

Chariots of Fire, often celebrated as a great “Christian movie,” included gospel messages, but it did so as part of a much greater ambition. It gave us two complex and compelling character studies—Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams—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. The craft of whole-hearted running “preached” in a way that a sermon could not.

Francis of Assisi has been quoted as saying, “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 an evangelistic climax that declares, “The moral of this story is …” It is about the form, the beauty, the truth of that artwork.

Some have observed that our reviews sometimes read like “secular” reviews, and thus accuse us of writing “non-Christian” reviews. But our reviews are no such thing. Instead:

  • 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 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.

God does not rely solely on Christian artists to reveal himself to the world. From him all things come, through him all things live, and for him all things exist. These days, some of us may encounter him in the Cineplex, even during a Saturday matinee … if we go in with minds awake, eyes to see, and ears to hear.

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