“The Last Sin Eater” and CT Movies, Round Two: Film Forum

Many, many thanks to Peter T. Chattaway for doing a great job covering Film Forum while I spent several days revising Auralia’s Colors.

(Four days straight, from 8am to 10:30pm working on my laptop, finding better words for things. Whew. And it ain’t over yet.)

Anyway, I’m back, and my latest Film Forum is up at Christianity Today Movies. Somewhere along the line this month I’m pretty sure I’m hitting my sixth anniversary at the column. And what a long, strange trip it’s been. So many highlights, so many scars. Many thanks, and much appreciation, to Mark Moring, Ted Olsen, Steve Lansingh, and the gang who got the motor running, and who keep it well-oiled.

This week, we’re considering further Christian-press film reviews of The Last Sin Eater, and all but trampling Norbit and Hannibal Rising.

(Turns out CT wasn’t the only respected Christian publication who pointed out a couple of rough edges in the latest “Christian movie.” You see, critics have to be honest about their assessment of a film. And they have to hold fast to uncompromising standards of excellence. We should speak with grace about what is lacking along with what is good. These reviews have done exactly that.)

And for the record: I find no joy in pointing out weaknesses in Christian films . . . or any films for that matter. But since Christians should know what is really at stake in the matter of artmaking, we should always assume that our work is flawed (we’re human after all), and strive for something higher, something better. We should speak to one another with grace, but never become so “nice” that we enable each other to become lazy, so “nice” that we encourage the perpetuation of mediocrity.

Oh … I could go on and on. (But then, that’s why I wrote this, isn’t it?)

Anyway, today’s Film Forum starts like this:

More and more movies made by Christians, about Christians, and marketed to Christians are opening in theaters every month. Most of them are shrugged off by critics—including members of the religious press—as mediocre (or worse) in their craftsmanship, and as preachy in their storytelling.

Only a handful of recent such films—like The Second Chance—combine excellent craftsmanship with inspiring portrayals of Christian faith. They have impressed viewers with content and with form, showing more than telling, exploring rather than proselytizing.

It begs the question: Are Christian moviemakers taking the best path by sending message-driven movies out to theaters in second-rate packages? Doesn’t excellence—or the lack of it—send a message of its own?

Then, when you’re done with that . . . look! Hope! Light on the horizon!

Amidst the torrent of condemnation for Christianity Today’s movie reviews, there are readers who appreciate that we’re striving to treat art with the same scholarly discernment that Christian English professors bring to literature, Christian medical specialists bring to surgery, and Christian car mechanics bring to their work.

You would think — from some of the defenses we’re hearing for poorly made, preachy, sentimental movies — that some Christians would prefer a car that doesn’t even run, so long as it has a Christian bumper sticker slapped on the back bumper. Some of the rest of us think that a car that runs like a dream is a machine that reflects the glory of God. After all, excellence manifested through human ingenuity reflects the high standards that God employed when he made the world, and when he made us. Excellence is important. And, of course, the way the car is driven, who’s driving it, and what the car is used to accomplish… all of that matters too. But Christian bumper stickers can be alienating, smug, self-righteous, and off-putting . . . especially if the driver of that car is scowling at other drivers, driving badly, and has chosen a gas-hogging clunker. In the same way, films that are merely workmanlike, and those that contain obvious, preachy messages and sentimental tactics… those are not likely to impress people who care about good craftsmanship. The form of a film speaks as loudly, or moreso, than any obvious “message.”

Remember what Eric Liddell’s father told him: “You can glorify God by peeling a potato if you peel it to perfection.” We want well-peeled potatoes!!

And since one recent visitor here told me that the piles of CT’s negative reaction letters should be teaching me a lesson*… well, what do you do with this?

Anyway, here are few clips from the rest of the letters in the mailbag:

Regarding the criticisms of your Critics’ Choice list, I want to remind you that there are people out here who appreciate very much your willingness to engage the culture and the world the way it is. One really can be so heavenly-minded that one is no earthly good, and I am so glad that CT Movies isn’t like that.

I find your lists and reviews incredibly helpful.I am so sick of the treacle most often dished out by “Christians” that I could vomit from the whole culture. Do not ever water down a movie of worth because someone utters an obscenity while a nuclear holocaust is taking place. No wonder the “world” does not take Christianity seriously.

I neither need nor desire to know about the best poorly produced films with a “Christian” stamp on them. Thank you for helping me learn what movies I can enjoy and appreciate that will build bridges to others who may not think like me — but are thinking. I desire to walk with Paul in Acts 17 to be where “real” people are. If I want to hide under the Christian Defense Systems, they are really easy to find and scurry under.

There are always people to complain, but there are many more who truly value all you do.

I guess the good thing about criticism of your Critics’ Choice list is that you can just dredge out the response year after year, as the criticisms are always the same — and always way off the mark. Keep on keeping on.

I appreciate how you guys aren’t afraid to speak about what’s out there in the movies, the good and the bad. Without knowing what’s out there, how can we make intelligent choices for ourselves, our minds, and for our children? Based on your Critics’ Choice list, I’m going to check out all of the films, before I pass judgment on whether I think the film was “good” “bad” or “ugly.”

As the pastor of an unconventional church, I appreciate your movie recommendations. Our church is on the ragged edge, reaching the lost and strays (we are part of the Cowboy Church movement in Texas). If and when we Christians enter into dialog with the lost and the carnal Christians around us, we must talk in their terms. They don’t endorse poor movies just because they are redeeming. Rather, if following your lead, we can point out how a movie like Little Children illustrates what Christ and the Bible say, then we are talking their language in a culturally relevant way. We should wake up and recognize that we
are on their turf; they are not on our Christian turf. After all, we don’t usually have Bible studies at the water cooler; we discuss movies, Anna Nicole, etc.

When will Christians start praying for Hollywood instead of just complaining about it?

Don’t get me wrong; I do appreciate a good quality, wholesome movie. But the art form would be incomplete if that were the only type of movie made. Some Christian reviewers will throw out a movie because of some foul language or inappropriate behavior. But in doing that, they may have thrown out an opportunity for us to have our eyes opened to a side of life or a moral question that we may not have considered before. The best movies help me understand people and my world a little better. As a Christian, I think that is important so that we can minister to others.

Don’t ever let those “Christians” who cut at your efforts deter you. Many in that group would never go where Jesus bids us go to touch the last the least and the lost.

The fact that you catch some occasional flack from readers who take a more strict approach to films tells me that you are making people think, and that can sometimes be uncomfortable.

Your top ten lists have some risky choices, so I applaud you for being brave and true to your mission of looking closer and finding God’s truth wherever it may be found. I work with Young Life, with kids who are broken, lonely, afraid, abandoned and hurt — and the last thing they need are sensitized portrayals of life that paint rosy pictures. Many “faith-based” films seem to do this, and frankly it turns the kids away from Jesus because it is not real.

A “Christian” film doesn’t have to be all sunshine and roses; it can also portray sin—so long as the sin is portrayed as ugly.

Thank you so much for including Children of Men at the top of your list. It was so spiritual, so powerful—and it stands to be the most pro-life movie I’ve ever seen. People who complain about ratings and reviews do not realize that one cannot understand the depths of God’s compassion and mercy when limiting yourself to merely G-rated plotlines.

* Personally, I rarely look to the reactions and choices of the “majority” as a barometer of what’s best for me. If I followed the herd, I’d be eating at McDonald’s all the time.

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  • Anonymous

    This isn’t confined to Christians: every wunderkind director who thinks the studio having final cut absolves him from any blame for the movie’s flaws, every fanboy who tenaciously defends said wunderkind’s movies….same rhetoric (religious, save theirs is the religion of aestheticism), same line of reasoning. It’s distressing to see Christians give into the old Adam like this, but it is certainly nothing unique.

    -derringdo

  • Sheila West

    A CT reader wrote in to say: “A ‘Christian’ film doesn’t have to be all sunshine and roses; it can also portray ‘sin’ so long as the sin is portrayed as ugly.”

    My response: I believe the Bible already does exactly that. So in that light, I’m all down and groovey with being “scriptural” in the crafting of cinema.

  • Wasp Jerky

    I’m going to butcher this, but Flannery O’ Connor once said something along the lines of, if you can’t trust Christians to make good art, why should you trust them to have the larger questions of life figured out? I always remember that when I hear Christians trying to defend absolute drivel because it happens to be “Christian.”


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